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Remembering Marijane Meaker, a pioneer of lesbian pulp fiction

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. She launched the genre of lesbian pulp fiction. That's how last weekend's New York Times obit described Marijane Meaker, referring to her 1952 novel, "Spring Fire." Meaker was 95. She wrote "Spring Fire" under the pen name Vin Packer, which was one of several pen names she used. Under the name M.E. Kerr, she wrote young adult novels for which she received a 1993 award from the Young Adult Library Services Association for being, quote, "a pioneer in realistic fiction for teenagers." In nonfiction books, under the name Ann Aldrich, she wrote about lesbian life in Greenwich Village.

I spoke with her in 2003 after she published a memoir under her own name. It was about her two-year romance with Patricia Highsmith, who is best known for her novels "Strangers On A Train," which was adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which was adapted into a film starring Matt Damon. That memoir is also about lesbian culture of the 1950s. We began with Meaker reading from the opening of the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARIJANE MEAKER: (Reading) L's was on a little side street in Greenwich Village - a dark, cozy lesbian bar. It was the beginning of graciousness in the lesbian bar world. There was no evidence of Mafia ownership - no men in baggy double-breasted suits, sporting pinky rings, guarding the door. In fact, no men were allowed. The bathroom was clean. The customers didn't seem to be divided so much into butch and femme. Most looked like young college girls, well-dressed and without the heavy makeup some habituees wore. Hookers were often regular customers of gay bars. Their butches waited for them there. But there was none of that in L's. The women behind the bar and at the door were welcoming. The music was mellow - Jeri Southern singing "You Better Go Now" and Francis Faye crooning "I'm Drunk With Love."

A handsome, dark-haired woman in a trench coat, drinking gin, stood at the bar while around her there was the buzz that she was Claire Morgan. She was better known in the outside world as Patricia Highsmith, author of "Strangers On A Train." But in L's, Pat was revered for her pseudonymous novel "The Price Of Salt," which had been published in 1952. It was for many years the only lesbian novel in either hard or soft cover with a happy ending. It stood on every lesbian bookshelf, along with classics like "The Well Of Loneliness," "We, Too, Are Drifting," "Diana" and "Olivia."

GROSS: Marijane Meaker, what did Patricia Highsmith mean to you before you actually met her at this bar?

MEAKER: Well, in the '50s, in the early '50s, we used to play a game of truth. And I remember one night, the question was, if you could be anyone besides yourself, a living person, who would you choose to be? And I actually said, Patricia Highsmith. I loved her writing. I think we shared a common theme, which was folie a deux, a sort of simultaneous insanity, two people involved with each other very closely, often in a crime. I think that was - and her writing, of course, was what drew me to her before I even knew her.

GROSS: You were both popular writers. Who was more out at the time, and were you out in different ways?

MEAKER: I was far more out. I was politically active, and I was interested in the new movement for gay rights, and - in New York. She was not at all interested in anything like that. She wasn't interested in politics. She really wasn't very interested in any kind of gay identity. So I was, and we had a little - we always disagreed on that point. She would say, we're just - what we do in bed is nobody's business. And I would try to remind her that we were more than horizontal people and that we did have a bit of entitlement. And - but that didn't interest Pat.

GROSS: Let's talk more about your life. First of all, when you realized that it was girls, not boys, that you were attracted to, had you ever heard the word lesbian or heard...

MEAKER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...That there was such a thing?

MEAKER: Oh, yes. I went to boarding school deliberately because I wanted to find out about this world that I knew I was part of. And I had read that boarding schools were filled with perversion. So I was very eager to go to boarding school, and I was rewarded indeed. Boarding school was...

GROSS: (Laughter) I'm sure you didn't tell your parents, hey, I've heard that there's a lesbian underground...

MEAKER: No.

GROSS: ...In a boarding school.

MEAKER: No. And I must say, for - just to save the school's reputation, that I seemed to be the only one that stayed at the dance in my class. Because I notice everybody else is married and has children and has settled down to the straight life. But no, I had always - I read everything I could find. The minute I knew things were wrong with me, I read everything that I could find. Then after boarding school, when I chose college, I chose deliberately a coed college because I thought maybe I should cure myself. The one thing I didn't know in all my readings and studying about lesbianism was that there isn't a cure. And in those days, it was considered an illness, and you were led to believe that it could be cured.

GROSS: Now, you were among the first lesbian pulp novelists. You wrote for Gold Medal, which is famous, among other things...

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: ...For first publishing original paperbacks. In other words, these were books that were never in hardcover. And most of these...

MEAKER: That's right.

GROSS: ...Were pulp novels that were, you know, crime novels and sex-oriented novels. How did you end up writing lesbian pulp fiction for Gold Medal?

MEAKER: Well, first of all, pulp isn't really - I know everybody calls it pulp. I call it paperback. Pulp, to me, were the pulp - wonderful pulp magazines that paid a penny a word.

GROSS: Sure. Yeah.

MEAKER: And that was pulp.

GROSS: Right.

MEAKER: But now it's become pulp. You must remember that these paperback writers were very well paid, far better paid than you would be in hardcover. And so you had writers like John McDonald, Day Keene, Charles Williams. They were wonderful writers. They wrote everything from Westerns to mysteries. And there was nothing racy, really, about the Gold Medal line, except they did start writing lesbian novels, thanks to the book I wrote called "Spring Fire."

GROSS: How did you write "Spring Fire," your first lesbian paperback?

MEAKER: I became friendly with the editor, Dick Carroll, and he said, if you had a story to write, what would you write about? And I said, well, I just came from college. And before that I was in boarding school, and I had a lesbian experience in boarding school. And I think I would write about that. And he said, oh, that's a wonderful idea, but make it college. Because he said, grade-school people don't read our books. Make it college. And so then I wrote "Spring Fire." He called it "Spring Fire" because James Michener had a novel out called "The Fires Of Spring." And Dick thought, maybe people will confuse this with Michener and we'll have doubled the sales because nobody really thought a book about lesbians was going to sell anything.

GROSS: You sold 1 1/2 million copies, if what I read is correct.

MEAKER: Many, many. Yes, it went into many, many reprints.

GROSS: We're listening to my 2003 interview with Marijane Meaker, who died last month. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2003 interview with a pioneering writer of lesbian fiction, Marijane Meaker. She died last month at the age of 95. Her 1952 novel, "Spring Fire," was one of the first paperback originals to deal with a lesbian theme. It sold about 1 1/2 million copies. Its success led to the publication of many more lesbian-themed paperbacks, including more by Meaker. She wrote "Spring Fire" under the pen name Vin Packer. It was published by Gold Medal Books.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, one of the things your editor told you at Gold Medal was that you had to have a happy ending to this lesbian novel. Why? Why did you need that?

MEAKER: Yes, because these paperbacks went through the mail, and the mail censored things. And if there was anything that seemed to proselytize for a vice like lesbianism, why, then they would junk the whole shipment. Everybody's books would go down with yours because they couldn't bother to unpack and find your books. So we had to have happy endings if we were writing about, quote, "perversion," unquote. And so that was what I did with "Spring Fire." And the the unhappy endings were hilarious. I mean, I look at them, I can't believe I wrote them.

GROSS: Well, in fact, you brought one of your novels with you...

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: ...The first one, "Spring Fire." Can you read the happy ending for us?

MEAKER: Here's the happy ending. She's just left to her psychoanalyst or psychiatrist's office, Susan. And she is - and he is saying - (reading) Dr. Peters lingered in the hall near the door as Susan Mitchell buttoned her coat and put her scarf around her head. Then I'll see you on Tuesday, he said, taking her hand in a friendly goodbye. And have a nice weekend, Susan. Any big plans? I'm going on a hayride tonight, Robin and Tom and Lucifer and me. That's about all I planned. He let her hand go and smiled as he held the door open. It sounds like fun, he answered. Bye, Susan. It was cold, and there was a warning of snow in the fresh sweep of the breeze. As Mitch - Mitch as Susan - as Mitch walked along the path from the hospital, she had a clean feeling that was there whenever she finished talking with Dr. Peters. And she knew she was whole now. The tower bell struck five times, and distant figures of students carrying books hurried along the far walks, their breaths frosting faintly in the cold air. When she went by the auditorium, she could hear the university choir rehearsing for the Christmas pageant. And the nostalgic strains (ph) drifted out to her.

Dusk was dressing the campus. And as Mitch walked with the music in her heart, she thought of Leda hazily as though she were someone she had known a long, long time ago. She knew that if it had been any other way, if Leda Taylor could have been helped and could have at that moment walked there too and known the peace in the twilight and the first hints of frost on the grass and the bushes surrounding Cranston, Mitch would have wanted that because it was true what she had told Leda yesterday. She didn't hate her. She didn't hate her at all. And she knew then that she had never really loved her.

GROSS: So she has a kind of, like, heterosexual awakening at the end?

MEAKER: Oh, she goes to her to a doctor. And he turns her into a heterosexual. That's why she says she's going off with these wonderful straight couples for fun that weekend. Yes. And she realizes not only is she a heterosexual, but she never really was a homosexual.

GROSS: Right. So this made it safe to travel through the mails. How did you feel when you were writing this phony ending?

MEAKER: I laughed. I was not politically conscious to that point. It really hadn't begun yet. I wrote this, I think it was '51 or '52. I was right out of college. And I thought it was a funny idea. You don't have any - when you're writing these things, you don't have any vision of the future of there even being there or discussed in the future. It was - I was delighted to get my first book published. And if that was the rule, well, I was willing to follow it.

GROSS: OK. Now we're talking about the kind of happy ending you had to paste on to your novel so that it wouldn't be censored in the mail. A subsequent novel that you wrote, also a lesbian novel called "Whisper His Sin" - I'm sorry - I guess - this is a homosexual novel.

MEAKER: Yes. That was actually based on a true murder case, the Fraden-Wepman murder case. Two young men murdered one of their mothers. And I just copied that. I created that book from the news stories. I made it fiction. These titles were never my titles either.

GROSS: "Whisper His Sin."

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: The cover copy was, this is one of the most shocking novels we have ever published. It deals with a strange way of life that has become all too prevalent and is still spreading. The book begins in the tormented mind of a boy and ends in the tormented murder of his parents. Between this beginning and this end, there is a frightening picture of how the blight of sexual distortion spreads, corrupts and finally destroys those around it. We also believe that this is one of the most morally enlightening books you will ever read.

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: Was it important in terms of censorship to put all this morally enlightening stuff on the cover?

MEAKER: Yes, that was all part of it. I think gay people felt - because we didn't have a sense of entitlement in the '50s - but we felt there are books about us. Even a book about a criminal case like Fraden and Wepman, we were suddenly there. We hadn't been there before all of this. We didn't exist. And even if there were a few books about us, they were never reviewed. They were never put out in the bookstore in the window. You had to somehow find about them in an underground way. So as we became more open, yes, we had these cautionary blurbs that our publishers wrote. But still, it was more important to have us there.

GROSS: You write really well about gay bars in your new memoir about Patricia Highsmith, and you write how a lot of the gay bars were run by the Mafia in the 1950s.

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: What were those bars like?

MEAKER: They were terrible. Like, you would go in. And at the door, there would be a man in an - a low man on the totem pole in the Mafia world. He would usually have a couple of zircons on his little fingers and a double-breasted suit, and he would smoke cigars. And he would watch the door, mainly watch to keep men out. And he was also the one that told you whether you could cash your checks. And if they had a system where they tattooed your wrist when you came in - many did - he was in charge of the tattooing. And they were in all the bars.

And these bars were terrible bars. There was a woman that sat outside the ladies' room and gave you one piece of toilet tissue at a time. And you went in single file because they imagined that you would go in there with other women and do terrible things in the ladies' room. And, of course, there were no men in. So there were no men - there was no men's room. But the ladies' room was always terrible, in terrible shape. There was always a plunger on the floor somewhere, needed at some point. They just didn't keep them clean. And they took advantage of the fact that you were lucky to have any place to go.

GROSS: What are some of the things that happened after Stonewall and after the start of the gay rights movement that have affected your life that you thought you would never see?

MEAKER: The main thing I thought I would never see - and if my parents weren't dead, it would kill them - is the announcements in The New York Times, the commitment announcements along with the wedding pages. That, to me, is miraculous and wonderful. And I think, to me, it's the thing that gives me the most pleasure. That's one thing - and, of course, so many changes - the freedom in the - among the young people to announce that they're gay, the idea that it is not unusual today for a parent to hear from a child, I'm gay, and to handle it. And you don't seem to hear any more about going to an analyst to be cured. It doesn't exist anymore. And even the psychoanalytic society has finally taken the - taken us off the abnormal list. I see progress everywhere, and I - and it's thrilling to me.

GROSS: Well, Marijane Meaker, thank you very much for talking with us.

MEAKER: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Marijane Meaker was recorded in 2003. She died last month at the age of 95. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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