“The blood beat furiously in Mitch’s throat and she could feel a mounting strength in her legs and arms. With the arrogance of a master, Mitch’s nails dug into Leda’s flesh as she began to pull the sweater and the thin blouse from her shoulders. She let her teeth sink into Leda’s neck. ‘No, faster!’ Leda cried. “Faster, Mitch….” Neither of them heard the door open.
“They turned in time to see Kitten and Casey framed in the doorway…. Mitch lay dumb with horror, never forgetting the look on their faces as they had found her that way with Leda, unclothed and wild like a fierce animal.”
– Spring Fire, 1952
Five decades later,Marijane Meaker is able to chuckle when she looks back at the experiences that inspired Spring Fire.
“Yes, I was the awkward and clumsy Mitch,” Meaker says with a sigh. Leda was based on Meaker’s first reciprocated love – an uptown girl named Helen who she met at boarding school. Spring Fire was published when Meaker was just 23 years old under the pen name Vin Packer. It’s one of many classic lesbian pulp novels to be excerpted in the recently published Lesbian Pulp Anthology (see review on next page).
Most of the original lesbian pulp fiction authors have since disappeared or passed away. But speaking to three of the founding authors of the genre featured in the new anthology, all of whom are now in their 70s, we see the disparity between the lives they were living and the fiery but tragic tales they were spinning for a supposedly mainstream audience.
Meaker grew up in a small town in New York state. At the age of 13 she convinced her parents to ship her off to a boarding school after determining through her extensive library research that boarding school would be the best place to find same-sex love affairs. Needless to say, she didn’t share this reasoning with her parents.
She was sent to Stewart Hall, an all-girls boarding school in Stanton, Virginia. It was the early 1940s; students had to file into chapel three times a day. But between classes and into the evenings, a burgeoning social scene took over. Romance blossomed.
Meaker remembers Helen vividly. Meaker was the awkward new girl. Helen was the sophisticated young lady who wore pearls and a mink coat. The two teens fell in love. They would steal kisses in the doorways before bed, would write each other love letters during the holidays that separated them. It was those love letters that led to the relationship’s abrupt end.
The girls were getting ready to travel to New York City for a weekend away at a fancy hotel Meaker’s dad booked for her as a graduation gift. Meaker waited and waited, but Helen didn’t arrive. Helen’s mom had found one of the love letters. She arrived the next day, but only to tell Meaker that the relationship was over, and that Meaker was horrible for being queer.
“She said she’d rather kill herself than be like me,” recalls Meaker.
Meaker herself tried to reform, but these earnest attempts at straight life during her college years weren’t particularly fruitful. She joined a sorority, forced herself to date men and was even “pinned.” Conveniently for her, the mores of the late 1940s were such that only bad girls “put out.”
After college Meaker jetted off to New York City. She picked up the odd secretarial job including a position working for the new publisher of Gold Medal Books. One night over a beer, she told him of her idea for a lesbian novel. He was interested, but would only publish it if it had a miserable ending. And the heroine would have to be hetero by the end of the book.
With a $1,000 cash advance, Meaker started writing Spring Fire, her first and only lesbian pulp novel. It sold a million and a half copies in its first publishing.
“I still cringe when I think about it,” says Meaker, who, at 78, has 40 mystery and romance novels to her name. “I never wanted it republished. It was too embarrassing.”
But Spring Fire was republished by Cleis Press last year, with an important modification: Meaker insisted on changing the ending to a happy one.
“What did we do, Greta that was so terrible?” Byrne insisted, aching to reach out and have Greta take her hand.
But Greta clasped her hands tightly together. “We sinned,” she murmured without strength. “I wanted to protect you and I led you into the path of damnation instead….”
How could Greta believe that anything as wonderful as what they had done would be sin?
– Three Women, 1958
The sultry pages of lesbian pulp inspired and offered solace to many queer women in the 1950s and ’60s; they provided recognition of same-sex attraction even while delivering the publishers’ inevitable moral that, for the unrepentant, it could only lead to ruin.
In Three Women, the characters slip deeper and deeper into misery and despair. Their lovemaking becomes more violent, desperate and hateful. By the end Greta turns into a psychotic mess and Byrne finds “true love” with her old high-school boyfriend.
“I thought to myself, ‘Gee wiz! This doesn’t reflect me at all,'” recalls Sally M Singer, who wrote Three Women under the pen name March Hastings, “but I really had no choice in the matter.”
Singer grew up in New York City and started exploring the gay scene in her teens. As she was writing Three Women she was in a healthy, loving relationship with another woman – a stark contrast to Byrne and Greta’s doomed affair.
Now, at the age of 74, Singer boasts 132 titles under a variety of pen names and genres. She says she appreciates how far things have come in terms of acceptance of queer sexuality, but wonders if some of the excitement has been lost. During a recent trip to Montreal, she checked out a lesbian bar. Though she liked the jovial atmosphere, she admits a tinge of disappointment.
“It had the atmosphere of being in a cheery girls’ locker room. I love seeing how things progressed for girls today and that you don’t have to experience the threat of being arrested or beat up. People should be free. But there isn’t the same kind of intense sexual tension in lesbian bars as there was in my time.”
At the same time, Singer wasn’t always at home in the butch-femme scene of the ’50s. Singer frowned on the rigid codes of behaviour and dress, but says those social rules were virtually impossible to break at the time. If you were part of the club, you had to dress the part.
One day, when she was walking in Greenwich Village, a friend pulled her off the street, handed her a grey flannel shirt and tie, and made her change outfits. Singer walked back on the street with a swagger.
“I guess you would say I was in the butch category, but I wasn’t a prime specimen,” says Singer. “I felt it was so ridiculous.”
In 1989 Three Women was republished in full by Naiad Press but, like Meaker, this time she gave her gals a happy ending.
“I don’t believe in sadness,” says Singer.
“Laura felt such a wave of passion come up in her that it almost smothered her. She thought she couldn’t stand it. And then she didn’t think at all. She only clung to Beebo, half tearing her pajamas off her back, groaning wordlessly, almost sobbing…. She felt Beebo’s tongue slip into her mouth and Beebo’s firm arms squeezing her and she went half out of her mind with it…. Her body heaved against Beebo’s in a lovely mad duet.”
– I am A Woman, 1960
Ann Weldy was a young bride in the 1950s when she stumbled across Spring Fire in a pulp fiction rack in her local drugstore. For the first time in her life, at the age of 22, she found herself reading about characters living the kind of passion she was desperate to repress.
“The book spoke to me,” says Weldy from her home in Sacramento, California. Like the characters in Spring Fire, she had also been a sorority girl struggling with her sexuality.
Weldy spent 27 years in a rocky marriage that she held together for the sake of her two children. “My husband never suspected anything was odd about our relationship. I deserve an Oscar for my role in that marriage.”
When she first picked up Spring Fire, she was living with her husband on the Philadelphia Main Line, not that far from New York City. With ambitions to become a novelist, she carefully wrote a letter to Vin Packer, asking for advice. Much to her surprise, Meaker responded.
“To this day I have no idea why she responded to me out of the thousands of letters she was getting at that time,” says Weldy. “Thank God she did. I was both thrilled and terrified. I owe her so much.”
Weldy convinced her reluctant husband to let her take off to New York one weekend, her rough manuscript in tow. That weekend led to many more over the next year, providing fodder for Weldy’s successful Beebo Brinker Chronicles, five lesbian pulp novels published under the name Ann Bannon.
She remembers those New York trips with fondness. Meaker introduced her to Greenwich Village, showed her around the bars and introduced her to the right people. She had a handful of romantic affairs, though being married and living out of town, she didn’t have enough time to “get into something serious.”
The final Beebo Brinker book was published in 1962. She wrote it after having moved with her husband to the West Coast, then pushed her lesbian pulp fiction life aside and focussed on childrearing and academics, pursuing a doctorate in linguistics and eventually becoming the associate dean of the College Of Arts And Letters at California State University.
As soon as her kids were out of the house, Weldy divorced her husband and acquainted herself with the queer scene in Sacramento. She assumed that the dust had settled on her lesbian pulp years, but in 1982 Naiad Press republished the entire Beebo Brinker series.
Weldy says she’s thrilled to see interest in classic pulp coming from the younger generations. “I honestly thought my pulp fiction would have disappeared over the decades.”
At age 72, Weldy lives by herself in Sacramento. She regularly visits her grandchildren and is working on her memoirs detailing her experiences in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Her working title: “Who would ever guess? My Life In Pulp Fiction.”