Queen of lesbian pulp fiction
Ann Bannon's novels are the basis for 'The Beebo Brinker Chronicles'
by Richard Dodds
The book-jacket blurb tells one story: "Sex, sleaze, depravity." The author of the book tells another: "Gee whiz."
In the course of a friendly, rambling conversation with Ann Bannon, whose series of novels in the 1950s and 60s earned her the title "queen of lesbian pulp," the interjection "gee whiz" is heard a lot.
For example: "Gay life in the middle of the last century was quite an adventure. Gee whiz, it was quite scary to be involved even on the fringes of the gay community."
Or: "I've been so extraordinarily lucky in so many ways that, gee whiz, whatever happens from now on will be great."
Bannon's life and legacy have been growing in gee-whiz moments even as she breezes through her mid-70s. The latest chapter has been spurred by the success of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, an off-Broadway hit based on three of her novels that is having its Bay Area premiere this week at Brava Theater Center.
As a housewife with two children, she wrote five novels under the Ann Bannon pseudonym between 1957 and 1962 that were far more thoughtful than their provocative titles and lurid covers would indicate. Although they sold well, they were of a genre that was both figuratively and literally disposable.
"I really thought Ann Bannon was a past chapter in my life," she said from her home in Sacramento. "It took me quite a while to realize the impact the books had."
The books were long out of print when Arno Press included four of her titles in the 1975 library anthology Homosexuality: Lesbians and Gay Men in Society, History, and Literature. By then she was an English professor at Sacramento State with no special profile beyond her scholastic duties. "And then one of the librarians on campus said, 'Guess what? We just bought your book.' I never really tried to hide it, but it still wasn't looming very large."
That began to change in 1983, when the lesbian publishing company Naiad Press reissued the books. "That gave me a presence in the community and it was very nice, but no one on campus seemed particularly interested, except maybe once in a while over in the PE department."
Interest grew in her books when she was featured in the documentaries Before Stonewall and Forbidden Love, and readers could more easily access the works as reissues culminating in the current editions published by Cleis Press of San Francisco. The stage adaptation by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman attracted the interest of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner, who signed on as executive producers of the 2008 off-Broadway production.
While the novels are now being pitched to HBO as a possible series, the play takes three of the novels (I Am a Woman, Women in the Shadows, and Journey to a Woman ) and tells their tales in a mere 90 minutes. "Kate and Linda did such a witty, affectionate job," Bannon said. "After all these years, it's bound to be a little campy for a young audiences, but it has so much heart that it really is universal."
Live & in-person
Bannon will be in the Feb. 26 opening-night audience at Brava, and on hand for a pre-show reception. She'll also participate in a Q&A with Brava Artistic Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges prior to the Feb. 28 matinee. "It makes me nervous that she'll be here," the director said. "I love the novels, but it's the play I have to serve."
Myrick-Hodges saw The Beebo Brinker Chronicles in New York, and it was the first play she knew she wanted to produce when she became Brava's artistic director. A planned production last season was postponed when she had to have surgery. "
For the director, the play offers a chance to "celebrate LGBT culture in a fun way. I don't see harsh stereotypes, but rather a joyous look at these characters. You have to keep the pulp, but you have to make the characters' situations tangible."
The characters that have made the theatrical cut include Laura, the "nice girl" who escapes to New York; Beth, her college roommate and clandestine first lover; Charlie, the man whom Beth marries, to Laura's sorrow; Marcie, Laura's New York straight roommate and secret crush; Jack, a cynical gay blade who shows Laura the ropes; and Beebo Brinker, a butch lesbian who has slept with most of the women in Greenwich Village.
Bannon wasn't exactly an expert in her subject when she began her first novel as a housewife with a typewriter and some free time. But with the help of Marijane Meaker, who paved the lesbian-pulp way with Spring Fire (written under the pseudonym Vin Packer), she landed a contract with Gold Medal Books, and the college-set Odd Girl Out became a paperback bestseller. Meaker also guided her field trips into Greenwich Village gay life, which became the backdrop of the subsequent books. But still she always went home to her husband and kids.
"It was facade," she said, "but I don't think my mother would have lived through it all if I didn't have that. She tried to be supportive of my writing, but she couldn't tell her friends what I was writing."
As for her husband, she described him as "a nice, ordinary, middle-American guy who discovered his wife was writing lesbian pulp novels. He never read the books, but for a couple of years I was matching my husband's income, and that helped reconcile him to my otherwise unsavory writing career."
But then she became "incautious," she recalled, rather freely meeting with the Los Angeles chapters of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. "But then some of the women from the Daughters of Bilitis group would start showing up at my house, and there I would be with two little kids hanging on my knees. That did not please my husband to the slightest degree."
With the 1962 publication of the prequel Beebo Brinker, she deserted her writing career. "I was getting very intense letters from women all over the country, and while I know how they felt, I was feeling scorched. It sort of coincided with my wish to go on for advanced degrees."
She did that at Sacramento State and Stanford, but still the marriage went on and on. "I was not going to do anything that would hurt my children or run the risk of losing them. So I waited until the last kid finished college, and then I ended the marriage after a 27-year hitch."
Though "Ann Bannon" was the pen name she adopted in 1957 and thought she had retired in 1962, she prefers to use that name rather than Ann Weldy when she's in the Beebo Brinker world.
"Back in the 1950s, if you were forthcoming about being a gay person, you really stepped into a contaminated identity. You couldn't see that up ahead was gay liberation. I love that Ann Bannon has a new lease on life, and that I'm still around to reclaim her."
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles will run at Brava Theater Center through March 13. Tickets are $20-$40. Call 647-2822 or go to www.brava.org.