Ann Bannon Is The Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction

And we scored an exclusive interview.

I had no idea that the day I bought my first lesbian pulp fiction novel, Her Private Hell (which I bought for the vivacious, provocative cover of the naked lady on the front) would turn into a journey based on the discovery of LGBTQ literary history. I had never heard of lesbian pulp fiction, a genre that dominated the 1950s and early 1960s. I did not know that pulp depicted a type of paper that was cheap and affordable for a large printing audience. This sprung publishers and agents alike to look for new genres of material to be bought by the working class.These inexpensive erotic books would be sold at bus stations and local drug stores. A new genre to emerge from this trend was lesbian fiction that was sometimes written by men, under a female pen name, and written for men.

 

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Women who dared to purchase the novels were brave. If caught, they would most definitely be chastised. Many would burn the novels after reading them. Not all lesbian pulp fiction was written by men, however. 

 

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At the age of 22, fresh out of college and newly married, Ann Bannon picked up Vin Packer’s Spring Fire. This college lesbian story was the spark that led Bannon to begin writing. She would go on to write six lesbian pulp fiction novels known as The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, be dubbed the Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, and become the subject matter for LGBTQ college courses today. Her courageous novels tell the epic love stories of three coming of age lesbian women and one gay man. Throughout Odd Girl Out, I Am a Woman, Women in the Shadows, Journey to a Woman, and Beebo Brinker, the audience becomes enticed in an LGBTQ soap opera from the ’50s/’60s era. All of Bannon’s novels were published between 1957-1962.

Eventually, Bannon stopped writing lesbian fiction and returned to the university where she received her master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in linguistics. Her later years would be spent working as an associate dean at California State University. Her identity was to remain hidden until the ’80s when Naiad Press contacted her and received permission to reprint her material. Much to Bannon’s surprise, her colleagues warmly accepted her.

In May 2018, I contacted Ann Bannon, hoping to interview this extraordinary woman.

GO Magazine: I have heard in interviews and read in forwards what inspired you to write your novels. However, I wondered what made you pick up those lesbian pulps? What did they mean to you?

Ann Bannon: The lesbian pulps were just irresistible. The covers, garish though they were, were cleverly designed to lure the reader in. And somehow you intuited that, even though the sexy ladies in the artwork were presented as morally loose, they had little to do with the story inside the covers. Most of the women who were writing the pulps did manage to slip in some delightful love scenes and some tenderness among the harsher episodes. Character development and compelling interactions were regarded only as impediments by the male authors, who were always in a hurry to get to the sex scenes they knew the male readers were searching for. For them, these were not character driven stories; for us women, they were.

 

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GO: Your books are different, meaning your characters didn’t end up with men or committing suicide, like so many other lesbian pulps from that time. What gave you that edge, to keep it so real?

AB: I was very lucky to be working a few years later than many of the other women authors who wrote lesbian-themed books. By the mid to late 1950s, the morality cops had eased up. There had been a committee in Congress known as the Gathings Committee, or The House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials. They laid down the law about what could and couldn’t be published, or even sent through the mails by the U.S. Post Office. Gay and lesbian novels with happy endings were unacceptable. People had to be punished for sexual outlawry of any kind and madness or death were the popular resolutions. But at last, opponents of this approach, appealing to the First Amendment and free speech, prevailed. In 1959, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was finally published in the U.S., followed shortly thereafter by Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in 1961. My first three novels preceded these, but the epic battles for creative freedom were already being fought and the outcome was already clear. Furthermore, my stories could be fairly described as romances, and they were published in the paperback format. Such humble productions were ignored by the critics and flew along beneath the radar. They were only beloved by millions of readers.

GO: Do you identify with the LGBTQ community, and if so, how did you come to that realization? What sparked your interest in writing about the gay community in such depth?

AB: I was a witness to lesbian activities in my college sorority. But when I went to the library, hoping to find information about gay and lesbian people, I ran into something of a brick wall. There was very little available, and most of what there was locked away in “the cage”—a room surrounded by a grill within the stacks for restricted materials. You needed a note from your professor to gain access. I got one, but there was next to nothing on those shelves. The great fear in those days was that knowledge of homosexuality would ineluctably lead to the corruption of young people. It seems mildly insane these days—could mere awareness that some people were gay automatically turn a straight person gay? But back then, it was an article of faith. I really wanted to learn more but not in such a bigoted context. Frankly, I don’t think I knew what I was—only that I had a deep sense of empathy and interest in gay people generally and needed to know more.

GO: You have talked about your mother’s acceptance of your writing. Did you receive the same attitude from your father?

AB: This is a complicated issue for me. My mother was married three times. Her third husband was the love of her life and the one to whom she was married until he died. I was 10 when they tied the knot. He was a nice man, a talented musician, but not talented at supporting his family. He certainly knew about my novels, but never whispered one word to me about them. We had an affectionate bond, and perhaps he didn’t want to upset that relationship, or he simply didn’t know what to say. My biological father, who was still living, was dismayed by the books. He was a religious person, and that seems to have colored his thinking. But, again, what little he had to say was condescending: that he hoped I would try writing something else one of these days. I think it was a very difficult topic for them to approach, and in a sense, they just didn’t have the words with which to talk about it.

GO: Did any of your characters live the life you aspired to live, particularly the character of Beth in Odd Girl Out and Journey to a Woman?

AB: Beth did things I couldn’t do. She rejected her husband, she forfeited her relationship with her children and abandoned her marriage. I sent her off on an adventure I could not undertake because I adored my kids and I was still trying to be a good girl. But good girls don’t do what Beth did. Like many authors, I lived a vicarious life in my head and fashioned it into a story in my novels.

GO: When you talk about your research for writing I am a Woman, you mention in your forward to Odd Girl Out: “Greenwich Village, with its parks, its crooked streets, its craft shops, and its beckoning gay and lesbian bars. It was love at first sight. Every pair of women sauntering along with arms around waists or holding hands was an inspiration. As I’ve often remarked, I felt like Dorothy  throwing open the door of the old gray farmhouse and viewing the Land of Oz for the first time.” With such strong emotions was it hard to leave; did you feel a part of the community in that time?

AB: I would have to say that I did, in those wonderful but too-brief visits to New York, feel engaged with Greenwich Village and the gay life I found there. People were so accepting and so cheerful and so full of wit and humor, despite all the difficulties they had to overcome, that it was easy to succumb to it. I quickly got acquainted with a range of delightful individuals. We shared meals, we shared hopes and dreams. I even brought a young gay couple home with me to Philadelphia, where they wanted to visit friends. I rashly and wrongly assumed that my husband wouldn’t mind. Alas, he minded; to misquote Princess Diana, “he minded that a lot.” I never again made the mistake of trying to draw him into the margins of my writing life.

GO: What did you see while being in Greenwich Village in the late ’50s/early ’60s? What was the scenery… the bar scenes, police harassment, the homophobia?

AB: I was unprepared for the warmth and humor of the gay community I found in the Village. Perhaps it was the relief of actually being in a community. Prior to the post-World War II era, it was a true rarity. Most LGBTQ people were scattered and isolated, and—given the difficulty of accessing any information about homosexuality—were likely to think of themselves as an anomaly. What little seeped into the popular press was so salacious and scornful that they could only imagine they had blundered into a condemned setting. Who wanted to identify with one of those people? So they hid their feelings and suspicions about themselves. How could a community come to life under such grim circumstances? People couldn’t even find each other, much less accept such an identity for themselves. So the little islands of acceptance, affinity, and comfort were treasured. If you could get to one—the Village, the Castro in San Francisco, West Hollywood, Provincetown, The French Quarter—many of them just starting to take shape, perhaps you could live an authentic life. Surely they would be like that place over the rainbow where everything was happy and beautiful and an individual could experience self-acceptance for the first time.

In reality, they weren’t perfect. The bars were grungy and subject to police raids, but they served as invaluable social centers. Everybody went there to have fun—what a novel idea!—and to meet people. The threat of a police raid hung over every bar, but it was worth the risk many times over. And in terms of homophobia, while it wasn’t absent in these places, it was certainly less present than in more respectable venues. It sometimes had to be imported, as when high school kids and working-class kids, looking for trouble, would come to the Village on weekends to harass and threaten young gay residents. But for the most part, these neighborhoods represented Mecca, as did the other nascent communities—the places to be, to find yourself, to find someone to love.

GO: Your novels reflect the harsh reality of sexism that at times may be a hard read, especially for young women of today. In Odd Girl Out, the female characters experience a policing of women based on dress codes and behavior codes; the depiction of women as property is clear.

By the time I wrote Journey to a Woman, the female characters had each found their own voice. In their own right, they had evolved into feminists.

GO: In terms of sexism today, what do you think the future holds for young women?

AB: In many ways, the future is here. Comparing the young women of the 21st Century to those of the 1950s is a real exercise in negativity, at least for those unfamiliar with their history. The 50s lose, hands down. It was a repressive time, with the kind of rigid enforcement of cultural norms that always follows war. These were the years in the decade or two that came after World War II when people wanted a little home of their own with men and women in traditional roles. Women gave up the jobs they had so ably fulfilled during the war, men buckled down to work and study, Senator Joe McCarthy struck terror into the hearts of many honest citizens by accusing them of communist sympathies, and Congress enabled the Gathings Committee to function as the nation’s morality cops. So your description has a lot of truth to it—it was a time when people strove to fit the stereotypes of “normality” that were inherited from a pre-war world. But it was this very repression which triggered a powerful reaction in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Gay Rights Movement were born. These were social upheavals that would have occurred sooner or later but were doubtless propelled by the tyranny of outdated norms.

Young women today are notable for their spirit and their insight into the historical forces that shaped the past. There is relatively little judgment against their mothers and grandmothers, who after all were doing what they had to do in the face of overwhelming social control. These same women were the ones who founded and nurtured the Women’s Movement. Their granddaughters now are carrying on the drive for change, challenging the assumptions of male privilege and meeting the backlash with the courage of their convictions.

GO: Even the character of Beebo Brinker excited me with angry emotions. I was furious at her sexist remarks, her possessiveness, her rudeness, her entitlement, and her abuse of Laura. I was appalled and had a hard time believing that from her. During that time, did you witness domestic abuse in same-sex relationships?

AB: There is no doubt that Beebo was a heller. She had to be since her very appearance attracted so much disapproval. Gay women who were more “femme” could pass in social contexts, but those who were really “butch” could not, and the consequences for them were severe. Also, I know, looking back, that when I was overwhelmed with anger at my own circumstances, I tended to dump my fury on Beebo: she could take it when I could not. This doubtless unfairly distorted the portrait of her.

With regard to same-sex relationships, there were certainly instances of abuse, often provoked by jealousy. Butches would fight physically with each other. Just as bad, perhaps worse, they would abuse their femme partners. Some social historians have suggested that they were doing this in imitation of the behavior of young men of that era; it was the dominant model of sexual partnerships and marriage that was most familiar to many of them, and one of the negative consequences of the then-prevalent butch-femme relationship. But this was only true for some gay women, especially those from troubled families who were young and volatile and still unsettled in life. There were many others who were “uptown girls,” young professionals who were more circumspect in their interpersonal relationships.

GO: People are exploring identity more and more these days. If you were writing this novel in the present day, how would Beebo Brinker identify?

AB: It would be a joy to see Beebo more confident and less aggressive today, more self-aware and socially competent. Clearly, there has been a welcome change in society’s acceptance of the LGBTQ community—breath-taking both for the speed with which it occurred and the acknowledgment it has found in most advanced countries of the world. Beebo would always be a forceful personality, but also a mellower, happier person. I picture that coming to pass in her future as she and Beth fall in love at the end of Journey to a Woman. In terms of her sexuality, and despite the fact that the butch-femme model has fallen out of favor, I think she would still be a somewhat dominant personality. What she would not be is a trans man. For all her swagger, Beebo identified as Woman.

GO: I see your books as historically valuable to all communities. What do you think?

AB: I would love to think that you’re right, that my stories of long ago have value for readers of today. They certainly provide a picture of what some aspects of gay life were like in the period after WWII. Gay and lesbian readers will find them historically accurate for the time and place in which they are set. As for the larger communities that make up our wide and varied public, I hope they offer an awareness of the challenges of gay life back then. It is a touching story of great courage, pain, and grit, and even moments of joy and triumph. But above all, there was the perdurable determination to move forward against all odds, and the drive for acceptance. Tough as things were, people still fell in love and made it work; the fabled wit and humor of the LGBTQ community were still intact. I think—I hope—that readers can see sparks of the happiness that flashed through the hardship. The particulars of gay life at the time may seem unfamiliar, but the warm humanity and the magic of falling in love have not changed.