Monica Nolan: Lesbian Pulp Fiction 101

by Sara Gran

We have a special guest post today from Monica Nolan, brilliant author of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary and Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (I know–who would have guessed about the gym teacher?!). I haven’t had the chance to start Bobby yet, but Lois was one of my favorite reads of the past few years–fun, funny, pulpy, beautiful, and wonderful. She also hosts the online zine Pulp & Pep, where you can learn more about pulp fiction, girl detectives, and all things wonderful! Visit Monica at www.monicanolan.com and be sure to check out her spectacular short pulp fantasy World of Women, which I am now officially obsessed with!

Although I find it hard to believe, Sara tells me she doesn’t know enough about lesbian pulp. The name Ann Bannon means nothing to her, she claims. Oh lucky her, with a whole new lowbrow world to explore. Let the NYT point you to the likes of Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue; below a cheat sheet to the trashier stuff. Tereska Torres started it all with Women’s Barracks (1950), “The story of what happens when scores of young women live intimately together in a French military barracks.” The lesbian content is actually pretty minor, just two characters out of a whole barracksfull of ladies busily getting seduced, or getting pregnant and committing suicide, but it was enough to attract attention from the House of Representatives’ Committee on Porn. The free advertising from the government resulted in big sales and paperback publishers rushed to cash in. One of the first to benefit was Vin Packer, alias Ann Aldrich, alias M.E. Kerr, real name Marijane Meaker. As M.E. Kerr she wrote Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack and other YA classics in the 70s, but she started her career with Spring Fire (1952), the story of a twisted affair between two sorority sisters. It ends with the “real” lesbian in a mental institution while the merely confused girl finds a boyfriend.

Not bad, but I prefer the pseudo-sociological studies Meaker wrote under the penname Ann Aldrich (We Walk Alone, We Too Must Love, We Two Won’t Last). She makes the lesbians in We Too Must Love sound like rival girl gangs, the bohemian village girls in their chinos vs. the chic, uptown lesbians driving their imported Hillman Mynxes. Meaker, who worked at Gold Medal Books, helped Ann Bannon publish her first pulp, Odd Girl Out (1957), whose plot is similar to Spring Fire. Laura is an awkward freshman and falls for Beth the confident upper classwoman who’s been around, but this time the real lesbian (Laura) goes to New York, instead of crazy. Ann Bannon’s genius is that she didn’t stop there; the ending is not the end. In I Am A Woman Laura discovers the gay scene in New York, falls for her straight roomate, and ends up with super butch Beebo Brinker; in Women in the Shadows Laura two-times Beebo with the unbalanced Tris, has a lurid breakup, and marries her gay best friend Jack; and in Journey to a Woman Laura’s college ex Beth, now a bored and frustrated housewife, leaves her husband and comes to New York to look for the girl she left behind. She sleeps with a slew of ladies and even gets held in her hotel bed at gunpoint by one lovesick woman before ending up with, surprise, Beebo. There’s also Beebo Brinker which tells Beebo’s backstory, and The Marriage which features Laura and Jack but is too strange to even describe here. These books were clearly the inspiration for The L-Word.

Meaker later had an affair with Patricia Highsmith, who was famous in the lesbian world for The Price of Salt (1952) written under the name Claire Morgan after she wrote Strangers On A Train but before she knew it would be a success. The story of shopgirl’s affair with a suburban divorcee, Salt is often cited as the first lesbian pulp with a happy ending. No one ever adds that it’s also the only book Highsmith wrote that has a happy ending. It still features plenty of those creepy Highsmith touches, including a sinister description of some canned peaches in the first chapter.

Of course I’ve left out tons, but this is enough to keep you busy while you eat your cheeseburgers.

5 Comments to “Monica Nolan: Lesbian Pulp Fiction 101”

  1. Great post, Monica! I know Beebo Brinker Chronicles was a play here in NYC a few years back, supposed to be very good. Do you know it?
    (It was a big thrill for me to snag a story from “Vin Packer” for the collection, A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir. Her story is so wonderful….)

    thanks for being our first guest!

  2. Thanks, Monica! I love this post and will carry it my pocket the next time I go vintage-paperback shopping! WE TOO MUST LOVE is first on my list–sounds like an all-lesbian non-musical west side story! Megan, I completely didn’t connect that that was the same person–d’oh!

  3. Thanks ladies! Megan, I saw The Beebo Brinker Chronicles when it played in SF and it was a hoot–Ann Bannon attended and signed copies of the latest reprints of her books after the show. God, I’ll have to dig out my Hell of A Woman anthology, how did I miss the Vin Packer story? My favorite Vin Packer is the wonderful “Girl On The Bestseller List” no lesbian content but a fun Peyton Place inspired pulp. As Marijane Meaker she also wrote an interesting memoir of her affair with Highsmith. I could go on, but I’ll stop!

  4. Monica, somehow you forgot to mention Artemis OakGrove. I don’t know how that could have happened.

    I really enjoyed the post. Keep it coming!

  5. Vicki–This was Lesbian Pulp Fiction 101. Artemis Oakgrove is for more, er, advanced readers, no?

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