By Sharon Gittleman
Once upon a time, lesbians weren’t supposed to live happily ever after. In the early 1950’s, when the literary world began to acknowledge gay women’s existence, lesbian heroines had two fates – go straight or face their doom. Why did that decade’s authors torment their gay characters?
“U.S. Postal regulations were such that homosexuality was considered immoral and immoral material was not allowed to go through the mails,” said lesbian author Marijane Meaker. “Homosexual characters could not appear to be normal or happy.”
Despite the opposition of the moralists, Meaker’s works jumped to the top of the best-seller’s charts, with her 1952 lesbian-themed novel, “Spring Fire,” racking up sales of over one million copies.
Meaker started her career writing as, “Vin Packer” and “Anne Aldrich,” for the Gold Medal imprint. While today Gold Medal is best remembered as the first paperback original publisher, offering classic hard-boiled mystery and western titles, the line also began the craze for lesbian-themed books in the early 1950’s.
“Lesbian fiction became popular because there was a whole group of people whose stories were never told. They were hungry for confirmation, even if it was an unhappy ending,” said Meaker. “And then of course there were the males, still among us, who are excited by the subject.”
Many of Gold Medal’s lesbian paperbacks had brightly-colored covers with outrageously beautiful women offering readers plenty of illicit thrills. Code phrases often appeared on the covers of the books. “Queer Patterns,” promised a story about “a little known menace,” while “Women’s Barracks,” offered “true tales,” of women serving in the French army. “Spring Fire’s,” cover guaranteed readers “a story once told in whispers, now frankly honestly written.”
In the early years of her career, Meaker enjoyed writing fiction culled from the true crime headlines of the day. She based her popular book, “The Evil Friendship,” on the 1954 New Zealand Parker-Hulme matricide case, which bares another literary connection. After the young Juliet Hulme was released from prison, she became the famous mystery writer Anne Perry.
Meaker said when she was writing for Gold Medal, she never considered herself a “lesbian writer.”
“I think those who thought of themselves that way were males writing sleaze for the male audiences who read lesbian books,” she said. “Most writers I knew thought of themselves as writers, their stories maybe gay and mostly not. It was too hard to sell gay books.”
In the 1970’s, Meaker switched from writing mysteries and true crime stories to creating young adult novels under her pen names, “M. E. Kerr” and “Mary James.”
“Since a lot of my protagonists were teens, Louise Fitzhugh the famous young adult writer suggested I try the field,” she said. “I love writing young adult because you’re not preaching to the choir. Kids don’t have their minds already made up on every subject.” Meaker’s teen novels cover adult themes like alcoholism, divorce, AIDS, bigotry and religion.
“My young adult books with gay characters were very well received. The first time I wrote about one was in, “I’ll Love You When You’re More Like Me,” said Meaker. “He was the kind of gay who didn’t have to come out. Everyone in town knew just by looking at him and listening to him. He wasn’t the main character, but he was very much a part of the plot.”
“Deliver us from Evie,” published in 1994, was Meaker’s only young adult book with a lesbian heroine.
“There was so big a time lapse between Evie’s day and early lesbian paperbacks it would be hard to compare them,” said Meaker. “The times were changed. In the modern times, writers are criticized for having gay characters end up unhappily.”
Lesbian authors today face very different challenges then the women writing in the 1950’s, said Meaker.
“You are very free to write as you please, and I think you are expected to be a good writer. Just the subject won’t sell a book these days,” she said. “In the old days, many paperback houses tried to copy the success Gold Medal had with my book and the books of Ann Bannon and they’d print crap as long as it was about lesbians.”
Meaker’s book about her romance with, “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” author Patricia Highsmith, called “Highsmith, A Romance of the 1950’s,” is available in bookstores today, along with her latest M.E. Kerr novel, “Snakes Don’t Miss Their Mothers,” written for middle-grade readers.
To learn more about Meaker’s books and her life, visit her website, http://www. mekerr.com on the Internet.