Marijane Meaker, author of pioneering lesbian novels, has died at 95

Marijane Meaker, a witty and sharp-witted author who wrote dozens of books under various pen names but was best known for helping to pioneer the genre of lesbian pulp fiction and for writing sensitive and realistic novels for young adults, died Nov. 21 at her home. in Springs, a hamlet in East Hampton, NY, she was 95 years old.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said Zoe Kamitses, a longtime friend.

A lively speaker who said she had always loved pseudonyms and guises, Ms Meaker wrote children’s books as Mary James and novels for young adults as ME Kerr (the pseudonym mimicked the pronunciation of her surname), tackling topics including racism, sexism, mental illness, disability and homophobia.

Author and critic Anita Silvey once wrote that “she is one of the few young adult writers who can deal with a subject that affects the lives of teenagers, can say something important to young readers about it, and can craft what is above all a good story without preaching and no histrionics.”

Ms. Meaker also wrote several books under her own name, including the well-received memoir “Highsmith: A Romance of the Fifties” (2003), about her two-year relationship with Patricia Highsmith, author of psychological thrillers including “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, as well as the lesbian novel “The Price of Salt”. The two women met in 1959 at a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village — Ms. Meaker said Highsmith “looked like a combination of Prince Valiant and Rudolf Nureyev” — and lived together for six months, mostly restlessly, near New Hope, Pa.

Although Highsmith was more critically acclaimed, Ms. Meaker was making far more money by then, she said, writing thrillers, mysteries and romances, including sharp novels about lesbian life in America. At the time, gays and lesbians were considered “abnormal” and “perverted” and many of her friends were still locked up.

“There were no magazines or newspapers about us, no clubs to belong to,” she recalled decades later, adding, “Churches and synagogues called us sinners, as they still do today, and the law called us criminals. We had no legitimacy.”

But Ms. Meaker’s successful novel Spring Fire (1952), a paperback original about a lesbian college sorority romance, demonstrated a huge appetite for lesbian books, selling some 1.5 million copies and stunning its publisher, the Fawcett imprint Gold Medal Books.

“They’ve never seen mail like that,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “Suddenly we realized that there are a lot of women out there with these feelings who have absolutely no way to express them, deal with them or deal with them.”

Written under the pseudonym Vin Packer, “Spring Fire” had a sultry cover depicting two women sitting on a bed in slips of paper and a title designed by Ms. Meaker’s editor to boost sales, intended to confuse readers into thinking of a James A. Michener novel. “Fires of spring.” It wasn’t the first American bestseller in paperback about lesbians – two years earlier the French writer Tereska Torrès found a large audience with her novel “Women’s Barracks” – but it launched the genre of lesbian stories, which continued with books by Ann Bannon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Valerie Taylor and Mrs. Meaker herself.

Over the next two decades, she published nearly 20 mystery novels and thrillers under her pseudonym Packer, sometimes including gay characters and stories in murder and kidnapping novels. Inspired by Edward Sagarin’s “Homosexual in America” ​​(1951), she also wrote nonfiction books about lesbian life, including “We Walk Alone” (1955) and “We, Too, Must Love” (1958).

The books were published under the pseudonym Ann Aldrich, after an editor’s suggestion that she use “a bland, all-American name, like that young man on the radio show, Henry Aldrich.” Although some lesbian reviewers criticized Ms. Meaker, accusing her of perpetuating negative stereotypes of gays and lesbians, and of focusing too much on the Greenwich Village party scene, the books also had a substantial following.

Ms. Meaker said she received a flood of letters from women who wanted to tell their own stories, ask how they could meet lesbians in their cities or ask for directions to bars in case they ever made it to New York. The author was usually quick to respond, although she cautioned that lesbian bars often close so quickly that her readers would have to discover new ones on their own.

“She read everything that was written about queer life, from psychoanalysis to Sappho, and there was very little she didn’t have an opinion about, and very little that would stop her from giving her opinion,” said Stephanie Foote, a literary scholar who wrote the foreword to the 2006 edition of Aldrich’s books.

“She was such a lightning rod at the time … but she never apologized for any of the choices she made in her work,” Foote added in an email. “It’s dated, sure, and sometimes problematic, but it’s also lively, funny and sly, and shows us a gay world in the 50s that’s nothing like the shameful, repressed, hidden world we might imagine.”

Mary Jane Meaker she was born in Auburn, a town in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, on May 27, 1927. Her birth certificate listed her name as two words, although by the time she got her passport in the 1950s, it was spelled “Mariana “, according to her friend Kamitses. At some point she started using the middle name Agnes, after her aunt.

Her father ran a mayonnaise company (during World War II they made dehydrated onions for army rations), and her mother was a housewife and neighborhood gossip who “would start almost every conversation the same way,” Ms. Meaker recalled: ” ‘Wait until you hear this!’

“Even today, when I’m done with a book and I’m brainstorming ideas for a new one,” Ms. Meaker continued, “I ask myself: Is the idea ‘wait until you hear this’?”

Ms. Meaker told NPR that after she realized she was a lesbian, she planned to send her away after reading that “boarding schools are full of perverts.” She was awarded an education at Stuart Hall, an Episcopal school in Staunton, Va., from which she was briefly expelled for using college photos as a dart board.

She later attended Vermont Junior College in Montpelier and studied English at the University of Missouri, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1949.

After moving to New York, she submitted stories to women’s magazines, including Ladies’ Home Journal, wrote under pseudonyms and promoted her work by pretending to be a literary agent, meeting with publishers and editors to discuss her pseudonymous “clients.”

She also worked as a secretary for Dick Carroll, who became her first editor at Gold Medal Books. One evening over drinks at the Algonquin Hotel, he asked her, “What kind of story does a young girl like you want to tell?” – which led to the publication of “Spring Fire”, albeit with a different ending than she had originally envisioned.

Since the novel would be circulated by mail, Carroll told her, it was open to government censorship, which meant she could not be seen as a proselytizer for homosexuality. Ms. Meaker was happy to oblige, as long as it meant publishing the novel: At the end of “Spring Fire,” one of her protagonists has a car accident and a nervous breakdown. Another visits the doctor and concludes that she was heterosexual all along.

Encouraged by her friend Louise Fitzhugh, author of “Harriet the Spy,” Ms. Meaker turned to young-adult fiction in 1972, publishing “Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!”, about a chubby teenager struggling to get her mother’s attention. .

Ms. Meaker “has an ear for catching the sounds of real people talking,” New York Times reviewer Dale Carlson wrote, “and a heart for finding the heart of real people’s problems.”

Her later novels often featured ordinary characters in extraordinary situations, such as a boy who discovers his grandfather was a Nazi war criminal in “Gentlehands” (1978) and a 17-year-old facing his brother’s AIDS diagnosis in “Night Kites.” (1986), one of the first novels for young adults dealing with the AIDS epidemic.

Ms. Meaker’s other books include “Shockproof Sydney Skate” (1972), a coming-of-age novel written under her own name; “Shoebag” (1990), which inverted the plot of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” to tell the story of a cockroach that turns into a boy; and “Deliver Us From Evie” (1994), a lesbian romance set in rural Missouri.

In 1993, she received the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for Contribution to Young People’s Literature. “When I think of myself and what I would have liked to find in books all those years ago,” she said then, “I remember being depressed by all the neatly connected stories with happy endings, plenty of winners, themes of overcoming, solving, finding—while it didn’t look so easy around me. I write with a different feeling when I write for young people. I guess at that age I write for myself.”

Mrs. Meaker left no immediate survivors. She lived since the early 1970s on the East End of Long Island, where she started a writers’ organization, the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop, which she continued to lead into her 80s. By then, the group’s members – including crime novelist Vincent Lard – had published more than 20 novels.

Many of her books were written from memories of her own childhood and adolescence, as she admitted in her memoir, “Ja Me Me Me Me: Not a Novel” (1983).

“Whenever you find a clever little guy in any of my books,” she wrote, “you’ve found me from the past.”

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