Ann Bannon: Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction

Day 12 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

Photo Credit: Robert Giard via Atlas Obscura.

Ann Weldy, a nice sorority girl at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, did not imagine she would one day be bestowed the title “Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction.” Weldy, under the pen name Ann Bannon, would publish some of the most popular and enduring lesbian novels of the twentieth century, shaping what it meant to be a lesbian for both gay and straight audiences alike, and injecting complex representations of gay relationships into conservative mid-century America.

Born in Joliet, Illinois in 1932, Weldy graduated from college with a degree in French in 1954 and married an engineer. The marriage was tumultuous and Weldy, then a young housewife, struggled with the frequent moves necessitated by her husband’s job and her sexuality. Married life, Weldy found, was not all it was cracked up to be. Reflecting on her sorority days in Kappa Kappa Gamma, she remembered a younger sorority sister who became infatuated with an older sister whom Weldy befriended. She recognized the younger sister’s attractions, which went beyond mere sisterhood, and this observation provided her a means to question her own sexuality. This incident formed the basis of her first novel as Ann Bannon, Odd Girl Out, originally published in 1957. She also encountered two recently published paperback novels that obsessed her completely: Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, originally published in 1928 but reprinted in paperback in 1951, and Vin Packer’s Spring Fire, published in 1952.

Weldy’s sexual soul-searching came at a time when the paperback publishing industry was rapidly expanding in the United States. Following World War II, the popularity of mass-market paperback books, especially those with sexual content or innuendo, increased greatly. The second World War also provided the opportunity for many closeted young gays and lesbians to leave their places of origin to explore the world and meet others like themselves. An emerging gay and lesbian consciousness also increased the demand for representation in mass media.

These popular paperbacks were referred to as “pulps” because they were printed on cheap “pulpy” paper not meant to withstand the test of time, much to the dismay of future LGBTQ archivists and historians. In an appropriate metaphor for public perceptions of homosexuality in 1950s America, these titles were meant for brief enjoyment and quick disposal, most costing only twenty-five cents. Publishers marketed pulp fiction to bus depots and drugstores, not bookstores, which sold “respectable” literary fiction. Paperbacks, as opposed to the more visible genres of radio and film, were the means to engage sexual topics in mid-century America. Prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, paperbacks were one of the only sources of explicit sexual content for American consumers.

In 1948, the publication of biologist Alfred Kinsey’s study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, set the American public alight. Kinsey and his research assistants interviewed approximately 5,300 men regarding their sexual behaviors. They found that 46% had “reacted” sexually to both men and women, 37% had at least one homosexual experience, and 10% described themselves as exclusively homosexual for at least three years. The study also introduced a six-point scale — today referred to as the Kinsey Scale — in which the value of zero represented those whose sexual practices were exclusively heterosexual, while the value of six represented those whose sexual practices were exclusively homosexual. Kinsey and his team found that the majority of those surveyed fell somewhere towards the middle and did divide into a neat heterosexual/homosexual split. In sum, Kinsey found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, vast numbers of American men were having sex with other men.

Kinsey’s study was certainly on the mind of Dr. Arthur Lewis Miller, a Nebraska physician and Congressman, who, in 1948 introduced anti-gay legislation into the U.S. House of Representatives. Miller believed that gays were “sexual psychopaths” who experienced uncontrollable cycles of desire not dissimilar from a woman’s menstrual cycle. The only way to deal with the problem of homosexuality, Miller argued, was through psychiatric hospitalization. The Miller Act, which pertained to the District of Columbia, specified practicing homosexuals could be forced to undergo psychiatric evaluation and could be imprisoned up to twenty years for sodomy. Despite Miller’s legislation, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male inevitably contributed to Americans’ growing understanding of sexual diversity that fueled the rise of the pulp industry.

The “Golden Age of Lesbian Pulp Fiction” that occurred between 1950 and 1965 was ushered in with Tereska Torres’ 1950 novel Women’s Barracks, published by Signet’s Fawcett Gold Medal Series. The series, edited by Dick Carroll, was developed to explicitly promote pulp fictions with lesbian themes. Women’s Barracks, which focused on veiled romantic relationships between women in wartime London, was condemned by the Gathings Committee, a Congressional committee tasked with investigating the alleged “subversive” impact of paperbacks on the American public. While many authors of lesbian pulp fiction were heterosexual men writing for the amusement of a heterosexual male audience, there were approximately fifteen writers from the Golden Age who were lesbians. The popularity of paperbacks created the opportunity to represent lesbian life, and lesbian writers portrayed gay people and gay sexuality as favorably as possible.

Marijane Meaker’s 1952 novel Spring Fire — written under the pseudonym Vin Packer — was marketed by Fawcett to capitalize on the success of Women’s Barracks. Spring Fire is typically considered the first explicitly lesbian pulp novel and tells the story of Susan “Mitch” Mitchell, an awkward midwestern girl, who falls in love with her popular sorority sister, Leda. Meaker’s editor, Dick Carroll, told her the novel could not present a happy ending for Mitch and Leda, because the post office would classify the book as “obscene” under the Comstock Laws.

Named after Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, the Comstock Laws, passed on March 3rd of 1873, criminalized the use of the United States Postal Service to send so-called “obscene” materials. The mailing of contraceptives, substances to induce abortion, sex toys, and personal correspondences of an explicit sexual nature were all prohibited. Meaker’s novel, therefore, concludes with Leda being institutionalized for a nervous breakdown and Mitch realizing her love for Leda was merely a passing phase. The lesbian characters, in other words, are rendered “sick and crazy” or really heterosexual. Subverting the fear of postal inspection was a smart move on Signet’s part. Spring Fire sold 1.5 million copies.

Ann Weldy, as a former sorority girl, related to Spring Fire, though she disliked the novel’s traumatic ending. She penned her own story, also focused on a sorority, and wrote to Meaker for publishing advice. Meaker introduced Weldy to Dick Carroll, who told her to edit her manuscript to focus on the relationship between sorority sisters Laura Landon, a naive freshman, and Beth Cullison, the university’s student body president. The result was Odd Girl Out, published in 1957, and Ann Bannon was born.

Weldy chose the surname “Bannon” simply because she liked the fact that it contained her first name. At this time she was living in Philadelphia and was able to escape to New York City on the weekends. There she caught glimpses of gay life in Greenwich Village. Though she was terrified of being caught up in a bar raid, her time in New York was a respite from her marriage and influenced her later novels. She went on to publish four other bestselling lesbian paperbacks that were referred to as “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles”: I Am a Woman in love with a woman — must society reject me? (1959); Women in the Shadows (1959); Journey to a Woman (1960); and Beebo Brinker (1962). The series is named after Bannon’s titular character, the handsome butch lesbian, Beebo, who she described as her ideal woman.

Bannon’s humane representations and efforts to imagine other possibilities for lesbians and gays were perhaps matched only by Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Highsmith, who was known as a crime writer following her debut Strangers On a Train (1950), published her follow-up under a pen name after her agent advised her that a lesbian-themed novel would kill her career. The Bantam Books paperback lesbian pulp edition was published in 1953. The Price of Salt, an anathema upon its release due to its ambivalently happy ending, was the only explicit lesbian novel Highsmith, who struggled with her sexuality throughout her life, ever wrote. When the novel was re-published in 1990 under her own name, the title was changed to Carol to distance it from its association with lesbian pulp fiction.

Bannon worked against the constraints of the time to create the most positive representations of lesbians and gays she could, though she did not always win. She originally wanted to title her second novel, I Am a Woman, Strangers in This World — a phrase she felt captured the alienation gay men and lesbians experienced. Carroll, however, felt the title was too literary and did not clearly inform the reader of the book’s lesbian content. Instead, he devised the lengthy, though explicit, title I Am a Woman in love with a woman — must society reject me?

Nevertheless, Bannon had the greatest success and longevity of all lesbian pulp writers from the Golden Age due to her fully-realized characters, realistic plots, and emotional complexity. While most pulp fictions were considered “trash,” Bannon used the genre as the only means to engage in gay storytelling in mid-century America. Writing her novels as a series allowed Bannon to produce complex characters at a time when most representations of gay love in print resulted in death or misery. As Gene Damon, writing in The Ladder in 1969, observed, Bannon’s novels “rest on the bookshelf of nearly every even faintly literate Lesbian.”

Bannon stopped writing in 1962, went to graduate school for Linguistics, and worked as a university professor. She did not realize the cultural impact of the Beebo Brinker Chronicles until the 1980s when Barbara Grier, founder of the independent lesbian press Naiad, asked Bannon if she could re-publish her work. Bannon did not advertise the re-release of her books, or that she was, in fact, Ann Bannon. But word inevitably got out. She was, as she said, “jet-propelled out of the closet.” Though she wrote what critic Jenifer Levin referred to as an “astonishingly open queer figment of fictional being, like molten material from some volcano of the lesbian soul,” she did not actively participate in the Gay Rights Movement. Due to her marriage, which ended in a contentious divorce in 1981, she could only act on her belief that lesbians and gays should take pride in who they were later.

But Bannon, in her words, “wrote the stories no one else could tell.” “And in doing so,” she said, she “captured a slice of life in a particular time and place that still resonates for members of our community.”