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'Fresh Air' Marks Pride Month With Novelist Marijane Meaker

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, Marijane Meaker, holds an important place in the history of paperback books and lesbian literature. Her 1952 novel "Spring Fire" was one of the first paperback originals to deal with a lesbian theme. It sold about a million and a half copies. Its success led to the publication of many more lesbian-themed paperbacks, including more by Meaker.

She wrote her early lesbian novels under the pen name Vin Packer. And under her own name, Marijane Meaker wrote a memoir about her two-year affair in the 1950s with Patricia Highsmith, best known as the author of "Strangers On A Train," which was adapted into an Alfred Hitchcock film, and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Marijane Meaker is 93 years old. Her most recently published book, "Scott Free," came out in 2011 and was a crime novel centered around a transgendered librarian.

Terry Gross spoke with Marijane Meaker in 2003 when her memoir, "Highsmith: A Romance Of The 1950s," was first published. It explores not only her relationship with Highsmith, but also lesbian culture of the 1950s. They began with a reading from the opening of the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARIJANE MEAKER: (Reading) L's was on a little side street in Greenwich Village, a dark, cozy lesbian bar. It was the beginning of graciousness in the lesbian bar world. There was no evidence of Mafia ownership, no men in baggy double-breasted suits sporting pinky rings guarding the door. In fact, no men were allowed. The bathroom was clean. The customers didn't seem to be divided so much into butch and femme. Most looked like young college girls, well-dressed and without the heavy makeup some habituees wore. Hookers were often regular customers of gay bars. Their butches waited for them there. But there was none of that in L's. The women behind the bar and at the door were welcoming. The music was mellow, Jeri Southern singing "You Better Go Now" and Francis Faye crooning "I'm Drunk With Love."

A handsome, dark-haired woman in a trench coat drinking gin stood at the bar, while around her, there was the buzz that she was Claire Morgan. She was better known in the outside world as Patricia Highsmith, author of "Strangers On A Train." But in L's, Pat was revered for her pseudonymous novel "The Price Of Salt," which had been published in 1952. It was for many years the only lesbian novel in either hard or softcover with a happy ending. It stood on every lesbian bookshelf, along with classics like "The Well Of Loneliness," "We Too Are Drifting," "Diana" and "Olivia."

TERRY GROSS: Marijane Meaker, what did Patricia Highsmith mean to you before you actually met her at this bar?

MEAKER: Well, in the '50s, in the early '50s, we used to play a game of truth. And I remember one night the question was, if you could be anyone beside yourself, a living person, who would you choose to be? And I actually said Patricia Highsmith. I loved her writing. I think we shared a common theme, which was folie a deux, a sort of simultaneous insanity, two people involved with each other very closely, often in a crime. I think that was - and her writing, of course - was what drew me to her before I even knew her.

GROSS: You were both popular writers. Who was more out at the time, and were you out in different ways?

MEAKER: I was far more out. I was politically active, and I was interested in the new movement for gay rights and - in New York. She was not at all interested in anything like that. She wasn't interested in politics. She really wasn't very interested in any kind of gay identity. So I was, and we had a little - we always disagreed on that point. She would say we're just - what we do in bed is nobody's business. And I would try to remind her that we were more than horizontal people and that we did have a bit of entitlement, but that didn't interest Pat.

GROSS: Let's talk more about your life. First of all, when you realized that it was girls, not boys, that you were attracted to, had you ever heard the word lesbian or heard that there was such a thing?

MEAKER: Oh, yes. I went to boarding school deliberately because I wanted to find out about this world that I knew I was part of. And I had read that boarding schools were filled with perversion. So I was very eager to go to boarding school, and I was rewarded, indeed, boarding school.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MEAKER: But no, I had always - I read everything I could find. The minute I knew things were wrong with me, I read everything that I could find. Then after boarding school, when I chose college, I chose deliberately a coed college because I thought maybe I should cure myself. The one thing I didn't know in all my readings and studyings (ph) about lesbianism was that there isn't a cure. And in those days, it was considered an illness, and you were led to believe that it could be cured.

GROSS: Now you were among the first lesbian pulp novelists. You wrote for Gold Medal, which is famous, among other things...

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: ...For first publishing original paperbacks. In other words, these were books that were never in hardcover.

MEAKER: That's right.

GROSS: And most of these were pulp novels. There were, you know, crime novels and sex-oriented novels. How did you end up writing lesbian pulp fiction for a Gold Medal?

MEAKER: Well, first of all, pulp isn't really - I know everybody calls it pulp. I call it paperback. Pulp to me were the pulp - wonderful pulp magazines that paid a penny a word.

GROSS: Sure. Yeah.

MEAKER: And that was pulp.

GROSS: Right.

MEAKER: But now it's become pulp. You must remember that these paperback writers were very well paid, far better paid than you would be in hardcover. And so you had writers like John MacDonald, Day Keene, Charles Williams. They were wonderful writers. They wrote everything from Westerns to mysteries. And there was nothing racy, really, about the Gold Medal line except they did start writing lesbian novels thanks to the book I wrote called "Spring Fire."

GROSS: How did you write "Spring Fire," your first lesbian paperback?

MEAKER: I became friendly with the editor, Dick Carroll. And he said, if you had a story to write, what would you write about? And I said, well, I just came from college. And before that I was in boarding school, and I had a lesbian experience in boarding school, and I think I would write about that. And he said, oh, that's a wonderful idea. But make it college because, he said, grade-school people don't read our books. Make it college. And so then I wrote "Spring Fire." He called it "Spring Fire" because James Michener had a novel out called "The Fires Of Spring." And Dick thought, maybe people will confuse...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MEAKER: ...This with Michener and we'll have double the sales.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MEAKER: Because nobody really thought a book about lesbians was going to sell anything.

GROSS: I mean, you sold 1 1/2 million copies if what I read is correct.

MEAKER: Yes, it went into many, many reprints.

BIANCULLI: Marijane Meaker speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF INCOGNITO'S "CADA DIA (DAY BY DAY)")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with author Marijane Meaker. She wrote dozens of books under her own name and several pseudonyms, including many with lesbian themes and protagonists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, one of the things your editor told you at Gold Medal was that you had to have a happy ending to this lesbian novel. Why did you need that?

MEAKER: Yes, because these paperbacks went through the mail, and the mail censored things. And if there was anything that seemed to proselytize for a vice like lesbianism, why, then they would junk the whole shipment. Everybody's books would go down with yours because they couldn't bother to unpack and find your books. So we had to have happy endings if we were writing about, quote, "perversion," unquote. And so that was what I did with "Spring Fire." And the unhappy endings were hilarious. I mean, I look at them; I can't believe I wrote them. But...

GROSS: Well, in fact, you brought one of your novels...

MEAKER: Yes, I have one.

GROSS: ...With you - the first one, "Spring Fire. Can you...

MEAKER: And this is...

GROSS: ...Read the happy ending for us?

MEAKER: Here's the happy ending. She's just left her psychoanalyst's or psychiatrist's office - Susan. And she is - and he is saying...

(Reading) Dr. Peters (ph) lingered in the hall near the door as Susan Mitchell buttoned her coat and put her scarf around her head. Then I'll see you on Tuesday, he said, taking her hand in a friendly goodbye. And have a nice weekend, Susan. Any big plans? I'm going on a hayride tonight - Robin (ph) and Tom (ph) and Lucifer (ph) and me. That's about all I planned. He let her hand go and smiled as he held the door open. It sounds like fun, he answered. Bye, Susan.

It was cold, and there was a warning of snow in the fresh sweep of the breeze as Mitch - Mitch is Susan - as Mitch walked along the path from the hospital. She had a clean feeling that was there whenever she finished talking with Dr. Peters, and she knew she was whole now. The tower bell struck five times, and distant figures of students carrying books hurried along the far walks, their breaths frosting faintly in the cold air.

When she went by the auditorium, she could hear the university choir rehearsing for the Christmas pageant. And the nostalgic strains drifted out to her. Dusk was dressing the campus. And as Mitch walked with the music in her heart, she thought of Leda, hazily, as though she were someone she had known a long, long time ago. She knew that if it had been any other way - if Leda Taylor could have been helped and could have at that moment walked there, too, and known the peace in the twilight and the first hints of frost on the grass and the bushes surrounding Cranston, Mitch would have wanted that because it was true what she had told Leda yesterday - she didn't hate her. She didn't hate her at all. And she knew then that she had never really loved her.

GROSS: So she has a kind of, like, heterosexual awakening at the end?

MEAKER: Oh, she goes to a doctor, and he turns her into a heterosexual. That's why she says she's going off with these wonderful straight couples for fun that weekend. Yes. And she realizes not only is she a heterosexual, but she never really was a homosexual.

GROSS: Right. So this made it safe to travel through the mails. How did you feel when you were writing this phony ending?

MEAKER: I laughed. I was not politically conscious to that point. It really hadn't begun yet. I wrote this, I think it was '51 or '52. I was right out of college. And I thought it was a funny idea. You don't have any - when you're writing these things, you don't have any vision of the future, of there even being there or discussed in the future. It was - I was delighted to get my first book published. And if that was the rule, well, I was willing to follow it.

GROSS: OK. Now we're talking about the kind of happy ending you had to paste onto your novel so that it wouldn't be censored in the mail. A subsequent novel that you wrote, also a lesbian novel, called "Whisper His Sin" - I'm sorry. I guess this is a homosexual novel.

MEAKER: Yes. That was actually based on a true murder case, the Freden-Whetman (ph) murder case. Two young men murdered one of their mothers. And I've - I just copied that. I created that book from the news stories. I made it fiction. These titles were never my titles, either.

GROSS: "Whisper His Sin" (laughter).

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: The cover copy was, (reading) this is one of the most shocking novels we have ever published. It deals with a strange way of life that has become all too prevalent and is still spreading. The book begins in the tormented mind of a boy and ends in the tormented murder of his parents. Between this beginning and this end, there was a frightening picture of how the blight of sexual distortion spreads, corrupts and finally destroys those around it. We also believe that this is one of the most morally enlightening books you will ever read.

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: Was it important in terms of censorship to put all this morally enlightening stuff on the cover?

MEAKER: Yes. That was all part of it. I think gay people felt - because we didn't have a sense of entitlement in the '50s - but we felt, there are books about us. Even a book about a criminal case like Freden and Whetman, we were suddenly there. We hadn't been there before all of this. We didn't exist. And even if there were a few books about us, they were never reviewed. They were never put out in the bookstore in the window. You had to somehow find about them in an underground way. So as we became more open, yes, we had these cautionary blurbs that our publishers wrote. But still, it was more important to have us there.

GROSS: Now, the books that we talked about, "Whisper His Sin"...

MEAKER: Yes

GROSS: ...And "Spring Fire" were both written under the pen name Vin Packer.

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: Your name is Marijane Meaker.

MEAKER: That's right.

GROSS: Why didn't you use your own name?

MEAKER: Well, I have always had a reluctance to using my own name. Even now, I still don't write under my own name unless it's something like the "Highsmith" book where I would have to. I like pseudonyms. I like disguises. I've always hated the name Marijane. And I think the idea that you can name yourself is interesting. That Vin Packer, unfortunately, wasn't a very well-thought-out name. We were having lunch with - I was having lunch with a man named Vincent (ph) and a woman whose name was Annie Packer (ph). So I put Vin Packer together, never thinking that there would be any life to this name. But there was a considerable life. I did 22 books under that name. I don't...

GROSS: What didn't work about the name?

MEAKER: Well, I just thought it was a silly name. It sounded like a sportscaster.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MEAKER: And - I don't know - I might have thought more carefully about it if I had thought I was going to be with it that long. But I was my own agent. And that was another name for the pseudonyms. I had - I couldn't get an agent, so I printed stationery up and became an agent. And all of my pseudonyms were me. All of my clients were me. And I would take people out to lunch and tell them about my clients. And nobody knew that I was all my clients.

GROSS: What was your name as an agent?

MEAKER: Marijane Meaker.

GROSS: Oh, I see. So a lot of people really thought that Marijane Meaker was an agent who...

MEAKER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Wow (laughter).

MEAKER: Oh, yes. Even my editor, Dick Carroll, thought so in the beginning.

GROSS: You write really well about gay bars in your new memoir about Patricia Highsmith. And you write how a lot of the gay bars were run by the mafia in the 1950s.

MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: What were those bars like?

MEAKER: They were terrible. You would go in. And at the door, there would be a man in a low - a low man on the totem pole in the mafia world. He would usually have a couple of zircons on his little fingers and a double-breasted suit. And he would smoke cigars. And he would watch the door, mainly watch to keep men out. And these bars were terrible bars. There was a woman that sat outside the ladies' room and gave you one piece of toilet tissue at a time.

And you went in single file because they imagined that you would go in there with other women and do terrible things in the ladies' room. And, of course, there were no men. And so there was no men's room. But the ladies' room was always a terrible - in terrible shape. There was always a plunger on the floor somewhere needed at some point. They just didn't keep them clean. And they took advantage of the fact that you were lucky to have any place to go.

GROSS: What are some of the things that happened after Stonewall and after the start of the gay rights movement that have affected your life that you thought you would never see?

MEAKER: The main thing I thought I would never see - and if my parents weren't dead, it would kill them - is the announcements in The New York Times, the commitment announcements, along with the wedding pages. That, to me, is miraculous and wonderful. And I think, to me, it's the thing that gives me the most pleasure. That's one thing.

And, of course, so many changes - the freedom in the - among the young people to announce that they're gay, the idea that it's not unusual today for a parent to hear from a child, I'm gay, and to handle it. And you don't seem to hear any more about going to an analyst to be cured. It doesn't exist anymore. And even the Psychoanalytic Society has finally taken the - taken us off the abnormal list. I see progress everywhere. And it's thrilling to me.

GROSS: Well, Marijane Meaker, thank you very much for talking with us.

MEAKER: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Author Marijane Meaker speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Irresistible," the new film comedy written and directed by Jon Stewart and starring Steve Carell. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURLEY HAMMER'S "BERNIE'S TUNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.