The queen of lesbian pulp on fan encounters, FBI files and the real life Beebo Brinker
BY ROXY BOURDILLON
To the outside world, Ann Weldy was a regular 1950s housewife. Only when she wasn’t making dinner or taking care of her two young children, she was busy writing lesbian romance novels under her pseudonym, Ann Bannon. These brightly covered paperbacks were remarkable. Not only were they brilliantly written and packed with emotion, they provided a lifeline. Through reading Ann’s books, countless LGBTQI+ women saw themselves represented for the very first time, felt profoundly less alone and, inevitably, developed an almighty crush on archetypal butch heartthrob, Beebo Brinker. As a fan of the genre, and Ann’s Beebo Brinker Chronicles in particular, I couldn’t wait to talk to her and find out more about the woman behind the pulp.
DIVA: Do you remember the first time you discovered lesbian pulp novels existed?
ANN BANNON: Yes, it was very exciting! I knew there were such things as serious literature about the gay – well, it wasn’t really a community back then – but gay people generally. I had tried to access some of those books, like The Well Of Loneliness, in the university library when I was a student. They were kept in a locked cage. Literally, a cage in the library stacks. You had to have a letter from a professor explaining your reasons for wanting to see such a thing. It was so embarrassing, you gave up. I came across the lesbian pulps in a drugstore, like most people. I was fascinated.
What did you make of those iconic, deliberately titillating covers?
The publishers understood these books had to be mass-marketed. They knew the women would find them one way or another, even if they had to read the covers differently from everybody else. They were embarrassing to buy, in part because of the covers. They were very noticeable. You couldn’t miss them. The hard part was not finding them. The hard part was taking them up to the clerk, because if you lived in a small town the clerk would very likely be somebody who knew your family. Your mom and dad might get a call.
How much impact do you think these books had on lesbians and bisexual women?
I know they saved lives. I know my books did. There was a woman who told me she was in such pain it was unbearable. On the way to jump in the river, she picked up a paperback at the drugstore, on a whim. It was one of my books. She said, “I got fascinated. I read through it. I went home and had dinner instead of jumping off the bridge.” By that she meant, “I saw a way forward, because I knew I was not the unique and totally evil human being that I was described to be by others.” You just had such a distorted notion of what it was like to be a gay person and the pulp paperbacks made a major contribution in starting to change that notion.
It seems to me you were very brave to write these stories. Did it feel dangerous at the time?
Yes, it was a mix of emotions. I knew I was flouting convention and there could be very dubious consequences. I was a young mother with two little kids, trying to keep a rather challenging marriage going. It was a fraught event to sit down, write those books and await the consequences. It was frightening. Most of us who were writing those books were on the list of people to keep an eye on for the FBI and the government. I probably have an old FBI file gathering dust somewhere.
Did your mother know about your writing career?
I didn’t want to disappoint my mother. She took it pretty well. I think it shocked her. Her only real comment was, “I’m proud of you, darling. I know it’s hard to write a book and you have written a book. So good for you. But don’t ever show this to your grandmother.” I never told my children. They found out by overhearing a conversation when they were well into their teen years. Those were very awkward things, but it all came from this marginalisation of the gay community. It was partly because people were protective of their children and they were so afraid it was contagious – “If my children get to know you, they will become contaminated.” It was appalling the way people thought about this. Even the doctors had a hand in sort of medicalising the whole thing – “Everybody be patient. This is a terrible disease, but we’re sure we’ll find the cure.” It was scary.
One of my favourite things about The Beebo Brinker Chronicles is the way you create that bygone world of Greenwich Village.
The Village really was a charming place. Everywhere you looked were like-minded people. To see a couple of girls or boys walking down the street holding hands or with their arms around each other, it was just charming. You really did feel like Dorothy landing in Oz. The bars were seriously, no kidding, sleazy. The Mafia owned a lot of them and they didn’t care whether the place was clean or anybody tidied up the restrooms. The cops would tolerate it, because the individual patrol men got a significant financial boost from the crime guys. In return, the boss would let you run your bar for a couple of months and then there’d be a raid. They would put you in the paddy wagon and drive you down to the police station. The next morning, your name would be in the paper. Even if you’d been flying along below the radar up to that point, now everybody knew – the people at work, your family friends. It could cost you your job. It would spread like wildfire and your life might be ruined.
That sounds awful!
But the bars were fun. You would go in and try to find out how recently they’d been raided to see if you would be ok. They were full of bright, young people. You could put a dime in the jukebox and dance. There would be bartenders, you could have drinks. It was the one place we could cut loose.
Well, that bit sounds amazing. My last question has to be: did you ever meet a real life Beebo Brinker?
My best years kind of slipped away, but I’ll tell you, when the books began to be republished in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, that’s when I began to meet Beebo all over the place! My standards for her were very high, but there are some extraordinary women out there, perfectly comfortable in their skin. They were very much in charge and had a kind of serenity about them. So yes, I have.
Find out more about Ann and her books at annbannon.com.
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