The Queen of Pep

Lenora Mattingly Weber

Once upon a time I was attempting to summarize my books for a friend of my brother’s while my niece and the friend’s two kids ran around my brother’s living room wreaking havoc.

In the midst of my long-winded dissertation on lesbian pulp fiction, its historical context, my attempts to reimagine it, etc, my brother looked up from his iPhone and interrupted. Continue reading

Now You See Them

It’s funny how much flies right over your head when you’re young and ignorant. For example, when I first read A Streetcar Named Desire, I totally missed the fact that Stanley rapes Blanche; I thought their only problem was the way Blanche hogged the bathroom (listen, I was only twelve). Even more embarrassing, I’ve watched The Third Man literally dozens of times, but it was only the other night, at Noir City 2014‘s Castro screening that I realized two of the supporting players form a gay couple.

How could I have missed them? Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) with his little dog and heavy eyeliner, and Dr. Winkle (“Doctor Vinkle” he corrects the hero unsmilingly) played by Erich Ponto. Winkle’s the straight-acting half of this menage, who gives himself away by his attempts to conceal his more flamboyant partner. “Isn’t that the Baron’s dog?” Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) asks when he’s visits the doctor to question him about Harry Lime’s death. Winkle denies it, shooing the dog into another room and closing the door. Through a glass pane, light gleams, hinting at an unseen presence. “I have company,” he says, anxious to get rid of the importunate Holly.

Is he wearing a bathrobe in that scene? I don’t remember, but  both men make their final appearance in morning-after deshabille, standing next to each other on their wintry balcony while Holly shouts to them from the street. Kurtz is carrying his little dog, and their elegant dressing gowns and carefully knotted foulards are the 1948 equivalent of being caught in flagrante delicto. “Come up!” invites Kurtz, but Holly declines. “I like it out in the open.” What, precisely, is the danger? Is it their involvement in Vienna’s black market penicillin racket, or the more ancient air of corruption and decadence they exude? It hardly matters that the sinister ambiance that hangs over them like a fog resolves itself into an identifiable crime. Gays are criminals and criminals are gay.

In fact, they join a lineup of gay criminals who crowd the margins of the screen in film noir, crime thrillers, and B-movies, a procession of doubly guilty characters who culminate in the over-the-top offensiveness of Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, homo assassins in the 1971 James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever.

All those viewings and I never saw them. Probably my unwordliness when I first watched the film (most likely on television in my early teens) persisted like an after-image, blinkering me until last Friday at the Castro. Until then the two men operated on me as I suppose director Carol Reed and author Graham Greene intended — easy cinematic shorthand for evil, a way to offer a whiff of  unheimlichkeit without waking up the censor.

Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover) sprays himself with perfume while his partner in murder-for-hire and life, Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith) sits by.

Journey to Ann Bannon

Journey to a Woman, by Ann Bannon, Fawcett Gold Medal, 1960

Classic Line: “All the dormant fires of her younger days had sprung to life and they burned in her still, tempting her, torturing her until she knew she would have to find release somewhere or die of it.”

It took me many years to appreciate Ann Bannon’s contribution to lesbian literature. Bannon wrote five pulps between 1957 and 1962, linked novels that tell the intertwined, melodramatic adventures of Laura, Beth, and Beebo. The books made her Continue reading

Sad Young Men of LA

The Why Not, Victor Banis, A Greenleaf Classic, 1966

Best Line: “The Why Not represented everything he disliked about gay bars–screaming faggots, drag queens, rough trade. It was cheap and tawdry and, probably because of those qualities, successful.”

The above describes the book as well as the bar. I’ve been doing a little research on gay male pulp, in preparation for the upcoming pulp panel, and from what I’ve read The Why Not was the Women’s Barracks of the genre, a ground-breaking novel that led the way for books like Midtown Queen and Hot Pants Homo. Continue reading

Designing Lesbians

The Odd Ones, Edwina Mark, Berkley Books, 1959

“Jean discovered her true sexual nature through the expert teachings of sleek Sherri Lancaster.”

The Plot: Orphaned outcast Jean Grant is so desperate to get out of her hick town and discover her “true nature” she elopes with sensitive Tim, the unhappy son of the lecherous druggist (who is also Jean’s employer). After gritting her teeth through their wedding night, Jean steals Tim’s $1000 nest egg and hightails it to New York. There she checks into a cheap hotel and sets out to explore the city, alternately racked by guilt and overflowing with delirious joy at her newfound freedom. Continue reading

Sisters United

I went to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. Mostly just to check it out–I’ve been curious about it forever, or at least since I saw Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman which used it as a setting.

However, I had a project or two to focus my visit: mid-sixties period research with a lesbian slant; and finding out what I could about an obscure periodical, Sisters United, Continue reading

Desperate Housewives

One Touch of Ecstasy, by Gwynne Wimberly, Frederick Fell, Inc. 1959.

Best line: “There’s a reason we teach you correct posture. If your pelvis isn’t tilted forward, the organs in the area are affected unfavorably.”

The Plot: Poor Louise, married and with an eighteen-year-old daughter has never had an orgasm. Ever since that date-rape in college she’s been all twisted up inside, and marriage hasn’t helped–she’s mired in suburban misery. “The hollandaise had been spectacular” but that can’t disguise the fact that her life is one “cruelly civilized evening of superficiality and loneliness” Continue reading

DIY Cheesecake

How I Photograph Myself, by Bunny Yeager, 1964

I pulled this gem from the SFPL’s 3rd floor page desk, which turned out to be quite a production. Apparently the book could only be looked at in a certain spot, a particular table next to the Art and Music reference desk, under the eagle eye of the reference librarian. I speculated it might be because Bunny Yeager’s photographs—pin-ups, cheesecake, calendar art—fell into some theft vulnerability category the librarians have made up. After all, Bunny Yeager is best known for her Betty Page photos, and Betty Page has quite the cult following, what with bio-pic, books, and a store on Haight Street named after her.

I was hoping that the Bunny Yeager book would tell me more about her career—her transformation from pin-up model to photographer (what’s not to like about the theoretically significant male gaze of the typical cheesecake photographer being replaced by the gaze of the model herself on both herself and fellow models?) and particularly the business end of the pin-up photo biz (who bought the pictures? For how much?). Readers of the Lesbian Career Girl series may have figured out that Dolly, who appears in Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, and the forthcoming Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante, is in part inspired by Bunny Yeager.

DIY A-Go-Go!

Turns out, the title is absolutely literal. This is a guide for women who want to make “glamor” photos of themselves and are too shy to go to a professional (the assumption is that means male) photographer.

As such, it’s a delight. Any time I come across evidence that today’s trends are nothing new, I’m happy. This book takes today’s DIY spirit and applies it to mid-century’s cheesecake photography. Bunny schizophrenically covers topics from both sides of the camera, listing possible poses in one chapter and advising on lighting in the next. She even includes budget-conscious instructions for making a “swimsuit” with a plunging neckline out of a few yards of black wool. This is the one-man-band version of glamor photography.

I learned a lot from this book: the importance of developing multiple smiles, and the many posing possibilities–“standing poses, kneeling poses, reclining poses, sitting poses, poses with props.” (Each category gets its own chart of silhouetted poses to illustrate). I took to heart Bunny’s advice on the importance of props: “Being an experienced model, I can pose for hours without props if I must, but with the addition of these excellent posing assistants, I can go on indefinitely.” One imagines a Guiness Book of World Records entry—longest time spent striking sucessive poses. Props are also helpful for concealing imperfections: “Scars, stretch marks and bruises can be hidden by a prop held gracefully,” she advises. Get out your wagon wheels, towels, and telephones, ladies!

Long before feminists were talking about acceptance for all shapes and sizes, Bunny was there, albeit with a 1964 sensibility. “Near perfection may be obtained with girdles, waist cinchers, padded bras, etc. in everyday life…but what can you do to disguise flaws in the nude figure?” she asks, and answers promptly “Very little.” So just accept your body as it is, she advises. Everyone has some feature worth highlighting in a photograph: “Even when the bosom is impossible to work with, there is always the buttocks and back.”

The book is illustrated abundantly with photos of Bunny, by Bunny. I couldn’t always tell which ones were or weren’t Bunny, probably because of the dazzling array of different smiles, props, and poses she used, not to mention the changing hair color.

Bunny’s matter-of-factness and all-American enthusiasm for her corner of the soft-porn market is infectious: “Come on, admit you like to take off your clothes, and make some good photographs!”

Lesbian Pre-Teens

The tasteful cover is a harbinger of the tedium to be found on this book’s pages

The House in the Mulberry Tree, by Zena Garrett, 1959, Random House

Book Jacket Copy: “Then Elizabeth’s burgeoning, formless emotions, blown hither and yon by the strife around her, crystallized into a youthful and innocent passion for Nonie, nourished by Nonie’s kindness and Elizabeth’s idealization of the relationship that Carter and Nonie seemed to enjoy.”

A dull southern gothic, penned by first-time author and Carson McCullers-wannabe, Zena Garret. The “About the author” blurb gives the reader fair warning: “Her writing career was postponed, however, because Continue reading