In the conservative 1950s it was hard for lesbians to find any mention of their kind at all, let alone anything remotely positive. All that changed with the advent of the lesbian pulp novel. Pulp novels, named such because of the cheap paper they were printed on, first came about after World War II. Books from many genres including science fiction, mystery and western were mass-produced and sold cheaply in bus depots and drug stores.
Lesbians in Print
In 1950, Gold Medal began publishing books with one underlying theme: sex. One of the first lesbian stories it published was Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torres. The lurid cover art let readers know exactly the kind of story they were going to find within the pages. The book was even brought up before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 with claims of it being pornographic. This, of course, helped book sales and paved the way for other lesbian pulps.
Although they were mostly written to titillate male fantasy, lesbians of the era were also excited to see a representation of themselves on the page. Lesbian pulp novels were pretty racy for their time, although to today’s reader, they may seem quite tame. Because of the moral codes of the times, in order not to be considered pornographic, the novels had to make some kind of a moral statement. This statement was usually condemning of homosexuality. Protagonists usually ended up going straight, committing suicide, becoming an alcoholic or worse.
Lesbians find Community
Even though the books often ended tragically, lesbians were happy to find some representation of themselves in literature. The books were often passed around among friends and kept hidden in closets or under mattresses. Especially for women outside of urban areas, the books were a lifeline. At least they knew they were not the only ones.
Although most lesbian pulp novels were written by straight men using pseudonyms, a few were written by lesbians (also using pseudonyms.) Ann Bannon, author of the Beebo Brinker series, was a lesbian who lived a double life, much like the characters in her stories. She was married with children and traveled to New York City on the weekends to frequent the lesbian bars. She came out in the 1980s when Naiad Press re-issued her novels. Paula Christian was also a lesbian who penned pulp novels.
Claire Morgan and Vin Packer
Not surprisingly, some of the novels that women cherished the most were written by lesbian authors. The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan (Patricia Highsmith) was the first lesbian pulp novel to have a “happy” ending. Highsmith was lovers with Marijne Meeker, who wrote using the name Vin Packer. Her novel, Spring Fire, told a tale of Sapphic sorority sisters, very similar to Meeker’s own experience in an all-girl boarding school.
Twilight Girls and Women in the Shadows
The cover art of lesbian pulp novels is now popular and has been reproduced on magnets, stickers and books. Lesbians could easily find the books that pertained to them by the portrayal on the cover. Two or three women would be on a cover, sometimes in various stages of undress. Often a very small image of a man would appear in the background. The book titles also gave women a clue. Words like Shadow, Twilight, Strange, Odd and Twisted all were common in books with lesbian themes.
Many of these books are being re-released. Readers can appreciate what a lesbian in 1952 must have felt when reading Vin Packer’s Spring Fire for the first time. Check out some lesbian pulp and learn a little about lesbian history.