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Book Review: 'Mortals'

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Mortals by Norman Rush.

05:45

Other segments from the episode on June 19, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 19, 2003: Interview with Marijane Meaker; Review of Norman Rush's novel "Mortals."

Transcript

DATE June 19, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Marijane Meaker discusses her writing career, her life
as a lesbian and her relationship with novelist Patricia Highsmith
as told in her new memoir "Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Marijane Meaker, holds an important place in the history of
paperback books and gay 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. She wrote lesbian-themed
non-fiction books under another pseudonym, Ann Aldrich. Now she writes
fiction for young adults under the pen name M.E. Kerr. Meaker has a new
memoir about her two-year affair in the 1950s with Patricia Highsmith, who
also used a pen name, Claire Morgan, to write her 1953 lesbian novel "The
Price of Salt." Highsmith, who died in 1995, is best known as the author of
"Strangers on a Train," which was adapted into an Alfred Hitchcock film, and
"The Talented Mr. Ripley," which was adapted into a recent film starring Matt
Damon. Marijane Meaker's memoir, "Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s," is not
only about her relationship with Highsmith, it's about lesbian culture of the
1950s. Here's a reading from the opening of the book.

Ms. MARIJANE MEAKER (Author): `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 Elles. The woman 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," which had become an Alfred Hitchcock thriller in 1951. But in
L’s, Pat was revered for her pseudonymous novel "The Price of Salt," which
had been published in 1952 by Coward-McCann. 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."'

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

Ms. 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
besides 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: What was her literary importance?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, it wasn't very much then. She had a screen presence. The
"Strangers on a Train" was really what she was known for, and she had done the
"Ripley" book and a few others, but she wasn't a very well-known writer then.

GROSS: What was her place in the world of gay literature?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, "The Price of Salt" was and is a gay classic, again because
of the happy ending. There just wasn't such a thing. Gay books weren't
reviewed, they weren't acknowledged in any magazines like the Saturday Review
of Literature or The Atlantic or Harper, and here we have a book that came
along with a picture of lesbian life as possible and happy.

GROSS: Now you had said that when you played that game of truth, you wanted
to be Patricia Highsmith; now you had a chance to meet her and to get really
close to her. How did she compare with what you imagined her to be?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, she was everything I imagined her to be. I loved the way
she looked. She looked like a combination of Prince Charming and Nureyev.
She was very chic with her trench coat and her collar pulled up, smoking
Gauloises and drinking gin straight. She was easy to talk to. I went up and
introduced myself and told her that I was a writer, and we began to talk very
easily. I think we were also drinkers, and that always facilitates
conversation.

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

Ms. 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: Now were you and Patricia Highsmith from different literary worlds?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, she was, I think, more intellectual than I. She was born
to read Shakespeare in her free time, read Chekhov. She read the dictionary
every single night. That doesn't make her intellectual, but it's odd. She
was more of a loner, too, in her strange way because she traveled a lot alone.
When she was home, when she was in New York, she was very extroverted and she
liked seeing people. But a lot of the time, she chose to be alone and to
travel alone and I think she read a lot. So--and also, you must remember that
when I met Pat, Pat was published in hardcover; she was never a softcover
writer. And I was, at the time I met her, a paperback writer. So that was a
great difference in us.

GROSS: What were some of the good parts and bad parts about being lovers with
one of the few published lesbian novelists? You were both lesbian novelists.

Ms. MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: You had both written books about lesbians. It was a pretty small
world back in the '50s. So you know, on the one hand, you could share
thoughts, on the other hand, you didn't want to step on each other's toes. So
what were some of the ups and downs about being part of that same small world?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, we were never competitive; I don't think so. She wrote
only one book and she wrote it under a pseudonym, which was very unlike her.
I, on the other hand, always used pseudonyms and still do. And so we didn't
compete too much. Friends didn't even know who I was in many cases because I
had so many different names.

And then the only time that we probably competed was in reviewing. The
Mystery column in The Sunday New York Times always had hardcover books along
with paperbacks in the same column. I think she didn't like that very much.
I think she felt she deserved more space.

GROSS: At some point, you realize that, among other things, Patricia
Highsmith was anti-Semitic and racist. You quote her as having said to you,
"You live in New York; that makes you a Jew lover. Where I live, we don't
take to them. I don't know any Swiss or French or anyone where I live who's
sympathetic to Jews; on the contrary." How did you deal with remarks like
that?

Ms. MEAKER: But--OK, that was the older Pat. You must remember that when I
was with Pat, I wouldn't have been able to stand that kind of a person.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MEAKER: She wasn't that kind of person then. She would occasionally say
`Negro' in a funny way because she knew that I didn't like her to say
`nigger,' which she sometimes said. She was from Texas, and her mother talked
that way and she was sometimes unguarded. But she was never anti-Semitic that
I knew her--when I knew her, when I was with her. When she came back, the
part you just quoted happened 27 years later...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. MEAKER: ...when we hadn't been in touch for 27 years. And she got in
touch with me and we began to write, and she came for a visit. And the very
first thing she said--she told me she was hungry and she said that she would
love a sandwich. And I was making her one, and she said--and she had just
come through the door. She said, `Remember the wonderful ham sandwiches we
used to get in first class on planes? You can't get them anymore.' And I
said, `Why not?' And with her finger, she made a crooked nose and then she
said, `I guess it's the Yids.' And then I knew I was in big trouble, because
she was staying with me for three days and I couldn't believe what was coming
out of her mouth.

GROSS: So she became anti-Semitic later in life. Years earlier...

Ms. MEAKER: Well...

GROSS: ...when you were together, how did you end up splitting up?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, first, I want to say that I'm sure there were seeds of the
anti-Semitism there because she had had a book rejected by an editor at
HarperCollins that she really revered. And so she blamed it on the Jewish
establishment, the publishing establishment in New York that were against her
somehow. She did mention that when I knew her, that she was convinced there
was a Jewish establishment, almost a Mafia, that didn't like her. So there
were the seeds of it there. It was never a part of our breaking up or it was
never at all an issue with us, the anti-Semitism, because it didn't exist then
that I knew of.

We broke up because I always say it was wine and winter. We were in
Pennsylvania; we were in Bucks County. I was the worst winter I can ever
imagine; the snow was up to the windows. And we were wine lovers, and I think
the combination--she was very eager to go and live in Europe. We'd made a
pact that she would try two years in the country with me and if it didn't
work, then I'd try Europe. But this was already three or four months into our
two-year lease, and every time she drank wine--which was a lot--she began to
talk about Europe and how she wished she was there. And I always felt that I
was keeping her from something. I didn't want to live in Europe because I
would be deaf and dumb there. I wasn't very good at languages. I'd just
found a foothold in New York in publishing. I'd just found one of those
wonderful professional apartments that are so rare and so hard to get. And I
was always feeling I was in her way, though she didn't want to go to Europe
without me.

And I think that a lot of it, too, was the rejection of that novel that made
that winter unbearable for her. When a novel's rejected usually, your editor
encourages you to do some rewrite; you try to salvage the novel. But there
was no such action taken on the part of her editor at Harper & Row, and I
think it just crushed her. And so I think that contributed to a very bad mood
she had. And then, of course, she began to drink in the daytime and that
scared me.

GROSS: All right. Well, you know, you had your wish come true, meeting a
person who you admired and loved from afar and then actually having a
relationship with them. And after a couple of years, it didn't work.

Ms. MEAKER: Yes, that's for sure. And the strangest part to me was that she
ever wrote me again after so many years. I don't ever--I can't imagine what
that was about. And she wrote me with a very flimsy excuse, asking if I had
some family papers of hers. I not only didn't have them, I didn't even know
her family--which had just been her mother--had any papers. So I think it was
an excuse to get in touch, but I don't know why. And even when she came to
visit, I didn't know why. I was, of course, so aggrieved at her awful
anti-Semitism. And it wasn't just that. She was anti-black, she was
anti-everybody. And it wasn't easy to entertain her or to like her. It was a
puzzling three days. I never knew why she had come. I was the only one she
came to see. She told me she thought it was going to be her last visit to the
States. She told me, too, that she had cancer. So that made it very hard for
me to dislike her. I wanted to dislike everything she was saying, and then I
felt sorry for her because she had cancer. And I could tell she was afraid
that she might be going to die.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're betraying her at all in writing about these
things?

Ms. MEAKER: No, I don't. Pat would always say, `You're a writer; write.'
That's why I do and that's what I've done all my life. I might have felt it
if I had come out of the woodwork and written one book, but my life has been
writing. And this was the greatest challenge that I could imagine. For one
thing, I wanted to tell the story of gay people. Our stories aren't told, and
I had been working on a memoir even before Pat's visit. But when Pat came, I
suddenly realized I would have to try and sort out in my mind how besotted I
was with her I was in the '50s and how very much I disliked her in the '90s.
And I often work things out--of course, the only way I do work things out is
writing. So that's how "Highsmith" came about.

GROSS: My guest is Marijane Meaker. Her new memoir is called "Highsmith."
We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Marijane Meaker, and her new
memoir "Highsmith" is about her two-year romance with the novelist Patricia
Highsmith, whose books include "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Strangers on a
Train," which was adapted into the now-classic Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Highsmith also wrote a lesbian novel under a pen name. And, of course, my
guest Marijane Meaker has written many, many novels, most of them under pen
names of one sort or another...

Ms. MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: ...and many of them lesbian novels as well.

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

Ms. MEAKER: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I went to boarding school deliberately
because I wanted to find out about this world that I knew that 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, the boarding
school was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I'm sure you didn't tell your parents, `Hey, I've heard that
there's a lesbian underground on the boarding school.'

Ms. MEAKER: No. No. And I must say, just to save the school's reputation,
that I seemed to be the only one that stayed at the dance in my class because
I notice everybody else is married and has children and has settled down to...

GROSS: Oh.

Ms. MEAKER: ...the straight life.

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 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...

Ms. MEAKER: Yes.

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

Ms. MEAKER: That's right.

GROSS: And most of these were pulp novels that were, you know, crime novels
and sex-oriented novels.

Ms. MEAKER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How did you end up writing lesbian pulp fiction for Gold Medal?

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

GROSS: Sure. Yeah.

Ms. MEAKER: ...and that was pulp.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. 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(ph), Theodore Pratt,
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," which, strangely enough, outsold "God's Little
Acre" in paperback the year that it was published.

GROSS: No kidding.

Ms. MEAKER: No one had ever had lesbian novels out there. And, of course, on
the cover of "Spring Fire," they have `A story once told in whispers now
frankly, honestly written.' And so this book became--they were amazed at the
mail they got. They couldn't believe it; it came by the boxfuls, some of it
from men, but most of it from women. So then they knew they had something.

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

Ms. 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 how I'd tried to get rid of it in college.' 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 this with
Michener and we'll have double the sales,' because nobody really thought a
book about lesbians was going to sell anything.

GROSS: I mean, you sold one and a half million copies, if what I read is
correct.

Ms. MEAKER: Yes, many, many--yes. It went into many, many reprints.

GROSS: Marijane Meaker. Her new memoir is called "Highsmith: A Romance of
the 1950s." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "You Better Go Now")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) You better go now, because I like you much too
much. You have a way with you. You ought to know now just why I like you
very much. The night was gay with you.

There's a moon above, and it gives my heart a lot of swing. In your eyes,
there's love. And the way I feel, it must be spring. I want you so now. You
have the lips I love to touch. You better go now.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, lesbian pulp fiction. We talk with Marijane Meaker about
writing lesbian novels in the 1950s under the pen name Vin Packer. She'll
tell us why those novels couldn't end with happy lesbian relationships. And
book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Mortals," the new novel by Norman Rush.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Marijane Meaker. Her
new memoir, "Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s," is about her two-year
romance with the writer Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith wrote the classic
novels "Strangers on a Train" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which were
adapted into films. Marijane Meaker helped start the genre of lesbian pulp
fiction with the novels she wrote in the '50s under the pen name Vin Packer.
They were published by Gold Medal Books, which pioneered the paperback
original. Meaker's first Vin Packer novel, "Spring Fire," was published in
1952 and sold one and a half million copies.

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?

Ms. 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 with you, the first one,
"Spring Fire."

Ms. MEAKER: Yes, I have.

GROSS: Can you read the happy ending for us?

Ms. MEAKER: And this is--here's the happy ending. She's just left her
psychoanalyst or psychiatrist's office, Susan, and she is--he is saying, `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 on 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(ph), 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 kind of like a heterosexual awakening at the end?

Ms. 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?

Ms. 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 college. And I thought it was a funny idea. You don't have any,
when you're writing these things, vision of the future, of their even being
there or discussed in the future. I was delighted to get my first book
published. And if that was the rule, well, I was willing to follow it.

GROSS: OK. We're talking about the kind of happy ending you had to paste on
to 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,
this was a homosexual novel.

Ms. MEAKER: Yes. 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 just copied that. I mean, I created that book from the news stories. I
made it fiction. These titles were never my titles either.

GROSS: "Whisper His Sin."

Ms. MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: Well, the cover copy, what was written on the cover of this book, was,
`This is one of the most shocking novels we have ever published. It deals
with the 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.'

Ms. MEAKER: Yes.

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

Ms. 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, which
was a rather astounding case, 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. And that case,
Anthony Boucher, who was the Sunday Times mystery reviewer, then called to my
attention a famous case in New Zealand of two girls who murdered their mother.
And so I then did the same thing with that case, and I became very interested
in turning real-life cases into fiction.

GROSS: The story of that case was also adapted into the film "Beautiful
Creatures," and one of the girls in that story, later wrote novels under the
pen name Anne Perry, many best-selling novels...

Ms. MEAKER: Yes. I think she considers that her real name. She
was--Pauline Parker was her real name. And when she murdered, with her
friend, her friend's mother, she was an intriguing character. She was my
favorite of the two girls. She was rewriting the Bible, and she had a
graveyard where she buried dead ideas, and she was very imaginative, and it
wasn't until many, many years later that I found out and everybody did at the
same time that she was the very distinguished mystery writer: Anne Perry.

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

Ms. MEAKER: Yes.

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

Ms. MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: Your name is Marijane Meaker.

Ms. MEAKER: That's right.

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

Ms. 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 or a book like "Shockproof Sidney
Skate," which was an adult book about a lesbian and her son falling in love
with the same girl. 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. I was having lunch with a man named Vincent 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.

GROSS: What didn't work about the name?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, I just thought it was a silly name. It sounded like a
sportscaster, 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.
That was another name for the pseudonyms. 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 the people out to lunch and tell
them about my clients and nobody knew that I was all my clients. And so
the...

GROSS: What was your name as an agent?

Ms. MEAKER: Marijane Meaker.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Ms. MEAKER: That was another name for all these pseudonyms. I had many. I
had Mamie Stone(ph), who was a confession writer. She and her husband, Edgar
Stone(ph), I had made up that they lived in Maine and that they never came
into New York, so that the magazines that were buying Edgar Stone and Mamie
Stone confessions never anticipated meeting these people. And I always had
stories about my client's wife. They couldn't come to New York.

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

Ms. MEAKER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Wow.

Ms. MEAKER: Oh, yes. Even my editor, Dick Carroll(ph), thought so in the
beginning. He didn't realize when I gave him the first Ann Aldrich book that
it was me.

GROSS: That's another pen name of yours?

Ms. MEAKER: Yes. I wanted him to see if he would buy it if it wasn't me.
And he didn't know that it was me when I gave him the first book. Ann Aldrich
was a journalist. She was me but she was a journalist who studied the lesbian
world and wrote about it in a factual way.

GROSS: My guest is Marijane Meaker. Her new memoir is called "Highsmith."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Marijane Meaker. Her new memoir is called "Highsmith."
It's about her two-year romance with the writer Patricia Highsmith in the
1950s. During that time, Meaker was writing lesbian novels under the pen name
Vin Packer.

Did your life have the kind of drama that your writing did?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, a writer never has as much drama as a writer writes about
because you're staying home in the little room writing, or a big room, if
you're lucky, but I was in a little room. And I got to know a lot of people,
particularly in lesbian life, and I think the reason we all knew each other
was that the only place we could gather were in gay bars. There was
absolutely no place you could go. There were no dances. There were no open
meetings. There was a group called The Daughters of Bilitis, but they were a
very small group and nobody that I knew wanted to join it. And so we met in
bars.

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.

Ms. MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: What were those bars like?

Ms. MEAKER: They were terrible. You would go in, and at the door, there
would be 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 watched to keep men
out. And he was also the one that told you whether you could cash your
checks. And if they had a system where they tattooed your wrist when you came
in--many did--he was in charge of the tattooing. And they were in all the
bars.

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 in, so there was no man's room. But the ladies' room was always 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: And did the Mafia run a lot of these bars because the bars were
perceived as being connected to vice?

Ms. MEAKER: No. The Mafia ran them for money. They knew that they could
make a lot of money on it, and they knew that they were in tangent with the
police. They paid the police off. The police came around regularly. And if
they hadn't been paid, then they claimed that they were breaking the fire
rules or they claimed that there was dope on the premises and they would take
women off in the paddy wagon. They never took you off in the paddy wagon
because you were homosexual. It was always under an excuse that would hold up
in court, such as there were too many in the bar so you were breaking a fire
law, or they had seen dope being passed around.

GROSS: Now in your new memoir, you say that it was important to have the gay
bars segregated by sex: lesbian bars and gay men's bars. You couldn't afford
to have men and women together in the same gay bar. Why was that a problem?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, there was a problem for several reasons. One is if you
have a bar where men and women mingle, if it's a lesbian bar and they allowed
men in, men were always somehow at their worst around lesbians. They were
attracted to them. They didn't know how to talk to them. And they were just
bizarre and they were bizarre men who were attracted. We called them `fish
queens.' And there were some that hung outside. Then there were always
servicemen that would find, somehow--they would ask cab drivers or
something--who thought it would be fun to go and watch girls together. And
this was always trouble. So whoever ran the bars had to keep men out, and
that still holds in a lot of cases. I know I live in the Hamptons, and I
haven't ever seen any successful bars out there--and there are gay bars--where
men and women mingle.

GROSS: And you say that women could wear slacks in gay bars. Was it
difficult to wear slacks to a straight bar or to a fine restaurant?

Ms. MEAKER: Well, in New York, you couldn't. It had nothing to do with
whether you were gay or not. You simply couldn't wear pants in restaurants in
the '50s. There were some that began to, in the later '50s, allow you in in
pants, but it simply was a rule that you couldn't.

GROSS: In the 1970s, you started writing novels for young adults, and you're
still writing novels for young adults.

Ms. MEAKER: Yes.

GROSS: Have many of them been gay-themed?

Ms. MEAKER: Yes, I did the first novel that was written, young adult or
adult, about homosexual young men having AIDS. It was called "Night Kites."
And I published that in '83 or '84. I can't remember. But when I wrote it,
it was earlier, AIDS was called GRID, gay-related immune deficiency. Nobody
knew anything about it. And my book was the first book out there. There was
a book about somebody getting AIDS through a blood transfusion, but mine was
about male homosexual life and about a young boy whose brother got AIDS and
the family found out that he was dying and that he was homosexual at the same
time, which was true of many, many young men.

GROSS: Have you had any problems with school libraries who didn't want your
books on the shelf because they were gay-themed?

Ms. MEAKER: Oh, yes. Yes. I also did a book called "Deliver Us From Evie,"
which is about a lesbian, set in Missouri in the farms. And I did another
book called "Hello, I Lied," which is about a gay boy who falls in love with a
girl one summer. He goes back to his boyfriend in the end, but he has a
summer love affair with a girl, which is also not an uncommon thing that
happens to both men and women. So those were the three books, I think, that
I've done as M.E. Kerr which have touched on homosexuality.

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?

Ms. 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 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 for many, many people, even "Dr. Phil" on television,
handling, telling, advising parents how to handle gay children. And you don't
seem to hear anymore about going to an analyst to be cured. It doesn't exist
anymore. And even the psychoanalytic society has finally 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.

Ms. MEAKER: Thank you.

GROSS: Marijane Meaker's new memoir is called "Highsmith: A Romance of the
1950s." Her novels for young adults are written under the pen name M.E. Kerr.

Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Norman Rush's new novel
"Mortals." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Norman Rush's long-awaited second novel "Mortals"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Norman Rush's long-awaited second novel "Mortals" has just been published.
It's an ambitious story about sex, politics, religion and literature. Book
critic Maureen Corrigan says it's a book that contains everything. Well,
almost.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Are admiration and a shared history enough for the disintegrating marriage
that Norman Rush portrays in his new novel "Mortals"? The answer is no. Ray
and Iris Finch are a middle-aged white American couple living in Africa in the
1990s. Ray adores Iris passionately, but he senses that her ardor has cooled,
her eyes have strayed.

Now let's consider that same question in a different context. Are admiration
and a shared history enough, enough to keep a reader committed to a novel? I
think the answer again turns out to be no. I truly admire the grand ambition
of Rush's novel, its range of topics and emotional agility, its brilliant
literary digressions on everything, from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
to the letters of Harry Houdini's mother. And after 700-plus pages, I
certainly felt as though I shared a reading history with "Mortals," but at the
end of the whole affair, I had to admit I just wasn't in love.

"Mortals," like Rush's first novel "Mating," is set in Botswana, where Ray
Finch operates as a CIA agent. His cover is that of an English teacher, a
Milton specialist at an esteemed secondary school. Ray has just turned 48,
and he's deep into the age of doubt. His covert work, especially after the
fall of the Soviet Union, seems less and less meaningful. When his despicable
new boss orders Ray to gather incriminating evidence on a local political
figure named Samuel Kerekang, who's guilty of the noble crime of preaching
power to the people, Ray rebels. He would much prefer to dig up dirt on Dr.
Davis Morel, a holistic healer who's laid his hands, Ray suspects, on his
beautiful younger wife Iris.

Since everything that transpires in this novel is limited to Ray's point of
view, Iris and her infidelities remain suspensefully enigmatic until the
literally explosive climax of the tale where Ray, Kerekang and Morel find
themselves fighting together, cheek by jowl, in a bloody clash between
nationalists and mercenaries in the northern part of Botswana. It's such a
phenomenon as a screwball massacre can be envisioned. That's just what Rush
choreographs in this extended scene where the truth finally outs.

Time for a confession of my own. I haven't read "Mortals"' predecessor
"Mating," which every serious reader I know tells me is stunning and which won
the National Book Award in 1991. But I have read "Paradise Lost," which is
handy here, not only because Ray is a Milton scholar who relentlessly
references the master's epic but because I think the problem with "Mortals"
is similar to the famous problem with "Paradise Lost." As generations of
Miltonists have pointed out, God the Father and God the Son in "Paradise Lost"
are flat characters. Glamorous Satan runs away with the poem. He gets the
best lines and behaves in unpredictable ways.

In "Mortals," a weighty novel that, like "Paradise Lost," also meditates on
questions of insurrection, both personal and cosmic. Ray is akin to Milton's
God. He's the good, still center of a turning, tumultuous world. Every time
Morel, Kerekang, Iris or even the most minor character whizzes by, they steal
the show. Take Ray's estranged brother Rex, who corresponds with Iris. Rex,
we're told, styles himself as a kind of gay Mencken.

Here's Rex in a letter to Iris, presenting his theory on contemporary American
children. `I think people are finding their own children boring, and this is
due to two factors. Factor one is that by the time a child normally would be
a developed persona, a real individual, he or she has become a kind of
playback machine for various media tropes and loops; that is, the child is old
television, a rerun. Then factor two comes into play to wit, that when the
parent looks at his boring child he knows that on television or video there is
bound to be something on that's more interesting than the child before him.'

Ray offers a lot of wise insights, and he's even funny, but nothing he says in
his extended internal monologues come close to being as unexpected or
vivacious as this cast-off commentary of Rex's. No wonder Iris, late in the
novel, tells Ray she's wearied of leading such a vacuous, well-behaved life
with him.

"Mortals" is structurally dazzling, erudite and substantial, but its hero,
Ray, turns out to be too much of a good thing.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Mortals" by Norman Rush.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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