There’s nothing like a dame, says the old song.1 Except maybe two dames. Getting it on.
These days you can surf to 10,000 sites or tune your TV to The L Word and see gals going at it, tits to the wind.2 You can waltz into any magazine or bookstore of half decent size and prance out with sticky bedside lesbian reading. We think of this as new, but back, way back, say from 1950 to 1965, sensational, sexy stories of Sapphic attractions and urges (complete with lurid cover babes and racy blurbs) were out in the open, for sale on every drugstore and grocery store paperback rack. Lesbian pulp fiction, like all paperbacks, sold cheap, mostly for much less than a dollar. There were hundreds of them, about butches and femmes, or nurses, or career girls, or sorority sisters, or country girls going to the big city and sipping from the well of the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. The bright books are now extremely collectible, as pop culture and objects of history and beauty.
Mount Saint Vincent University has its own soft core collection. On the first floor of the university’s library, the collection seduces passersby from a locked book cabinet of bleached wood with glass doors. Five shelves are loaded with 119 paperbacks protected in plastic sleeves.
The titles and subtitles are flashy invitations to a womanly world of which most mortals dare not dream:
Twilight LoversThey Lived And LovedIn The Off-Beat World Of Lesbian Love
The Third WayBlunt Revelations of what happens when deviate women seek advancement in the business world.
A Bit of FluffShe was only 17, but her body was already paid for in full by another woman—a Lesbian
Strange BreedA Touching Story Of That Breed of WomenWho Receive From Each OtherWhat They Cannot Receive From Men
Oooo, la la. Do not think for a second that you will be trotting into the library and browsing for some take-home reading.3 Your Novanet or MSVU Student ID will allow you a loan only three hours, and the book and you will stay in the library. But at about 150 pages long, any one of these novels could be got through in a focussed session.
Miss Brenda Bannon insisted on being called Babs, which perfectly suited her short auburn curls, absence of makeup and handsome dress. By day she was a high school gym teacher, well-liked by her girls and even loved by some. By night she trolled a shadowy strange world, wandering in Canadian Tire stores. Babs liked the feel of power tools and Babs knew how to use them. She knew the difference between Robertson and Phillips screws and it excited her to come upon a woman who needed guidance in a corner of the world mostly inhabited by men. Babs sought a certain kind of woman: a woman in need of teaching, yet curious and open to new experience. In Aisle Three one night she found just such a woman. She found Jane.
Terry Paris is the Collections Development Librarian at MSVU. He looks slightly retro himself, in a Prince Valiant way, dressed in a brick red shirt and brick red woven vest, ensconced in his office decorated with art (Dürer to Warhol to Hockney) and toys (SquareBob Spongepants to rubber sharks). Paris says the pulp collection was bought in 1996.
“Income from the Petro Canada Endowment Fund gives us $15,000 a year to spend on Women’s Studies material,” he says, “and buying lesbian pulp fiction was a one-off deal.” Paris is hoping that collectors will donate lesbian pulp material to the library, which will issue tax receipts based on the books’ market value. That’s not chump change. MSVU bought most of its pulp novels for between $5 and $60, from Kaya Books in Halifax.4 The university bought a first edition of Valerie Taylor’s Return To Lesbos for $300.5
Former librarian turned restaurateur Jane Wright has a large collection of vintage paperbacks including about 70 lesbian pulp novels. “It’s mostly been about the hunt and the find being important to me,” she says, “finding a title in a thrift store for 10 cents, only to find out it’s worth hundreds of dollars.” There were certain pulp publishers Wright learned to look for; she didn’t even have to read the titles.6
“Hi,” Babs said in her deep, throaty voice. “Need help?” Jane turned and was immediately caught in the piercing gaze of the taller Babs. “Let me introduce myself—I’m Babs.” “Uh… hi,” said Jane. “I’m Jane Kansas.” A small smile crept across Babs’ face. “I’m sorry, Missy,” she said, “was that Jane, or Candace?” Jane hesitated. Her Nescafe eyes looked down as her cheeks turned crimson. Babs wondered if it was due to confusion or a queer attraction. She felt her flesh begin to warm.
Maureen Cullingham lives in Ottawa and has what must be one of the world’s premiere collections of lesbian pulp fiction.7 “I started collecting in 1975 or 1976,” she says, “so I’ve been collecting for 30 years.” Cullingham’s first 15 pulp novels were inherited from an older woman who was moving to the US. “They were fun, sort of a joke, but I knew back then that I held an important piece of history so I took very good care of them.” She now has 350.
Cullingham agrees the actual sex in vintage pulp novels wasn’t always true to life or even what these days would be considered hot. “What woman ever marvelled over someone’s raisin-like nipples?” she says. “They sound contrived, and were! It’s commonly said most of these books would be considered very very mild today, where they were fairly risky back then.”
Like modern videos with titles like Lusty Lesbo Twins From Leningrad, some lesbian pulp novels were written by and for straight men, without the input of any women, let alone lesbians; some were written by lesbians. Men, bored curious housewives with tendencies and lesbians all thrilled to the shadowy world of illicit lesbian longing.
Later, over coffee and then Stingers at a local bar, Jane and Babs learned each other’s names… and much more. Jane’s first idea of lesbians had been that they would all look like Gertrude Stein… mannish, dressed in three piece suits, smoking cigars. Yes, Babs was butch, yes, she knew her screws, but she was obviously so much a woman. When Babs asked Jane if she wanted to go home and see her tools Jane no longer cared what kind of screw Babs was talking about. Forbidden or not, Jane wanted more of Babs. Her heart had relinquished all reason; her body had set sail on a swollen sea of lust.
Bookseller and sex educatorShelley Taylor owns Venus Envy, with stores in Halifax and Ottawa. She says even though we’ve come a long way, baby, lesbian pulp fiction was really important in its time. “It gave people a sense,” she says, “a little glimmer into this non-hetero world. Now that lesbianism is much more acceptable and lesbian books are available in mainstream stores there’s no need for that kind of oblique representation. We have a hard time keeping lesbian erotica of any kind on the shelves.”
Even a glance at the range of erotica available shows that these days (and nights) there’s any and every kind of sex reading available. Section titles on Venus Envy’s book shelves include General Erotica (with titles like The Arch of Desire and 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bedtime), Hot Lesbian Action (Macho Sluts and Hot and Bothered), Lesbian Erotica (On Our Backs and Peculiar Passions), Dirty Books (The Surrender and No Mercy), Highbrow Smut (The Best Fetish Erotica), Anything Goes (Three Way and Eat Me) and, of course, Spanky Smut (Panic Snap and Topping: From Below). All that and a bag of chips, yet the list doesn’t include a wall of general lesbian fiction by the likes of Jeanette Winterson, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Shani Mootoo, Jane Rule, Sarah Waters and a host of others.
“Oooo Babs,” whispered Jane, “you make me feel like a natural woman.” Under the ambidextrous attentions of Babs, Jane became molten. Her alabaster breasts heaved towards the moonlit window hung with faded filmy whorehouse curtains. With Babs, Jane felt more unashamed… and less inhibited than she ever had before. “I love this love no man can break…” she moaned, and then, arching, almost mewling, “love, be a lady tonight.” Babs continued her relentless mining of Jane’s gold, silent. Jane cried again, in an urgent yip. “Oh! My! God! I love being a girl.” Finally Babs spoke back to her. “Jane,” she murmured, “can you please stop speaking in song lyrics?”
1. “Nothing Like a Dame” is the song from South Pacific, lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein, music by Richard Rodgers. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1950.
2. Don’t get Showtime at home? Video Difference on Quinpool Road rents the box set of season one of The L Word.
3. Strange Nurse, which was written by Arthur Adlon, would be a nice choice. Softcover Library came out with the second printing of the book in 1962, when it sold for 60 cents. The cover art features two women, both wearing black lingerie, lounging on a bed. Both are smoking. The brunette is on her side, one arm wrapped behind her head and the auburn nurse is sitting up, her white starched nurse cap in place and her uniform gaping open and off one shoulder. The cover blurbs (best if read aloud in Ted Baxter’s voice) beckon. Just under the title it says, “The hungering nurse and the charming laboratory technician opened new frontiers of lust and passion—in each other’s arms.” And splashed in capitals across the bottom of the book: A FRANK AND SHOCKING NOVEL OF DEVIATE DESIRES.
4. Kaya Books closed in November 2004 when owner Neil Eamon inherited a family home and moved back to Ontario.
5. Pulp collector and rogue scholar Maureen Cullingham thinks they paid too much.
6. Jane Wright says she cleaned out Nova Scotia’s thrift stores in the late 1980s but there’s always the chance more pulps have made their way into thrift stores. Publishers to look for on paperback spines include Beacon (with a red lighthouse), Midwood (with a club from a playing card) and Gold Medal (with a military-looking medal).
7. The University of Waterloo has about 169 volumes of lesbian pulp fiction. Cornell University in Ithaca, New York has 100. Amy Leigh of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, says they have hundreds but includes general lesbian fiction and sexology books in the count. The website for The Lesbian Herstory Archives says it has several hundred. And Ryan Richardson of strangesisters.com seems to also have hundreds.