Long before actresses made out on The O.C., Ann Weldy was writing best-selling lesbian pulp fiction under the pen name Ann Bannon
You’d never suspect Ann Weldy, former associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters at California State University, Sacramento, of being anything but what she appears to be: a trim, attractive and energetic retired professor. But before her distinguished career at CSUS—for which she will be honored with the 2005 Distinguished Faculty Award by the CSUS Alumni Association next week—Weldy broke down barriers and raised eyebrows as Ann Bannon, the author of a series of pulp-fiction novels about lesbians.
In 1957, as her first lesbian-themed novel was about to be published, Weldy picked the name “Bannon” from a list of prospective clients her then-husband had brought home from work. “I needed a pen name; my husband had made that very clear,” she said. Besides thinking that “Bannon” sounded “sort of euphonious,” Weldy pointed out that “it encapsulated my first name, and there’s a lot of Irish in my family.” She had no suspicion that it would become one of the most famous names in that era of pulp fiction.
Weldy, who will discuss her writing next Wednesday in the CSUS University Library Gallery as part of National Library Week, took time to speak with SN&R at her home in a quiet, tree-lined Sacramento neighborhood. It’s a far cry from the Greenwich Village of the 1950s, the bustling heart of the mid-century gay and lesbian community that she brought to life in the books that make up The Beebo Brinker Chronicles.
Weldy was a recent college graduate and a new bride when she first took up the pen to write a novel. “I wasn’t working,” she said. “I used to kid my husband that we were the last Victorian family in the 20th century, but he wanted me at home, cooking and ironing, and he was going to be the breadwinner.”
She was looking around for something to do and came across Vin Packer’s paperback original Spring Fire. Weldy had read The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s well-known lesbian novel, and found it grim. But Weldy said that Packer’s novel “captured experiences that were familiar to me.” It was set in a Midwestern college and described a romance between two students who both were women. Of course, the book lacked a happy ending—Packer later told her that the publishers insisted on it—but in reading it, Weldy said, “I thought, ‘I know all about this. I can do this.’ So, I sat down and wrote a very bad book.”
Weldy’s first attempt at a novel was huge; it ran 600 pages and weighed about five pounds. But she contacted Packer in New York—her real name was Marijane Meaker—and asked for advice on what to do next.
Packer invited her to New York. “She took me down to Greenwich Village and showed me around,” Weldy remembered. “She knew all the women’s bars. The Bagatelle, the Sea Colony, she knew all of them.” Packer also introduced Weldy to the editor in chief at Gold Medal, a division of Fawcett and a major publisher of the “pulp” books that dominated the kiosks in drugstores, train and bus stations, and airports.
After reading the draft of Weldy’s novel, he told her to “put it on a diet.” He also told her that it had a lot of good stuff in it, and “the best thing in it is the two young women.” Weldy was shocked. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God. He noticed the two young women.’ I thought they were off in the corner in a little subplot.” But the editor informed her that they were the story she should write.
Her second version of that novel became Odd Girl Out, the first of the five books that make up The Beebo Brinker Chronicles. She took it back to the editor at Gold Medal. “They didn’t change a word,” Weldy said. “They published it just as it was.” Odd Girl Out became the second-best-selling paperback of 1957.
“Gosh, I was thrilled,” Weldy remembered. “My husband was thrilled—not by the subject matter—but he was delighted by the financial arrangements.” The publisher had a relatively generous arrangement with its writers. The books were made cheaply (hence the “pulp” moniker), and their lurid covers guaranteed that they’d fly off the racks.
Almost a half-century later, the covers of her novels are still a source of amusement for Weldy. “We used to cringe when the covers came in,” she said, “because we had no idea what would be on them.” When she received her complimentary copies, they came in brown paper wrappers, and she’d be afraid to open them.
“It was very rare when the art was remotely connected to the story,” she said, noting that the publisher knew what would sell: cleavage. “That was another reason I chose a pseudonym,” she recalled. “My husband said, ‘I do not want to see my name printed across a bosom on a paperback book.’”
But the covers served a double purpose for the books’ crossover audience. “They were made to be sexy and made to appeal to a male readership,” Weldy said, but she pointed out that women readers who were interested in lesbian stories knew how to read the covers “iconically.” According to Weldy, “They would decode them. They knew that if it said ‘shocking’ or ‘twilight’ or ‘secret’ or ‘shameful,’ and there was a pair of pretty women on the cover, you had found the lesbian gold at the end of the rainbow.”
People have complained about the covers for decades, including the author. “Looking back, I can get kind of sentimental about them,” she admitted, “but at the time, I wanted something dignified.”
Over several years, Weldy wrote a series of five books: Odd Girl Out, I Am a Woman, Women in the Shadows, Journey to a Woman and Beebo Brinker. All were very successful. Then she moved on with her life, a journey that took her to Sacramento for a master’s degree at CSUS and then on to Stanford for a Ph.D. in linguistics. Her doctorate was followed by a distinguished academic career at CSUS.
While she was completing her doctorate, Weldy was contacted by The New York Times, requesting permission to reprint some of the books in the Arno Press series on homosexuality in culture. Weldy was happy to agree, but she then thought, “That’s it; it’s been put to bed. I’m now a college professor; it’s over.” She was mistaken.
In 1982, the books were reissued by Naiad Press, a feminist publishing house. Editor Barbara Grier had to call Weldy’s ex-husband to find out where she was in order to get the rights to print the books. “It was a successful partnership,” Weldy remembered, and it did get the books a new audience. “It gave me a presence in the community that I might not otherwise have had,” Weldy said. Then, in 1995, the Quality Paperback Book Club reprinted four of the books—omitting Journey to a Woman for some reason—in a single edition for their Triangle Classics series.
Weldy had little idea of how the books were being received. “Every now and then, a student would come in with a little bouquet and say, ‘I just found out who you are,’ which was touching,” she remembered. Another time, a colleague saw an article in The Village Voice and told her, “My God, they made you sound like Edith Wharton!” But, for the most part, she was occupied with her career and unaware of how widely read—and beloved—the novels had become.
Sometime after she retired in 1997, Weldy attended a fund-raising party in San Francisco and met the publishers from Cleis Press, who wondered if copyrights on the books had returned to her. She told them they had, and the publishers expressed interest in reprinting the books, with racy new pulp-fiction covers. They started with Beebo Brinker in 2000.
“That created a huge stir,” Weldy said. In the 20 years since the Naiad Press editions, “pulp” had become fashionable, so the gay and lesbian press gave the books a lot of attention. And Weldy began to find out just what sort of impact her novels had made over the years.
“One of the delightful things about coming back into this after all these years is finding out all the women who were reading these books when they were young,” said Weldy. She gives an example of the late Audre Lorde, who, in her book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, wrote about wandering around Greenwich Village and wondering if she would meet Beebo Brinker and if it would be possible for her to love two women at the same time, as Beebo had. “I had no way of knowing at the time how many people had read the books,” Weldy said.
Not only do the books that make up The Beebo Brinker Chronicles offer a snapshot of lesbian life in the 1950s, but also, in many ways, the stories still resonate, perhaps because they are principally concerned with the emotional lives of their characters. “The lesbian pulps, at least the ones written by women, were kind of sweet, sentimental, even innocent, love stories,” Weldy said.
While the novels do explore the homophobia rampant in the culture at the time—and even within the characters themselves, which Weldy readily admits was part of her history—they also offer the possibility of transformation. “To think, for the first time in your life, ‘Oh my God, I’m not the only one! Maybe it’s OK to be who I am’ is a pretty important moment,” she said. “If the books did anything good or positive, that was it.”
Weldy described herself all those years ago as a “housewife just out of college, sitting at her decrepit old Remington typewriter” who would have been astonished if the “ghosts of readers-yet-to-be” had appeared to tell her that her books would take on a life of their own. “I’m glad I didn’t know,” she chuckled, “because if I had, I would have been too self-conscious to write them.”
Fans who want to know more about Weldy’s personal journey can look forward to reading her current project—a memoir of her life during the pulp-fiction years.