Ann Bannon wrote six lesbian pulp novels in the late 1950s and early 1960s, starring a character named Beebo Brinker: "Beebo was a big girl, big-boned and good-looking, like a boy in early adolescence. Her black hair was short and wavy and her eyes were an off-blue, wide, well spaced... She took odd jobs where she could, anything that would let her wear pants." The six books, collectively known as The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, remain cult favorites to this day, and Beebo Brinker has become, over the years, a bona-fide literary sex symbol; Bastard out of Carolina author Dorothy Allison has blurbed the most recent release of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles with gushing praise that ends "I would have dated Beebo, no question."
Beebo Brinker may be a lesbian hero, but she's also a huge asshole. She abuses her beloved Laura, both physically and mentally. She has a pathological fear of abandonment, but also sluts around with just about any woman who flirts with Laura. She's less a role model than a how-not-to diagram, but at the time of publication, her brutish masculine aggression might've seemed refreshing. Or at least bracing.
Patricia Highsmith and Marion Zimmer Bradley got their start in lesbian pulp before moving on to write critically acclaimed mainstream fiction. Times were lean—in a recent phone interview, Bannon recalls how Bradley "was heating up ketchup with some salt and pepper and crackers and calling it dinner"—and their characters' anything-goes morality is perhaps a product of the bleakness of writing novels for a fraction of a penny a word. "Myself and Marijane Meaker, who wrote novels under the name Vin Packer, we're the only two from that era still around," Bannon said.
Beebo—who Bannon visualized as "a big handsome girl, a cross between Ingrid Bergman when she wore the pants in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Johnny Weissmuller," (an Olympic gold medal winning swimmer who starred as Tarzan in a dozen popular films of the 1940s)—still brings out fans a half-century later. Last year, a play version of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles opened off Broadway to great success, and this weekend, Bannon will read in conjunction with a Seattle Women's Chorus concert named Vixens & Sirens.
Bannon is grateful that her work remains popular, but she's also glad that she stopped at the sixth Beebo book, before dulling her nasty edge: "If I continued to write her, she probably would've gotten away from the darker side and more toward her wry humorous side." Though her wry humor is undoubtedly part of Beebo's charm, it seems as though her darkness—the alcoholism, the poverty, and the readiness to explode into an apoplectic rages over love—is why thousands of women, straight and gay, still love her.
Ann Bannon reads in performance with the Seattle Women's Chorus at Meany Theater, 4001 University Way NE, 323-0750, on Sat April 12 at 8 pm and on Sun April 13 at 2 pm.