I am a huge fan of noir, whether it takes itself seriously or it’s being parodied. Something I really appreciate about Gilmartin’s book is her command of the historical era and ability to evoke it. She knows her way around research (she holds a Ph.D. in cultural studies) and it shows here. Writing effective noir, I think, is a huge task because if you’re not careful, you can inadvertently cross over into parody and if that’s not your intent, your noir falls flat and ends up on the fail hashtag in the Twitter bins.
Don’t get me wrong — I love a tongue-in-cheek parody noir, but a true-blue dark n’ dirty noir…mmm. That’s a lot harder to capture. So here’s Katie to talk about what drew her to write Blackmail, My Love.
Blackmail, My Love
I’m fascinated by the fifties. Who would I have been if I’d lived then? The big brazen butch whose bar fights carved out social space for us to find each other? The closeted housewife having a decades-long affair with her best friend, the housewife two doors down? Or would I have been too afraid to act on my desires at all?
For my graduate research I interviewed forty lesbians about their lives in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Their stories have haunted me since. Some of them are woven through Blackmail, My Love, an illustrated noir mystery just published this month by Cleis Press. The novel allowed me to explore what it was like to believe everything they said about us in the fifties, and how it was possible that some of us believed none of it. I recall one of the women I interviewed – by then a vividly out lesbian who lived in a purple house, drove a purple car, and served me a purple lunch (it included borscht) – telling me that she remembered very clearly thinking, “I’m homosexual and I’m not mentally ill; so they must be wrong that all homosexuals are mentally ill.”
How did she manage that? One essential ingredient: community. The pivotal piece of work that LGBT people accomplished in the mid-century U.S. was community formation. In the wake of the massive social changes of World War II, more and more of us found each other, formed friendships and networks of friendships, established bars and cafes and even neighborhoods, and began to say: Here we are. In an era that, for the most part, understood homosexuality as a psychiatric illness afflicting isolated individuals, this was a bold step indeed. As we found each other, we realized how many of us there were; and as we realized how many of us there were, we found home.
Despite the real dangers of bar-going, there were more lesbian bars in San Francisco in the 1950s than there are today. In Blackmail, My Love I reimagine places like the Black Cat Cafe, a legendary “bohemian” bar, along with a fictional lesbian bar called “Pandora’s Box.” A central character named Lily Wu owns Pandora’s with her friend, Madge, who’s a kind of Rosie the Riveter gone bad. Whether they’re seedy or swanky, interesting things happen at bars: erotic rituals are played out, reputations are made, hearts are broken. Another character, Black Pearl, performs as a “female illusionist” at Finocchio’s, a place so disreputable it was off limits to servicemen – so every man and woman in uniform paid a visit. But Pearl wasn’t performing; in today’s terms, she was a transgender woman, being herself, and getting paid to do it. Finocchio’s was another real-life hotspot in the fifties, where Tallulah Bankhead and other Hollywood stars dropped in to see themselves impersonated.
In her collection of essays, A Restricted Country, out and proud working-class activist and teacher Joan Nestle tells of a dyke bar in fifties New York City that posted a guard at the bathroom door to hand out the allotted amount of toilet paper and enforce their one-occupant-at-a-time policy, despite the fact that their bathroom had several stalls.
The inevitable result of this policy was, of course, an endless line. A perpetual queue spiraled around the bar. And as Nestle tells it, a line act developed in that spiral of Queer bodies, a joking, cruising, strutting, preening, boldly creative acting-out of proud butch and femme styles. Nestle says, “We wove our freedoms, our culture, around their obstacles of hatred.”
I think that bathroom line is a perfect metaphor for the way we see, over and over again, throughout history and especially Queer history, that oppression and resistance are interwoven, inextricably. Even in the harshest eras, communities and individuals found ways to resist, to celebrate themselves, to create rich and enduring alternative cultures. The bar culture that formed in the fifties created the framework for the building of Queer community in the sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond.
At the end of her story about the bathroom line Nestle adds, “…but we also paid our price. Every time I took the fistful of toilet paper, I swore eventual liberation. It would be, however, liberation with a memory.” Blackmail, My Love, is dedicated to keeping that memory, in all its pain and all its glory, alive.
Here’s a pivotal scene (that doesn’t give too much away), set in the alley behind Pandora’s Box. Josie’s been looking for her brother, Jimmy, who’s gone missing. He was working as a cop til he got kicked off the force under murky circumstances, then became a private detective investigating a blackmail ring targeting Queers. Some people say Jimmy didn’t stop working for the police at all; that instead he became an undercover rat, informing on the bar community. Josie doesn’t buy it.
“Lily, I need to talk to you.” I lowered my voice. “I know what they’re saying about my brother and it’s not true. I’m going to prove it.”
She scowled. Then her gaze eased and she studied my face. I was beginning to feel like the Encyclopedia Britannica; everyone was looking up Jimmy. But she turned away. “I’ve got nothing to say.”
“I do. Please?”
She adjusted the left shoulder of her dress, lining it up with the strap of her brassiere. She scrubbed a spot on the bar. She emptied a couple of ashtrays, banging them loudly in the trash, a look of faint disgust on her face. Without changing the look she said, “I’ve got a break coming in forty minutes. Meet me out back.”
This time we didn’t get cozy. She stood in the middle of the alley, feet apart, smoking. Despite the satin dress I imagined a Mack truck trying to knock her down would drive off with a battered grill.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“I got beat up. I’m better.” She was silent. “Please, Lily, my brother isn’t a rat… . Whatever happened to him involves the police somehow, but not in the way you think. They’re trying to cover something, I’m sure of it. I need your help. You know who he spent time with. Please, ask them to talk to me.”
“How do you explain the fact that Jimmy was there when bars got raided but his ass never landed in jail?”
“I don’t know. But if he was working for the cops they wouldn’t have blown his cover that way. They’d have hauled him in too, just for show.”
“Not if they were getting ready to transfer him down south.” She took a long drag on her cigarette, blew out smoke, looked me in the eye, and spoke in a torrent. “I wouldn’t say there’s much reward to being in the life. But you do have a chance to find out what you’re made of. When you realize your longings are contrary to everything around you – every movie, every song, every story you’ve been told – when you realize you don’t fit into that happily-ever-after life the world’s been telling you is your reason for living, you have a chance to become real. Those rules you learned, all that morality and etiquette, you realize that was just training wheels. Now you’ve got to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong for yourself. Every knot you get tangled up in, every thorny situation where you need to cover for a friend even if it costs you – each of those decisions you make stacks up, one on top of the other, and eventually you turn around and find you’ve grown a backbone: you know who you are. You know what you believe in. And you’re living your life rather than letting it living you.” She threw the butt of her cigarette down and ground it out with her shoe. “There are plenty of us that never get there because they spend all their time hiding it. Some are delighted to discover a lower rung in the social order: instead of staring up at the ‘normals,’ figuring out how to blend in, they amuse themselves disdaining those who can’t – or wouldn’t even if they could. So some of us get it overtime. If we’re smart we start to see how it all works. Who’s on the front lines catching the brunt of it, who gets to stay further back, cushioned. Who crosses over and aids the enemy while covering their own ass. The higher up the ladder they are and the more they can blend in, the bigger their reward for crossing over.”
She whipped off the top hat and ran her hand through her hair, agitated. Then she bent down and started picking up butts, hurling them into a trash can. In the silence I heard a rat squeak and rustle inside the hollow metal bin. She heard it too, and laughed mordantly. When she spoke again her face was in shadow and her voice taut, grim. “As far as I can see that’s the one reward we’re offered. Some of us get it. Some of us don’t. It all depends on whether or not we grow that backbone. Your brother Jimmy may have been on the way to one, but that spine of his got twisted.”
She turned back to me. She exhaled sharply, shook her head, and put her hat back on. “O.k. You’re young. You need to find out what happened to your brother. Maybe finding out will help you grow a backbone of your own. I know someone who can tell you what was happening with him, before…” She slapped her hands together and dusted flecks off her satin bodice. “The name’s Pearl. Black Pearl. She’ll talk to you. Come back in a coupla days.” She looked up to the orange-rimmed sky for a moment, then headed into the building. Stopping suddenly, she turned.
“I didn’t know your brother well. He was a cherished friend of cherished friends of mine. I didn’t want to believe it about him. But it wasn’t just me I had to consider: it was everyone that comes into this bar. I hope for your sake that you prove me wrong.” She paused, then added, “But I’m not bettin’ on it.” Just before she spun and disappeared into the gloom, the dim light caught shine at the outer corner of her eye.
Bio: Katie Gilmartin’s checkered past includes stints as a buoyant union organizer, bona fide sex researcher, and deeply engaged college professor. She attended Oberlin College and Yale Graduate School, then for over a decade taught cultural studies. On an urgent quest to relocate pleasure, Katie took up printmaking and became utterly smitten. She surrendered her academic life to assume care of Chrysalis Print Studio, where she now teaches linocut and monotype classes. Along the way she founded City Art Cooperative Gallery and the Queer Ancestors Project, which is devoted to forging sturdy relationships between young LGBTQ people and their ancestors.
Happy Friday, everyone!