Available from Bywater Books
My fourth novel, The Ada Decades, will be hitting bookstores in a few weeks, and to say I’m excited is an understatement. Not only is it my first published novel in 20 years, but it’s also a love letter to lesbian history of the not-so-distant past – one that has been brewing in me for quite a while.
Years ago, I attended a queer history workshop with the great gay historian Allan Berube (Coming Out Under Fire), in which he asked participants to imagine how we would have met lovers if we lived in a different, more closeted era. The gay men said they would have gone to parks or other public spaces; the lesbians among us mentioned schools, colleges, and libraries. It made sense to me – lesbians love books, right?
Since then, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the question of how lesbians found friends and lovers in the past. Some famous couples you may know met in decidedly literary ways: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of Daughters of Bilitis, met working at a publishing house; Willa Cather and Edith Lewis crossed paths after they both published stories in the same women’s magazine; and Sylvia Beach admired Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop in Paris and wandered in to introduce herself. In a similar vein, I decided to make my protagonist in The Ada Decades a librarian in North Carolina, and the woman she falls in love with is a junior high school English teacher with a penchant for the work of Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and Lillian Smith (Strange Fruit).
Over the next few weeks on this site, I’m going to roll out some of the real places associated with the characters in my book – like the mill community where Ada grew up, one of the first schools in Charlotte to be integrated, and the picturesque town of Davidson, N.C. You might even get to see the pickup truck that Ada and Cam’s gay friend Twig drives. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.
In the meantime, The Ada Decades is available exclusively on the Bywater Books website until March 14, when it becomes available everywhere.
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St. Louis, Mo.
International Shoe Company
1501 Washington Avenue
International Shoe Company warehouse
701 N. 15th Street
In 1931, Tennessee Williams’ father secured his son a summer job as an office clerk at the show company where he himself was sales manager. Later, when the Depression leveled the family’s finances and Cornelius withdrew his son from the university, Tennessee lived at home and labored full-time as a clerical worker at the company’s warehouse during 1934 and early 1935. Because he hated it and dreamed of being a writer, Williams later exaggerated his employment time there, saying it dragged on for three or four years. (Or maybe it just felt that way to him?) Williams wrote after work and late into the night at the kitchen table, getting by mostly on cigarettes and coffee.
At International Shoe, there was a brawny worker named Stanley Kowalski, a “ladies’ man,” who became Williams’ closest companion. According to one biographer, there is no evidence that the two men had a sexual relationship, but it is clear that Williams was infatuated with his co-worker, much as Blanche DuBois was drawn to the fictional Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Williams’ employment records at International Shoe list “ill health” as the reason for his resignation in the spring of 1935. Suffering from anxiety attacks that felt like cardiac arrest, Williams went to recuperate at his grandparents’ house in Memphis.
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Santa Monica, Calif.
Greta Garbo/Mercedes de Acosta meeting place
165 Mabery Road
In 1931, the young Swedish film sensation Greta Garbo met and fell for Mercedes de Acosta, a dramatic-looking writer with pale skin and raven black hair who habitually sported white flannel trousers, silk shirts, berets, and boyish haircuts. Both women had been invited to tea at this address on Mabery Road, which was the home of their mutual friend Salka Viertel. A playwright and stage manager for Eva LeGallienne (who was also her lover), de Acosta had come to Hollywood from New York two years earlier to write a treatment for actress Pola Negri.
After de Acosta and Garbo met, the proverbial sparks flew, and they spent six weeks sequestered at Silver Lake, swimming naked and walking in the mountains. There they “honeymooned” on an island in the middle of the lake, in a small log cabin that belonged to actor Wallace Beery.
Garbo later credited de Acosta with giving her the foundation on which she based the wonderfully androgynous character Queen Christina. While lovers with de Acosta, Garbo began her habit of wearing trousers in public. The two women would stroll boldly along Hollywood Boulevard in similar attire, flaunting their relationship. The same year they met, the lovers moved to adjoining homes on North Rockingham Road in Brentwood. Over the years, their relationship ran hot and cold, each taking numerous lovers. In 1960 came the final split, though, when Garbo – the queen of privacy – became upset by the publication of de Acosta’s tell-all memoir, Here Lies the Heart.
She used to climb ahead of me, and with her hair blown back, her face turned to the wind and sun, she would leap from rock to rock on her bare Hellenic feet…looking like some radiant, elemental, glorious god and goddess melted into one.
–Mercedes de Acosta, writing about her 1931 “honeymoon” with Garbo
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William Inge Center for the Arts
Independence Community College
1057 W. College Avenue
Included in this center’s collections are books, tapes, and records from the private cache of playwright William Inge (1913-1973), who attended college here and gave his original manuscripts to the school in 1969. Inge is best known for four successful Broadway plays that were subsequently made into films – Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953 – won the Pulitzer Prize), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). Also a screenwriter, Inge won an Academy Award in 1961 for the original script of Splendor in the Grass.
Inge was born and raised in Kansas, and all of his plays took that state as their setting. His boyhood home at 514 N. 4th Street is still standing (see above), and was the setting for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. The home is owned by the William Inge Festival Foundation, and each year, playwrights-in-residence are selected to come to Independence to live in the house and write for nine weeks at a time.
Inge’s work often focused on the repressed sexuality and stultifying social norms that he must have experienced in his own life. A closeted gay man and an abuser of alcohol, Inge included a few characters who were gays stereotypes in his later, lesser-known plays, written in the 1960s after his success had faded. His one act, “The Boys in the Basement,” dealt with a man’s discovery of his homosexuality and was his only play to address the topic directly. Sadly, Inge committed suicide at his home in Hollywood in 1973. He is buried in Independence.
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Thornton Wilder gravesite
Mt. Carmel Cemetery
3801 Whitney Avenue
If you’ve visited my other blog, “A Very Gay Play,” you know that I wrote a play called Their Town on the topic of same-sex marriage that was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town. It seemed to me the height of irony that the most-produced play in this country – one considered quintessentially American – was written by a closeted gay man.
Though he spent the early part of his life in Wisconsin, California, and Shanghai, Wilder (1897-1975) called Hamden, Conn., home from 1929 on (his home at 50 Deepwood Drive is still standing), and it is in this town that he’s buried.
Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize three times, for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Our Town (1938), and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). A lifelong bachelor who as a young man described his own walk and mannerisms as “queer,” Wilder was intensely homophobic. He commented to Gore Vidal that “a writer ought not to commit himself to a homosexual situation of the domestic sort” because it would damage his career. As a result, Wilder experienced only arm’s-length infatuations, often with actors (including Montgomery Clift), and brief, clandestine sexual encounters. He would have hated this website (and my play!) – he believed that to speculate on the sexuality of famous writers was simply to “whip up a prurient oh-ha! in millions of people.”
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New York, N.Y.
31 Cornelia Street
From 1958 to 1967, Joe Cino ran a coffeehouse at this address that has gone down in performance history as the place where both gay theater and Off-Off-Broadway were born. The Beat generation cafe was not intended at the beginning as either a theater or a gay hangout, though Cino himself was gay. “My idea,” he said in a Village Voice interview in 1965, “was…to start with a beautiful, intimate, warm, non-commercial, friendly atmosphere where people could come and not feel pressured or harassed. I also thought anything could happen. The one thing I never thought of was fully staged productions of plays.” But that’s exactly what happened. On a dark, narrow street in Greenwich Village, in a room described by one reporter as a “shoebox,” gay playwrights such as William M. Hoffman, Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick, and Lanford Wilson got their start, as did gay-friendly writers Sam Shepard and John Guare.
Sadly, the accidental death of his lover, lighting designer John Torrey, sent Cino into despair and drugs. Cino committed suicide in 1967, and the “magic time,” as William Hoffman called it, came to a close.
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