Marijane Meaker, 95, Who Helped Launch Genre of Lesbian Fiction, Dies

Marijane Meaker, a versatile and prolific author whose 1952 novel, “Spring Fire,” was among the first lesbian-themed paperback originals and sold so briskly that it jump-started the genre of lesbian pulp fiction, died on Nov. 21 at her home in East Hampton, N.Y. She was 95.

Zoe Kamitses, a longtime friend, said the cause was cardiopulmonary arrest.

Ms. Meaker wrote dozens of books in multiple genres under multiple pen names. As M.E. Kerr she wrote young adult novels and was regarded as “a pioneer in realistic fiction for teenagers,” as the Young Adult Library Services Association said in presenting her with its Margaret A. Edwards Award in 1993.

As Ann Aldrich, she wrote groundbreaking nonfiction books that chronicled lesbian life in Greenwich Village and beyond — “We Walk Alone” (1955), “We, Too, Must Love” (1958) and others.

She used Mary James for quirky books aimed at younger children, like “Shoebag” (1990), about a cockroach that turns into a boy. Her books under her own name included “Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s” (2003), about her two-year relationship with the author Patricia Highsmith.

But the work that put her on the map and may have had as much impact as any of the others was “Spring Fire,” published by Gold Medal Books under the name Vin Packer, which Ms. Meaker later used for a series of suspense novels. The book was about a college freshman who falls in love with one of her sorority sisters.

“Spring Fire,” written by Ms. Meaker under the pen name Vin Packer, is said to have sold 1.5 million copies and jump-started the genre of lesbian pulp fiction.Credit…Gold Medal Press

Ms. Meaker said she had wanted to call the book “Sorority Girl,” but her editor, Dick Carroll, had a different idea.

“James Michener had just published his book ‘Fires of Spring,’” she said in a 2012 interview with Windy City Times, the L.G.B.T.Q. publication in Chicago. “Dick hoped if we called mine ‘Spring Fire’ the public might confuse it with Michener and we’d sell more copies.”

That ruse may have sold a few books, but far more important was that the novel spoke to a significant segment of women who, in the early 1950s, were not seeing themselves in fiction.

“‘Spring Fire’ went into 15 printings,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 2003. “They had never seen such mail. We suddenly realized that out there were a lot of women with these feelings who had absolutely no way to express them, deal with them or cope.”

Among the writers who followed Ms. Meaker into the new world was Ann Bannon, whose books include “Odd Girl Out” (1957), “I Am a Woman” (1959) and several others that constitute a series known as the Beebo Brinker Chronicles. “Spring Fire,” she said, was a ground-breaker.

“Meaker had in fact founded a new genre, lesbian pulp fiction, which was to become for a stretch of about 15 years wildly successful, and a moneymaker,” she said by email. “It was finding fans among both sexes, and coast to coast, pushing same-sex romance into conversational orbit for the first time in history.”

“Spring Fire” is said to have sold 1.5 million copies. Ms. Meaker, though, remained uncomfortable with one aspect of it: the ending.

At the time, the Postal Service was on the lookout for anything that seemed to glorify what its censors thought of as perversion. So publishers made sure she and other lesbian writers gave their stories unhappy endings.

“Which,” said Robin Talley, a queer author of young adult books, “is why in ‘Spring Fire,’ one of the women in the central romance winds up in an asylum and the other becomes straight and forgets she ever liked girls to begin with.”

“Still,” Ms. Talley added, “‘Spring Fire’ and the novels it influenced were what caused a whole generation of queer women to see themselves represented for the first time.”

In an interview with NPR in 2003, Ms. Meaker said those forced endings have not aged well.

“The unhappy endings were hilarious,” she said. “I mean, I look at them; I can’t believe I wrote them.”

Maryjane Meaker was born on May 27, 1927, in Auburn, N.Y., outside of Syracuse. Her father, Ellis, was president of Ivanhoe Foods, a maker of mayonnaise, and her mother, Ida (Jonick) Meaker, was a homemaker.

She leaves no immediate survivors.

Ms. Meaker attended the Stuart Hall School in Staunton, Va., then studied at Vermont Junior College in Montpelier before earning a bachelor’s degree in literature at the University of Missouri. By her early 20s she was living in New York, working as a file clerk and proofreader while trying to break in as a writer.

Why all those pen names?

“I like pseudonyms,” she told NPR. “I like disguises. I’ve always hated the name Marijane. And I think the idea that you can name yourself is interesting.”

But they were born of necessity too. When she arrived in New York, she said, she couldn’t get an agent, and so she became her own agent, with a roster of clients that consisted of her pseudonymous selves.

“All of my clients were me,” she told NPR. “And I would take people out to lunch and tell them about my clients. And nobody knew that I was all my clients.”

Despite the success of “Spring Fire,” Ms. Meaker didn’t publicly identify herself as its writer for a time.

“I never wanted to claim I was the author,” she told the website Queerty in 2006. “Not in those days. We used to have a saying, ‘Out of the closet and into the unemployment line.’ My friends all knew and were very glad for me.”

Soon she turned Vin Packer into a suspense and crime writer, and critics, who sometimes assumed Packer was a man, said good things about the resulting books, which included “TheYoung and Violent” (1956), about a teenage gang.

“This is a smashing account of teenage gang warfare,” Charles Richman wrote in The Brooklyn Record. “The author explores the minds of these champs of mayhem with astonishing success. It’s an original.”

She retired Packer in 1966 and in 1972, as M.E. Kerr, tried the youth market with “Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!,” a story about a girl with a weight problem who longs for more attention from her mother, a good Samaritan type who works with drug addicts.

It was well received and was followed by a number of others mixing wit and humor with serious themes. Some had gay characters, but their themes ranged far and wide, including antisemitism, suicide, drugs and more.

She was drawn to the young adult genre, she told The New York Times in 1974, by the conviction that teenagers were “entitled to honest, up-to-date good stories with characters their own age to relate to — books that are about them and what bothers them, not about their parents.”

She was annoyed, she said, by youth books that were “goody two shoes sagas” or that blamed parents for everything.

“This is the age when kids are going through great emotional upheavals,” she said. “And they are looking for truths. But until young adult novels started growing up, five years ago or so, they couldn’t find books about themselves, about their feelings, their problems.”

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