One of my pet peeves about lesbian pulp fiction is how little attention the lesbians pay to career advancement. They have no work ethic — they’re always coming in late to the office in the morning or taking a sick day to nurse their hangovers. I think Beebo Brinker delivers less than a dozen pizzas in the course of her supposed pizza-delivery job. Sometimes I finish a book, still not sure how the tormented lesbian was managing to pay the rent.
Paula Christian’s books are an exception. The career is always part of the story, whether the heroine is a stewardess, a writer, or a photographer as in the novel below.
The Story: Dee Sanders is a successful photographer with a prestigious job at Photo World (is it a magazine? A press agency? I never was sure) and her own secretary. And despite her perpetual attitude of world-weary been-there-done-that jadedness, she’s only twenty-seven! Did people get promoted more quickly back in 1961? Anyway, the only problem in Dee’s life is that she really hasn’t come to terms with her lesbianism—she’s a self-loathing closet-case if ever there was one, especially at the beginning of the book. Of course her girlfriend, the vulgar, two-timing, gold-digging Rita, would be enough to make anyone question their sexual preference. Dee knows Rita’s no good, yet she’s helpless against her attraction—helpless, I tell you! This is made clear in a series of titillating scenes of the you-bitch-I-can’t-live-without-you variety.
Dee does finally ditch Rita in one of my all time favorite pulp scenes: Looking for Rita at a lesbian bar, Dee tracks her down in the bathroom, where Rita is making out, shirt unbuttoned, lipstick smeared, with a handsome butch. Talk about sordid!
Dee takes her broken heart to Paris, where she’s supposed to judge a photo contest. There she runs into out lesbian singer Martie, who is not only ready and willing, but smart, together, and basically perfect. Martie takes Dee to an old-school Parisian homo bar where they have boeuf bourguignon, onion soup, and a pitcher of six martinis. Despite this perfect date, Dee can’t commit, and returns home to make herself miserable with her straight secretary Karen, who has always had a little crush on Dee, and throws herself at her boss as soon as she finds out she’s gay (Dee has Karen house sit while she’s away, and forgets to hide her collection of pulps. Oops!). But Dee can’t be happy with Karen because she feels too guilty about pulling her into the miserable gay underworld. After many more martinis and drunken scenes, it’s out with Karen and back to Martie, who knows what she’s getting into and can take it.
Crises: Nothing but. Dee seems perpetually on the verge of a breakdown, subjected to fits of depression at parties, almost crying over lunch at the Plaza with her friend Jerry (“What’s wrong with us? Why can’t we be like other people? Happy in our married misery?”), and stalking Karen at the Algonquin where she’s gone on a business date. None of it seems to affect her work, however. What is her work? I never did quite figure that out. Is she a photo editor or is she a photographer? She works in the darkroom and at one point Karen brings her some proofs. Does it matter? Not to the author.
Industrial Credibility: The author throws photographic terminology around like a farm girl feeding the hens. Dee is calculating F-stops in the first chapter, constantly working in the darkroom, and her romance with Martie develops under the excuse of giving Martie photography lessons (she uses a Leica but buys Martie a Petri 2:8, whatever that is). In fact, they’re developing photos one night in the darkroom when Dee suggests they take a break before making contact prints and Martie invites Dee up to her hotel room for some cognac.
Career Advice: In classic lesbian pulp fashion, the advice Dee gives aspiring camera bug Karen is not to have a career, because she might miss out on marriage and kids. Oh the hypocrisy! Dee has already escaped from a thoroughly unpleasant marriage, yet repeats this classic piece of mid-century advice like a brainwashed zombie. Karen calls her on it: “You’re always telling me about security, babies, and the good, solid life. If it’s so great why haven’t you done it?”
Drinking: Martinis, martinis, martinis. Cognac. Scotch. Wine. More martinis. In the first chapter Dee comes home, pours “a healthy drink for herself” and puts a jigger of scotch into the cat’s bowl. This sets the tone for the rest of the book.
Sex: Dee sleeps with three people in the course of the book, Rita a couple times, Martie once, and then Karen a bunch. And she pretty much always has a good time, which is why she keeps coming back for more, despite despising the gay life. “Dee wished to God she were eighty so that she would never have to think of love or sex again.” Oh, quit kidding yourself, Dee.
Comment: Dee has two things in common with Sharon James — the bad girlfriend who complains about her working in the darkroom, and the excess of drama (although with Dee it’s all relationship drama). I only wish Dee got the same satisfaction out of her successful career that Sharon does. Rereading this I was mostly struck by the amount of gay-bashing Dee does — complaining about swish boys and butch lesbians at the parties she goes to, and how awful the bars are, and how awful gay people are in general, and how she wishes she didn’t have this uncontrollable passion for women. Standard lesbian pulp stuff, but when Dee and another woman at a party complain about how swish and campy the guy getting them their second round of martinis is, I couldn’t help thinking that self-hating is one thing but bad manners really crosses a line. I’m sure Miss Manners would back me up: you don’t criticize the guy fetching you your drinks while you sit on your arse wallowing in self-pity. We can only hope that Martie, who is much more self-accepting, will set Dee straight, so to speak.