Monday, December 19, 2011

Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon


Shining A Spotlight On Amazing Books From The Past

With Special Guest Reviewer, The Cat, from sister blog Good Lesbian Books, “a guide to books about lesbians, and books by lesbians – from romance to graphic novels!”  

Book:  Beebo Brinker
Author:  Ann Bannon
Publisher:  Gold Medal Books/Naiad Press/Cleis Press

Original Cover Art by
Gold Medal Books - 1962
Written in 1962, Beebo Brinker is the final book in the famous pulp fiction series The Beebo Brinker Chronicles by Ann Bannon.  

Although it can easily be read first, as it's actually a prequel.

Beebo Brinker introduces readers to the 18-year-old butch lesbian who has since become a classic character in lesbian history.  Earlier books in the series introduce additional women who cross paths with Beebo later in life, and her future relationships.

This is a huge landmark novel in lesbian literary history, and I wanted to review it on its own merits, rather than “for being one of the first lesbian pulp fiction books that actually thinks lesbians are okay”.  

Luckily, it was a fun read, and still has plenty for modern readers to identify with.

It opens with Beebo’s tremulous arrival in Greenwich Village, New York, and her subsequent adoption by Jack. Jack's a generous soul who puts her up, finds her work, and gradually persuades her to come out.

 It takes a bit more obvious hint dropping for her to realize that he's gay too!

And then the story takes on a faster and more erratic pace, as she crosses paths with the scheming and malicious Mona and Pete, falls in bed with gentle, broken Paula, and falls hard for the gorgeous, erratic and selfish film star Venus.

Torn between loyalty and love, she becomes closer to the dysfunctional bombshell and becomes a friend to her son, Toby, who is lonely and disillusioned - gradually helping to bring the mother and son together. Venus finds that she actually, really cares about Beebo and spirits her away to California, for a life of doomed passion and secrecy.

 Because of course, a lesbian (sorry - Lesbian) affair would be a disaster for a starlet like Venus.

Cover Art by Naiad Press - 1983
Inevitably it all comes crashing down, through impetuousness and gossip initiated by Venus' frustrated husband aided by the helping hands of the two troublemakers Beebo left back in New York. Beebo is forced to return, but finds her affection for Paula has grown to love, and she walks easily back into her former lover's arms.

The entire book had a Great Gatsbyish feel. Set in the 1950s, there was a dated, delusional 'American Dream' feeling to everything. Farm girl Beebo arrives in free, civilized, and very gay, Greenwich Village. Rich and famous Venus and Leo live by their own rules, and are ruled even more by Society.

And they reminded me a lot of Tom and Daisy, from Gatsby.

It's a captivating, worrisome, tragic, lovely book. And yes, it's pulp fiction, all about colorful characters making friends and enemies of each other, but it isn't garish. The storyline is a bit erratic, and driven more by the supporting characters than Beebo, but I can easily imagine most of it happening today.

Beebo is a young and stereotypical 'mannish' butch - enough to make me wonder if she was intended to be transgender. She was fairly unique, especially for books of the time, in that she worked and dressed in order to pass as a man, and mostly succeeded. 

There were a few wallbangers of prejudice and, well, datedness, but they weren't too bad, surprisingly.  Most of the discussions about 'mannishness' and femininity, some of the ways they talked about Lesbians and homosexuality, and the harassment of Beebo by her boss all set off the political correctness alarms!

And yes, 'Lesbian' was usually capitalized.

There are a few more specific examples:

The supposedly sympathetic and open-minded Leo veered from saying he wasn't prejudiced (in so many words) to decrying how unnatural Beebo appeared to him. (To be slightly fair, he was at the end of his tether and Beebo was just the last in a long string of blatant affairs from his wife). 

Cover Art by Cleis Press - 2001
The two bisexual women, Mona and Venus - or at least, the two who slept with men, it was never actually clear if they were bisexual or not, or simply using men manipulatively in accordance with their personalities - were not particularly nice people. Beebo had to learn the hard lesson of not being accepted all over again, and lived with guilt over how her 'unnaturalness' had burdened her father.

But mostly, the dated elements don't interfere with the story - it feels nice and historical, but the gayness is not presented as bad, just difficult to understand for outsiders... and the path to a whole new realm, that Beebo is barely discovering.

Essentially, it's Beebo's coming of age novel.

And I definitely recommend it.

I'd give this classic story a 4.7 on the Rainbow Scale. It's light entertainment that took a huge historical step forward for queer rights, has a plot that mostly follows Beebo as she bounces from one woman back to another, and is kept me reading right to the end. Oh, And a bonus .2 for the suprisingly tender love scenes. 

So, if you're keeping score, that's an overall Rainbow Scale Rating of 4.9 for the ground breaking piece of historical Lesfic.

Stop by to read more reviews by The Cat and her co-blogger, Cress.


  1. Great job, "Cat" I really enjoyed the review and it's a wonderful reminder for us to honor the trailblazing women who've gone before us and led the way. Thanks, Folks!

  2. Couldn't agree more with you, Barrett! Cat did a super job on this classic. Have I mentioned that I love The REWIND Series?