In Remembrance: Barbara Grier
Author: Victoria Brownworth
November 11, 2011
Barbara Grier, publisher, activist, archivist and lesbian-feminist hellraiser, died November 10th in Tallahassee, Florida, where she had lived for years with her partner of four decades, Donna McBride. She was 78.
I was 19 when I first met the powerhouse that was Barbara Grier. Over the years I interviewed her at least two dozen times for a plethora of queer and feminist publications, including Lambda Book Report, the Advocate, Curve, OUT and Ms.
I wrote the profile of her for Vern Bullough’s comprehensive history, Before Stonewall, because she called me up and said, “Everyone else will screw it up. I want someone who will get it right and you always get it right.”
That was Barbara’s idea of a compliment. And yet, when she complimented you, you knew it was genuine and you felt it, because as she always said, “I don’t suffer fools gladly.”
Born in Ohio, Barbara lived most of her life between the two KCs–Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas. She had a flamboyant upbringing with an actress mother and a ne’re-do-well doctor father. Her younger sister, Diane, was also a lesbian, a fact Barbara sometimes attributed to how strongly feminist her mother was and other times to genetics. Barbara said of Diane, “She’s just like me, except nice. I’m the evil twin.”
Those who knew Barbara will nod and chuckle at that comment, because Barbara was known as much for her sharp tongue as she was for her incredible drive. But as she told me in one interview, “I get things done. You can’t always be nice if you want to do that.”
Yet get things done she did.
Grier came out early–she was 12 when she was sure of her sexuality. She told me she went down to the local library (the family was living in Detroit at the time), marched up to the librarian’s desk and asked for “Books about homosexuals, please.”
After researching, she went home and told her mother she was a homosexual. It was 1945.
“Because Mother and I were always open [with each other], I told her immediately,” Grier told me in the interview for Bullough’s book. “Mother said since I was a woman, I wasn’t a homosexual, I was a lesbian. She also said that since I was 12, I was a little young to make this decision and we should wait six months to tell the newspapers.”
Grier waited a little longer than the six months, but put it in the newspapers she did. In 1956 she began writing for the newly founded lesbian magazine, The Ladder, which was the editorial organ of Daughters of Bilitis. Both DoB and The Ladder were founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
Grier wrote copy for the monthly publication–and helped with the mimeographing, typing and mailing (it was always mailed in a plain brown wrapper)–until 1968, when she became editor. She wrote under the pseudonyms, Gene Damon, Vern Niven and Lennox Strong, fabulous butch names typical of the pulp era in which she was writing.
The Ladder started with a mailing list of 175 friends and cohorts of the five women–Martin, Lyon, Grier, Helen Sandoz and Barbara Gittings–who had built what was the first lesbian magazine in the U.S. After Grier took the helm, the publication expanded. She nearly doubled the content and page count–from less than 30 pages to 48. By the time she and The Ladder parted company in 1972, the mailing list had expanded to 3,800 names. Grier made the magazine more newsy, more feminist and, some said, more controversial.
The Ladder folded for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was in-fighting among the remaining founders. Financial issues, Grier’s intent to separate the publication from homophile groups and make it more feminist and the changing times all combined to force the publication to close. It was not a pretty end, and Grier was accused of stealing the coveted–and closeted–mailing list (there were only two typewritten copies). Later, she admitted having taken it.
In 1973, with her new partner in love and business, Donna McBride, and author Anyda Marchant (who wrote lesbian fiction under the name Sarah Aldridge) and Marchant’s lover Muriel Crawford, Naiad Books (later Naiad Press) was founded with $2,000 the women pooled. Aldridge would be their first author, and lesbian photographer and artist Tee Corinne would be their cover artist.
Those who have grown up being able to go to the local library or bookstore and buy LGBT books can’t imagine a time when they didn’t exist. But Naiad began at a time when queer books weren’t stocked. That mailing list came in handy, Grier told me, because Naiad started as a mail order business.
There were many complaints about Naiad over the years–that it was just a lesbian version of Harlequin (to which I always responded, “So?”), that the books were always romances with happy endings or mysteries with cozy Agatha Christie endings. But Grier said repeatedly that what she wanted was to reach the lesbians in Middle America who were in the closet and who deserved to have books about their lives, too.
Grier built the lesbian book industry. No one can dispute that. She also put dozens of authors on the map, notably mystery icon Katherine Forrest, whose Curious Wine was one of the best-selling lesbian novels ever published and the first lesbian novel to be on audio tape. (Disclaimer: I wrote the introduction for the re-release of Curious Wine in its anniversary issue.) Grier took a chance on the young Sarah Schulman. She decided lesbian mysteries with a political edge were a good idea and published Barbara Wilson. She published other writers who are now synonymous with classic lesbian fiction like Lee Lynch, Isabelle Miller and Valerie Taylor. Karin Kallmaker, now editorial director of Bella Books, was one of her romance writing discoveries.
Grier had a love of books that was unparalleled. Her devotion to archiving lesbian writing was a particular passion and she felt it was important to use some of Naiad’s profits to reprint the works of long out-of-print lesbian writers. Grier brought back Jane Rule, Ann Bannon and Gale Wilhelm. She also reprinted the poetry of Renee Vivien, the celebrated Parisian lover of Natalie Barney and the book length avant-garde prose poem “Lifting Belly,” by Gertrude Stein.
Her most controversial publication, however, was Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, in 1985. Grier told me she paid ex-nuns Rosemary Kurb and Nancy Manahan a half million dollars for the book which landed Grier on numerous talk shows. The book was so controversial it was actually banned in Boston. But Grier received the most flak for allowing Penthouse Magazine to excerpt the book.
In 1992, she established the Naiad Collection at the James C. Hormel gay and Center of the San Francisco Public Library. In an interview in 2003, Grier told me that it took two vans to take the entirety of books, letters, magazines and other memorabilia such as T-shirts, posters, buttons and the like which she had painstakingly archived over the years from her home in Tallahassee to the library. It is the largest collection of lesbian letters in the world, and includes such important voices as Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, Tee Corinne and Rita Mae Brown, among others.
Grier was an irascible character, a throwback to the early days of publishing–she always had a point of view, she always believed she was right and she was always, always passionate. I once called her the Maxwell Perkins of lesbian literature and I don’t think I was wrong in that assessment. Without her vision and drive, lesbian literature might not be what it is today–vibrant, out of the closet, diverse and most important, accessible. That day in the library when she was 12 set her on her life’s course: She was in love with two women in her life–Helen and Donna–and they were both librarians, as was she. For Barbara, books were a life-line and she wanted to anchor the lives of as many lesbians as she could. There simply is no more important figure in lesbian letters in the 20th century than Grier. Not because she was an important writer–although she did write on occasion post-The Ladder–but because she opened up lesbian writing to the world and forced it on everyone she could. Barbara never took no for an answer and knew how to wear people down. The years she spent building Naiad into what it was when she and McBride retired in 2003–the world’s largest lesbian publishing house–were also years spent building the entree for lesbian writers. Many of her writers–Forrest, Schulman and Wilson among them–went on to bigger, non-queer publishers. But they began at Naiad, because Grier wanted lesbian books on everyone’s shelves.
Long-time Naiad author, Katherine Forrest, who also worked as book editor for Naiad for over a decade and was a friend of Grier’s for years, put it succinctly: “It would be hard to imagine a more towering and central figure in lesbian culture. With her forceful personality she was a mover and shaker whose impact on our world of books and lesbian literature can scarcely be overstated. We have lost a giant.”
In 2002, Grier and McBride (Barbara told me it would have been impossible to achieve what she did without McBride’s support and love over the years) received the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award for their work in lesbian publishing.
Grier had been a longtime supporter of LLF. Her financial backing over the years helped keep Lambda Book Report afloat during some difficult periods of transition, and, fiercely protective of lesbian and gay culture, she always noted that “we need to have a publication just for us. Enough with the mainstreaming!”
LFF Board member Teresa DeCrescenzo said of Grier,
Whatever else will be said about her–and you can bet there will be plenty, because Barbara was no stranger to controversy–the one thing that is true above all else is that she was the most important person in lesbian publishing in the world. Without her boldness, her audacity, there might not be the robust lesbian publishing industry there is today, including Bella Books, Spinsters Ink, and others.
Grier nurtured many younger lesbian writers, among them Therese Szymanski, who published a series of mysteries with Naiad and continued on with Bella Books after Grier and McBride sold Naiad to Linda Hill in 2003. Szymanski, who was, like so many of Grier’s former authors, devastated by the news of her death, said it was important that people remember what a supporter Grier was of the totality of LGBT publishing–from authors to bookstores. Szymanski noted that Grier maintained a “steady revenue stream to independent LGBT bookstores” with Naiad publications. She added, “Her dedication to lesbians’ words and stories knew no bounds. She saved countless lives through Naiad by making lesbians the world over know that they were not (and are not) alone. She kept her authors in line and was fiercely proud that at its end, Naiad had a stable of over 100 writers and probably did more than anyone else for LGBT writers. She could sometimes scare me, but I loved and adored her.”
Grier wanted no memorial service and McBride has requested that people not call her at this time. But somewhere, someplace, a woman is reading a lesbian book–perhaps in a room hidden away where no one can see, or perhaps right out on the subway on her way to work. All those women reading all those lesbian books–be they intellectual treatises or pulp fiction in the Ann Bannon tradition–owe a deep and abiding debt of gratitude to the force of nature that was Barbara Grier. All who knew her had a story to tell about her–some funny, some enraging, some poignant. But whether you knew her or not, liked her or loathed her, know this: with her passing, the world–and not just the insular queer world–has lost a giant. We should all be so fortunate as to leave the kind of legacy Barbara left and have created the kind of change she did. She was a dynamo. I knew it when I was 19 and I know it today. So next time you pick up a queer book, you might just whisper a little “thanks” in her direction.
Barbara Grier, c.1972 Photo by JEB (Joan E. Biren)