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Remembering Dirk Vanden

Remembering Dirk Vanden

Author: Drewey Wayne Gunn

November 6, 2014


By Drewey Wayne Gunn, Tom Scanlan, A.B. Gayle, David Lennon, Dick Smart, and Jaime Harker

“The Passing of a Pioneer” by Wayne Gunn, Professor Emeritus, Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Author Richard Fullmer (Dirk Vanden) died of cancer in Carmichael, California, on October 21, 2014. He was born May 7, 1933, the only son of a Mormon family in Myton Bench, Utah. After earning a BFA from the University of Utah in 1958, he moved to California and worked as a producer/director with various regional theater companies. He had two long-term relationships, first with actor Winn Strickland (aka Mike Davis) and later with acclaimed San Francisco area chef Herb Fingers. Both died of AIDS-related illnesses. He is survived by his faithful friend, Tom Scanlan.

Richard’s discovery of Richard Amory’s Song of the Loom in 1966 was an epiphany for him. The novels he had written so far remained unpublished. Now he turned to writing something that Greenleaf Classics, a publisher of erotica based in San Diego, would bring out. This led to seven novels published under his pen name Dirk Vanden. All were mangled to make them more marketable by Greenleaf’s standards, leading to the first of his many fights with publishers. Richard maintained to the end that integrity was more important than publication. In his last years, he did become more concerned about his legacy, feeling that, as one of the so-called pulp writers, he had been unfairly dismissed by the establishment, and sought to reissue his earlier works in a form that he could approve of. That effort resulted in a Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Erotica in 2012 for his collection All Together. He also published new books, including his autobiography, It Was Too Soon Before….

Given Dirk’s love/hate relationship with the Lambda Literary Foundation, I fancy that he must be getting an enormous kick in his non-Mormon heaven reading these tributes to him, even as he feels that not nearly enough is being said about his importance.

“The Last Years” by Tom Scanlan

August 29, 2009, I answered a Craigslist ad from a man in need of a handyman/housecleaner. That is the first time I met the man I knew as Dirk Vanden…who I soon found out was also Richard Fullmer. I started doing odd jobs around his house and also some household chores that were difficult for him to do. He needed that sort of help and I was reeling from a very difficult and hostile divorce. He appreciated the help and I appreciated the additional income and the empathy he gave to me while I was at this low point.

I did not know Dirk when he was young…I did not know his history or the history of the culture he was so familiar with. He told many stories of life in the 60s San Francisco. I got more insight to this interesting man by looking at his art. He really had a way with drawing and painting. I know his work was appreciated by many. I’m not so sure Dirk understood how his art was valued by many people out there. Much of his work is a window to gay life in San Francisco before it was mainstream. Truly he was a pioneer…he was courageous.

Over the few years I knew Dirk our friendship deepened. Somehow I became to him the son he never had. I was aware of this and very honored. Occasionally if I needed to take him to the emergency room or if he’d have an overnight stay in the hospital he’d introduce me as his son. Meanwhile he’d also try to play matchmaker for me! A portrait Dirk painted of me is one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received and it also tells me I held a very special place in his heart.

Dirk loved homegrown tomatoes. Truth be told…He loved marijuana. He was amazingly adroit with the computer. He was passionate. He pretended to be a loner, but was strongly attached to those people in his life who saw deeper into his heart. He was a walker…I believe that is why his lungs, as weak as they were, lasted so long and refused to stop working until his heart told them time was up. Dirk had a love of the gay community…especially the community of men. He had strong compassion for so many of his peers because he understood the pain of rejection. He understood the courage it takes each person to come out in their own way. This understanding is reflected in his writings. Also reflected in his writings is the joy of a life well lived.

Dirk was creative…even while on his deathbed. I really want to know what he would have written about his experience of drawing near to taking his last breath. I know he would have described it in a colorful and realistic way. I know he’d want to help me prepare for my own inevitable last day. Dirk’s ashes and those of his partner Herb will be mingled and buried with a lovely bush planted atop. I promised him that when I do the planting I will bring out my guitar and play the 60s iconic song “White Rabbit.” In his last days when he could no longer talk I told him of my plan and he gave me the most angelic smile I’d ever seen grace his face. Rest easy, Dirk.

“Making a Comeback 1” by A.B. Gayle, Australian author, reader, and reviewer

When I got to know Dirk back in 2011, he was at a crisis point in his life. He’d just come out of hospital and felt the cure was worse than the disease. At that stage, he was railing against the Mormon church, the way the world treated gay men: “We were illegal, immoral perverts in those days and anything we could do to our heads to keep from thinking how terrible we were just to have sex with each other and how even more terrible we were to write about it….” He was angry at his existing publishers, his editors, the way AIDS had taken so many gay men, his lovers included. He was angry at the health system, the evil Republicans. But the saddest aspect of his anger was that it was mostly justified.

But he was drowning in anger. I said at the time I could be no more than a life buoy, something to help him float a bit further and hopefully someone else could pick him up. I suggested he steer towards a publisher who, in the end, may have not been the best choice, but he was running out of choices. The trouble was, he didn’t believe in compromise. After a lifetime of people trying to shove him into a box he didn’t want, he was doing his damnedest to be free.

I helped him get onto the computer and into the present day world via social media. But that brought on a whole new set of challenges that irritated him: the Internet, Facebook, modern publishers and e-books. He found it hard to follow these new rules. He was like a prophet crying out in the wilderness. He definitely saw himself as such. Unfortunately, by and large, his preachings fell on deaf ears, much like with the prophets of old. But did that stop him? No. He had had a vision. Gabriel Horny’s vision. Largely brought about by drugs. The second part of that message I started quoting above was: “As a result, I tried marijuana, mescaline and LSD and discovered that they opened doors in my mind. Drug use in Gay bars in the 60s and 70s was as common as beer and cigarettes, and, of course, like nicotine, and alcohol, the drugs were addictive.”

But these beliefs (and later the drugs) helped him cope with life and all its tribulations. Within Gabriel Horny’s truisms are pearls of wisdom. Hopefully, these are the things that will survive—along with his art, his writing, his radical ideas. These only persisted because of his determination, his stubbornness not to give in. No longer needing my life buoy, he continued to struggle upstream. I think he got there in the end. I’m sure he saw his most important legacy as the book he was proud to publish under his own name. He felt and had been made to feel shame for writing about the lives of gay men, hence he had a love/hate relationship with his memories. And although he “would like to think that all those Gay dirty books were the fertilizer to make the Gay flowers grow.” he felt he wasn’t respected by his peers and that rankled. Maybe Dirk was right: “It Was Too Soon Before.”

“Making a Comeback 2” by David Lennon, mystery writer and owner of Brand Edge Creative, Newtonville, MA

“In the beginning…there was DIRK VANDEN.” Purple type over a pink close-up of God’s and Adam’s hands from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. That was the ad I put together to promote Dirk’s All Together collection. I didn’t tell him what I had in mind, just that I thought the ad he’d done was kind of blah and I wanted to try something else. As was often the case with Dirk, his response was long, opening and closing with a quote from Jesus: “When you are young, you can go where you want to; when you are old, you must go where they take you.” The gist was, “Go ahead and submit the ad,” but there was no clear indication what he thought of it. That was unusual. In the short while I’d known him, I’d already learned it was very rare not to know exactly how Dirk felt about something.

A few days later I finally asked whether he actually liked it or had just felt obliged to give in to me because I wasn’t charging him. His response: “I said yes. You got your way. At first I resented it, but the more I studied the new ad the more I loved it. It took my God-baiting to a new level & it’s beautiful and says so much and I love it. Ok? It was like that old adage: If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it. & I did. Thank you.” It was quintessential Dirk—expressive, brutally honest, exasperating, profane, unrepentantly offensive, yet still oddly gracious.

I “met” Dirk in August of 2011 when he sent a query asking whether Blue Spike Publishing would be interested in re-publishing his mystery All of Me (Can You Take All of Me?) after his falling out with the previous publisher. I dutifully followed all the links for press clippings he’d provided (his emails ALWAYS had links), then replied that Blue Spike wasn’t an actual publishing company, just my personal imprint for self-publishing. I gave him a few suggestions for other publishers, offered some advice for self-publishing, and assumed that would be the end of it. Clearly I didn’t know Dirk. Instead, he spent the next six months trying to convince me that my true calling lay not in writing or graphic design, but in helping him bring his vision for gay publishing, Gay New World Productions, to fruition. He was also nothing if not tenacious, and despite my hesitation, I got pulled into his gravitational field and we did end up working together on self-publishing his back catalogue and his final book, The Royal Grandmother (and Granddaughter) of Oz, published under his given name, Richard Fullmer. In Dirk’s case, it wasn’t true that as he got older he had to go where he was taken. He actually took quite a few of us where he wanted to go.

My own sixth book was dedicated “To My Old Men—Literal, Figurative & Matrimonial.” Dirk was among them, and his ferocious embrace of life inspired the title, Fierce. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It was something he quoted often, if only to justify his own occasional bad behavior. I don’t think he ever stopped raging because he was so sensitive to the injustices he saw everywhere, but I like to think that he at least found some peace with his legacy.

“A Glimpse of the Author as an Old Man” by Dick Smart

When I reviewed Down the Rabbit Hole for Lambda Literary Review back in 2011 Dirk Vanden’s S&M pulp classic from the 60s turned me on intellectually and otherwise, so that I have to admit I was partly motivated to make my long pilgrimage to his home in Carmichael, CA (a suburb of Sacramento) from Las Vegas in July 2013 by my romantic fantasy about the author. I arrived late in the evening and was relieved at his graciousness in still receiving me for the interview. Richard Fullmer was an attractive senior man, frail but intellectually vibrant. His modest townhouse was plainly furnished and kept spotless by his handsome young housekeeper. I was immediately struck by the many paintings of flowers hanging on his walls and scattered across his desk. They reminded me of Georgia O’Keeffe, and I was delighted to discover that Fullmer was a prolific artist as well as a writer.

I am embarrassed to say that in the excitement of my journey to see him and in my rush I had forgotten paper and pen. With a touch of amusement, he handed me some sheaves of binder paper and a Bic and, with his dog Buddy snuggled in my lap, he began to tell me his story. What a story he had to tell—from 60s gay SF to the closeted Mormon Church to experiments with psychedelic drugs to the loss of his lover to AIDS in the early years of the crisis. Though making something of a comeback in recent years thanks to Wayne Gunn’s profile in Lambda, I sensed that Fullmer had never seen himself as having left the scene.

Certainly he was writing right up until his death despite his struggle with cancer and he was actively trying to produce his musical play, Gay Bar ’69, which he said, “will be a tribute to that institution which is fading from sight and will soon be no more.” He reported excitedly by email, “Got a producer & a director, now all I need is 12 hunky male dancer/choreographers, a couple of Fag Hags and a trio of Lesbians, 1 transsexual, 6 Drag Queens and 6 Vice Squad Officers.” In Fullmer’s vision, “Gay Bars were our Temples where we worshiped each other with Hippie Hymns and Anthems; we had our Saints: Judy and Barbara and Bette.”

His gay philosophy had much to tell us about gay men as the next evolutionary step, Joseph Smith and the homoerotic origins of the Mormon Church and Jesus and magic mushrooms. Sadly, his experiments with homeopathic remedies did not pay off, though, who knows, perhaps they prolonged his life. And I pray to Judy and Barbra and Bette, Requiescat in pace, pater mi.

“The Legacy ” by Jaime Harker, Interim Director of Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies & Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi

I first learned about Dirk Vanden’s work while working with my co-editor Wayne Gunn, who wrote an essay on Vanden’s All trilogy for our collection 1960s Gay Pulp Fiction: The Misplaced Heritage. Vanden pioneered a path as a novelist that I continue to trace as a queer studies scholar, and our shared Mormon background only made me appreciate his transgressive power more. I remember how delighted I was when I discovered that the final novel in the All trilogy is called All Is Well—the most famous refrain of any Mormon hymn. That the hymn is called “Come, Come Ye Saints” only enhanced Vanden’s puckishly campy revision of his religious heritage and highlighted the deeply spiritual and earnest questing that led his queer characters to find Zion, not in the deserts of Utah, but in the lush refuge of San Francisco. Vanden’s insight that the same pioneering sexual adventurism fueled both Millennial odysseys emerges in All Is Well, where a married Mormon patriarch must grow beyond his own fear and paternalism and embrace the spiritual and sexual experimentation of San Francisco. It is a vision of spiritual and sexual evolution that is decidedly queer. I taught All Is Well in a senior seminar on queer pulp at the University of Mississippi, and had the great pleasure of corresponding with Dirk Vanden about including his novel in my class. He was delighted to make it onto a college syllabus and sent me numerous emails about its composition and my students’ reactions to it. My students found the novel engaging and challenging, and though some reacted to it with provincial alarm, they also relished the opportunity to talk about sexuality so openly.

Dirk Vanden was ambivalent about the legacy of his pulp novels. He wrote to me in an email (April 19th, 2013), “A whole bunch of my sex scenes are deliberately shocking, written without any idea of the possibility that I might be called to account for them some day, when my book is studied in a Queer Lit course. That possibility never occurred to me. The fisting scene, the watersports scene, any of the druggy S&M scenes were put there for shock and excitement, not because I advocated dangerous sex or marijuana or LSD. Those were titillating subjects back in 1969! I was deliberately pushing the envelope, not creating a masterpiece. Now I’m stuck forever with what I created 40 years ago.” But I think he underestimated the importance of these novels. In many ways, queer theory has evolved enough to appreciate the explicit aesthetic that Vanden pioneered, and the fact that these novels still have the power to unsettle suggests their ongoing relevance. Even my students—many sheltered native Mississippians—came around to Vanden. When I posted notice of his death on my Facebook page, one of them, who had initially had reservations about Vanden, wrote, “What a loss. I will be rereading All Is Well today in his honor.” I can think of no better way to remember his legacy than to read his work and to include it in our queer literary heritage. He and his pioneering companions deserve no less.


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Drewey Wayne Gunn photo

About: Drewey Wayne Gunn

Drewey Wayne Gunn, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University-Kingsville continues exploring forgotten and ignored pre-Stonewall gay fiction as well as trying to keep abreast of new gay mystery books and films.

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