by Joanne Passet
“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 and her audacity, there might not be the robust lesbian publishing industry there is today.”
Barbara Grier—feminist, activist, publisher, and archivist—was many things to different people. Perhaps most well known as one of the founders of Naiad Press, Barbara’s unapologetic drive to make sure that lesbians everywhere had access to books with stories that reflected their lives in positive ways was legendary. Barbara changed the lives of thousands of women in her lifetime.
For the first time, historian Joanne Passet uncovers the controversial and often polarizing life of this firebrand editor and publisher with new and never before published letters, interviews, and other personal material from Grier’s own papers. Passet takes readers behind the scenes of The Ladder, offering a rare window onto the isolated and bereft lives lesbians experienced before the feminist movement and during the earliest days of gay political organizing. Through extensive letters between Grier and her friend novelist Jane Rule, Passet offers a virtual diary of this dramatic and repressive era. Passet also looks at Grier’s infamous “theft” of The Ladder’s mailing list, which in turn allowed her to launch and promote Naiad Press, the groundbreaking women’s publishing company she founded with partner Donna McBride in 1973. Naiad went on to become one of the leaders in gay and lesbian book publishing and for years helped sustain lesbian and feminist bookstores—and readers—across the country.
JOANNE PASSET is Professor of History Emerita at Indiana University East. Her previous books include Sex Variant Woman: The Life of Jeannette Howard Foster, Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality, Cultural Crusaders: Women Librarians in the American West, and Aspirations and Mentoring in an Academic Environment (with Mary Niles Maack).
GCLS Goldie Awards
INDOMITABLE: The Life of Barbara Grier — Winner, Creative Non-Fiction.
Lambda Literary Foundation
INDOMITABLE: The Life of Barbara Grier — Finalist, Lesbian Memoir/Biography.
San Francisco Book Festival
INDOMITABLE: The Life of Barbara Grier — Honorable Mention, Biography/Autobiography/Memoir.
The force of nature that was Barbara Grier in all her glorious and inglorious complexity emerges from this extensively researched, brilliant portrait of a major creator of the lesbian community in America. Filled with fascinating tales and revelations of Grier's literary and political contemporaries, it educates, entertains, illuminates. Indomitable is a publishing event of the very first order, destined for the highest shelf of permanent LGBT literature. – Katherine V. Forrest
Writing the life story of a person as influential, determined, and charismatic as Barbara Grier requires a biography of equal talent. In Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier, Joanne Passet meets and exceeds that standard. Thoroughly researched and beautifully written, Indomitable is breathtaking in both its ambitions and execution. Buy this book and revel in Grier’s story. – Julie R. Enszer
A biography of Barbara Grier is of necessity a partial herstory of lesbian writing and women's publishing. Joanne E. Passet has done an exceptional job of exploring all three. Grier is presented as her full technicolor, 3D, surround sound self. With sensitivity and respect, Passet portrays this great woman who changed, for the better, every lesbian life in the U.S. and beyond. As Grier intended, and with Donna McBride ever at her side, her promotion of lesbian literature freed generations of women to recognize, acknowledge and celebrate their true selves. In this biography that is a treat to read, Passet has enriched us all with careful, persistent research that remembers and honors Barbara Grier, a larger than life heroine who led the literary charge into gay liberation. – Lee Lynch
Lambda Literary Review
Writing the life story of a person as influential, determined, and charismatic as Barbara Grier requires a biographer of equal talent. In Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier, Joanne Passet meets and exceeds that standard. Thoroughly researched and beautifully written, Indomitable is breathtaking in both its ambitions and execution.
The Lesbian Review
The book is non-fiction, but certainly not dry. I found the account of Grier’s life and motivations to be gripping reading, especially as someone who is interested in the history of lesbian publishing. It is incredibly well-researched with pages upon pages of notes, many of which spring from Grier’s prodigious correspondence. This is a must-read for anyone who has any curiosity for the history of lesfic as a genre.
Barbara flourished in the artistic, female-centered house at 50 Webb Avenue, where her mother and aunt would spontaneously break into songs from operas and Broadway musicals. Barbara remembered her mother singing "every opera, every operetta number" to the point that her childhood became a series of musical numbers. She also absorbed valuable lessons passed down from her great-grandmother, the Christian Science practitioner Retta Brown. From Retta's legacy, Barbara learned "that I was the master of my body…I also learned that you don't have to feel pain if you don't want to and the way you surmount difficulty was to work twice as hard." A quick study, Barbara learned to deal with difficulties by experiencing them and then moving on, seemingly without regret. She may have fretted about upcoming events, but she refused to linger on past flaws or missteps. While this trait led some to regard Barbara as insensitive, it was a survival tactic that served her well throughout her life.
Barbara made the earth-shattering discovery of her lesbianism shortly before her thirteenth birthday. In retrospect, she remembered developing crushes on slightly older girls beginning in her eighth year, when she fell "madly in love with my babysitter." She also routinely fell in love with "lady gym teachers" and was devastated when her family's frequent moves forced her to leave them behind. Childhood, she reflected, was "wrapped in a memory of sitting silently in the right hand [sic] corner of the back seat of cars travelling away from this city or that, weeping." In 1946, at age thirteen, Barbara informed her friend, Barbara Shier, that she was crazy about her. Aware such feelings ran counter to most societal practice, they decided to research the subject. After taking the Woodward Avenue streetcar to the Detroit Public Library, Barbara marched up to the reference librarian with Shier in tow and requested books about homosexuals, a term she had discovered in her father's medical dictionary. Returning home after a day of research, Barbara matter-of-factly informed her mother: "I am a homosexual."
Unlike many parents of the era, Dorothy Grier was remarkably nonjudgmental about her daughter's sexuality. As a young woman she had encountered gays and lesbians in the New York City theatre scene, and she was untroubled by religious condemnations of homosexuality, in part because she grew away from her mother's faith and became an agnostic. Thus, when there were momentary upsets during Barbara's teen years because of her lesbianism, her mother never acted "as if there was anything shameful or degrading." Upon hearing her daughter's news, Dorothy matter-of-factly informed Barbara that the correct term for female homosexuals was "lesbian" and explained that her feelings for girls could be a phase, but either way, she should just "play as honest a game always as possible." Her mother further explained that some people would disapprove but most would judge her as a person, not a type. She also planted the seed for Barbara's later interest in biography by naming several "fine people in history" who were homosexuals yet "still honored and successful."
Since the Griers were a reading family, Dorothy knew her daughter would want titles of books about lesbians. She recommended two: Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), which she had read while Barbara was still in the womb, and a novel about an operatic diva. Her ability to recall plot but not title provided Barbara with her first opportunity for lesbian literary detection, and in time she identified the second book as Marcia Davenport's Of Lena Geyer (1936). Through reading and further conversation with her understanding mother, Barbara accepted the feelings she had for babysitters, classmates, family friends and even relatives as something positive.
Barbara's self-esteem flourished because of her mother's sensitive treatment of her sexuality, and also because her teachers recognized her academic potential and encouraged her intellectual curiosity. During Barbara's freshman year in high school she was chosen, along with other gifted students, to take a battery of tests at the University of Michigan. At their conclusion she learned she was eligible for a four-year scholarship to the university. Since this achievement coincided with her coming out as a lesbian, Barbara concluded lesbians must be superior individuals. Her aspirations thus fueled, she dreamed of studying psychiatric medicine and becoming a physician.
By mid-1948 Dorothy had recovered enough to resume her responsibilities as a mother to three daughters. While it might have been easier for Dorothy to remain with her family in Detroit, an environment she loved second only to the New York City of her childhood, she chose to live in close proximity to Philip Grier, the womanizer she hopelessly continued to love. Accompanied by Barbara, Dorothy retrieved Diane and Penni from the orphanage and rented a home in Colorado Springs, less than three hours' drive from Leadville, Colorado, where Philip was living with his third wife, a nurse named Marie Upp.
As the lesbian daughter of an agnostic, Barbara certainly did not conform to Saturday Evening Post images of post-World War II era teenagers. Classmates in Colorado Springs viewed her as a city slicker and know-it-all because she never hesitated to respond when teachers asked questions. Dorothy, preoccupied with providing food and shelter for her daughters, was not a disciplinarian. As a result, Barbara "was already doing pretty much what I pleased." She later recalled: "I was as wild as the law allows from thirteen on. I fell in love in every town and tried to go to bed with each of them." Her pattern was to choose women who were just beyond her reach because of their age or social class, and on occasion they returned just enough attention to encourage her advances.
Unabashedly proud of her lesbian identity, Barbara found it difficult to comprehend why some members of the community regarded her as a threat. During the social and political upheavals following the Great Depression and World War II, however, Americans became increasingly concerned about what they deemed aberrant sexual behavior. The much publicized release of Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) heightened general awareness of homosexuality. Selling more than 200,000 copies, the book revealed that a significant percentage of people had at least one same-sex experience, and that ten percent of males in Kinsey's sample were "predominantly homosexual between the ages of 16 and 55." At the same time, politicians like senators Kenneth Wherry (R-Nebraska) and Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) incorporated fear of sexual perversion into their attacks on Communists and liberals. Magazine articles warned readers of the inherent danger of gender inversion, urging citizens to be on their guard against effeminate men and lesbian wives. In this context, police, psychologists, school counselors and others who worked with teenagers sought to curb the homosexual behaviors they associated with delinquency.
Barbara's open interest in women greatly distressed her Colorado Springs high school counselor, who wrung his hands and lamented, "Whatever are we going to do with you?" Once, the parents of a young woman Barbara wanted to bed objected to her walking their daughter back and forth to practice at the Broadmoor Hotel's ice-skating arena. Another time, Barbara was called to the counselor's office and confronted by two police officers who took her to the station and grilled and badgered her for several hours because she had spoken to a woman at a bus stop. Before releasing Barbara, they issued a strict injunction that she should never again use the bus stop or go near this woman's workplace. Unfortunately, it was the Peak Theatre, one of Barbara's favorite places to while away the hours. The encounter merely strengthened her resolve, and as her counselor observed, Barbara was not afraid of people and it was virtually impossible to intimidate her.
The public library often provided Barbara with a safe haven during the chaos of her teen years, and books became her steadfast friends. As long as she had the printed word, there was nothing from which she could not escape, mentally or otherwise. "Books are things to read, to hold to the light, to put on shelves sometimes so that the sun strikes them with amber tones, to hold to your chest for comfort." Alienated from mainstream peers and emotionally detached from her younger sisters, Barbara followed a path similar to many other pre-Stonewall era gays and lesbians who searched books to find validation of their identity and a sense of connectedness to the gay and lesbian past. Books with gay and lesbian content, however minimal it might be, validated their existence by offering assurance that they were not aberrations, and provided the language needed for discussing their sexuality.
Barbara's book-collecting habit began at sixteen when she stole her local library's only copy of The Well of Loneliness. Her desire to own lesbian books intensified in 1950 when a deeply closeted older woman named "Peggy" furtively shared several treasured items she kept hidden in the trunk of her car: Diana by Diana Fredericks, Loveliest of Friends by G. Sheila Donisthorpe, and We Too Are Drifting by Gale Wilhelm. Inspired, Barbara searched the shelves of Cramer's bookstore in Kansas City, Missouri, for a used copy of the Wilhelm book, and by the end of the year had discovered nearly a dozen lesbian titles that became the foundation of her collection. Over the years, as her library grew into the thousands, the cheap, stained 1938 reprint of We Too Are Drifting occupied a special place in her heart. "I shared it," she explained, "indeed, took good advantage of it during the courtship of my first serious lover."
In addition to novels, Barbara developed a love for poetry and an obsession with the poets who created it. Because of her conviction that many of the world's creative and powerful women were lesbians, she spent many hours trying to confirm that her favorite poets were lesbians. In her teens she was "madly in love" with American lyric poet Sara Teasdale, read all of her works, and sensed that Teasdale's emotional connections were with women, not men. She put Teasdale aside after laying out her evidence to lesbian bibliographer Jeannette Howard Foster, who told her the poet was not "pertinent." Years later, in the 1970s, when feminist literary scholars explored the poet's intense female friendships, Barbara felt vindicated because her earlier suspicion had been confirmed.
Barbara's coming of age as a lesbian coincided with the proliferation of fiction with gay and lesbian characters in the late 1940s. According to literary historian Ray Lewis White, World War II led Americans "to write seriously and to read understandingly" about homosexual life, in part because the military prompted recruits to define their sexuality. In the postwar years authors became increasingly frank in their discussion of gay and lesbian themes and characters. Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948), a gay coming-of-age story, is significant as one of the first novels to challenge stereotypes by featuring an athletic and masculine gay protagonist. More typically, novelists portrayed gay characters in a negative light. Richard Brooks's The Brick Foxhole (1945), for instance, recounted the murder of a gay interior decorator who picked up soldiers. In another instance, Mary B. Miller, who wrote The Christmas Tree (1949) under the pseudonym Isabel Bolton, told the story of a gay man who killed his lover by pushing him over a balcony to illustrate "part of the monstrous, wholesale and unspeakable melodrama that was afflicting the world today." In contrast, fictional lesbians of the 1940s appeared less dangerous than their male counterparts. In Dorothy Cowlin's Winter Solstice (1943), a same-sex romantic attachment cured a woman after eight years of invalidism, but the relationship was brief and ended when both women married. Meanwhile, most of the devoted readers who devoured Ladies' Home Journal columnist Gladys Taber's charming tales of two women's life together at Stillmeadow Farm remained unaware of its mild-mannered presentation of lesbian companionship.
Readers who sought franker portrayals of homosexuality had to look elsewhere, and beginning in the 1950s they found it in the emerging paperback book market readily available at newsstands. The publication of Women's Barracks (1950), by Tereska TorrÃ¨s, opened the floodgates with its tale of the passionate attachments formed between experienced older women and young innocents living and working together in an urban military barracks. In order to be published, such books had to conform to societal proscriptions requiring authors to depict lesbians as depraved and self-destructive. As the 1950s progressed, readers could select from many books written by male authors, as well as novels by Ann Bannon, Valerie Taylor, and Marijane Meaker, whose pseudonyms included Ann Aldrich and Vin Packer. In addition to popularizing the word "lesbian," argues historian Yvonne Keller, pulp novels ensured that images of lesbian life, no matter how tawdry, reached a mass audience. Many pulps also presented lesbians as normal working-class or low-level professional women, a significant departure from earlier literary works portraying lesbians as wealthy women.
Initially, Barbara felt satisfied just to find gays and lesbians portrayed in novels, but the more she read, the more she became aware of the disconnect between her mother's calm acceptance of lesbianism and the negative stigma permeating printed portrayals of lesbians in the 1940s and 1950s. She lacked the vocabulary to articulate her feelings, but instinctively knew that the pulp fiction market and the small handful of lesbian titles in the press played a major role in shaping how lesbians viewed themselves. As much as Barbara loved dramatic stories about tortured souls, she yearned for the existence of positive lesbian fiction, even if she had to create it herself.
During that time, Barbara took refuge in darkened movie theaters, where she watched Bette Davis in Dark Victory (1939), and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) and Key Largo (1948). She especially admired Davis and Katharine Hepburn for their "wonderful figures" and the boyish roles they so often played. When movie theaters closed for the night, Barbara lounged in hotel lobbies reading newsstand magazines or walked in local parks, all the while dreaming of a time when films featured heroines falling in love with one another.
Growing up without close adult supervision, Barbara had no one to discourage her association with local "toughs." After the Griers settled in Kansas City, Kansas, during her senior year in high school, she hung out with a young man named Zedick Braden, who taught her lessons about street smarts and survival skills that informed her behavior later in life. When he took her cruising in his car, he had a wooden plate attached to the bumper and used it to push aside cars that got in his way. Years later, when Barbara found herself in difficult situations, she jokingly wished it were possible to summon him and his car to the rescue.
Barbara attended three high schools during her senior year: one in Colorado Springs; another in Dodge City, Kansas; and the third in Kansas City, Kansas. According to Barbara, the move from Dodge City to Kansas City occurred because she was caught making out with another girl in the teachers' lounge. When Barbara graduated from Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, in the spring of 1951, she knew there was no money for college, so she searched for and found the first of many clerical-level jobs she would hold in her lifetime.
Once in Kansas City, Dorothy Grier had settled into a stable secretarial position and at long last was able to provide Diane and Penni, then thirteen and nine, with the stability that had eluded Barbara's childhood. Dorothy made household chores enjoyable by telling funny stories and singing show tunes. Diane and Penni recall other children flocking to their home because Dorothy was "every child's friend," someone "who had nothing to offer but understanding, kindness and friendship." On Friday afternoons, the two girls took the bus downtown to meet their mother at the end of the work week. After rushing to the bank to deposit her pay so checks written earlier in the week would not bounce, Dorothy treated the girls to a restaurant meal and a movie, her six hours of heaven each week.
Meanwhile, Barbara spent so little time at home that her younger sisters regarded her as a stranger. Once, when she came home ill, they took great delight in tormenting the relative stranger lying in the bedroom. In a tearful moment years later, Penni (ten years younger than her oldest sister) confessed that she had no memories of times spent with Barbara, not even holidays or birthdays. Barbara, on the other hand, had fond memories of taking Penni to the movies. "I had, I thought, been very close to her. It was something of a shock to discover years later that I had deserted her."
* * *
By her early twenties, Barbara Grier had rough edges in need of smoothing. The lack of parental nurturing, the hand-to-mouth existence after her tenth year, and exposure to the wild side of life whether real or vicarious, imbued her with a "cur instinct" that was never far from the surface. Economic realities killed Barbara's dream of a college education, but also fueled her determination to succeed. Later in life, she described herself as a "garden variety lesbian, resistant to blight and guaranteed to grow." Steeped in the Horatio Alger novels she had read as a young girl, Barbara emerged from childhood convinced that anyone who tried could rise from rags to riches with hard work and determination. Setting out to find the stability and material comfort that had eluded her as a young girl, Barbara found both in a part-time job at the Kansas City Public Library in Missouri, where she met a woman who would change her life.