Not Your Typical Gal
When you talked with Eric Marcus for his book Making History, you described yourself as being very femme, which is obviously the case. Did you ever feel any pressure to be more “butch,” since you were so open?
No, that wouldn’t have worked with me because, well, for one reason, I thought, “Gee, if I were a butch girl, would I be attracted to another person who dressed in ties and shirts and stuff? No! I’d be attracted to a person who wore a dress and earrings.” And I’ve always been that way anyway, so I thought, “Why change?” I don’t feel—I don’t feel that way—that’s not natural to me. It’s natural for me to be a girly girl, and I love it and I’ll never change!
And if they don’t like it, they can lump it.
But there was no outside pressure at that time?
Okay, I was just curious. ’Cause often—some of the stuff that I’ve read seemed to indicate that if you were open about being a lesbian, that they kind of tried to push you into a category.
I can remember dancing at a gay spot one time with a real handsome, tall butch, and she looked down at me, and said, “Are you here just to see how the other half lives?” And of course, here I was in my little dress with my jewelry and little high heels and everything, and I looked at her and I said, “No!” I said, “Why, I’m just as gay as you are. It’s just that I don’t like to wear men’s clothing.” And she kind of looked embarrassed, you know. But I’ve never felt the urge to be other than—dress other than I do.
One of the other things that Eric Marcus quoted you as saying was, “I didn’t think I was a pervert, or sick.” Don’t you think that most gay people at that time thought that they were, though? Wasn’t there a lot of that sort of feeling?
Well, they might not have thought they were a pervert, but they thought perhaps they were mentally off, or they were quirky a little bit in some way. Because the stuff that they read from the psychiatrists told them that they were. But I never felt that way. I knew what I wanted, and I wasn’t ready to conform to any other way of being. As a matter of fact, at one time, before I moved to Palo Alto, my father wanted to consign me to the state nuthouse. Not because he suspected I was gay but because I wouldn’t cooperate. And I didn’t want to be an office girl, and I didn’t want—I didn’t want to go outside the home and earn money, either. My mother and my grandmother were home ladies, and I—that’s all I had to look to. My mother’s friends were all—they all had charge of their homes, and I couldn’t understand why they were putting me out to do this horrible office work and earn the money when they didn’t need the money. If they were poor, I would have gone out and worked my butt off for them. But they weren’t. I told them, I said, “You have more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime—what’s the matter?”
They must have thought it would be good for you—build character.
Well, they sure tore down my character—I don’t know how they expected me to build it up again. [Laughs] But anyway, that’s another story. I didn’t want to go out on my own and work. As my poem, “Dilemma,” told you, that tells you a great deal about the way I felt. I still feel it, too.
But I made it, and here I am.
Sure, sure. One of the other things that Marcus quoted you as saying was, “I was a misfit all the way around, I guess.” Is that accurate?
Well, yes, I was, because I didn’t care for sports. Because I was left-handed and they changed me to right, and that loused up my reflexes. And in playing ball in elementary school or something, they’d throw the ball at me and I’d go like this [flinches] because I couldn’t catch it quick enough, and the children never wanted me on their team because I was slow—not mentally, Lord knows, but slow in reflexes. And I didn’t care about dating boys. I don’t know, I just didn’t fit in to certain things that girls do in school.
Did you feel that you fit in okay in gay society, though?
Oh boy, did I ever! [Laughs]
So you did find your place!
Oh, yeah! When I made that remark, I must been talking about my elementary and high school years, because…
That was what concerned me. I wondered if going into gay life that you felt that you didn’t fit in there…
Oh, Lord, no! I mean, right away, I was just like hand in glove.
I’m glad to hear that. That’s great.
RKO and the Launch of Vice Versa
I’ll bet, I’ll bet. Now I read that you worked at RKO Studios in the ’40s. Is that correct?
That’s true. Not very long, because Howard Hughes bought it and then we all went out. [Laughs]
Did you find it to be at all glamorous? Did you ever see any of the stars, or anything like that?
Oh, yeah, I mean, by that—in that time, I was still impressed by seeing movie stars in person, you know. And I saw Robert Mitchum, and Cary Grant, and some of the girls—Jane Greer and Gloria Grahame, and some of these people have passed on by now. And I got a big kick out of that for a while. And then it began to pall on me, and I realized, “Well, gee, these are people like I am, you know—”
Put their pants on one leg at a time…
Yeah. So what the hey—but for a while, it was fun.
I’m sure. Did you get any sense with Cary Grant, when you met him, that he might be family? I’m Just curious…
No. Oh, I didn’t—oh, Rock Hudson came later—that’s when I worked at another studio. But I loved working at RKO, even though I didn’t like office work. But of course that’s where I wrote Vice Versa.
And then when I went to other jobs, which were not studio jobs for a while—they were horrible jobs—I had to quit because there was no opportunity to type privately or anything. So that’s why Vice Versa bit the dust.
Right. I had seen in a couple of places that you had stopped it because the workload was too much, but I knew that wasn’t true from some other things I had read.
No, that’s not true. I stopped it because there was no privacy. I would be in a room right next door to some—next table or desk to someone else who was typing, and I could read what they were typing and they could read what I was typing, so…I mean, you can’t do things like that! And then, too, the boss would come along and see you weren’t doing something that pertained to business. So that’s why Vice Versa stopped.
Right. One of the things I saw that you had mentioned was that as a result of Vice Versa it helped you to become a faster typist. Do you have any idea how fast you typed?
Yes. I have no idea. I just typed like a fiend! [Laughs]
[Laughs.] And what convinced you to start Vice Versa?
Well, I was by myself, and I had nothing to occupy my mind, particularly. I lived in a furnished room, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I knew some gay girls?” But I didn’t. Then I inadvertently met some at a place I moved to, and when I met them I thought, “Gee, why don’t I start a little magazine for us? Because nobody else has, and, you know, it’d be kind of a fun thing to do.” So that’s when I started it.
So when you started it, it was really designed just for your circle of friends, then.
You didn’t really have larger aspirations.
Well, yeah, I had larger aspirations, but I couldn’t aspire very much because there was no reproducing machine or reproduction machine, and things like that. But I did give the magazines to the four gals that I knew where I lived, and then they had friends and I gave magazines to them. And then I ran out because I couldn’t duplicate them, or triplicate them, or quadruplicate them or, you know, as the circle got larger. So I just said to them, and I think I said in one of my magazines, too, I said, “When you finish reading, don’t just throw it in the trash—pass it on to another lesbian.”
So I guess they did, and everybody seemed to enjoy it. But by golly, I couldn’t get very many of them to contribute, and that’s what I needed was good material.
Sure. When you did it, did you realize that it was the first time anyone had done something like that? Did it ever…
I never—I thought probably it was, but it never really occurred to me that, “Gee, I’m gonna make history” or anything. It just—I just did it, you know.
Right. Who was your male heterosexual friend who wrote letters to you for publication in Vice Versa?
Oh. Well, there was this one guy who was very sympathetic toward the girls, and he belonged to the science fiction group where Jim Kepner belonged, and his name was Forrest A_______. So he would—he liked writing for different homemade magazines of the science fiction kind. In fact, I think he had one or two of them himself. And so he would write off this stuff and give it to me, and then being that he was a friend, I sort of had to include it in the magazine—which I really, to tell you the truth, didn’t want to do, but don’t say that in your book because if he reads it, it will hurt his feelings. And he’s older than I am, and he’s a dear old soul—I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
Don’t worry; don’t worry.
When all of this was going on—when Vice Versa was going on and sort of into the ’50s, did you find very many straight people who were sympathetic?
No, because I didn’t—I didn’t talk about it to straight people. Straight people were outsiders, and I was friendly with them but never let on about myself. My private life was my private life, and their private life is different from mine, so why should I mention it?
Did you think was any possibility of rejection? Did you fear that they would—that they might reject you if they knew? Or did that never cross your mind?
Well, frankly, I didn’t care, because they never knew. Because I didn’t dress obviously, you see. And my mannerisms were not masculine. So I thought, well, probably if I told them, they wouldn’t like it, but why should I tell them? I don’t have anything in common with them emotionally, so why do it?
Sure. After the initial run of the magazine in ’47–’48, did you ever try to create it again?
There just was no opportunity to. And where I worked, I was in constant supervision by bosses, other secretaries, this, that, and the other. You just couldn’t do that any more. See, when I first began this, I had a little office to myself. My boss was in his office next door, and he said, “Well, if you run out of work, I don’t want you sitting here reading a magazine or a book or knitting or something.” He said, “I want you to look busy.” And so I said, “Oh yeah, all right, I’ll look busy.” And I was.
You found something to occupy your time.
It was interesting to me that you didn’t become “Lisa Ben” until the ’50s. Was there any pen name that was associated with Vice-Versa at all?
No, no—I used no names in Vice-Versa. The reason I became Lisa Ben was—that was in the ’60s really, because…
There was an article you were submitting to DOB or something, and you signed it “Ima Spinster,” and they didn’t like that?
Oh, yeah—they didn’t like that name, and they refused to print one of my stories in The Ladder if I used it. Now, if that had happened today, I’d say, “Take or leave it—I want to use that name. If you don’t like it, I’ll take my stuff back.” But in those days, as I say, I still was kind of passive about things like that. So I used the name Lisa Ben.
Right. Well, also, there probably wasn’t—unlike today, where if you can’t get one magazine to take it, you can always bring it down the road to somewhere else, The Ladder was the only thing there really was at that time.
That’s right—that was the only show in town.
The Daughters of Bilitis and ONE, Incorporated
Exactly—sometimes you have to make concessions for that. Tell me a little bit about your involvement with the Daughters of Bilitis here.
Well, I can’t remember just exactly how it came about. I was friends with Helen Sandoz, who has now passed away, and she and I were quite good—just friends, at one time or another—she was always with one girl or another when I knew her. And she introduced me to Phyllis and Del, and they were starting up Daughters of Bilitis, and then they started a chapter down here, and I joined.
Do you remember about when that would have been?
Oh, I think that was in the—hmmm—isn’t that’s funny, I can’t really remember. It was the ’50s or ’60s, I think. And I enjoyed that for a while—they had a nice group of gals.
Did they get much of a turnout?
Oh, at one time, yes, there were quite a few—maybe about 15 or 16 of us. And then it dwindled off. Well, anyway, that’s how I got with Daughters of Bilitis.
Sure. How about ONE Magazine?
No, I never contributed to that, although… They had a big ONE celebration at one time in one of the big hotels downtown. And Dorr Legg asked me if I would come down there and play the guitar and sing. They had a lot of entertainers—different entertainers—they had the men’s gay chorus there, and all sorts of wonderful things. So I went down there at that time—I still drove out at night—and went down there and did a little number, and enjoyed the show, and partook of the banquet. And oh, I was just thrilled to tears, almost, when I heard that gay men’s chorus—it was so marvelous.
I thought that was just a wonderful group of people. So, anyway, that was my—that was how I was associated with ONE Magazine. And then I was asked one time to go to their clubhouse, which is not the same as it is now, and they would interview me. So I got interviewed on tape for something or another, and they asked me a bunch of questions the way you’re doing.
Right. And it’s frustrating, too, because I tried to get access to those interviews, but they never transcribed them. I guess they had so many different projects going on at once that they—
Well, there was an Oriental chap there that was transcribing it, and photographing me, and everything—what do you mean they never transcribed it?
They said that most all—because I asked for transcripts of the interviews that you did and several other people who I saw through Dorr’s last book, and they said that most of the information had never actually been transcribed and put onto paper.Oh, maybe not put onto paper—There was a TV camera, because I remember seeing it afterwards.Right. And I told them, in fact, what I would do if I could get access to the tapes, is I would transcribe them and send them back to them so I could have a copy. Because, I mean, you like to have as much information as possible from all the different sources—you get a much better sense of a person, so—okay—that’s fine.
In a book called Out of the Closets, Laud Humphreys said that your existence was not well known until Dorr Legg announced it at a ONE banquet in January 1972. Does that sound accurate? There was some meeting at a Hilton Hotel, and Dorr introduced you as the father of the gay and lesbian movement—
Well, that was probably—father!?!
He didn’t say mother. I think it was, “The father of the gay and lesbian movement is a girl.”
[Laughs heartily] No, I don’t remember that! Or if he did say it, I didn’t hear it. I think I would have thrown my guitar at him! [Laughs] But, it’s possible that I wasn’t well-known to people in ONE—the fellas, but an awful lot of fellas knew me socially because in those days, if they had an annual dinner at Christmas time or sometime, they always had to show up with a girl friend. And of course, my phone was really busy: “Can you be my girlfriend at our office dinner?” And I’d say, “Oh, of course!” And I‘d love to go to those banquets, and they’d show up with little me, and all their office people would show up with their wives and their girlfriends and look just marvelous, and then afterwards they would take me home and then they’d go down to these gay spots for boys, and I didn’t care.
It must have been one of the nice advantages of being a femme, because they certainly weren’t asking the butches!
Yeah, it was wonderful. And of course I loved all the boys. They always treated me like a lady, and none of them were raunchy or rude. And I know one time somebody interviewing me said, “Well, didn’t you want to be separate from the gay boys?” And I said, “No, not at all!” I said, “I thought of them as my brothers.” And a lot of us were all very friendly, and we’d go back and forth.
Sure, sure. I think that was—that was a period where I think you were looking at a lot of the younger people, with all the other movements that were going on. The separatism was necessary for them, but certainly, I mean, at your age and having been involved for so many years, and having made so many friends, why in the world would you feel a need to separate?
Sure. I was very sad to see, when you spoke with Eric Marcus, about your being lonely when you wrote Vice-Versa. Also there was an interview that I’ve seen referenced in something, called “An Interview With Lisa Ben,” that was done for a magazine called Gaysweek in 1978. You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of that, would you?
I wouldn’t be surprised. I have a whole lot of stuff like that stored away.
Oh, it would be wonderful if you could find that and send me that to make a copy, I would get it right back to you, and I’d really appreciate—again, just so I have more information.
I’ll look it up when I get home tonight.
Because I haven’t looked at that stuff for years. I’ve been kind of inactive for a long time in gay life. I mean, I really haven’t been active socially in it for a while.
Sure, sure. Just some general questions that I have. Do you want me to list you for the book as Lisa Ben, or did you want me to use your real name?
Oh, no; Lisa Ben. I don’t know—some audacious woman outed me in her book. I don’t even know this person.
The first place I saw your name was by an author by the name of Leigh Rutledge. That was where I had seen it.
Maybe that was who it was. Anyway—was it a book?
Yeah, it was—oh gosh, I can’t remember which one—A Gay Book of Lists, Alyson’s Almanac, or something. One of the reference materials.
Well, Phyllis and Del told me about this. And it annoyed me, because what right do these people have—it’s not that I’m ashamed or anything. But I like my privacy. And what right do these people have to just take somebody like that, and publish you in a book without writing me first and asking if it’s all right? I mean, I think it was a heck of a nerve, and I’d tell her to her face if she were here.
Well, it’s one of those problems with outing that sometimes people don’t understand. It’s fine as a philosophical argument, but what about where it impacts on people’s lives? That’s where it becomes bothersome to me. And I still think that you have should have the right of privacy if you want it.
Well, it’s the same thing with the—it’s called Queer Frontiers. They had a banquet, and they wanted me to be one of the many guests of honor at the banquet, and I couldn’t go because I was laid up at the time. And then, too, I don’t drive out at night any more in my old car alone. It was at the campus at USC, and I think that is in kind of a disreputable neighborhood… And so I declined, but mainly because I couldn’t get around at the time. And so what do they do—they send me nice letters and a list of people that are going to be guests of honor. They give your real name, and your home address. And they send it blithely out to everybody.
Well, Del and Phyllis got on the list, too, and they used Del’s real name, Dorothy L., which she hates—
I mean I just thought they had—it was very poor judgment. Because I live alone. And this is a funny town around here, you know—you don’t give your home address to everybody because there are a lot of kooks of all kinds!
[Laughs] We have gay kooks, too.
And I just thought they used the poorest judgment doing that. So when one of the chaps phoned me, I mentioned it in a very polite, nice way—I said, “By the way, I don’t like my home address broadcast to one and all.” And I mean, I have an unlisted number—I didn’t tell him that, but I do—because at one time I got a bunch of funny phone calls before I got my house.