The Curious Case of Sloane Britain
When pop culture historians and critics write about the lesbian paperback pulp era in the 1950s-60s, the same names are often use das examples: Vin Packer, Randy Salem, March Hastings, Valerie Taylor, Paula Christiansen, etc., with such classics in lesbian pulp Spring Fire, Three Women, Baby Face, Women’s Barracks, and so on. Seldom is the name Sloane Britain mentioned, the pen name of Midwood-Tower editor Elaine Williams, although as both a writer and editor, Williams/Britain etched her own legacy in the history of early commercial lesbian fiction.
Williams started with Midwood in 1959, when the company first formed, acquiring and editing novels by Lawrence Block (Shekdon Lord), Donald Westlake (Alan Marshall), Robert Silverberg (Loren Beauchamp), Orrie Hitt, and Mike Avallone, among others. It’s not clear when she left Midwood, if she did, but she committed suicide in 1964. Seems her family did not approve of her gay lifestyle and had disowned her, a matter she hinted at in her fiction. She was 33.
She published her first novel with Newsstand Library in 1959, a paperback house out of Chicago: First Person–Third Sex was a deeply personal account of a third grade teacher’s discovery of her “third sex” passion and desire of a “twilight woman.” It was reprinted in 1962 by Dollar Double Books as Strumpets’ Jungle (see above pic) , back-to-back with Any Man’s Playmate by James L. Ruebel.
Also in 1959, she published with Beacon Books, The Needle, a story about a bi-sexual heroin addict prostitute.
Her next novels for Midwood were 1960’s Meet Marilyn and Insatiable, like The Needle, written commercially for the market; These Curious Pleasures (1961), however, has the same autobiographical, first-person narrative that her first novel does. In fact, the narrator’s name is “Sloane Britain,” perhaps Williams’ indication that this book is based on her own life, rather than the writer’s imagination. 1961 also saw That Other Hunger. Both books sported cover art by Paul Rader.
Other titles were Ladder of Flesh plus two posthumous short novels published as Midwood Doubles: Summer of Sin and Peep Booth. Three titles, Ladder of Flesh, That Other Hunger, and Unnatural, were reissued in the late 1960s with new titles: Taboo and Delicate Vice.
Both First Person–Third Sex and These Curious Pleasures break away from the genre norm of lesbian paperbacks in that they end on a gay-positive note, rather than having the protagonist meet with tragedy for her sins of the flesh or meet a male she falls head over heels with, marries, and lives forever after in heterosexual marital bliss. Publishers such as Fawcett Gold Medal, Beacon, and Nightstand often required this so the Postal Inspector would not prosecute for mailing obscene material in the U.S. Mails — if the lesbian character meets a horrible end or goes insane over her unnatural lust, or repents from sin and finds true love in the arms of man, then the books were deemed to have social value as morality and cautionary tales; if the books ended on a positive note with women loving women, that, in the 1950s-60s, was considered perverted and sick. Homosexuality was still considered a mental disease that could be cured with medicine, psychology, or religion…
Lesbian paperbacks were initially marketed to male readership, often written by men under female pen names–the writing was often obvous, with the male point of view, although some men (such a Lawrence Block and Orrie Hitt) wrote so convincingly as women and lesbians that even to this, some readers have misten Block’s Jill Emerson and Hitt’s Kay Addams as being bonafide females. On the other hand, writers such as Robert Silverberg (Marlene Longman) and Gil Fox (Kimberly Kemp, Dallas Mayo) were not as adept at capturing the lesbian voice and experience — Silverberg has stated he just relied on his fantasies and imagination whereas Fox, in an interview with Lynne Munroe, stated that he would watch romantic scenes in movies and imagine two women doing/saying the same, and would write from there.
In his essay, “How Can You Put Your Name on Books Like That? or Make Mine a Midwood” in Paperback Parade #32, prolific author Mike Avallone reveals that Williams accepted a manuscript from him:
…a lady editor at this very new Midwood snapped up ADAM GREENE as if Avallone was the new F. Scott Fitzgerald, expediated an advance of five hundred and fifty dollars, and asked for aother novel. (p. 50)
Adam Greene was an attempt at a mainstream literary novel by crime and thriller writer Avallone that he had not been able to sell for its sexual content. It was welcome at Midwood and published as All The Way. She acquired several more books from Avallone until she suddenly vanished.
I should say here that the first lady editor died under mysterious circumstances — suicide was suggested. I didn’t know, really. She was only a nice, low telephone voice to me named Evelyn [sic]. (p. 54)
While he never met his editor, at an office party he notes meeting “lesbian author Sloane Britain,” an attractive woman who had no interest in men but had exquisite and big “manly hands.”
In an interview with Lynne Munroe, Gil Fox states:
[The] first editor was Elaine Williams, who wrote as Sloane Britain. Her family refused to accept the fact that she was a lesbian, and she committed suicide.
While men certainly purchased and read lesbian paperbacks for twisted entertainment, these books found an unexpected underground audience among the housewives and teen girls across the country: women with secret longings who discovered they were not alone and other “women” had similar feelings and experiences and doubts that they had.
Perhaps some found a kindred soul in Williams/Britain’s First Person–Third Sex. The narrator, Paula, does not discover she’s gay until she’s twenty-one. Before that, she’d had sexual encounters with men but couldn’t understand why she derived no pleasure from it, figuring she had to fall in love and get married before the true joys of sex were apparent.
Paula does comprehend, at age 15, the allure of her body and how she can manipulate men. Lying about her age, she gets a waitress job in a diner; the older man is always eying her and she’s aware of it, as well as the looks of customers. She doesn’t make enough money at the job to buy all the material possessions she craves, so she tells her boss that she will let him have her but it’ll cost $30 (pretty pricey for what would have been the mid-1950s, when your common streetwalker charged $5-10 and call girls went for $20/hour or $100 a night). Her boss is a miser and won’t do it but she continues to taunt him, not wearing a bra, bending down in front of him, so he finally gives in. They have sex twice a week and she makes an extra $60 on top of her weekly salary of $40.
She also carries on with the fry cook, a young Hispanic man who can’t afford the $30; she charges him $10 because he at least is young and good-looking. She cannot, however, reach orgasm with these men, or even find pleasure in the act, as much as she tries. It’s just a teen girl’s means to afford new clothes and jewelry and goes on for a year until her boss catches her with the cook and things get violent.
After college, Paula roommates with Janet, also a young school teacher. They get hired at the same school and are close friends. Janet had regular dates but Paula has no interest; she dates no and then but just to do something, not interested in having a relationship. Even when she does have sex with a man, she still feels nothing.
In the summer, the two go off to summer jobs in different states. Janet has a whirlwind romance while Paula is seduced by another cap counselor, Karen, who sees in Paula what Paula does not know: that she is gay. Paula discovers orgasmic ecstasy with Karen, and is happy juts to lay in bed and talk as well. Paula is okay with the realization of her lesbianism — she’s also possessive. Karen is proiscuous and is carrying on with another girl at the camp, and is open for more lovers, even sharing them with Paula.
Karen tries to subdue her jealousy, tries to act like she is a free-loving dyke, but is doesn’t bode well, and she leaves the camp with a starined ending with Karen.
Back to rooming with Janet, Paula sees Janet in a new light: as an attractive female she’d like to have sex with. She fights herself from making advances on Janet, afraid it might ruin their friendship.
Later, Paula takes a trip to Manhattan to visit Karen and is introduced to life in Greenwich Village, where gay men and woman openly cavort, there are many shops catering to the lesbian fashion, as well as gay bars and clubs. Needless to say, Paula realizes she could live here and feel free to express her sexuality in public.
Janet meets Paula’s New York friends and notices something; she confronts Paula and asks if Karen is gay, and this is when Paula admits she is also gay, and she is okay with it, even if it does ruin their friendship.
Janet surprises Paula not by condemning her but by taking Paula’s hand and leading her to the bedroom, saying she feels the same — Janet is more bi-sexual than strictly lesbian, and a new chapter in their relationship opens.
The next weeks were the happiest in my life. No longer did I have to hide my love for Janet as if it were something I should be ashamed of […] The only thing missing that would have made my happiness complete was the belief that it would last. (p. 142)
This presents a problem: can they both be roommates and lovers, especially since Janet sees men and Paula has possessive issues? Such matters of sexual and intimate jealously has been explored in Jill Emerson’s Warm and Willing –although written by a man (Lawrence Block), the novel reveals that the intricate pettiness and fallacies of lesbian relationships are no different than the heterosexual experience. Jealousy is also explored in March Hastings’ The Drifter, which may have been edited by Williams at Midwood. (It is interesting to note that March Hastings, pen name for Sally M. Singer, published a number of novels with Beacon and Newsstand Library, and then went exclusively with Midwood in 1960. So did Singer’s lover, Randy Salem, pen name of Pat Perdue. Did Williams, also with Beacon and Newstand, bring these women authors over?)
Yes at first, no later. Janet turns out to be the more possessive one, although it seems to be a ruse, for all of Janet’s insistence that they are one another’s property, Janet turns out to be the one who steps out on the relationship, with both women and men. The revelation for Karen is deeply painful, yet almost inevitable “in the strumpet’s jungle” of the sexually active of the late 1950s. Paula bears his soul to Janet:
“…I was in love with Karen but I have a confession to make. I was attracted to you for a long time.
“When we decided to live together I decided that nothing could make me happier than sharing the little details of daily life with you. This summer I realized that I wanted more from our relationship. It seems strange to say that my relationship with Karen made me love you more. What I mean is that through her I learned how beautiful a woman could be when she gave you her love…on all levels.” (p. 148)
Still, Janet’s sexual needs outside their love ruins what they had. They depart friends, in tears, and Paula has a hardened heart as she awaits the next woman to come into her life. The next summer, Karen leaves to a camp again but Paula does not; she heads to New York and lives in Karen’s place for three months.
I don’t know if I expected to find someone in New York. It didn’t matter. I was in no hurry. All I was sure of was that someday, somewhere, I would find the woman who loved me as I loved her […] I don’t know her name or what she looks like or anything about her. Only that as I write this she, too, is waiting. (p. 191)
Is that woman Allison in These Curious Pleasures?
“Sloane Britain” in These Curious Pleasures works as a secretary in a New York TV producer’s office. She has a room in the Village and a number of part-time lovers; she also likes to cruise the bars, seeking one-night stands with strange women.
She is essentially Paula with a new name as Elaine Williams is Sloane Britain: remade in New York as a dyke in search of good sex and maybe, if the cards are right, love.
Sloane meets an actress that her boss hires for a new TV pilot, Allison. There is an immediate connection between the two women; Sloane is confused but Allison says she knew Sloane was gay the first second, she has a way of telling.
A note on the boss: Harry “Happy” Broadman seems to be a thinly veiled rendition of Midwood Books publisher Harry Shorten — Shorten, Broadman. Happy, as Sloane calls her boss, is unpredictable, at one moment yelling incoherently on a tirade, the next moment calm and collected. She has learned to deal with herboss’ eccentricites. Was Harry Shorten like this? Descriptions of him by his authors seem to indicate this is so.
It was three in the afternoon and Happy hadn’t shown up at the office. What a day it had been. His numerous lad friends called frst on his private line and then, when they didn’t get an answer, they called back on the office phone. They drve me nuts with their questions. (p. 34)
So how did an editor publish a novel with such a portrait of her boss within the boss’ own publishing company? It seems that Harry Shorten never read the sex books he published, coming from a background of comics (the money he made in that field was used to start Midwood).
The relationship between Sloane and Allison begins slowly then goes whirlwind — Allison doesn’t want things to get serious until the pilot is shot, so her work will not be affected by romance. Frustrated, Sloane reacts to this by going to see one of her part-time lovers, including a girl whom she has not seen in three weeks; Sloane just knocks on her apartment door, unannounced, and the girl lets Sloane in to spend the night. Sloane’s aggressiveness almost seems…manly. She goes on a dark prowl. She is sardonic, too. While out dancing, Allison asks Sloane why she always speak in clipped, glib sentences like a character out of a detective novel.
She also cruises the lesbian bars in the Village, rejecting women based on hos they dress or their taste in literature. No one at the production company knows she’s gay — it’s not something she hides, she just has no need to mix her private life with work, until Allison shows up. Men — actors, directors, producers — constantly ask her out, but she politely turns them down or suggests she’s in a relationship and not available. She wishes this were true. Like Paula, she is searching for that one woman she can love, a woman to love her back, and she sees this future in Allison.
Then something bad happens. With the pilot finished and ready to market, Happy throws a large party at his Long Island estate. There’s a lot of drinking and some drug use going on. An actor and the director of photography, both stoned out of their reasonable minds, corner Allison in a bedroom and rape her. Sloane hears Allison’s cries for help and goes in the room; she tries to stop the rape but one of the men hold her back as the other assualts the woman Sloane loves. It is a moment of horror for Sloane: she has to watch Allison violated and there’s nothing she can do about it.
After, Sloane holds Allison and soothes her; Allison is shaking, crying, she has never really been with men, she has never experienced forced sex.
Sloane wants her to go to the cops and report this but Allison refuses — she is career ambitious. She’s an unknown actress and this pilot could be a career break; the two rapist are well-known and respected in the field and if she smeared their names, if she put them in jail, she would become blacklisted in the entertainment field, and the tabloids would afford her the wrong kind of publicity. The best thing, she feels, is to recover and forget — the two men don’t even remember what they did, based on how they act the next day.
Although watching Allison’s rape was horrid for Sloane, it works out for her need for Allison — Allison stays with her for two weeks and Sloane nurtures the actress. Their relationship gets deeper, the sex is tender and loving.
Much like Paula and Janet in First Person–Third Sex, the relationship starts off good as the two live together, but it doesn’t take long for the little green monster to poke its head out of the mist of the lesbian psyche. As Sloane and Allison interact with other lesbians in the twilight jungle, Sloane becomes jealous of the way other women look and flirt with Allison, and how Allison responds.
Despite all the problems and a short break-up, the novel has a happy ending — Allison gets a job on a TV show in Hollywood and has to move to California. Unable to see her life without Allison, Sloane says goodbye to her job and Greenwich Village life and goes west, young lady, with the gal she loves.
We kissed for a long time. Not one of those kisses where we teased each other. Just a matter of contact that would take the place of words that would say I need you, I love you, you give me strength, I want you near me always. (p. 185)
Both these novels are elegantly written, emotionally charged, and deeply personal — autobiographical revelations that there is a universality of love and lust’s many avenues and streets. “She died too young,” said Midwood author Joan Ellis, talking to Lynn Munroe.
Indeed she did.
In the lesbian journal Ladder, Marion Zimmer Bradley (who wrote lesbian novels under a variety of names) examined the output of Sloane Britain and both praised and condemned her work, according to Susan Styrker in Queer Pulp (Chronicle Books, 2001). Williams/Britain’s First Person–Third Sex was lauded as “one of the best books” of 1959 for its honesty, as was These Curious Pleasures (“excellent writing and characterization”) but The Needle and Woman Doctor were written off as paperback trash that succumbed to genre demands of sleaze fiction.
A final note stated:
Sloane M. Britain died, by her own hand, in her New York apartment in early 1964. In spite of the gradually declining and cynical characters of her later books, we feel that the literary world has lost a promising talent. She might well have escaped the rut of hackwork, and written something well worthwhile. We’ll never know. (Queer Pulp p. 61)
Talk about cynical! But true.
Yet how many sleaze paperback writers actually did escape hackwork? Did MZB with her fantasy and SF? Some will say no. Did Lawrence Block and Robert Silverberg? They remained genre authors. Evan Hunter? The Blackboard Jungle suggests so. Some, like Gil Brewer and William Knoles, killed themselves because they were unable to make that escape and the literary break-through they hoped for. Elaine Willaims/Sloane Britain killed herself because of the disapproval of her open twilight sexual identity — the gradual cynicism of her later books reflected such. Her character Paula and her alter-ego Sloane may have found peace, acceptance, and love on the page, something Elaine Williams could not acquire in life.