R.I.P. Tereska Torrès, Lesbian Pulp Paperback Pioneer
When the New York Times announced the death of Tereska Torrès on Sept. 20, it occasioned an appreciation of one of the nichiest of niche genres of publishing (none would dare call it "literature"), the lesbian pulp novel.
Margalit Fox’s fascinating obituary told me about Torrès life, which matched anything in her ür-pulp novel "Women’s Barracks." Born of Polish Jews in 1920, she was sent to a convent school after her parents settled in France and converted to Roman Catholicism.
This would not have been enough to save them from the reaches of the Holocaust after the Nazis conquered France, of course. But the family, luckier than most, made it to London, where Tereska enlisted in the Free French Forces, the expatriate liberation army.
In London, she fell in love with Georges Torrès, a French Jew and stepson of Léon Blum, the former Jewish French prime minster and one of the Nazis’ main targets as part of their theory of an international Jewish conspiracy. Fighting for the Free French, Georges died in action, leaving his widow pregnant.
As if that compressed set of events weren’t enough, Tereska packed a hell of a lot more into her life. After an aborted suicide attempt, she met and married Meyer Levin, an American-Jewish novelist who, among other best-sellers, wrote "Compulsion," the roman à clef that helped make the Leopold-Loeb murder case one of the most sensational of the 20th century. Levin is now best known for championing and protecting the literary legacy of Anne Frank, whose diary has become a touchstone of the Holocaust.
Presumably, Levin encouraged Tereska to write a fictional account of her wartime experiences. The result, "Women’s Barracks," was published in 1950 as a paperback. The salacious cover of gorgeous gals in various states of undress and undressing while other female soldiers ogle them became a template for the whole subgenre of lesbian exploitation paperbacks.
I’ve always had a soft spot for this very soft-core porn. Several years ago, I devoured an anthology of long-forgotten such pulp. Aside from its camp value, these books provided a hell of a lot of lesbians in America with their first understanding that they were not alone, that what they felt for other women was widespread, and that there were situations where it was even acted upon.
OK, so maybe female Army barracks, women’s prep schools and colleges, and prisons weren’t exactly the hotbed of lady loving depicted in these novels. But still, for women isolated, with no way of knowing anything about their desires, these books provided information, no matter how salaciously packaged.
Of course, these books played into that whole bizarre fixation that straight men have for lesbian sex as well. But that doesn’t discount their value to lesbians. The books dealing with male homosexuality, by contrast, were usually far sadder and sordid.
For myself, I freely plead guilty to loving these books for their camp value. There’s a direct line from these books to the apotheosis of trashy lesbian fiction, the Russ Meyers’ soft-core porn film drive-in classic film "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!," a film that John Waters and Quentin Tarantino cite as a major inspiration.
But looking at them that way in the rear-view mirror of the 2000s doesn’t detract from their value at the time. Wikipedia has a nice quote from writer Donna Allegra that helps explain their importance at the time: "No matter how embarrassed and ashamed I felt when I went to the cash register to buy these books, it was absolutely necessary for me to have them. I needed them the way I needed food and shelter for survival."
The Times relates that Torrès, who was straight, was always dismayed by the attention given to her book’s lesbianism, which only made up a part of the whole (much like Mary McCarthy’s sensational novel of a generation later "The Group").
"There are five main characters," Torrès told a British newspaper in 2007. "Only one and a half of them can be considered lesbian. I don’t see why it’s considered a lesbian classic."
But it was. Incidentally, the most popular author of lesbian pulp fiction, Marijane Meaker, was involved for a long time romantically with Patricia Highsmith, one of the most popular postwar crime novelists. Her "Strangers on a Train" was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic gay-themed thriller; and her Ripley novels were the basis for the gay-themed film "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
And Ann Bannon, whose "Beebo Brinker Chronicles" were the best-selling (and, for what it’s worth, the best-written) lesbian pulp novels, was herself married. Although in her case, unlike Torrès, she was in fact a lesbian and eventually divorced and came out as such.