Obituary

The Personal is Inescapable: Jill Johnston 1929-2010

By Debra Cash

It must be hard for today’s young American women— who flip past fashion magazine ads in which Ellen DeGeneres, once the most famous out lesbian in the world, smilingly hawks Cover Girl cosmetics—to understand the frisson college-age women in the 1970s felt seeing a paperback copy of Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation on a classmate’s bookshelf. That book, published in 1973, was a secret handshake: if not an admission of lesbian identity and romantic availability, it was at least a token of membership in a world that took Women’s Studies seriously and didn’t mind kicking conventional suburban parents in the teeth.

Johnston died September 18, 2010, at the age of 81, of a stroke.

When Johnston came out in print on July 2, 1970, almost exactly a year after the Stonewall riots, and after a brief marriage and a series of schizophrenic breakdowns that she later would attribute to conflict over her sexual identity, she was by most accounts the first woman working in the mainstream media—New York’s Village Voice, as well as other publications to which she contributed freelance cultural and arts criticism—to come out as a lesbian.  But she had already modeled her increasingly eccentric dance, art, and diary-based writing on another famous out American lesbian, Gertrude Stein. If Stein once said “grammar is in our power,” Johnston did her one better. She explained the breakneck, transgressive writing style she fashioned in the 1970s this way:

My whole mission... was to mongrelize the language, deform and debase every convention, create a freak of culture, engender a misbegotten blot on the authorial landscape. In addition to lower-casing and deparagraphizing, thieving quotes, standardizing the non sequitur, decontextualizing narrative and glorifying the neologism, I enjoyed writing unpunctuated and run-on sentences, and habitually twisting grammatical norms and common usage.

Some of her early word salad, she would later admit in an introduction to a revised version of her 1971 essay collection Marmalade Me (1998), was written from “inside a crack-up, on the run from any authorities who might corral, detain and arrest me.” Still, as the novelist Rebecca Brown has noted, unlike Stein, Johnston very publicly tied the innovations of her writing style to her identity as a lesbian—rather than, say, as a cubist.

But the Stein analogy lingers. Johnston’s fierce intelligence, her wide array of literary references, and her forays into the most nonobjective, partisan journalism imaginable was a statement that she herself was an artist, with the same claim to attention and even celebrity, as the dancers, painters, and experimental theater directors the Voice expected her to cover and analyze.

Lesbian Nation, with its call to undermine patriarchy and capitalism, and its hyperbolic claim that all women are lesbians except those who don’t know it yet, made her both a lightning rod and a star. In Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary, Town Bloody Hall, about a 1971 panel at New York’s Town Hall über-sexist Norman Mailer locks horns with The Female Eunuch (1970) author Germaine Greer and a panel of other noted feminists of the day. Johnston reads a looping, Steinian manifesto studded with puns and Biblical begats, overstays her allotted time, and then almost causes a riot as she rolls around on stage with two friends summoned for the occasion while Mailer, famously, chides “Come on, Jill, be a lady.”

Whatever the ostensible topic—the opportunities for radical feminism, European travel, Zelda Fitzgerald, Bloomsbury, car crashes, mental breakdowns—Johnston’s theme was identity. The issue always pulsed beneath the surface of her prose—the identity we create in public, the one we make for ourselves, the one we adjust as our own lives become clear to us and new challenges overtake our previous personal expectations. Although Johnston was sometimes compared to the beat writer Jack Kerouac and even the gonzo-journalist Hunter Thompson because of her run-on-sentences and fearless raunch, hers was not merely the flashy style of the new journalism. It was a claim for visionary authenticity, in which the personal was not only political but also inescapable.

No wonder, then, that she followed the mass-market notoriety of Lesbian Nation with a number of books that were overtly autobiographical and that, according to the biography on her website (www.jilljohnston.com), reflected a new ambition:

Not, as it may seem, to write about my life, i.e., in any diarist or memoirist sense, but rather to address my story. The life I had awakened to was my story, my origins, which in my case were fairly unusual, now seemingly impossible to ignore.

Thus, her chronicles include the sexual adventuress of Gullibles Travels (1974), the growing woman in Mother Bound (1983) and Paper Daughter (1985), and then, at the end of her life, England’s Child (2008), a meditation on Cyril Johnston, the English father she never knew, and his role in introducing the church carillon to North America. She wanted that last book to toll like the bells her father cast—and in many passages, it does. “In the spirit of Cyril Johnston’s celebrations, I would like to swing some real bells, better, swing on them, preferably mighty ones, make a fearsome racket,” she wrote in England’s Child.

For me, though, Johnston’s most satisfying work is Secret Lives in Art (1994), a selection of essays written in the relatively conventional language she adopted when she recreated herself as a cultural critic in the 1980s.  I initially bought it because of her analysis of dance criticism—she stopped writing about dance for the Voice in about 1971—but was most dazzled by her 1987 essay about Jasper Johns for Art in America, “Tracking the Shadow.” Moving from hunch to scholarly inquiry, she constructs a teetering, perhaps-unreliable structure on coincidence and incidental detail that finally yields its eureka moment. She is an art detective.

Johnston realized this essay was a watershed: it became the germ of her important 1996 Jasper Johns: Privileged Information. She felt that Johns book was her first “mature” work and a precursor to England’s Child, the book that used the same sleuthing strategies she honed while writing Johns to reconstruct her father’s life and thus, at last, repair her own. These essays and books are about how manifestations of identity—she would call them clues—permeate work and life even in their modes of concealment.

Jill Johnston’s last posting for her blog, The Johnston Letter, dated March 2010, is written in her trademark mix of highbrow and pop culture, presented in a single, ricocheting paragraph. She poses questions about Barack Obama’s policies and his “tribalism,” confesses almost gleefully to an obsession with the TV show The Bachelor, and describes the facsimile edition of Carl Jung’s The Red Book (2009)—“the psychiatric profession’s equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls”—while reminiscing about the day Jung’s daughter read Johnston’s horoscope during Johnston’s visit to Zurich. “I have lived to create memories, which can be useful in trying to get to sleep. They can also be therapeutic and exculpatory, showing how even the worst things one did could never have happened otherwise,” Johnston wrote.

In 1993, Johnston married her longtime partner, Ingrid Nyeboe, in Odense, Denmark. She was annoyed that the New York Times, for which she had been a regular contributor, refused to publish their wedding announcement. (The Times would not publish announcements of same-sex marriages and commitment ceremonies until 2002.) The couple remarried in Connecticut in 2009, when the state legalized same-sex marriage. In addition to her wife, she is survived by her children Richard Lanham and Winifred (Winnie) Lanham, and four grandchildren.

As Johnston wrote in her final posting, “Amen and women.

 

Bibliography

By Jill Johnston:

  1. Marmalade Me (1971; revised 1998)
  2. Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (1973)
  3. Gullibles Travels (1974)
  4. Mother Bound (1983)
  5. Paper Daughter (1985)
  6. Secret Lives in Art (1994)
  7. Jasper Johns: Privileged Information (1996)
  8. Admission Accomplished: the Lesbian Nation years (1970–75) (1998)
  9. At Sea On Land: Extreme Politics (2005)
  10. England's Child: The Carillon and the Casting of Big Bells (2008)

The Johnston Letter, a syndicated series she wrote between June 2005 and March 2010, is posted at http://www.jilljohnston.com/, as is a finder to eighty boxes of literary materials archived during her lifetime. Johnston’s essays for Art in America are scheduled for posting on the website, but in the meantime can be found on JSTOR and other Internet databases.

 

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