This Day In Literary History
On November 28th, 1944, the famous American writer and activist Rita Mae Brown was born. She was born in Hanover, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Florida. Her biological mother, an unwed 18-year-old girl, turned her over to an orphanage.
At three months old, Rita was adopted by her new parents, Ralph and Julia Ellen Brown. An intellectually gifted child, she had learned to read when she was three years old. As a high school student, she excelled at both academics and sports.
During Rita's teen years, she lost her adoptive father and began to experiment with sex, taking both male and female lovers. She considered herself a bisexual who preferred women, saying, "I don't believe in straight or gay. I really don't. I think we're all degrees of bisexual."
When she was 16, the father of Rita's high school girlfriend found her love letters and outed her. As a result, she was kicked out of the student council. It was the first and not the last incident of homophobic persecution she experienced.
By 1964, Rita had won a scholarship to the University of Florida. When she wasn't studying, she worked for the civil rights movement. Her scholarship was revoked and she was expelled from university, allegedly because of her civil rights work, but that was just the university's excuse.
The real reason for Rita's expulsion and the loss of her scholarship was that she had been outed as a lesbian by the officers of her sorority. They suspected that Rita was gay and confronted her. She told them that if she was in love with someone, gender didn't matter to her.
After losing her scholarship, a penniless Rita hitchhiked to New York City. Homeless at first, she lived in a car with a male friend and a cat she'd named Baby Jesus. Determined to make something of herself, she put herself through New York University.
Upon graduating with a Bachelor's degree in English and the classics, she continued her education, studying cinematography at the New York School of Visual Arts. She would ultimately receive a Ph.D at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.
In 1970, while studying at the New York School of Visual Arts, Rita worked for the National Organization for Women (NOW). She would resign in protest over NOW president Betty Friedan's homophobic remarks and attempts to distance NOW from lesbian organizations.
After leaving NOW, Rita Mae Brown co-founded The Furies Collective, a lesbian feminist newspaper collective. She began her literary career with two poetry collections, The Hand That Cradles the Rock (1971) and Songs to a Handsome Woman (1973).
In 1973, Rita's classic first novel was published. One of the most controversial young adult novels ever written, it was rejected by every major publisher in New York. She tried to get an agent, but that didn't work, either.
One agent, a woman, literally threw Rita's manuscript at her, called her a pervert, and told her to get out of her office. She finally found a publisher, a new and small feminist publishing house called Daughters Press, who bought her novel for $1,000.
Rubyfruit Jungle is a picaresque, semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman's coming-of-age as a lesbian, a tale told with humor, pathos, and zest. It paints a frank and honest portrait of lesbians that shatters all the stereotypes.
Molly Bolt is a pretty young girl who has a tempestuous relationship with her mother, Carrie, who informs her that she is an adopted bastard child. Beginning at the age of eleven, Molly experiments sexually with both girls and boys, including her cousin Leroy.
As a teenager, Molly loses her adoptive father Carl, to whom she was close, and has an affair with a cheerleader, Carolyn, who rejects the lesbian label, seeing herself as bisexual.
Determined to make something of herself, Molly becomes an excellent student and wins a college scholarship. When her lesbian affair with her alcoholic roommate is discovered, Molly loses her scholarship and is expelled from university.
Broke but not broken, the feisty Molly heads for New York City to study filmmaking and finds that life in the concrete jungle isn't all she dreamed it would be. Using her beauty, charm, intelligence, and sparkling wit, she determines to become the greatest filmmaker of all time.
Since Daughters Press, the publisher of Rubyfruit Jungle, was so small, there was no marketing or reviews of the novel at the time it was published, nor was it available in any major bookstores.
The novel was mostly sold in small bookshops, by mail, and even out of the trunks of cars. Nevertheless, word of mouth made Rubyfruit Jungle an underground hit, selling 70,000 copies in its first four years.
When the novel gained a wide release, it received great reviews and copies soon appeared on high school library shelves, causing an uproar - a censorship row that would last for many years - due to its sexual content and language.
Rita Mae Brown would write more great novels, including In Her Day (1976), a lesbian comic romance set in early 1970s Greenwich Village. Carole is a conservative, middle aged art history professor whose life is turned upside down when she falls for Ilse, a 20-year-old feminist revolutionary.
Southern Discomfort (1982) is a demented Southern Gothic comedy set in Alabama, circa 1918. It told the story of Hortensia Reedmuller Banastre, a Southern belle trapped in a loveless marriage who falls madly in love with Hercules Jinks - a handsome black prizefighter!
In 1990, Rita decided to try something different. She began a series of mystery novels allegedly co-written by Sneaky Pie Brown - her cat. The Mrs. Murphy Series features the adventures of Mrs. Murphy, a tiger cat, and her human companion, Mary "Harry" Haristeen, who live in the small town of Crozet, Virginia.
In the first novel, Wish You Were Here (1990), someone is brutally murdering Crozet's most prominent citizens. Each victim received a postcard before they were murdered, with a tombstone on one side and the message "Wish you were here" written on the back. Can Harry and Mrs. Murphy solve the murders?
So far, Rita Mae Brown has written over two dozen Mrs. Murphy Mysteries. Her latest, Probable Claws, was published earlier this year, on May 29th.
She has also written several screenplays for TV movies and feature films, including the famous horror movie The Slumber Party Massacre (1982). She wrote it as a spoof, but the director chose to shoot it as a serious slasher flick, resulting in a cult classic film.
Quote Of The Day
"Writers will happen in the best of families." - Rita Mae Brown
Today's video features a 90-minute interview with Rita Mae Brown recorded before a live audience as part of the National Writers Series. Enjoy!