Marijane Meaker obituary

Groundbreaking author, initially of lesbian-themed fiction including the 1952 bestseller Spring Fire

Fan mail from a generation of closeted women flooded the offices of Gold Medal Books after the 1952 publication of Spring Fire – a novel about a lesbian affair among a college sisterhood – from unlikely fans of its author, Marijane Meaker, who has died aged 95.

Unlikely, not only because of the male pseudonym used by Meaker – Vin Packer – but also because its heroine is “saved” from the clutches of a nymphomanical lesbian seducer, who winds up committed to a psychiatric hospital. Although the men who wrote Gold Medal’s hard-boiled crime fiction specialised in exploitation, the daring Spring Fire sold 1.5m copies in its first edition.

Meaker was an editorial assistant at Gold Medal at the time, and a lesbian. “We were floored by the mail that poured in,” she said. “This was the first time anyone was aware there was a gay audience out there.” She was prompted to write, as Ann Aldrich, a series of pseudo-sociological studies of lesbians, starting with We Walk Alone Through Lesbos’ Lonely Groves (1955), which became a kind of Lonely Planet guide for women who had yet to come out.

She wrote 20 books as Packer, starting with a thriller, Dark Intruder (1952), and nearly 40 others under a variety of names, including her own. Packer’s psychological crime novels were praised by the New York Times reviewer Anthony Boucher, and drew favourable comparisons to Patricia Highsmith, who, also in 1952, published her own “serious” lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, using the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

In a case of life imitating art, Meaker and Highsmith became lovers, a relationship detailed in Meaker’s acute 2003 memoir, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s.

Patrica Highsmith pictured in London around 1950. Her relationship with Meaker was explored in Meaker’s 2003 memoir, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s.
Patrica Highsmith pictured in London around 1950. Her relationship with Meaker was explored in Meaker’s 2003 memoir, Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

Meaker was born and raised in Auburn, New York. Her parents, Ida (nee Jornick) and Ellis Meaker, encouraged her love of books. She persuaded them to send her to boarding school in Virginia after reading of students expelled for lesbian activity. “I wanted to find out if my suspicions were right, and I was one of those,” she said. When the mother of another girl found her love letters, and called the police, her parents dismissed it as “a silly schoolgirl thing”.

After a year at Vermont Junior College, in Montpelier, she took a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Her experiences in the Alpha Delta Pi sorority recur frequently in her novels: in Spring Fire, one girl is admitted to the sorority after her wealthy parents donate cutlery. A similar donation features in Packer’s 1967 novel of drugs and rebellion, The Hare in March.

Moving to New York, Meaker worked as a clerk at the publishers Dutton, and sold her first story, as Laura Winston, to Ladies Home Journal in 1951. As an office junior at Gold Medal, she sold her first novel, Dark Intruder, by posing as her own agent. When the Gold Medal editor Dick Carroll wanted a follow-up to their salacious bestseller Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torrès, Meaker suggested a boarding school theme.

Carroll preferred a college setting, so the girls would not be underage, and insisted the heroine not be a lesbian, and her seducer be “sick or crazy”, lest postal inspectors confiscate Gold Medal’s mail orders as immoral. Carroll also chose the title, hoping to confuse buyers looking for James Michener’s Fires of Spring.

Boucher, who rarely reviewed paperback originals, was impressed with Packer’s fourth novel, Come Destroy Me (1954), and convinced her to concentrate on thrillers, suggesting she look at real crimes. She wrote two novels based on the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy murdered for whistling at a white woman, and another, The Evil Friendship (1958), based on the Parker-Hulme murder case in New Zealand in 1954.

At Missouri, Meaker had fallen in love for the only time with a man, a Hungarian leftist who had survived the Holocaust. “That’s when I learned there wasn’t a cure,” she said. In her 1961 Packer psychological thriller Something in the Shadows, the breakdown of an unhappily married man named Joseph Meaker is accentuated by his memories of an affair with a radical Hungarian woman. The novel was set in a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, much like the one Meaker shared for two years with Highsmith, and Joseph and his wife share characteristics of Meaker and Highsmith.

She wrote only half a dozen books under her own name. The relative failure of her comic novel Shockproof Sydney Skate (1972) may have been a factor in her decision to switch to another pen-name, ME Kerr, a play on her surname, along with a move into what is now called the young adult market.

She said reading Paul Zindel’s 1969 novel The Pigman helped her realise the impact this sort of fiction could have, and “Kerr’s” first novel, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! (1972) won numerous awards; Sydney Skate would later be reissued successfully. In more than 20 Kerr novels her characters faced topical issues such as homosexuality, drugs, racism, and even, in Gentlehands (1978), the effect of a beloved grandfather who turns out to be a war criminal.

In the 1990s, as Mary James, Meaker wrote four novels for children, including Shoebag (1990) and Shoebag Returns (1996). For 60 years she lived in the village of Springs, in the Hamptons, New York, where she founded and taught at a local writers’ workshop that produced 20 published authors; she published her own guide to writing, Blood on the Forehead (1998). She also founded a local gay society.

Her last Kerr book, Someone Like Summer, appeared in 2007, as did Scott Free, a crime novel by Meaker “writing as Vin Packer”. By that time, the emergence of gay publishers had seen a number of her books reissued, including Spring Fire, for which she wrote a moving introduction.

In 2020 she was one of three main interviewees for a documentary film, Loving Highsmith, and on the promotional tour she belied her 93 years with spirited and telling reminiscences.

• Marijane Meaker, author, born 27 May 1927; died 21 November 2022


Michael Carlson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Frederick Nolan obituary
Thriller writer and publisher who became an authority on the American old west and Billy the Kid

Gwyn Headley

12, Jul, 2022 @9:37 AM

Article image
Warren Adler obituary
Prolific writer whose novel The War of the Roses was turned into a hit film starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner

Michael Carlson

01, May, 2019 @2:11 PM

Article image
Christopher Fowler obituary
Author of the Bryant & May detective novels, short stories and essays on forgotten writers – including himself

Steve Holland

20, Mar, 2023 @3:21 PM

Article image
Mo Hayder obituary
Bestselling author whose fascination with death and violence found expression in the Jack Caffery crime novels

Mark Billingham

02, Aug, 2021 @3:57 PM

Article image
Alan Williams obituary
Thriller writer and journalist who relished the excitement and drama of the cold war

Michael Barber

15, May, 2020 @7:47 PM

Article image
Jack Higgins obituary
Bestselling author who achieved huge success with his 1975 wartime thriller The Eagle Has Landed

Mike Ripley

10, Apr, 2022 @2:36 PM

Article image
Clive Cussler obituary
Prolific author of fast-paced thrillers, including Raise the Titanic!, featuring the adventure hero Dirk Pitt

Michael Carlson

27, Feb, 2020 @4:45 PM

Article image
Joan Lingard obituary
Prolific author best known for the Kevin and Sadie young adult novels charting friendship across the divide in 1970s Belfast

Julia Eccleshare

20, Jul, 2022 @12:59 PM

Article image
Robert Richardson obituary
Crime writer who drew on his experience as a Fleet Street journalist to colour his thrillers

Mike Ripley

06, Oct, 2021 @4:19 PM

Article image
Nick Tosches obituary
American writer who epitomised the rackety world of the 1960s rock press and went on to become a successful biographer

Richard Williams

23, Oct, 2019 @3:34 PM