Her book be­came les­bian man­i­festo

Los Angeles Times - - Obituaries - Elaine Woo elaine.woo@latimes.com

Jill Johnston, a cul­tural critic, mem­oirist and provo­ca­teur whose best-known book, “Les­bian Nation,” em­bold­ened women in the 1970s to iden­tify them­selves as les­bians and ar­gued that gay women were cru­cial to the fem­i­nist move­ment, died Sept. 18 in Hart­ford, Conn. She was 81.

The cause was com­pli­ca­tions from a stroke, said her spouse, In­grid Nye­boe.

Johnston gained promi­nence in the 1960s as a dance critic for the Vil­lage Voice who wrote knowl­edge­ably about avant-garde chore­og­ra­phers and per­form­ers.

As the decade wore on, her writ­ing grew in­tensely per­sonal and ex­per­i­men­tal, spurn­ing the con­ven­tions of cap­i­tal­iza­tion, pe­ri­ods and para­graphs in fa­vor of “col­lage-like as­sem­blages” of thoughts that even by ’60s stan­dards were, she con­ceded, “a rather wild spec­ta­cle in those woolly times.”

Her work caused so much de­bate that in the late ’60s, Andy Warhol and other un­der­ground art fig­ures par­tic­i­pated in a panel dis­cus­sion about it called “The Dis­in­te­gra­tion of a Critic.”

She was, in fact, un­der tremen­dous per­sonal strain at the time. She came out pub­licly in a 1971 Vil­lage Voice col­umn ti­tled “Lois Lane Is a Les­bian.” Cut off from her two chil­dren by her ex-hus­band, she was hos­pi­tal­ized twice with ner­vous break­downs.

Straight fem­i­nist lead­ers were wary of her, es­pe­cially af­ter a 1970 ben­e­fit for the women’s move­ment at a swanky home in the Hamp­tons when Johnston jumped top­less into her hosts’ pool while Betty Friedan was speak­ing. (Friedan of­fered a hi­lar­i­ous ac­count of the in­ci­dent in her mem­oir, “Life So Far.”)

Johnston’s no­to­ri­ety was ce­mented when she par­tic­i­pated in a highly pub­li­cized town hall de­bate in New York City in 1971 that pit­ted fem­i­nist author Ger­maine Greer, the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Women’s New York pres­i­dent Jac­que­line Ce­bal­los, lit­er­ary critic

‘All women are les­bians ex­cept those who don’t know it yet.’

— Jill Johnston

Diana Trilling and Johnston against nov­el­ist Nor­man Mailer, whose anti-fem­i­nism di­a­tribe “The Pris­oner of Sex” was caus­ing an up­roar.

From Johnston’s first mo­ments at the lectern, her sub­ver­sive in­ten­tions were clear. Clad in a col­or­fully patched denim jacket and jeans, she told the au­di­ence of New York in­tel­lec­tu­als, “All women are les­bians ex­cept those who don’t know it yet.”

When her re­marks flowed, free­as­so­ci­a­tion style, be­yond her 10minute time limit, Mailer, as the moder­a­tor, called for an au­di­ence vote on whether she should be al­lowed to con­tinue.

Then a fe­male friend of Johnston’s jumped on stage, and the two women be­gan hug­ging and kiss­ing. They were joined by a third woman, who pulled Johnston to the floor for a rol­lick­ing love-in.

“Come on, Jill, be a lady,” Mailer fi­nally said.

Johnston, who once wrote, “I think one should be se­ri­ous in one’s pur­poses but not nec­es­sar­ily solemn,” even­tu­ally made her exit, hav­ing up­staged the ma­cho writer with her guer­rilla tac­tics.

The whole spec­ta­cle was cap­tured in a 1979 doc­u­men­tary by Chris Hege­dus and D.A. Pen­nebaker called “Town Bloody Hall.”

“Jill made a won­der­ful per­for­mance art piece out of it,” fem­i­nist thinker and “Sex­ual Pol­i­tics” author Kate Mil­lett said of Johnston’s ap­pear­ance in “Mailer: A Bi­og­ra­phy” by Mary V. Dear­born. “She wasn’t go­ing to de­bate any­thing.”

With “Les­bian Nation,” pub­lished in 1973 by Simon and Schus­ter, Johnston es­tab­lished her­self as a rad­i­cal fem­i­nist the­o­rist, pro­claim­ing that les­bian­ism was not just a per­sonal life­style but a po­lit­i­cal stance nec­es­sary for the over­turn of pa­tri­archy. The book be­came a man­i­festo for a les­bian sep­a­ratist move­ment, spurring the cre­ation through the 1970s of les­bian com­mu­ni­ties.

“Many fem­i­nists are now stranded be­tween their per­sonal needs and their po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions,” she wrote.

“The les­bian is the woman who unites the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal in the strug­gle to free our­selves from the op­pres­sive in­sti­tu­tion [of mar­riage] .... By this def­i­ni­tion les­bians are in the van­guard of the re­sis­tance.”

Johnston was born in Eng­land on May 17, 1929, and grew up on Long Is­land in New York. Af­ter earn­ing a bach­e­lor’s de­gree from Tufts Uni­ver­sity in 1951, she stud­ied dance at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina at Greens­boro and be­gan writ­ing for the Dance Ob­server. In 1959 she was hired at the Vil­lage Voice, where her work ap­peared through the mid-1970s. She later wrote for other pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Art in Amer­ica.

She never knew her fa­ther, Cyril Fred­er­ick Johnston. Her mother, Olive Mar­garet Crowe, told her that he had died when she was very young.

But when Johnston was in col­lege, she learned that he had aban­doned them and had lived in Eng­land, where he was a suc­cess­ful bell maker. To her shock, she dis­cov­ered that he died much later than she had been led to be­lieve.

She told the story of her mother’s de­cep­tion and its im­pact in a two-vol­ume au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “Mother Bound” (1983) and “Paper Daugh­ter” (1985). She later re­searched her fa­ther’s life, writ­ing of his role in the his­tory of bell mak­ing in “Eng­land’s Child: the Car­il­lon and the Cast­ing of Big Bells” (2008).

“She al­ways told me that the writ­ing of that book was the pur­pose of her life,” Nye­boe said.

She said the other book that Johnston re­mained most proud of was “Jasper Johns: Priv­i­leged In­for­ma­tion” (1996), a psy­chobi­og­ra­phy of the Amer­i­can painter who was a sem­i­nal in­flu­ence on Pop Art.

Johnston’s six-year mar­riage to Richard Lan­ham ended in divorce in 1958. She met Nye­boe in 1980, and they were mar­ried in Den­mark in 1993. In ad­di­tion to her spouse, she is sur­vived by a son, Richard Lan­ham of Sara­sota, Fla.; a daugh­ter, Winifred Lan­ham, of Tomkins Cove, N.Y.; four grand­chil­dren; and two great-grand­chil­dren.

In her later years, John­son came to re­gard “Les­bian Nation” as an an­tique, hav­ing out­grown its in­y­our-face aes­thetic. Not long ago in the New Yorker, she de­scribed her­self this way: “I’m an R.L.F.W. — a re­cov­er­ing les­bian from the fem­i­nist wars.”


Jack Man­ning

Jill Johnston be­gan her ca­reer as a dance critic, but her writ­ings for the Vil­lage Voice in the

1960s grew in­creas­ingly per­sonal. “Les­bian Nation” was pub­lished in 1973.

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