At left: From Jill's website.
I started getting a buncha hits on Jill Johnston, whom I have mentioned only twice on this blog. I didn't realize she had passed, on September 18th.
Quite honestly? I was not a fan of her feminism, but her writing was wonderfully loopy and totally terrific, like merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels. She temperamentally seemed to be in direct opposition to the often-rigid, dogmatic 70s lesbian-separatism she championed. She did not become well-known until writing LESBIAN NATION: THE FEMINIST SOLUTION and decreeing that all women were lesbians, they just didn't know it yet.
And so, zany Jill, friend of Andy Warhol, Yoko and the Yippies, became a poster-girl for lesbian separatism, which was bloody weird.
The New York Times obit:
Ms. Johnston started out as a dance critic, but in the pages of The Voice, which hired her in 1959, she embraced the avant-garde as a whole, including happenings and multimedia events.Now, was that a fabulous Yippie action or wasn't it?
“I had a forum obviously set up for covering or perpetrating all manner of outrage,” she wrote in a biographical statement on her Web site, jilljohnston.com.
In the early 1970s she began championing the cause of lesbian feminism, arguing in “Lesbian Nation” (1973) for a complete break with men and with male-dominated capitalist institutions. She defined female relations with the opposite sex as a form of collaboration.
“Once I understood the feminist doctrines, a lesbian separatist position seemed the commonsensical position, especially since, conveniently, I was an L-person,” she told The Gay and Lesbian Review in 2006. “Women wanted to remove their support from men, the ‘enemy’ in a movement for reform, power and self-determination.”
At a debate on feminism at Town Hall in Manhattan in 1971, with Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling and Jacqueline Ceballos of the National Organization for Women sharing the platform with Norman Mailer, the moderator, and with a good number of the New York intelligentsia in attendance, she caused one of the great scandals of the period.
After reciting a feminist-lesbian poetic manifesto and announcing that “all women are lesbians except those that don’t know it yet,” Ms. Johnston was joined onstage by two women. The three, all friends, began kissing and hugging ardently, upright at first but soon rolling on the floor.
Mailer, appalled, begged the women to stop. “Come on, Jill, be a lady,” he sputtered.
The filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker captured the event in the documentary “Town Bloody Hall,” released in 1979. Mary V. Dearborn, in her biography of Mailer, called the evening “surely one of the most singular intellectual events of the time, and a landmark in the emergence of feminism as a major force.”
Photo of Jill Johnston from culturevulture.net
Johnston also wrote a famous article in Ms magazine, basically trashing gay men and proclaiming drag was "mockery"--unfortunately, she was the one who started that whole meme. This was when I parted company with her, Yippie roots or no, because it seemed to me, drag was subversive and pro-feminist.
Johnston later became obsessed with locating her father, which I found rather bizarre for a separatist. In fact, let me be clear: it pissed me off. Someone who rants and raves about men for a decade, gets all gooey over DAD?!? You gotta be kidding me.
And she never seemed to see any inconsistency in that. Thus, I lost respect for her as a feminist, but never as a writer.
Ms. Johnston continued to write on the arts but took a strong political line with a marked psychoanalytic slant evident in “Jasper Johns: Privileged Information” (1996), which explored the artist’s works as a series of evasions and subterfuges rooted in conflict about his homosexuality, and in the two volumes of her memoirs: “Mother Bound” (1983) and “Paper Daughter” (1985), both of them subtitled “Autobiography in Search of a Father.” Note to Jill: fascination with papa is not feminist. And why are you allowed to get all sentimental about daddy, but *I* am not supposed to like drag or sleeping with men? Hmph.
Jill Johnston was born on May 17, 1929, in London and taken to the United States as an infant by her mother, Olive Crowe, after her father abandoned them both. She was reared by a grandmother in Little Neck, on Long Island.
Throughout her childhood she believed that her parents had divorced, but in 1950, when The New York Times ran a short obituary about her father, an English bell maker named Cyril F. Johnston, she learned the truth.
Her mother informed her that she and Johnston had never married. A lifelong fascination with this absent figure, whose company, Gillett & Johnston, supplied bells and carillons to churches and cathedrals all over the world, motivated her to write “England’s Child: The Carillon and the Casting of Big Bells” (2008), a biography of her father and a history of bell making.
But there is still the art and the ego that obviously made the art possible:
She developed a singular prose style — what the writer Pattrice Jones, writing in the Web magazine LesbiaNation.com in 1999, called “part Gertrude Stein, part E.E. Cummings, with a dash of Jack Kerouac thrown for good measure.”One of the best things I ever read about fame, was Johnston's account of her friendship with Yoko and John, and how Yoko couldn't go anywhere without John and vice versa. Jill wrote (paraphrasing) that if one was mega-famous, you could only be entirely yourself with people you loved and trusted, and then, you needed them around you all the time to remind you of who you really are.
One 1964 column began: “Fluxus flapdoodle. Fluxus concert 1964. Donald Duck meets the Flying Tigers. Why should anyone notice the shape of a watch at the moment of looking at the time?”
Ms. Johnston would soon shed this style and her amorphous politics, which she described in “Lesbian Nation” as her “east west flower child beat hip psychedelic paradise now love peace do your own thing approach to the revolution.”
In 1969, members of the Gay Liberation Front, correctly intuiting that the unidentified companion on her weekly adventures, chronicled in The Voice, was a woman, invited her to a meeting. Her political conversion began, and “Lesbian Nation” was published in 1973.
I think of this concept often, whenever I think of the lack of privacy of the very famous. As a kid, I had wanted to be famous (like so many people) and after reading that passage as a teenager, changed my mind. It brought fame up close and personal to me, and I decided I didn't want any part of it.
Jill demystified and debunked FAME for me, and I owe her for that. That is why I am writing this.
Jill is survived by her spouse Ingrid Nyeboe, 2 children and 4 grandchildren.
Rest in Peace, Jill.