Thursday, September 23, 2010

Jill Johnston 1929-1981

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.

“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,

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.”
Now, was that a fabulous Yippie action or wasn't it?

Photo of Jill Johnston from

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.

NYT again:
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.”

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.
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.

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 in 1999, called “part Gertrude Stein, part E.E. Cummings, with a dash of Jack Kerouac thrown for good measure.”

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.
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.

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.


Brooke said...

For me, it takes more than having internal conflicts and inconsistencies to make me lose my respect for someone as a feminist. By those standards, none of us pass muster. Jill's oblique verbal style reflected, I always thought, the difficulty of describing personal and political realities using language designed to suppress it. I think this continues to be a problem for feminist writers and thinkers, and leaves our best work only an approximation.

Jon said...

As a raving sectarian asshole with 30 years of recovery I found it wonderfully liberating when I realized I could love and respect someone with whom I disagreed. As I got older I realized that there were plenty of assholes with whom I was in paper agreement. There are also plenty of smart, insightful and eloquent people who just don't see things my way. Nice post. Sort of sums up my experience.
I'll have to admit my one standard is that. I like people who are pissed off about the some of the same things as me.

JoJo said...

I'd not heard of Jill before, but for your blog. RIP.

John Powers said...

I love how you provide context for understanding. I was unfamiliar with Jill Johnston before. Reading about her made me think about Elizabeth Kennedy, who is sort of an opposite number to her. Trying I think to put things in a generational perspective and remembering only vaguely the generational tensions people of my generation felt even at the edges.

Connie Schultz had an interesting review of Rebecca Traister's book "Big Girls Don't Cry." Schutz wrote:

"And therein lies my only caveat, which Traister may see as a matronly reprimand: Do resist tagging all of us over-50 feminists as dour discards. Your youthful vision is better than our crinkled eyes for navigating the future, but we hold your history in our hearts. We are still in the fight, increasingly with men foolish enough to mistake a woman's sags for surrender. We were once you, and one day you will be us."

Ann O'Dyne said...

'Someone who rants and raves about men for a decade, gets all gooey over DAD?!? '
Germaine Greer also had father issues which she thrashed out in her book 'Daddy we hardly knew you'.

Of course all women are lesbian.
There's lots of gorgeous women I would turn gay for in a flash if they expressed any interest in me.

re JJ - I love it that bell ringing is campanology; and maybe her Mother is The Real Story.
RIP Ms Johnston.

D. said...

I don't think I got to Lesbian Nation; I think Marmalade Me was as far as I got. (I was reading the Village Voice back then, so her column, "Dance Journal," was still appearing, and I suspect that I've probably read more than enough.)

But yeah; eventually I moved on.

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sheila said...

Huh, never heard of her! But thanks to you I'm educated on Ms. Johnston now. :o)

Btw, been reading through some of your posts that I missed....I THINK I wished you a Happy Birthday on FB, but now I'm now sure. So, if not, Happy Birthday...Belated.

Lindsay said...

I'd never heard of her before seeing her obituary in Time magazine.

She sounds interesting.

(Imagining Norman Mailer pleading with her to "be a lady" made me grin).

Anonymous said...

In re: . . . gets all gooey over DAD?!? You gotta be kidding me. FIRST, Jill was never gooey about anything, least of all her father. Here's a quote from her article "L500 with Interest" from 1996 ON the Issues:
Why would I want to join an institution that originally militated, and still does, against me, my mother, indeed all women, by obtaining a Declaration of Paternity? The answer must lie in a sense of outrage I carry, contradictory as it may seem, that any father should be allowed, even encouraged, to sire a child that he can refuse to recognize, not to mention support, or can endow with a lifelong stigma. Add to that the political understanding that women by themselves cannot legalize their offspring, making women in effect illegitimate. Add further: an appreciation that every child should inherit every benefit of the system into which it is born - i.e., until such time as we have a fully equal society, why should not all women have the advantages I had inside a supportive insurgent matriarchy (without of course the onus of secrecy that cast a shadow over my blessings)?
Ingrid Nyeboe