Edythe Eyde wanted to make art for lesbians.
At 25, she was working as a secretary at RKO Studios, a Los Angeles movie studio, and coping with boredom by imagining a magazine for queer women. She liked writing. She wanted to tell stories. From her job, she knew plenty about printing and copying. There was just one thing standing in her way: It was 1947.
On Tuesday, Entertainment Weekly reported that Showtime is reviving “The L Word,” its groundbreaking television series about gay women.
But 70 years ago, Eyde knew a traditional printer wouldn’t dare help her produce something as scandalous as a magazine for lesbians. She would have to do it in secret. So when she decided to launch Vice Versa, she designed and templated the entire thing on the RKO work machines — not to save money or cut corners (though those were definitely bonuses) but because under California law, her magazine wasn’t just scandalous.
It was illegal.
At the time, writing or distributing information about life as a lesbian could have landed her in prison. So she carefully cut and copied each issue of the magazine at her desk and then handed out copies in lesbian hot spots around Los Angeles. Eyde wrote under the pen name “Lisa Ben” — an anagram of “lesbian,” a wink to those in the know.
“It was just some writing that I wanted to do to get it off my chest,” she told Eric Marcus on his podcast, “Making Gay History.” “And I was a very lonely person, and I could sort of fantasize this way by writing the magazine, you see. I would also say to the girls as I passed the magazines out, ‘Now when you get through with this, don’t throw it away. Pass it on to another gay gal.’ ”
Loni Shibuyama, an archivist at the ONE Archives at the University of Southern California, an LGBTQ archive that holds many of Eyde’s personal papers, says the Lisa Ben Collection is one of her favorite collections in the archive, not just because of its historic importance, but because the writing still shines with originality.
“Think about the time period she wrote in: the late 1940s, a period that was so much about being closeted and not being able to discuss [gay life] openly,” Shibuyama said. “And she wrote this magazine and you know, people asked her at the time: ‘Aren’t you worried being caught doing something like this?’ And I think the sentiment was that she enjoyed talking about it openly and she wanted to find her way of doing that. She said ‘Maybe I was naive at the time, but I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I enjoy talking about it.’ That gives you a sense of her personality: she wanted to meet other people who were lesbian and to find that connection. And that’s how she did it.”
Before “The L Word,” before the Advocate, before Autostraddle, queer women had Vice Versa. For nine issues, from the first in 1947 to the last in February 1948, Lisa Ben compiled reviews and poems and articles into bound copies, dedicating her work to “those of us who will never quite be able to adapt ourselves to the iron-clad rules of Convention.” One staple of the book, “The Whatcham-Column,” invited readers to share their thoughts and ideas with the magazine editors. In issue No. 6, Eyde devoted several pages to an erotic story, thereby scrapping the column altogether:
You may have noticed that this issue is not quite as thin as some of the previous ones, thanks to your editor being carried away by her own enthusiasm when scribbling the satiric friction — oops! — fiction which takes up the larger portion of this edition.
“This was a person who was still trying to build a community, in a sense,” Shibuyama says. “Without hiding from it and without being afraid of the consequences. And I think there’s something to be said about that.”
And even then, Eyde predicted that magazines like hers wouldn’t always be banned and reviled. In Vice Versa issue No. 4, she wrote:
With the advancement of psychiatry and related subjects, the world is becoming more and more aware that there are those in our midst who feel no attraction for the opposite sex. It is not an uncommon sight to observe mannishly attired women or even those dressed in more feminine garb strolling along the street hand-in-hand or even arm-in-arm, in an attitude which certainly would seem to indicate far more than mere friendliness.
Homosexuality is becoming a less and less taboo subject, and although still considered by the general public as contemptible, or treated with derision, I venture to predict that there will be a time in the future when gay folk will be accepted as part of regular society.
After Vice Versa, Eyde turned to songwriting. She performed popular songs with slightly tweaked lyrics — “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” became “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write My Butch a Letter”; she reimagined “Frankie and Johnnie” as a love song about two gay men; and she even wrote companies and manufacturers with her ideas for commercial jingles. Up until her death in 2015, she still wrote under the pen name Lisa Ben, for LGBTQ publications such as the Ladder.
“I think what’s amazing about her collection is that her personality comes through so much in her work, and her sense of humor,” Shibuyama says. “It’s one of my favorite collections we have here.”
Today, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association awards an annual honor, the Lisa Ben Award for Features Reporting, dedicated to the memory of Vice Versa’s intrepid founder.
This post is inspired by a previous edition of Julia Carpenter’s newsletter, A Woman to Know
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