Ithaca: archival kisses, drunken birds, firebrand

April 13th, 2008 | Uncategorized

Here’s the cat walking across my keyboard as I was writing this very long, rambling post to make up for the fact that I’ve been such a slacker here.

I’m sorry I haven’t followed up on the Daily Distress project. I haven’t heard anything from the Houghton Mifflin marketing department since I turned all the material over to them. I’ll try and get an update this week. I think they might have the piece all done–but I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.

I just got back from a visit to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, where I did a presentation about my memoir Fun Home and hung out with graduate students and got a tour of the Human Sexuality Archive at the library.

This archive is apparently even more extensive than the Tretter Collection I saw at the University of Minnesota last month. It houses the papers of Firebrand Books, my first publisher. So the archivist dug out some crates of those and I got to see old typewritten letters I’d written to Nancy Bereano, the founder of Firebrand, in the ‘eighties.

But the most amazing thing I saw there was this.

michigan lesbians from '30s

It’s a page from a lesbian photo album from the 1930’s. It starts out with these rather demure shots.

Then on page three, there’s this.


Isn’t that the hottest thing you ever saw? I don’t know why I find this so stunning. The thought of anyone–lesbians in particular, but anyone really–having sex in the past is so strangely shocking. And in this case, hot. In case I haven’t mentioned it.

nancy & elisabeth

Oh, Firebrand Books used to be located in Ithaca, where Nancy Bereano lives. Here she is, with the aureole of white hair, next to her partner Elisabeth Nonas, at my presentation last Thursday. It was really nice to see her again–she discovered me and published my first book when I was a punk kid, so I feel a very deep connection with her. She also urged me to write a graphic novel long before the current craze, and that was the beginning of Fun Home.

Another cool thing I did at Cornell was to go birdwatching at the famous Lab of Ornithology. Susan Barnett, a blog reader, and her husband Greg took me and my girlfriend Holly on a walk through Sapsucker Woods. I forgot to take my camera. But here’s a photo Holly took earlier of a cedar waxwing on campus, getting drunk on some fermented berries.

Drunkard Waxwing

And here, to get a tad meta, is me taking a picture of the cedar waxwing to send to my friend Phranc who had just called me on the phone.

Alison, Phranc, and Cedar Waxwing

And here’s a picture I took of Holly taking a picture of the Ithaca Farmer’s Market. We went there on Saturday. It was the most vital, throbbing farmer’s market I’ve ever seen, and it’s only April.

farmer's market

Okay, and the last thing is, here’s a video of me talking about Fun Home when I was at Rutgers last month. The Writers House videographer put together an extraordinarily coherent 5 minute piece from probably two hours of footage of me yammering on and on.

Here’s a link to Holly’s post about the same trip to Ithaca. We didn’t look at each other’s posts first, and ended up using some of the same photos.

60 Responses to “Ithaca: archival kisses, drunken birds, firebrand”

  1. Ally says:

    That photo is amazing. Thanks for posting it!

  2. kate mck says:

    you seem really happy right now, A, it’s great!

  3. The Cat Pimp says:

    That’s so cool that you’re friends with Phranc. Years ago, I got an LP of hers that had her singing about Martina Navratilova and I *think* a paean to her budgerigar (A Rodeo Parakeet).

    I love old timey photos. Yes, it is funny to think that our generation did not invent sex, LOL. A friend of mine showed me her family photos – grampy wore a zoot suit.

  4. Omigod, cat pimp. That Martina song is so AWESOME. And look! It’s on YouTube!

  5. Will says:

    If you’re a fan of vital, throbbing farmer’s markets, try to get to the one in Madison next time you’re there. It’s worth it.

  6. April says:

    TheCatPimp, what rhymes with ‘Navratilova’?
    (I once heard DAAS rhyme it with ‘Casanova’, what does Phranc do?)

    Plus, throbbing farmers’ markets sound pretty hot.

  7. Cate says:

    Oh, I wish Phranc’s Amazon song were on YouTube. It got me through many a training run back when I used to run long distances.

    You *do* seem happy, Alison — that’s so nice to see.

  8. April says:

    Oh, right. I checked the song – no rhyme 🙁
    Still, cute as.

  9. Cate says:

    And that is an *amazing* picture, Alison.

  10. Alex K says:

    The hot part about the “Page 3” photo — for those of us in London who enjoy a glance into the SUN now and again, no, this is different — may be the necessarily implied presence of the observer.

    Girl photographs girl. Yawn.

    Third party photographs two girls: Exhibition, display, oneself in the place of the photographer, of the complicit participant-voyeur.

    As a phenomenon:

    but not “hot dead girls”. Hmmm.

  11. sk in london says:

    …. fantastic photos of those long ago gals … then scrolling down to Nancy and Elisabeth …. funny! i was expecting the next ‘base’ and then there was Nancy and Elisabeth – i guess they are the next ‘base’ as it were!

    also, thanks for the link to Holly’s blog, inspiring to read about all the great things she is part of. brilliant!

  12. Ydnic says:

    Wow. That video. Just wow. Magical stuff, indeed.

  13. Maggie Jochild says:

    Funnily enough, I read Holly’s blog a few hours ago and saw the drunken cedar waxwing photo there first. Holly writes a very good blog, I must say.

    Imagine looking through photo albums like that from the 19-teens, sitting next to your 84-year-old great aunt, the albums being hers, full of photos of her and her older sister (your grandmother) that they took as teenagers and young women — they called it Kodaking. And you turn a page, and there’s your GRANDMOTHER in a clinch like that with another girl who turns out to be her second or third cousin, the one who never married.

    Oh, and you’re not officially out to the great aunt.

    It happened to me about 15 years ago, and I almost passed out. Fortunately, she was very chatty so when all I could do was croak “Uh — who?”, she went merrily off to tell me all about how my grandmother and this cousin loved to “play-act”. There followed several shots of “play-acting” (which was NOT, let me assure you), and then several photos of my grandmother dressed in men’s suits with a bowler and a cigar, surrounded by other women dressed the same way. Her friends from teacher’s college, my great aunt said.

    I let an interval pass before I casually asked how it was that my grandmother came to marry my grandfather. “Oh, they were just friends for the longest time, though he asked her to marry him over and over. Then she had some sort of heartbreak, we never did find out who, somebody left on a train, and she turned around right after that and said yes to the next proposal.” I already knew that my grandmother extracted an Amelia Earhart-ish promise from my grandfather that she would leave home and work as a teacher, while he stayed put and raised the kids. This was in 1919. He was a bright, open guy, from a family of radicals, so they set that rural North Texas community on its end with their choices.

    Until she got tuberculosis, had to quit work, and died when my mother was a year old. My grandfather died soon thereafter, of a broken heart in part.

    I did some digging and found that by 1920, that female cousin had boarded a train for Fort Worth, where she lived without a chaperone and worked as a manager in various businesses.

    Maybe it’s the story I think it is, maybe it’s just me stringing together pieces. But I do have those photos, I managed to persuade her to let me make copies.

  14. Alex K, yes, who took the picture?! Toward the end of the album, two unusually well set-up (in the words of Edward Gorey) young men appeared in a few shots with the women. They were a gay little foursome. The archivist speculated that one of the guys had been the photographer.

  15. Good lord, Maggie. What a remarkable lineage you have.

  16. just a guy says:

    It’s funny to hear you call yourself a slacker, AB. Taking yourself to task for not being attentive enough to something you provide out of the goodness of your heart.

  17. bronislava says:

    maggie, that’s an amazing story!

  18. judybusy says:

    I love the photos! It’s just very comforting for me to know people like us have been around for ages and ages, and it’s not just some minor blip in the history of human relationships. And I love a lusty farmer’s market! Ours in Minneapolis will open on the 26th!

  19. Ginjoint says:

    Mmm mm mm. Even before I read your caption to the photo of the women kissing, I said aloud (to the computer, I guess), “Wow, that’s hot!” Bobbed hair? Hot. Hair that’s that beautiful bright silver, like Nancy’s and Elisabeth’s and the woman behind them? Hot.

    Maggie, I think you’re right on with your interpretation of your history. “Play-acting.” Those crazy kids.

  20. Paul says:

    “The thought of anyone–lesbians in particular, but anyone really–having sex in the past is so strangely shocking. And in this case, hot.”

    I think it’s the sepia-toned photography. In order to get over its almost inherent stuffiness, folks would have to be *really* horny — like, beyond anything we’ve ever experienced.

  21. yes, paul! the sepia factor is definitely a part of it!

  22. Nickel Joey says:

    Thanks for posting the link to the Rutgers video, Alison. It gave me goosebumps — twice! — here on a Monday morning at the office.

    (And it made me want to get back to my own writing. Thanks for that, too.)

  23. Nickel Joey says:

    Oh — and BTW — I may be a gay man, but I completely agree with y’all about how hot that photograph is. There’s just no denying it! 🙂

  24. bean says:

    i suspect those women were in love. it comes through in the photo. love is hot.

    the video was awesome.

  25. NLC says:

    OK, first, this is a test, the last three postings that I’ve done here have disappeared in to the ozone. I just want to see if this works.

    Second, assuming this does get through (and assuming that the problem may have been the URLs I included in the earlier posting), here’s a link (well, sort of…) to a podcast of an interview that AB gave, presumably as part of the Cornell trip:
    http (colon) (slash) (slash) www (dot) arts (dot) cornell (dot) edu (slash) reading (slash) bechdel110408 (dot) mp3

  26. ksbel6 says:

    Awesome…those photos are incredible…and Maggie, wow, what a story! My partner has a picture of her aunt in about 1920 sitting on the hood of a car with her foot on the bumper leaning on her elbow on that knee smoking a cigarette. She is wearing pants and a white tshirt. Really cool.

  27. Norwegian Black Metal says:

    What, what? Why is my hometown being mentioned here?? Much as I dislike the incredibly self-destructive, and at times utterly delusional politics of the place, it’s still a pretty place.

    do like the whole “only NYS county to go for obama” thing though. Goes well with the “more votes for nader than bush in 2000” title.

    ah, home…

    PS you’re lucky- Ithaca Farmer’s market is actually local food, unlike the NYC markets, where local is totally upstate…

  28. Nichael, thanks for the link! Sorry your posts evaporated! Here’s a rather addled interview I did with a creative writing prof at Cornell.

  29. Matron says:

    I have two tapes of Phranc songs that a friend gave to me in the early 90s and that I have jealously guarded for the past fifteen years. I rarely play them now for fear that the tape will snap, but whenever I have a fit of nostalgia (usually when there is something on the news that makes me think that feminism is truly dead) I put them on while doing housework. Fabulous stuff! The fact that she was just about the cutest 1980s short haircut lesbian didn’t hurt either.

    But thinking of Phranc just remeinded me of another 80s thing that I had almost forgotten about. Just a few months after I came out, I watch about ten episodes of a lesbian soap called “Two in Twenty”. I absolutely loved it and have unsuccessfully tried to find a copy for years. I just checked YouTube and for once the trusted device has come up empty. Does anyone out there know what I am talking about and possibly even have an idea if there are videos/DVDs of that programme to be had anywhere?

  30. The Cat Pimp says:

    Thanks for the youtube pointer. Its an amazing archive, now. I have found lots of Klaus Nomi performances as well as performances by Melanie Saha, not only as a 20 something, but as a 50 something. I’ll check out the Phranc videos when I am not at work. 🙂

    Maggie’s family story so needs to be a graphic novella, Alison, C.P. said meaningfully.

    Wow. And wow.

  31. bruna says:

    i love you, i love you, i love you, i love you, i love you, i love you, i love you, i love you, i love you, i love you, ad infinitum.

  32. wreckfish says:

    just dropping in to raid your site for

    love the blog

    and the art

    and 🙂

  33. judybusy says:

    Hi Matron, I also remember that show! A quick search reveals a bit about it on the rotten tomatoes website, along with the info that it’s not available, but that just might be through their website. 🙁 Anyone else have better info?

  34. Cs says:

    *Makes a mental note to visit Cornell if and when I can afford to travel to the States* Thanks for sharing, Alice. That must have been amazing to be able to look at all those archives.

    Loved the video. And the drunk bird amde my morning:)

  35. rinky says:

    Soon after I came out to my grandma I said to her, “Haven;t you ever had a crush on a woman?” She immediately said, “I thought Helen ___ was just lovely, (pause, smile, look a bit dreamy), but it wasn’t a lesbian thing”

    She was very happily married to my grandpa for 50ish years but I think it made her get me a bit more

  36. Marj says:

    Maggie, that’s a fabulous piece of family history to have! I had an odd maiden great aunt I make up stories for, but you have EVIDENCE!

  37. Maggie Jochild says:

    The 1920s crashed through a lot of doors in this country — women’s rights (we got the fucking vote, finally), Wobblies, Harlem Renaissance, etc. I wonder what path we’d have taken if the Depression hadn’t wiped everything but grim survival from the minds of most working people.

    I’d like to acknowledge here the years of extraordinary work put in by Brenda Marston, past director of the Cornell collection as well as active leader in LAGAR, to make their archives exemplary, particularly when it comes to inclusion of women’s materials. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Brenda traveled around the country encouraging women’s communities everywhere to archive their materials and giving us hands-on lessons in how to save our herstory. She’s one of the best.

    And Cat Pimp, thanks for the recommend but I’m already creating my own novel (first draft is mostly done and online) which includes my grandmother Hettie Turner and her influence on the generations that followed. While I’m naming names, the woman she loved was Nora Armstrong.

    What’s even more striking about these old photos is that, most of the time, the prints were not developed by the photographers. They were mailed off to a commercial developing house. Brave women, indeed.

  38. The Other Andi says:

    I have a formal photo (taken in a studio) of my grandmother from when she was around 16 or 17 years old (ca. 1917-18) in a very beautiful satiny dress, diaphanous sleeves, long curled hair, etc. I’d always seen this photo growing up. Then about 6 years ago, when my mother died, we came across a box of old photos and stuff that had belonged to my grandmother. I found a photo that had been in a scrapbook — my grandmother, ca. 1914, dressed in men’s clothes — she’s practically swimming in the trousers, shirt, tie, coat, even the shoes — and wearing a man’s cap and holding a cane. This completely blew me away. Still does, despite the fact that we then found other photos of her from the scrapbook wearing the same outfit, posing with her friends and with captions indicating it was a Halloween party. I keep these two pictures of her next to each other on a shelf with other family photos. They make a really great juxtaposition.

  39. Kate ( says:

    You look like my favorite novel character in that photo: Harriet the Spy.

  40. Photos says:

    Have y’all seen the huge sets of photos from the 1910’s and 1930’s that the Library of Congress put up on Flickr? The ’30s ones are even in color. They put them up hoping people could identify some of the people, and are encouraging comments. If you look up the tag “women” you get some brilliant photos of women rivetters and factory workers and so forth. I haven’t seen any family looking ladies, but I haven’t looked through them all…

    If you go back to the LC part of Flickr, you see the link to the black and white 1910 set.

  41. egret says:

    Hey, that was me, not Photos! I don’t know what the heck that was.

  42. Breena says:

    Ok, I thought I was the only one who had a fetish for archival porn. I’m not sure where I saw it, but old black and white video or photos are so hot! I don’t even usually like porn. In old videos or photos the people look real and like they are enjoying themselves. Most of the porn I have seen is targeted at straight men though, so maybe if I saw some good lesbian porn I would like it better.

  43. BrooklynPhil says:

    Yes, that Ithaca farmer’s market is awesome. A dear friend of mine from Freeville took me there a few years ago. She was rightfully proud of it.

    Did ya buy anything there?

  44. Bruna Blazina says:

    Do you ever give talks in Michigan? I live in Kalamazoo but I am from Croatia, and I started reading your comic books when I was 16 (9 years ago). I love Tintin and love your stuff. I have introduced many of my friends to your comic books and every person that reads them feels as strongly as I do about them.

    Will you please come to Michigan to give a talk? I would love to hear you talk as I am sure many other Michiganders would too.

  45. Feminista says:

    Thanks,egret,for the archival photo link. I checked out the women at work; have seen plenty in black and white,mostly of riveters and welders. I used to teach courses in women & work and American women’s history,and twice dressed as Rosie for Halloween,complete with a 40s Pendleton jacket. Amazing how few safety devices or gloves were used; welders,burners and chippers got many burns on their arms.

    I became the keeper of the family archives of photo and photo copies for both maternal and paternal sides of my family. Fascinating stuff.

  46. Feminista says:

    P.S. One of my favorite photos is a large one taken nearly 100 years ago,at the (probably)Bund picnic outside Providence,RI where my paternal grandparents,recent immigrants from Ukraine,met. Unlike today’s punk/tatooed/pierced anachists or us boomer radicals and feminists,these earnest Jewish leftists were formally dressed in shirtwaists,suits and hats.

  47. ready2agitate says:

    Two in Twenty, I remember it well! I think it was produced in Boston. A friend of mine was in it from time to time (she played a therapist). There is a Boston-area video store called “Hollywood Express” that for a long time had the most awesome indie VHS section (later gutted for DVD’s) and they had the Two in Twenty series, which I rented some time around 2001. I don’t know what they did with them, but I could ask. It is the most schlocky funny stuff. But when it arrived in the 80s (f**k one in ten, it’s two in twenty!) — long before Ellen, L-word, etc. — it was awesome!

    Maggie your story reminds me somewhat of Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film “The Watermelon Woman,” in which a young Black dyke researches an obscure black actress of the 1930s known only as “The Watermelon Woman,” and learns some amazing things about this woman. (I loved that film.) (It also brings Dorothy Allison to mind for some reason – maybe Bastard out of Carolina has the redeeming character of an older lesbian aunt….)

    Hoo-ey nostalgia! – and I love the women/wimmin/womyn of this blog!

  48. Suzanonymous says:

    I checked ebay and item #360043107492 is (IIRC) four episodes of Two in Twenty, from a seller with an excellent rating. The auction is suspiciously new. Kinda expensive starting bid, though.

    I really liked the photo of AB’s discoverer and gf.

  49. C.H. says:

    Assuming financial and physical conditions are equal, where do you see DTWOF ending? Have you thought about a conclusion to the narrative? As the majority of the cast entire retirement age would you change focus to the next generation (Rafael, Janis)? Is a successor in the wings? I ask this in the light of the changes at For Better Or For Worse, the death of Johnny Hart, etc.

  50. Norwegian Black Metal says:

    Oh, saw the Phranc exhibit in Chelsea back when it was. Was spiffy. My friend actually shook with enthusiasm.

  51. liza Cowan says:

    Two In Twenty was produced by Laurel Chiten and Cheryl Quamar. It is indeed on eBay right now, starting price $14, which I think is pretty cheap, but you never know how the bidding will go. Somewhere in my house I have a set of the videos.

    Laurel Chiten went on to produce a documentary about Tourettes Syndrome, and then a film called “The Jew In The Lotus.” (I just found this out on a google search.) This ties in with my family research, in which I am discovering things about my cousin, Zina Rachevsky, who, in 1967, was the first westerner/barbarian to study Dharma with Tibetan Lamas. Her hidden history is not that she was a Lesbian (she wasn’t) but that she was Jewish.

    It’s on my blog.

    I also have old photo albums of women dressing like men and larking about. I don’t think it necessarily means that they were Lesbians. Sometimes it does. Alice Austen (b. 1866) for example, was a very early photo enthusiast who relentlessly documented herself and her friends dressing up, carrying on and having fun. She was a Lesbian, or, since the category was barely invented then, let’s say she loved women. Her work is available online

  52. June says:

    Here’s an interesting video about Talibs posing for photos. (Sorry to be such a shill for Slate, but I do like the stuff we publish!)

  53. Wax Lion says:

    I was in Ithaca for a few days in the fall, and that Farmer’s Market was enough to make me seriously consider moving there on the spot. Holy crap it was awesome. (Not quite as awesome as 1930’s lesbian nookie photos, mind ya’s. But close.)

  54. ready2agitate says:

    omg there’s 2 other entried up, including a new ep! Anyway, my friend was in that documentary by Laurel Chiten on Tourettes, and I had no idea that she was the person who also did “Two in Twenty”!

  55. s. says:

    I took two semesters of screenwriting with Elisabeth at Ithaca College. I had a great time, and it’s nice to see her again, if only in a picture!

  56. jude says:

    I run a home for abandoned photographs of women and girls & one summer based a series of 200 handlettered cards on the collection: The Lost Girls. During the 2 years of avid collecting i would occasionally run into an album that documented many years in the life of one woman.
    I am possessive about photos i really like, and so i would use photocopies of ones i was attached to, and only use real photos if i thought i could live without them, had lots of similar shots, etc.
    What i discovered – and this should have been no news to a word girl but into every life some huge DUHs like bolts from lackogod must fall -is that giving a text to an anonymous woman brings her to life. A woman in an apron standing in her yard in 1952 is transformed into a prophet, a poet, a ghost sent to only you to make sense of smallness and place you in the continuum of revelatory experience. sorry :>

    anyway. metaphor is the risk of finding meaning anywhere and everywhere – so even tho it’s not accurate, metaphoric is the only word i can find for all of this. Sometimes the photos feel like a huge tarot deck or something. I have never been able to describe why I love them or how personal my connection can become to almost any of them. hmmm. Maybe it’s more like glimpses of the moon or myself or Everywoman from other times – always the same moon, always a woman looking up, never the same moon because never the same woman and then in some way always the same woman.

  57. M says:

    Alison, I find these photographs so fascinating as well. You should look into the book Mary Diana Dods: A Gentlemen and a Scholar. She was a writer who was friends with Mary Shelley, and she was apparently very androgynous in appearance and probably had relationships with a lot of women in their literary circle. She actually ended up posing as the husband of one of Shelley’s friends who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock, and Betty T. Bennet, the author of the book, suggests that Shelley and this friend might have had affairs with Dods. Amazing!

  58. April says:

    see above^
    Maggie, your story amazed and delighted me. Thankyou.
    I’m so glad your family kept those photos, even if they do ‘sanitise’ the stories behind them.

  59. jean bb says:

    birdwatching? i knew i had crossed into middle age when i started that myself. here in china missing home thought of your site. thanks.

  60. m'aider says:

    Vicarious life is better than none. Fiendishly envious of your Lab visit. Cheery Scilla in pictures can’t be tossed about in storm like ours is now. Well. Unless the storm gets really bad.