From The NYT
September 21, 2010
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Jill Johnston in 1985.
Jill Johnston, a longtime cultural critic for The Village Voice whose daring, experimental prose style mirrored the avant-garde art she covered and whose book “Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution” spearheaded the lesbian separatist movement of the early 1970s, died in Hartford on Saturday. She was 81 and lived in Sharon, Conn.
The cause was a stroke, her spouse, Ingrid Nyeboe, said.
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, 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. [Nebs: Which in retrospect seems awfully tame.]
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.”
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.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Tufts in 1951 and studying dance at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, she began writing for The Dance Observer. She was soon hired by the fledgling Voice to write the weekly column Dance Journal, which ran until the mid-1970s.
The revolutionary currents of the time found expression in her increasingly wayward Voice column, which soon took in all aspects of the counterculture and by the late 1960s had become a freewheeling series of dispatches about her adventures in the arts and on the road.
“Now I was a chronicler of my own life, by 60s standards perhaps not too egregiously adventurous and experimental, but in a newspaper in full public view, in the most fractured Dada style of work I had admired as a critic — a rather wild spectacle in those woolly times,” she wrote on her Web site.
She developed a singular prose style — what the writer Pattrice Jones, writing in the Web magazine LesbiaNation.com [defunct] 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.
Her marriage to Richard Lanham in 1958 ended in divorce six years later. Besides her spouse, Ms. Nyeboe, whom she married in Denmark in 1993 and in Connecticut last year, she is survived by her two children, Richard Lanham and Winifred Lanham, and four grandchildren.
Since the 1980s Ms. Johnston often wrote for Art in America and The New York Times Book Review. She also wrote other books, including “At Sea on Land: Extreme Politics” (2005).
Although she later said that she regarded “Lesbian Nation” as “a period piece,” Ms. Johnston held fast to her version of feminism and reaffirmed it in “Admission Accomplished”(1998): “The centrality of the lesbian position to feminist revolution — wildly unrealistic or downright mad, as it still seems to most women everywhere — continues to ring true and right.”
Note: This reminded of something I posted last year: http://community.livejournal.com/e_speaks/47943.html