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Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples

Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples

by Rodger Streitmatter

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For more than a century before gay marriage became a hot-button political issue, same-sex unions flourished in America. Pairs of men and pairs of women joined together in committed unions, standing by each other “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” for periods of thirty or forty—sometimes as many as fifty—years. In short,


For more than a century before gay marriage became a hot-button political issue, same-sex unions flourished in America. Pairs of men and pairs of women joined together in committed unions, standing by each other “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” for periods of thirty or forty—sometimes as many as fifty—years. In short, they loved and supported each other every bit as much as any husband and wife.

In Outlaw Marriages, cultural historian Rodger Streitmatter reveals how some of these unions didn’t merely improve the quality of life for the two people involved but also enriched the American culture.

Among the high-profile couples whose lives and loves are illuminated in the following pages are Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, literary icon Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, author James Baldwin and Lucien Happersberger, and artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. 

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Outlaw Marriages gloriously outs same-sex couples through history and celebrates their love and impact in theater, arts, and social change. If you love the guilty pleasure of reading People magazine for your celebrity-couple news, you'll love this book. And the fact-checking is flawless!"—Kate Clinton, humorist

“The volume will have particular appeal to readers of gender studies, but these stories ultimately prove that true partnership is gender blind.”—Publishers Weekly

“A thoroughly interesting look at gay and lesbian love, life and relationships.”—EDGE 

“Fifteen love marriages that dared not speak their name defied laws and mores, flouted conventions, and live today in Streitmatter’s essential, well-documented history.”—Booklist

“A nice gift for just the right couple.”—Kirkus Reviews 

"An engaging and well-researched volume with broad appeal to the LGBTQ crowd (especially couples) as well as social historians."–Library Journal

"In Outlaw Marriages he distills a wealth of information down to a lively and effective series of double portraits.”—The Gay and Lesbian Review

“…Streitmatter expertly threads together the historical backgrounds and incredible courage of these couples… it’s a damn good bunch of stories told in a very approachable 160-ish pages.”—The Stranger 

Publishers Weekly
Cultural historian and American University professor Streitmatter (Mightier Than the Sword) absorbingly details the public and private lives of notable same-sex couples, deftly examining affairs, betrayals, and disappointments, as well as the enabling power that the right marriage, recognized or not, provides. Many of the pairs comprised a famous and not-so-famous member: Walt Whitman’s much younger partner and muse, Peter Doyle, sold streetcar tickets and worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, while Greta Garbo’s upper-crust partner, Mercedes de Acosta, taught the star, who came from a poor family, rules of etiquette and style. The thoroughly researched, lovingly rendered joint histories—including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—share a common thread that is less about gender than partnership-as-catalyst. Toklas championed Stein’s writing and became her literary agent; Rauschenberg encouraged Johns to act on the content of a bizarre dream and paint the American flag; Merlo “single-handedly stabilized Tennessee Williams’s life and career.” When James Baldwin seemed “on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” his partner, artist Lucien Happersberger, whisked him off to a Swiss village where he could focus on his work. The volume will have particular appeal to readers of gender studies, but these stories ultimately prove that true partnership is gender blind. Agent: Howard Yoon, Ross Yoon. (May)
Library Journal
Streitmatter (journalism, American Univ.; Mightier Than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History) demonstrates that, legality aside, same-sex relationships are not a recent by-product of political correctness gone awry, as opponents aver. The 15 couples whom he chronicles here forged not just strong, loving, and committed, if imperfect and occasionally impermanent, relationships, but enduring social and cultural legacies. Among the "outlaws" are some iconic names, including Walt Whitman, Jane Addams, Tennessee Williams, and Greta Garbo, whose partners, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory) were less famous. Each chapter covers one couple and highlights how the pair's personal lives synergistically developed and came to influence their work, whether as muse (Whitman and Peter Doyle), emotional stability and support (Williams and Frank Merlo), or a fully evolved working partnership (Merchant and Ivory). VERDICT An engaging and well-researched volume with broad appeal to the LGBTQ crowd (especially couples) as well as social historians.—Richard J. Violette, Greater Victoria P.L., B.C.
Kirkus Reviews
A selective glimpse at prominent same-sex nuptials. Streitmatter (Communication/American Univ.; From Perverts to Fab Five: The Media's Changing Depiction of Gay Men and Lesbians, 2008, etc.) considers the cases of 15 couples from a time when such unions were scandalous. In the households of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, both parties were famous. Typically, though, just one member of the outlaw marriage was celebrated. The less well-known, long-suffering partner was muse to his or her famous spouse. That was the case with Walt Whitman and his beloved streetcar conductor, Jane Addams and her financial supporter, J.C. Leyendecker and his Arrow Collar model, Greta Garbo and her social advisor and Tennessee Williams and his loyal caretaker. These notable subjects were not ordinary folk; they were social reformers, poets, playwrights and painters. The author begins each story with thumbnail bios, followed by a short section titled "Creating an Outlaw Marriage" and then some information on how they worked together. The tales continue with the ebb and flow of romance, faithfulness and loyalty, infidelity and betrayal. Finally, each story draws on newspaper obituaries that generally omitted mention of the spouse who figured so largely in the life of the deceased. While his topic undeniably interesting, journalist Streitmatter adheres to his journeyman's formula too much; however, his book might be a nice gift for just the right couple, for he clearly loves his story. In the epilogue, the author proudly announces that he and his partner are now husband and husband. Joint biographies, rendered in mostly artless prose, of successful and influential gay and lesbian couples who married before it was allowed.

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Read an Excerpt

From the Prologue

The couples who come to life in the following chapters were social insurgents.
That is, each pair of men and each pair of women defied the social order by creating sub-rosa same-sex marriages long before such relationships were legally sanctioned.

Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, for example, began their outlaw marriage in 1948—spending every day and night together, while loving and supporting each other to a degree fully comparable to that of any husband and wife. Their partnership continued until Merlo died of cancer in 1963.

Outlaw Marriages tells Williams and Merlo’s story, along with those of fourteen other same-sex couples who combined their lives either as husband and husband or wife and wife during eras when no legal institution and no church approved of such a union.

The other trait that these renegade couples have in common is that they all fully qualify as, in a word, extraordinary.

In many instances, that powerful adjective fits because of the remarkable contributions a particular couple made to the culture—the fields ranging from literature to modern art to filmmaking. The achievements of other couples include opening graduate education to American women and pioneering a new form of journalism in the pages of the New Yorker magazine.

With Williams and Merlo, their gift was creating some of the most memorable plays in the history of American theater. Williams was addicted to drugs and promiscuity when he met the rock-solid Merlo. The World War
II vet then saw to it that the playwright regained his emotional and physical equilibrium, allowing him to write such theatrical masterpieces as the
Pulitzer Prize–winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

A few of the other extraordinary contributions that unfold in this book are

• Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle reinventing American poetry

• Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith revolutionizing the field of social work

• Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta taking the lead in transforming
Hollywood into the celebrity capital of the world

When reading the statements above, you probably recognized only one of the two names in the pairings. That’s because the achievements of one partner often became widely known, while those of the other partner stayed hidden—until the publication of this book.

Outlaw Marriages is an apt title on two levels.

First, all fifteen couples created unions that defied the laws and mores of their day. Many of these de facto partnerships survived and thrived, despite their lack of support by church or state, for thirty or forty years—in some cases, fifty.

Second, these couples flouted convention. Aaron Copland was thirtytwo years old when he met and instantly fell in love with a drop-dead gorgeous violinist named Victor Kraft, who was only seventeen. The composer’s friends and family didn’t take the relationship seriously, convinced the couple wouldn’t survive the dramatic age difference. Copland and Kraft proved them wrong. The men not only stayed together but also jointly created a distinctly
American style of music that critics today, eighty years later, are still praising.

That the couples were willing to bend the marital rules doesn’t mean they all succeeded in creating relationships that were made in heaven—far from it. A regrettable scenario that plays out in several chapters begins with the lesser-known partner being absolutely essential to the better-known partner’s rise to success, but then . . . the high-achieving partner getting what might be called the “twenty-year itch.” Martha Carey Thomas set the standard back in the 1890s, summarily dumping her partner of two decades, Mamie Gwinn,
for another woman. Janet Flanner went a similar route in the 1930s, as did
Audre Lorde in the 1980s.

In the instances listed above as well as in others where the outlaw marriage eventually falls apart, readers hear the whole story—which typically includes infidelity, deceit, and betrayal. These unfortunate factors are revealed in full detail, as they’re the realities that often confront any long-term relationship,
gay or straight.

To help the various outlaw marriages come alive in the reader’s mind,
I’ve included photos of all fifteen couples. Tracking down these images was often a challenge, especially in the instances when one or both members of a couple—as with Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta—didn’t publicly acknowledge their relationship. And so, in some cases, I’ve had to use two separate photos of the partners, since a single photo of them together either didn’t exist or wasn’t available. There are also instances—as with Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith—when I’ve used a photo of poor quality because it shows the partners together, even though higher-quality photos of the two individuals separately could have been used.

Whether a chapter begins with a single image or a pair of them, each story that follows is a page-turner. Sometimes the most compelling element in it is the contribution the couple made; other times, it’s the internal dynamics of their relationship. But one theme runs through them all:

Two people joining together to create an outlaw marriage plays a central role not only in the couple’s extraordinary achievements, but also in each individual partner’s very being.

Meet the Author

Rodger Streitmatter, a former newspaper reporter, is a member of the School of Communication faculty at American University. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his husband, Tom Grooms.

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