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Posted in: Feminism, Arts, Film & Culture

Published on Nov 13, 2012 by Phyllis Chesler

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Jill Johnston: Word-Dancer

My Speech at Jill's First Memorial Service

Jill and I go way back—yes, we knew each other before she became "known" for her Town Hall girl-on-girl kiss—a great piece of performance art if you ask me--but an action that horrified both Norman Mailer and most feminists.

Jill was a bohemian, a Butch-Girl, an artiste, a gadfly, an outcast, a word-dancer, and this long, public kiss was her out-of-the-box artistic response to an otherwise "serious" evening. Jill did that a lot. Steal the show, mess things up.

Jill and I loved each other. We shared a common language of psycho-analytic concepts, Greek mythology, great literature, and the arts. I thought her writing was neo-Joycean, Steinian, Whitmanesque, self-indulgent, but mainly bold and brilliant.

We favored a "British" drawing-room style of conversation: witty, whimsical, theatrical. We exchanged devastating criticisms of those we knew or whose work we knew. We competed about who had suffered more indignities at the hands of publishers. The usual writer's conversation.

When I was writing Woman and Madness in 1971 and living alone in Lomontville, New York, not far from Jill in New Paltz, she would often turn up to spend the night.

"I'm Joan of Arc and I think the men are trying to kill me again. Please hide me." Well, this was a far more original come-on than any guy had ever thrown my way. I would always let her stay on the couch but I would also bolt my bedroom door.

And then, when I finally fell hard for a 6"1 West Coast woman whom Jill herself had immortalized and romanticized in several columns, (her words had that kind of effect—I viewed this woman as the general of a mythic Amazon Army), Jill angrily admonished me: "You straight women are all alike, breaking up a happy lesbian household." It seemed that the tall Amazon in question, who was paying the rent on the first Woman's Crisis Center on Dean Street in Brooklyn, lived in a commune and was also supporting a woman and her child.

I had no idea. All I had wanted to do was drive two motorcycles across the country together, the wind in our hair—take a real beatnik American "on the road" trip. But I backed away. I hovered, how I hovered, but I stayed away from such crazy, wonderful women for many years.

Jill kept asking me—a straight woman—why I thought she had to "come out" as a lesbian in her 1971 Village Voice column famously titled "Lois Lane is a Lesbian."

I offered to write the Introduction to what was supposed to be a Memoir of Madness to "legitimize" her with the psychiatrists—and suggested that she write an Introduction to my own book, Women and Madness to "legitimize" me with the Crazies. She refused. While she freely admitted that she had "stepped out" several times (this was the quaint, British way she had of referring to her own psychiatric hospitalizations), she decided that she had to write about lesbianism in order to be out there on this subject first.

I saw Jill through a long list of Lady Loves until she found Ingrid who grounded her most nobly. Ingrid: I am so sorry for your loss, for our loss.

Jill loved being "legitimately" married--and in Denmark. At the time, I myself thought that marriage had laid The Ladies low--but because Jill was so obsessed with being legal, not illegitimate, I finally came to understand her psychological and practical concerns as well.

I will always cherish our dinners of the home Ingrid shared with Jill on Charles St, both in their living room and on their rooftop and across the street in Sazerac House.

Of course, we had our differences—many differences—but to her credit, our credit, we continued to wrestle with them. The subject of anti-Semitism was a live wire for us. Unlike many other feminists, Jill and I fought to remain connected to each other no matter what.

One time, in the early 1970s, in the country, we decided to go to the movies together. We saw Gone With the Wind. We mourned the death of poor Gerald O'Hara, the loss of Tara, the doomed Melanie and Ashley, and Bonnie Blue, and Scarlett too. It was like an opera, really. We really were two Opera Queens, who happened to be girls.

I cannot believe she is gone or that she—that changeling child, that Huck Finn, that quintessential Peter Pan—actually managed to turn 81 years old.

Jill represents our youth, both aesthetically and politically; she is gone now and so is our youth.

Jill is a symbol of an era that opened and closed in a flash, one that is also gone, gone with the wind. Only our memories will keep it alive. Jill will remain a major icon, a "bad girl," a lightning rod, a cosmopolitan fairy spirit whom I will miss forever.

In the early 1980s, Jill and I accidentally met on Greenwich Avenue. She laughed, clutched my elbow, and exclaimed: "I am so glad the political part is over. I always hated that. Didn't you?"

I hugged her and assured her that I did not feel the same way, not at all.

Ti-Grace Atkinson, another movement "heavy," (remember those old words?), recently told me that she had first met Jill in 1963, when they both worked at Art News. She views Jill's writing "as a kind of bodily movement, as if Jill were capturing in words and phrasing what she so admired in avant garde dance. She was certainly an original."

That she was. We will not see her like again.

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