Take a Lesbian for a Drink: On 50 Years of Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle”
By Trish BendixMarch 31, 2023
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
At the Ruby Fruit, a new Los Angeles “strip mall wine bar for the sapphically inclined,” which opened in February 2023. The name, to those in the know, is an homage to Rita Mae Brown’s 1973 novel Rubyfruit Jungle, which turns 50 this year and continues to have intergenerational relevance—as do dyke bars, despite their highly publicized demise and the insistence that lesbians themselves are a dying breed.
“People warned us against being so explicitly for lesbians,” Ruby Fruit co-owner Emily Bielagus told me. “People would be like, ‘Are you sure you don’t wanna be more inclusive? You can’t just play to the lesbian community.’” Yet there I’d been, sipping orange wine inside a standing-room-only bar with booths full of friend groups and first dates, walls painted shades of warm pink like the flesh of “the forbidden fruit,” as they call grapefruit in its country of origin, Barbados.
Bielagus and co-owner Mara Herbkersman have propped a copy of Brown’s iconic lesbian bildungsroman on a shelf behind the bar, the lavender flower on the paperback cover lit by a candle like an altar. Herbkersman said she’d originally planned on displaying a 2015 reissue of Rubyfruit Jungle that she’d ordered from Amazon, but she was intercepted by a former literary agent who got wind of the new edition and wouldn’t allow it. “They hunted down an original copy and they brought it to us,” Herbkersman said. “So that’s the one that we have on the shelf now.”
The rest of the titles, ranging from international cookbooks to multiple selections from a Sarah Waters collection, come from Bielagus’s personal library. Bielagus, like me, is 39, born a decade after Rubyfruit Jungle was first published, which meant that by the time she came out in her twenties, Rubyfruit was already deemed a classic by lesbians of previous generations. “At a certain age, you come out and then there’s like these books you’re scrambling to read,” she said, “like Tipping the Velvet [by Waters] and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit [by Jeanette Winterson]—and Rubyfruit Jungle.” Having her books on display at the Ruby Fruit, she added, was “a personal nod to the books and the literature that helped shape my gay experience and my gay culture.”
Now, 50 years later, the bar pays homage to Brown’s bestselling coming-of-age novel, which has been likened to a lesbian version of Catcher in the Rye. A thinly veiled retelling of Brown’s own journey from childhood tomboy in Northern Florida to lesbian feminist in early-1970s New York City, Rubyfruit Jungle follows protagonist Molly Bolt in her pursuit of radical acceptance and respect-driven love. Despite the homophobia and misogyny surrounding her as she grows up, Molly’s determination to be truthful to herself and her beliefs is unwavering and matter-of-fact. Her bravery, backed by Brown’s real-life persona as a take-no-bullshit activist and public figure, presented another option for women of all ages, but particularly those growing up during or after the second-wave feminist and gay liberation movements Brown had participated in.
Brown was nothing if not out and loud at a time when the word “lesbian” was plucked from academia and thrust into public consciousness. Charming, handsome, and hardbodied, with dark features that had people of all genders likening her to the actress Natalie Wood, Brown moved to New York from Gainesville just in time to witness the Stonewall riots and become part of both the Gay Liberation Front and the National Organization for Women. She found neither movement to be a sufficient support system for gay women and was the first to say so at rap sessions and meetings. As a 26-year-old NYU grad student in January 1970, Brown raised hell after NOW president Betty Friedan publicly decried her sapphic sisters as a distraction from women’s politics, deeming lesbians the unsavory “lavender menace” of the movement. The feminist behind 1963’s The Feminine Mystique removed Brown from her editorial role on the NOW newsletter, leading Brown to resign from the organization in a letter that attacked the leadership for “consciously oppress[ing] other women on the question of sexual preference.”
At that year’s Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City, NOW deliberately neglected to include any openly gay women or topics on the schedule. In response, Rita Mae Brown and her newly formed splinter group the Radicalesbians decided to stage an intervention. On May 1, 1970, a large group of lesbians infiltrated the audience of unsuspecting straight women. The conference was underway when, backstage, one of the interlopers cut the lights. In the house, the others stood and ditched their overcoats in the dark. When the lights came back on, the straight women gasped to see, scattered among them, lesbians proclaiming themselves, on purple T-shirts, to be the LAVENDER MENACE in the flesh. They held posters with exclamations in rose-colored ink: “TAKE A LESBIAN TO LUNCH!” “SUPERDYKE LOVES YOU!” “THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT IS A LESBIAN PLOT!”
“Who wants to join us?” Brown yelled to the crowd, stripping off her T-shirt, as the audience gasped, to reveal … another T-shirt beneath it. The group then distributed a 10-page, collectively written manifesto entitled “The Woman-Identified Woman,” with its famous opening line, “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” The essay advocated for sexual freedom as part of an all-encompassing feminism that required women to see how heterosexuality as an ideal was dictated by the same male supremacy the crowd was allegedly working to dismantle. “By virtue of having been brought up in a male society, we have internalized the male culture’s definition of ourselves,” the manifesto reads. “That definition consigns us to sexual and family functions, and excludes us from defining and shaping the terms of our lives.”
The action was successful: NOW acquiesced, and queer women and related subjects were added to the lineup on the following year’s docket.
By that time, Brown had left New York. She’d moved to Washington, DC, where she co-founded the Furies, a lesbian-feminist separatist commune, contributing to their newspaper. In “A Manifesto for the Feminist Artist,” published in 1972, Brown wrote that “90% of what is available to the public remains the art of the oppressor. […] Therefore precious little of our work leaks out to the mass public.” She argued for building an alternative media that would highlight the possibility of utopia or, at the very least, would sustain optimism: “[O]ur art must be more than personal narrative; it must contain a vision for the future where no group rapes another, where force is not the heart of politics and egotism not the mind of art.”
Brown was speaking from experience. While most of her political writing had been published in movement newsletters, she’d been trying to sell Rubyfruit Jungle to all the major houses but, as she told Time magazine in 2008, “nobody wanted to publish it.” As she wrote in Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser (1997), even an agent she had been told on good authority was “family” rejected the project. “[She] threw the manuscript at me,” Brown said. “You would have thought I’d tossed a canister of mustard gas into her office. She called me a pervert, telling me to get out of her office. She was so deep in the closet my novel must have given her the vapors.”
Always her own best publicist, Brown didn’t need an agent. She took Rubyfruit Jungle to a small independent feminist press called Daughters, Inc., launched in 1972. Run by Houston oil heiress June Arnold and lawyer-editor Parke Bowman, the press paid Brown $1,000 and printed 5,000 books, available via mail order in lesbian and feminist publications. Eventually, 70,000 copies of the hardcover edition were sold. “They couldn’t print them fast enough,” Brown told Time.
The initial success of Rubyfruit Jungle was a testament to the groundwork laid by the lesbian-feminist movement as much as it was to the book’s content. Mainstream publishing picked up on the underground’s proof of concept: surely buoyed by the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to remove homosexuality as a mental disorder from the DSM in 1973, Bantam Books bought the rights for $250,000 in 1977. (The paperback edition went on to sell over a million copies.) Daughters, Inc. and Brown split the money down the middle, though Brown would later complain that the government immediately took half of her half. She gave her mother 50 percent of what was left and spent the rest on a used Rolls-Royce to drive to California and pursue her dream of working in Hollywood.
Half a century after Rubyfruit Jungle was first published, the novel—which Eileen Myles once called “the quintessential dyke coming-of-age novel”—maintains a relevance rivaling Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952), which came into greater prominence thanks to Todd Haynes’s 2015 film adaptation, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Rubyfruit Jungle was supposed to get its own adaptation, but the project never came to fruition. Film rights were bought by a Boston-based production company, a screenplay was written by Brown in collaboration a handful of male screenwriters (including co-producer Arnie Reisman); Joan Tewkesbury, who authored the script for Robert Altman’s Oscar-winning satirical musical Nashville (1975), was slated to direct. Brown wanted Lily Tomlin to play the lead, the Nashville connection perhaps planting a seed of possibility. Amazon Quarterly, which had published excerpts from Rubyfruit Jungle prior to its appearance as a novel, reported that “attempts to hook up with Hollywood producers have been met with reluctance because it is felt the movie’s subject matter will prevent it from being a money-maker.” One producer, they reported, “showed some interest if the script could be changed so that Molly Bolt, who is a proud lesbian, would get married in the end.”
Despite the media attention paid to women’s liberation, and its portrayal of lesbianism as a spectacle, the 1970s were not far from the pulp-novel era that had made Highsmith’s untragic ending to The Price of Salt such an anomaly. Therese and Carol are McCarthy-era adult women, whereas Rubyfruit Jungle tracks the tomboyish and rebellious Molly Bolt from grade school in the 1960s through adolescence and on to college, where she’s kicked out for a relationship with a roommate, leading her to a new bohemian life in the unseemly East Village, a milieu Molly says she read about in “some trashy book.”
Unlike the lesbians of the pulp era who hid in the shadows, feigned heterosexuality, or committed suicide, Molly Bolt was unashamed, unbothered by people telling her she was wrong for not wanting to find a husband and instead dreaming of being a filmmaker or the president of the United States. “You have to do some of the things everybody does or people don’t like you,” Molly’s cousin Leroy tells her, to which she responds: “I don’t care whether they like me or not. Everybody’s stupid, that’s what I think. I care if I like me, that’s what I truly care about.”
Even as a child, Molly is a self-aware outsider who feels alienated by societal norms and is simultaneously inspired to refuse them for herself. Despite the discrimination she encounters from her family, her peers, and various authority figures, Molly displays a brazenness that readers could vicariously embrace. In the 1970s, she ushered in a kind of lesbian who wasn’t doomed to The Well of Loneliness or defined by her punishment, from hand slaps to institutional imprisonments. As tough as it was, Molly made being a lesbian fun.
“The great thing about Rubyfruit Jungle is it’s funny,” Brown says in the 2022 documentary In Her Words: 20th Century Lesbian Fiction. “None of this ‘Oh, woe is me, my life is the most painful life in the world.’” A New York Times article on the 1977 paperback edition called the book a humorous novel “about a woman who grew up homosexual and enjoyed it.”
That Molly Bolt was able to experience any joy as a lesbian reflects the revolutionary work Brown had done with her Radicalesbians and Furies cohorts, alongside the thousands of women who made up the lesbian-feminist movement. In subsequent decades, Rubyfruit Jungle met young queer people in libraries and at garage sales. The novel namechecks Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Gertrude Stein (the name of someone’s cat), the work of Susan Sontag—real queer women whose work preceded Brown’s but whose lineage came to include her. Molly Bolt might have been fictional, but she provided a tangible existence for many women and queer people who hadn’t been given permission to dream a future for themselves until Rubyfruit Jungle suggested it could be done.
During the the late 1960s and early ’70s, women began not only telling their own stories but also paying homage to those who had gone before them, unearthing buried writings and works by women artists and thinkers who had been cast as muses to more famous men or as unseemly spinsters with ignorable ideals. Some famous women known to be sapphically inclined were given their belated flowers from the lesbian-feminist community while mainstream biographies, biopics, and other remembrances sanitized their sexual histories for general audiences.
In the more recent past, Emma Donoghue and Terry Castle have documented the many lesbian characters and stories that have existed throughout literature, in their books Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (2010) and The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (1993), respectively. Donoghue writes that Rubyfruit Jungle is the only bestselling “lesbian novel” that made its author into a celebrity among straight readers—“the only lesbian in America,” as Brown often referred to her public positioning. In Inseparable, Donoghue writes that Brown’s approach “[c]leverly combin[ed] a serious quest story with comic exuberance,” making a case for nonmonogamy in a “picaresque saga [that] is never going to turn into a traditional romance.”
Though often described as “lesbian,” Molly’s identity was as changeful as her creator’s. Brown has frequently mentioned having sexual relationships with men throughout her life. And though she has quite publicly claimed lesbianism as a political identity, she’s also used the terms bisexual and pansexual to describe herself, while also eschewing labels altogether. Her well-known relationships with Fried Green Tomatoes author Fannie Flagg, professional tennis star Martina Navratilova, and feminist activist Charlotte Bunch have solidified her status as a preeminent celesbian—at least, for a certain generation.
The co-owners of the Ruby Fruit aren’t all that familiar with Brown’s life and career, both of them admitting to knowing not too much about her. Bielagus said that the name of the bar was about paying homage to lesbian culture while also drawing on the title’s “ability to play on so many different levels, like wine in a glass is ruby-colored fruit juice.” Herbkersman enjoys the fact that the name is “sensual and evocative”: “When you say ‘Rubyfruit,’ your lips purse, and I love how physical saying that word is.” (In the novel, Molly says that when she makes love to a woman, she thinks “of their genitals as a, as a rubyfruit jungle. […] Yeah, women are thick and rich and full of hidden treasures and besides that, they taste good.”)
Ironically, there is no such thing as a rubyfruit, which is why there isn’t one on the cover. The closest thing would be the Ruby Red grapefruit, a mutation of the pink grapefruit that started popping up in the 1920s, a century after the trees first came to the States via Texas and Florida. Ruby Reds are sweeter than their mothers but still retain the bitter citrus tang of their sisters. A rubyfruit, then, is a mutation of a mutation: a natural image of abundance and flux. I experience lesbian culture the same way—as a complex evolution rather than a fixed essence. One season, lesbians are chic; the next, they are extinct.
The first lesbian bar to pay tribute to Brown’s book was New York City’s Rubyfruit Bar and Grill, which opened in 1994 in the Village. The place was hot into the late ’90s but, toward the end of its 14-year run, a New York Magazine review by lesbian filmmaker Michelle Handelman described it as “a retirement home for diesel dykes and high school gym teachers—the only thing missing is a portrait of Gertrude Stein over the fireplace.” The bar had its own literary history, mentioned as a favorite spot of Kay Scarpetta’s lesbian niece in Patricia Cornwell’s mystery thrillers, and also boasted Martina Navratilova as a fan, more than a decade after she left Brown for another woman. (Brown went on to publish a novel in 1983 about her time spent with Navratilova on the professional women’s tennis circuit: Sudden Death.)
By 2008, Rubyfruit Bar and Grill could no longer afford its skyrocketing rent, and despite a wealthy financier attempting to save the place by rebranding it the “RF Lounge,” there was too much competition from two other longtime (and still standing) lesbian bars within walking distance, Henrietta Hudson and Cubbyhole, not to mention a new generation looking for a dynamic different from that of its predecessors. Also opened during the height of lesbian chic was Rubyfruit Jungle in New Orleans, which had the distinction of being the last lesbian bar left in that city when it closed in 2012.
Molly Bolt wasn’t a fan of lesbian bars, and neither was Rita Mae Brown. In Rubyfruit Jungle, Molly finds New York’s mafia-run bars too butch-femme (“What’s the point of being a lesbian if a woman is going to look and act like an imitation man?”). She bemoans the fact that, if she’s the femme, butches will hit on her, but if she’s the butch, she’s expected to pay for the drinks: “Either way I get screwed.”
In Los Angeles, the Ruby Fruit is more akin to a cocktail lounge than the working-class dive bars dykes populated in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s—and, in some instances, into the ’80s and ’90s. Bar dykes have been at odds with other lesbian factions for decades, which should alert anyone who believes queer women are a monolith to just how fractured a collective identity can be. As with all other facets of the community and its various movements, class and race were important factors, with any outward defiance of gender presentation being met by pleas for respectability from the middle- and upper-class lesbians, such as the Daughters of Bilitis, who, like their gay cis male counterparts, were hoping for acceptance and normalization rather than radical change. Today, transphobic lesbians claim to be radical feminists, forcing intersectional dykes of all gender presentations to wrestle it back—and that’s just what’s coming from inside the house. Language may have evolved—and with it, cultural competency and understanding—but many of the same battles from 1973 rage on.
In her 2013 book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology before Stonewall, Marie Cartier argues that the butch-femme contingent post–World War II laid the groundwork for feminists of the 1970s:
The war meant that people could do a daring thing such as stand up as a gay woman, and one might expect someone to stand with you. After the war, the bars provided places for connection during the decades that had the least public places available; and gave women […] physical spaces to develop a sense of community, and to take pride in belonging.
Cartier cites the “The Woman-Identified Woman” as the moment that marks a shift in lesbianism from bar culture to political identity. Lesbian feminists built coffee shops, bookstores, and other institutions as alternatives to the bars, which were still dangerous spaces that faced police raids for years after Stonewall. Brown, who had been at the riots but watched from afar, wary of the violence, used to take pamphlets around to lesbian bars, as she wrote in her memoir Rita Will, “warning that alcohol and drug addiction rates were higher among gay people than among straight people.” “As much as I understand suffering, I don’t understand numbing your nerve endings,” she added. “You can’t fight when you’re dulled.”
Despite Brown’s disinterest in bar culture, she would surely appreciate the tribute from yet another generation of readers passing Rubyfruit Jungle on. The Ruby Fruit just announced a new sapphic reading club (first selection: Audre Lorde’s 1978 paper “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” accompanied by an essay by Adrienne Maree Brown), and is planning more ways to use the limited space. Business has been so booming that, some nights, lines are out the door into the parking lot, where thirsty queers make small talk while waiting for someone to leave so they can snag a seat in the 1,000-square-foot space. “It’s really intimate and it’s super cozy, but it’s also a challenge,” Herbkersman said.
There’s also something of a curse on the space itself, which has been infamous for housing failing businesses like Ezsett, a wine bar where Herbkersman and Bielagus bonded over their shared love of Indigo Girls (whose music now plays on a loop in the Ruby Fruit bathroom). The rapid gentrification of Silver Lake has made for short-term leases and inflating rents, and while the neighborhood has a long LGBTQ+ history, it isn’t clear whether a new lesbian bar can survive, much less thrive, in 2023. While the bar may just seem to be riding the opening wave right now, Herbkersman believes that providing a space for a growing, expansive community interested in celebrating its shared history is the way to ensure its longevity.
“It’s not like all of the lesbians in Los Angeles are just gonna fall off the face of the earth,” she said. “In fact, the goal of this is to raise visibility and awareness because I think there might be more. This is about opening people’s eyes and starting to understand that there are other choices to make and there are different ways to be from the ways that you thought that you had to be.”
Rita Mae Brown now lives on a horse farm in Virginia where she writes mystery novels (co-authored with one of her many cats) and enjoys fox hunting. Preferring animals to people, she does little press, but in 2015, she penned a foreword for the new edition of her novel that Herbkersman had ordered for the bar. “If Rubyfruit Jungle helped to push you on your path to freedom,” she wrote, “I’ve done something right.”
Trish Bendix is a writer in Los Angeles. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times.
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