The Great Deflector




MY FAVORITE PORTRAIT of Fran Ross — author of Oreo (1974) and an elusive figure in literary history — was executed in a flight of imagination by Ann Grifalconi, the artist who was Ross’s business partner and romantic companion for almost a decade. It was first exhibited to the public on August 26, 1970, when Ross and Grifalconi made a poster-sized version of it and brandished it, to the astonishment of churchgoers and passersby, on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The occasion was the 10,000-strong “Women’s March for Peace and Equality”; Grifalconi’s And God Created Woman in Her Own Image was intended to match the audacious street theater of the larger event. [1]

The piece is a feminist play on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, on which John Berger has written piquantly:

[Michelangelo’s] exclusive subject was the human body, and for him that body’s sublimity lay revealed in the male sexual organ. […] Given this predilection and all the pride of the Renaissance genius, what would you say his imaginary paradise might have been? Might it not have been the fantasy of men giving birth?

The whole ceiling is really about Creation and for him, in the last coil of his longing, Creation meant everything imaginable being born, thrusting and flying, from between men’s legs!

Grifalconi stripped away the association of power — divine power, creative power — with the male form. Gone was Michelangelo’s Creator; in his place was Fran Ross’s Creatrix, borne aloft by a congregation of female angels. Using her own partner as her model, Grifalconi had substituted a black Goddess with a full Afro for the conventional white God with flowing white beard.

But more was shifted than just the race and gender of the figures; there was a range of emotion and intimacy added, too. If Michelangelo’s Adam meets the eyes of his Creator with a certain beefcake stoicism, Grifalconi’s Eve is in a more pliant pose, softened by vulnerability and emotional need. Meanwhile, her Creator is not nearly so serious-minded as Michelangelo’s and offers the hint of a smile, as if she appreciated the whimsy of the parody in which she finds herself.

And while, famously, God and Adam’s index fingers do not touch and the spark of life has yet to leap from God’s digit to Adam’s, in Grifalconi’s version the two fingers do appear to meet — or at least come blurrily close.

There’s both yearning and intimacy in Grifalconi’s image; Eve is figured less as God’s child than as God’s lover, in an idealized image that points to an interracial union. The sketch manages to be feminist, anti-racist, and queer at the same time — and speaks to the aspiration for a women’s liberation movement that could both recognize the distance separating white and black women and work to close that gap.

Here, of course, we run into the personal dimension of And God Created Woman in Her Own Image: it was not just a riff on Michelangelo, but also a fascinatingly elevated tribute from a white artist to her black companion. Grifalconi was in her late 30s, Ross in her mid-20s when they paired up, and Grifalconi was in several ways the more experienced partner. She’d been in relationships with women since at least the late 1950s, when she was briefly the companion of Lorraine Hansberry; she’d built herself a career as an artist of children’s books, having collaborated with her mother (the anti-nuclear activist and writer Mary Hays Weik) on the Newbery-honored The Jazz Man (1966), and having worked with poet Elizabeth Bishop on The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon (1968). [2] But by the evidence of And God Created Woman in Her Own Image, we can infer that Grifalconi saw Ross as formidable in her own right: self-possessed, magnetic, and lovingly powerful.

After its exhibition at the 1970 “Women’s March,” Grifalconi’s image was disseminated in poster form by Greyfalcon House, the entity she founded to publish innovative work. Tellingly, it was also Greyfalcon House, not any of the established New York publishers, that brought out Ross’s Oreo in 1974. Ross had hoped to find a better-known publisher, but despite having worked for a number of presses (Doubleday, McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster) as an editor and freelance proofreader, she could not interest them in her own literary project. So she offered the book to Greyfalcon House, and she and Grifalconi, who had been collaborating and living with one another for six years at that point, worked to put it out themselves.

Thankfully, Ross was plugged into a feminist movement that believed in founding its own counter-institutions. (The year after Grifalconi published Oreo, she founded the New York Feminist Credit Union in her own apartment.) If not for that historical serendipity, Oreo would probably have remained a thick manuscript on someone’s slush pile, forever unknown.

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While Fran Ross herself has largely remained swathed in obscurity, her novel has increasingly taken on a lustrous aura — that of a “soaring literary achievement.” In a typically enthusiastic reconsideration, The New York Times’s Dwight Garner hailed it as one of “the 20th century’s lemony comic classics” and ranked it with Lucky Jim, Catch-22, and A Confederacy of Dunces.

Oreo delights, in no small part, because it is many books in one. It’s the story of a half-black, half-Jewish heroine’s search for her father; a postmodern dismantling of the Greek myth of Theseus; a send-up of American myths of racial purity and authenticity; a tall tale featuring a teenage heroine who one-ups Pam Grier in badassery, Albert Einstein in brilliance, and Cary Grant in nonchalance; and an exuberant and acrobatic experiment with language itself.

Yet, after spending some time following the biographical traces Fran Ross left, I’ve come to think that the recent tributes to Oreo have missed perhaps its most crucial context — mostly because Ross herself withheld that context from the public. Oreo is a queer novel, written by a gay woman who, while she traveled in gay circles and revered queer writers like James Baldwin and Djuna Barnes, opted not to disclose that side of her identity when she made her literary debut. That original act of withholding, or discretion, has led the novel’s many admirers to fail to see its queerness, to miss how its quicksilver style has roots in Fran Ross’s triple-jeopardy predicament as a black gay female writer of genius. She deployed the razzle-dazzle of her language both to trespass boundaries of all kinds and to detach herself from the evidence of those trespasses. “She had protective armor on,” one of her creative collaborators, the novelist and journalist Himilce Novas, told me. “She was stolid, even lapidary. That was her defense — it was not easy to be the target of so many people.”

Genius can be a form of armor, and Oreo is a genius-centered work: written with self-conscious genius about a genius who just can’t help herself. The novel’s protagonist is, along with William Gaddis’s J R (self-made millionaire at age 11) and Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse (whizkid novelist at age 10), one of the great prodigies of 1970s American fiction — and, within that company, the most hilarious deflator of male egos.

Take the scene in which the 16-year-old Oreo, on a detour from her quest to find her father, is pitted in a wrestling match against a stooped, muscled man-beast (“Kirk”) for a private audience of a pimp and his stable of nine women. At the pimp’s request, Kirk strips off his loincloth — his task being to rape the virginal Oreo for sport — and the novel’s narrator pans from the reaction of the crowd to the reaction of her protagonist. As is typical of Oreo, the prose is both precise and extravagant:

A gasp went up from the nine prostitutes. Parnell [the pimp] looked, and looked again, with a “What hath God wrought?” expression of envy on his face. Kirk’s equipment unfurled like a paper favor blown by Gabriel at the last party in the history of the world. His demanding “digit” made undiscriminating Uncle-Sam-wants-you gestures around the room.

Oreo was impressed. Male genitals had always reminded her of oysters, gizzards, and turkey wattles at best, a bunch of seedless grapes at worst. On the other hand, most marmoreal baskets (e.g., the David’s) resembled the head of a mandrill (a serendipitous pun). An inveterate crotch-watcher, she had once made a list of sports figures whom she classified under the headings “Capons” and “Cockerels.” The capons (mostly big-game hunters, bowlers) were men whose horns could be described by any of the following (or similar) terms: pecker, dick, cock, thing, peter, prick, dangle, shmendrick, putz, shmuck. The cockerels (gymnasts, swimmers) sported any of the following: shlong, dong, rod, tool, lumber. Neutral words (member, penis) were applicable in cases where the looseness or padding of the standard uniform made definitive assessment impossible (baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and tennis players). But Kirk’s stallion was a horse of another collar, of such dimensions that he could have used a zeppelin for a condom.

In other hands, this scene could easily turn luridly Gothic or melodramatic. The chorus of prostitutes, who presumably have seen a male member or two in their time, register the requisite horror; the pimp comes off as a sadist and chauvinist par excellence. But Oreo’s narrator sets up the horror only to puncture it. As Kirk’s member literally inflates, it gets deflated in turn as a mere “paper favor.” As it jabs with the force of Uncle Sam’s finger, it evokes an Uncle Sam who is effectively brainless.

When the narration shifts into the mind of the teenage Oreo, the tone becomes still more relaxed and freewheeling. The action is paused as her mind zooms into hyperdrive and recalls the games it has enjoyed playing with itself — games that marry the verbal pleasure of naming and list-making with the visual pleasure of inspecting what nice girls are not supposed to examine too closely. At the very moment that Oreo is set up to be a victim of the “male gaze” — with Parnell the pimp licking his chops at the prospect of her sexual punishment — she remains unflappably sharp-eyed, an observer who finds power in ridiculing the outsize obstacles she meets. In the face of danger, she muses about sculpture, sports, and shmucks; she categorizes; she relishes her mastery of linguistic registers from the elevated (“marmoreal”) to the salty (“shlong”); she dishes out puns galore. She models an extreme self-possession, a grace-under-pressure that would put Hemingway to shame.

As in so much of Oreo, the comic setup leads into an absurdist punch line. When Kirk tries to “jam his pole into her vault,” he is instead propelled backward and flies into the nearest wall. Oreo, it turns out, has gotten hold of the prototype of an anti-rape device, a “false hymen made of elasticium, a newly discovered trivalent metal whose outstanding characteristic was enormous resiliency.” Kirk is powerless before it: his member bounces off her “indehiscent cherry as if it were a tiny trampoline.” While he has his “equipment,” she has hers — and the technology behind hers is infinitely more sophisticated. The harder he tries to violate Oreo, the harder he punishes himself and the harder he rebounds off her. By the end of the scene, he’s “fann[ing] the head of his angry-red penis, occasionally patting it in consolation for its failure.” Oreo has managed, like a master of jiujitsu, to draw her opponent into a position where he leverages his power against himself. This is, not coincidentally, the technique of a master of satire as well.

The secret of Fran Ross’s style seems to me revealed in this episode. Oreo is carried by a spirit of buoyancy that’s emotional as well as linguistic: whenever horrible things happen — and they do, with ridiculous frequency — the response is always to tease, jape, play with words, and joyfully fling the world off its intended course. Vulnerability is not an option. Just as Oreo invites the man-beast Kirk into her recesses only to send him caroming off, so the narrator lures us along while revealing little of herself other than her sparkling imagination, insanely wide vocabulary, and puckish nonchalance. We might say that elasticium, the fantastic metal that saves Oreo, stands for an aspiration at the heart of the novel: to be inviolable. If only you could be so worldly that you become a world unto yourself — so witty and prepared that the barbs of others just glance off and fall away.

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A common refrain in critical writing about Oreo is that it was before its time: out of sync with its moment but prophetic in relation to ours. “Ross’s novel dazzles by deliberately straining the abilities of its readers, as if she wrote for an audience that did not yet exist,” poet-scholar Harryette Mullen suggested in the essay that framed Oreo’s first reissue, in 2000. Danzy Senna has recalled that when she first read Oreo in the late 1990s, it appeared to her “like a strange uncanny dream about the future that was really the past. That is, it read like a novel not from 1974 but from the near future — a book whose appearance I was still waiting for.”

Certainly there was a historical poetry to Oreo’s larger rediscovery in 2015, the year that New York Times critic Wesley Morris dubbed “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity.” Morris noted that a group of recent satirical novels — Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Mat Johnson’s Loving Day — had taken off from the premise that racial identity was both a shaping fact of life and also a flamboyant invention: an act of identity theft, a cosmetic-surgical alteration, a scam. Here Morris name-checked Oreo as a book whose spirit rhymed with these others — a suggestion buttressed by the fact that Beatty and Johnson have both publicly paid tribute to the novel. The problem with seeing Oreo as a work of prophecy, though, is that it can lead us to miss its roots in its own moment: we risk overstating Fran Ross’s isolation and overlooking the circles that shaped her sense of artistic possibility and her cock-eyed take on American life. The air of mystery that clings to her might make it seem that she lived outside the groove of history. She did not.

Ross was a product, first, of a working-class black Philadelphian family that had expansive hopes for Fran and her two brothers. Her father was a welder and proud union man; her mother, a store clerk who, outside of her job, sang with her church choir and in nightclubs, showing off her deep, husky contralto. Family conversations were freewheeling: “nothing was taboo,” a friend of Ross remembered. It was the sort of family that could incubate — as it did, through Ross and her oldest brother — both a literary trickster and a homicide detective.

The family’s strong belief in education led the young Fran to travel often in Jewish circles. Though black Philadelphians were increasingly being locked by housing discrimination into Northern Philadelphia (where the black population shot up from 28 to 69 percent between 1940 and 1960), Fran grew up alongside the sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants. When, as a girl, she drifted into the corner store next to her family home, she heard the strains of Yiddish spoken by the family of its Russian-Jewish proprietor. When, in high school, she joined the debate team, literary club, and art club, her teammates and clubmates were largely white and Jewish. And when, in the mid-’50s, she attended Temple University on a full scholarship, again she was in a largely Jewish milieu. In her senior yearbook, smiling behind large cat-eye glasses and boasting involvements with the French Honors Society, women’s basketball team, school newspaper, and Student Senate, Ross is surrounded alphabetically by one Hyman Rosenfeld and one Ralph Rubenstein. She picked up on the accents and rhythms of Jewish humor, so much so that she could convincingly ghostwrite it.

Ross and her Temple classmates, in “The Templar 1956”

In 1960, the 23-year-old Ross set off for New York City, where she had the good fortune, like many young women looking to reinvent themselves there, to land at the Webster Apartments for Women, a sprawling 300-room complex at 34th Street and 8th Avenue that, according to its Progressive Era mission, aimed to offer “unmarried working women” an affordable package of temporary lodging and cafeteria-style meals. There, Ross drew together a new social circle for herself. Most residents of the Webster Apartments stayed on for a week or so; Ross stayed there for months, long after she had secured a low-level editorial job at the Saturday Evening Post. Along with new friend Celeste Newbrough, a 19-year-old who had just dropped out of LSU and driven to New York City with her lesbian lover, Ross became co-host of an intimate sort of salon. After dinner at the Webster cafeteria, its 13 members would repair to either Ross’s or Newbrough’s room and have “endless heart-to-hearts into the late hours,” Newbrough remembered. “In light of Oscar Wilde’s observation [that] ‘experience is simply the name we give our mistakes,’ we exchanged the wisdom each had gained in a score of years.”

These “heart-to-hearts” — consciousness-raising sessions avant la lettre — had a galvanic effect on the young women who shared in them: of the Webster “gang of thirteen,” 12 eventually came out as lesbians. (The 13th, according to Newbrough, was allowed continued membership in the group because, in defiance of another sexual norm, she tended to date black men.) Ross and Newbrough, after leaving the Webster Apartments, were similarly launched: together they pursued their education, sentimental and otherwise, as “apprentice lesbians,” hungry for what New York City, from Greenwich Village to Harlem, could teach them about art and politics, love and pleasure. The two claimed Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, set in the demi-monde of 1920s Paris, as their “Bible.” They memorized passages of the notoriously baroque novel, whose feverish aphorisms (“In time everything is possible and in space everything forgivable; life is but the intermediary vice”) echo across the denser passages of Oreo. They even tracked down Barnes’s address and made a pilgrimage to see her in her Greenwich Village flat, only to be told by the septuagenarian recluse, through a barely cracked door, “I’m sorry. I never see anyone anymore.”

If Djuna Barnes was the ancestor whom Ross hoped to claim, James Baldwin was the contemporary who acted as a lodestar. In the early ’60s, Ross read his novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room and thrilled at his ability to be political and poetical, a trenchant critic of racial violence and a writer of psychological novels that probed the inner workings of desire — and gay desire at that. With Newbrough she traveled to Harlem on the subway to see Baldwin lecture in school gymnasiums and auditoriums; the two of them revered Baldwin “as others might an Indian guru,” Newbrough recalled. At a forum in 1962, Ross took the opportunity to ask Baldwin if he saw parallels between the treatment of blacks and the treatment of women. Baldwin answered that white men in America were invested much more in the purity of white women than in their rights. White men’s desire to control other people’s sexuality, he implied, was the enemy of freedom — women’s freedom and black freedom both.

Through much of the 1960s, Ross labored as an editorial assistant and, increasingly, a proofreader — the detail-oriented black woman who polished other people’s prose. Off the job, she frequented off-Broadway plays by the likes of Genet and Ionesco; attended concerts by Nina Simone (whom Newbrough judged temperamentally akin to Ross, a mix of “rage and mildness”); and meditated on the interconnections between racial and sexual oppression. She aspired to be a stand-up comedian but found herself writing material for a Jewish comic (possibly Myron Cohen, who specialized in Yiddish-inflected storytelling) — another form of labor that kept her contributions hidden. She did her job so well that the comic, years later, bounded up to her on Park Avenue and asked her point-blank, “Why aren’t you writing for me anymore?” The answer was: She was too busy with a new relationship, and traveling through the doors that it had opened.

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It was in August 1968 — in the middle of “Year One” of the women’s liberation movement — that Ross and Grifalconi made their own bid for creative independence, co-founding a small-scale production company by the name of Media Plus. Media Plus aimed to target the education market, producing films and curricular supplements for everyone from preschoolers to adult learners. Notably, Toni Morrison also began her career in publishing as an editor of textbooks, first at a firm in Syracuse and later at Random House — a symmetry which suggests that educational divisions offered black women opportunities unavailable elsewhere in the industry. Despite their strong reach, educational divisions operated in the shadows of the publishing world, outside of its prestige economy. Never the subject of reviews, Media Plus’s productions were easy to miss at the time; and since they were not collected by university libraries or film archives, they became, for future historians, hard to find.

The “plus” in Media Plus sounded deceptively innocuous, advertising simply that the company sought to introduce something new to schools but not divulging any specifics. In fact, over the next six years, Media Plus created programs in tune with the Civil Rights movement, the environmental movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the gay liberation movement. The company had been conceived, in no small part, in reaction to the racism that Ross and Grifalconi had perceived in educational publishing. “I had been a fairly well-known illustrator and I was shocked to discover that when books were put into readers for the schools, the schools had changed the racial setup,” Grifalconi told me. “I was asked to do things about the color of the illustrations that I refused — to take out black faces, or to make sure they weren’t there to begin with.” Ross was Grifalconi’s partner in outrage, and so they became partners in creativity. “‘We’re both sick and tired,’” Grifalconi remembered thinking, “‘Let’s put it together with our ambition and our experience in the field, and let’s go in and innovate.’” Ross and Grifalconi each put up $3,000 of their own money to found Media Plus, and Grifalconi, who had more experience in publishing, became its president, Ross its vice president. [3]

Media Plus’s first project was the film “Men of Thought, Men of Action,” which aimed to retell the story of America through the counterpoint of black and white heroism. Benjamin Banneker and Benjamin Franklin, both inventors in a revolutionary “age of inquiry”; Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau, both fighting for the abolition of slavery; W. E. B. Du Bois and Jacob Riis, both highlighting the intertwined problems of poverty and the color line — these were some of the paired figures whom Ross and Grifalconi used to dramatize the arc of a very long civil rights movement. To strengthen the film’s research foundation, Ross and Grifalconi toured through unreconstructed parts of South Carolina and Georgia, where the interracial pair were regarded as a “phenomenon,” Grifalconi recalled. In a restaurant on the Sea Islands of Georgia, the management saw fit to drop a curtain between the two travelers and the rest of the restaurant’s patrons. Ross and Grifalconi padded into fields trailing their camera equipment and went off in search of caches of Civil War–era photographs — all this so that “Men of Thought, Men of Action” could incorporate less-seen images of black life and interviews with people who lived outside the radar of the network news.

When Grifalconi and Ross brought their finished project to Himilce Novas, a senior editor at Doubleday’s multimedia division (and the only female senior editor at the company), she agreed to have Doubleday distribute it. But she also prodded them on its particular limitation: the all-male cast who supplied its heroic “thought” and “action.” “Why don’t you do something about the women’s movement?” Novas asked. When Ross and Grifalconi responded eagerly to the idea, Novas herself joined up with Media Plus to create what became “The Silenced Majority: A Women’s Liberation Multi-Media Kit,” its name a radical twist on Nixon’s catchphrase. “The Silenced Majority” was Media Plus’s most elaborate production, an “educational consciousness-raising program” that took viewers on a tour of feminism from its roots in abolitionism to its early 1970s battles against economic, legal, and cultural discrimination. Novas served as writer, Ross as director and editor, and Grifalconi as coordinator of the film’s visuals.

Like “Men of Action,” “The Silenced Majority” was nuanced and deeply researched. It presented second-wave feminism not as a unified program but as an ongoing and sometimes contentious conversation — for example, through a segment titled “Rapping with the Feminists,” where Flo Kennedy punched back against the revolutionary rhetoric of Kate Millett with the line: “People talk about destroying or changing the family as if they were talking about a box of Kleenex.” The bibliography of its teachers’ supplement included Toni Cade Bambara and Shulamith Firestone, Friedrich Engels and Germaine Greer, Mary Ellmann and Vivian Gornick. But Novas, Ross, and Grifalconi were committed to taking on their subject with a light touch, and the depth of the program was balanced by a spirit of levity, even flippancy, that worked well with its mandate to “pose[] questions rather than provide[] answers.” The trio felt that, if women’s liberation was going to make its way into the high school curriculum, it needed to maintain its sense of humor. “A lot of it was tongue-in-cheek so that [the audience] would get the picture,” Novas said. While writing the script, she thought of the show’s rhythm as “left hook, right hook” — jabs designed to make people wince at injustice alternating with jabs designed to make them laugh at its absurdity.

“The Silenced Majority: A Multi-Media Guide” and Ann Grifalconi, “Ain’t I a Woman,” images courtesy of Himilce Novas

When “The Silenced Majority” was offered to school systems across the country in 1971, the kit included, in addition to the central 75-minute program, two posters by Grifalconi: “Ain’t I a Woman,” her iconic image of the abolitionist and suffragist Sojourner Truth, and “And God Created Woman,” with Fran Ross’s Creatrix offering the spark of life to a white Eve. American feminism, it underlined, was a multiracial and interracial project.

“The Silenced Majority” was not an easy sell. “‘Women’s liberation’ or ‘feminism’ was like a curse word back in those days,” Novas remembered. Because state systems were not then in the business of procuring curricula, Media Plus had to pitch it to schools individually, and few wished to break the silence that the curriculum kit had named and exploded.

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Once I discovered that Fran Ross was part of a circle of gay women, it was hard for me not to notice how very queer Oreo is. Not explicitly queer: there’s no lesbian sexual awakening, as in Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) or Kate Millett’s Flying (1974). Its teenage heroine manages the mean trick of being sexually knowing without being sexually experienced; her insatiable thirst for knowledge coexists with an adamantine disinterest in sexual or romantic intimacy. Yet Oreo is implicitly or formally queer — queer in its angle of vision, texture, and style. It’s queer in ways that wink at an inside audience while allowing for plausible deniability.

Let me count those ways:

1) The novel not only refuses to send its heroine into a “marriage plot”; it also underscores how Oreo’s disinterest in heterosexual romance saves her from a horrid fate. Instead of respecting what critic Ann duCille has named as “the coupling convention,” Oreo follows the logic of an “uncoupling convention”: again and again we see the novel’s heterosexual couples irresistibly breaking apart or stewing in their misery. The institution of marriage, built as it is upon an illusion of romantic compatibility, is an invitation to sundry forms of unhappiness. Oreo’s father Samuel abandons her pregnant mother Helen with a shrug; when Oreo catches up with him 15 years later, she discovers him frequenting a Harlem brothel and goading his new wife into a divorce. On the flipside, expressions of marital love are debunked as delusional. Ross’s narrator shows us Oreo’s grandfather, surrounded by his late wife’s indoor plants and bawling sentimentally at her “devotion to her greenery” — only to reveal that he is weeping over “one of the largest collections of plastic plants in America.”

A joke near the end of Oreo encapsulates its jaundiced take on marriage American-style. When a palm reader predicts that Oreo will “marry a basketball player at twenty-one, have three children — two boys and a girl — and live happily ever after,” she rejects the fairy-tale ending as a “stone lie”: “Amaze the Amazons, perhaps — but live happily ever after with some jive guard and three crumb snatchers? Foul!”

2) Oreo is skeptical about marriage in no small part because it is skeptical about the motives of men. Men’s desire for women in the novel is, at best, a comedy of misrecognition. In the scene where Samuel falls for Helen at her performance of a Bach chorale, he’s seduced by the sublimity of Helen’s expression of “barely controlled anguish,” which he interprets as “religious fervor.” We know, however, that the anguish has a more prosaic cause: she desperately needs to take a leak.

More commonly in Oreo, men do not seek to elevate women but to debase them; the pimp Parnell, slavering at the thought of witnessing Oreo’s rape, is exemplary rather than a deviation from the norm. Men’s desire for women often takes the form of an admixture of lust and sadism, and it is as ugly as it is pedestrian. Earlier in the novel, Oreo fends off an obscene caller, a “Dr. Jafferts” who schemes to give Oreo a “complete examination” in the flesh; later, she is harassed beneath the marquee of the Apollo Theater by workmen who ogle her and make “fox-calling noises” to signal her “foxiness.” Whether at home or in public, Oreo is at risk — or would be if she hadn’t developed her own system of self-defense, the “Way of the Interstitial Thrust,” or WIT for short. WIT offers perhaps the only kind of marriage that Oreo as a novel favors: the marriage of a women’s mind and her body, aligned in a “state of extreme concentration known as hwip-as.”

3) While Oreo delights in playing games with language, there is only one person she meets on her adventure who is her conversational match and a fellow lover of double-entendres — a gay man who shakes up gender norms along with linguistic conventions. Waverley introduces himself as a “traveling executioner”; his murder instrument is his Remington typewriter, which he uses, in his employ as a “Kelly Girl,” to type up the termination notices of laid-off executives. (His name also takes us to a street that, at its intersection with Christopher Street, locates us in the center of Greenwich Village’s gay scene.) Rather than feel daunted by Oreo’s wit, Waverly delights in it:           

“[After a recent breakup] I went out cruising in all the bars. Did all the things I’ve always wanted to do. I felt justified because I was tired of living like a vegetable.”

“You wanted to live like a piece of meat,” Oreo said.

Waverley nodded appreciatively. “Oh, you are evil, e-vil!

Much of Oreo itself is written in a camp register. Its send-up of authenticity — real roots, real feelings — through the mockery of wit recalls Susan Sontag’s famous definition of the camp sensibility: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” It’s the camp sensibility at the heart of Oreo that allows its narrator to toy with her minor characters, even to paralyze or strike them dead, without having to worry about alienating the reader with her cruelty: her characters are “characters” in a double sense, larger-than-life and ridiculous as well as the obvious inventions of a fertile mind. She skewers in advance those readers who would look for depth psychology, especially the version of depth psychology with roots in Freud: “Some of you who have noticed that Oreo has been schlepping a long stick,” she warns, “will interpret said stick as a penis substitute. Wrong, Sibyl, it’s a long stick.”

Meanwhile it’s the camp sensibility of Oreo, our heroine, that allows her to interpret her quest for her father as a recapitulation of Theseus’s quest, to view the nonsensical list of clues he left her as a baby (“1. Sword and sandals 2. Three legs 3. The great divide…”) more as the idea of clues — as inducements to help her choose her own adventure. And lastly, it may be the camp sensibility of Oreo that furnishes her with the cunning and resilience to succeed on that larger quest. She ends that quest by literalizing, twice, the metaphor of “being-as-playing-a-role”: first, she takes a turn as a voice-over artist and impersonates a Jewish niece peddling her aunt’s Passover TV dinners; second, she impersonates an ingenuous black maid so as to gain entrance into her father’s apartment. In her last acts as a trickster, she trades on other people’s hunger for authenticity, tangling them up in their own illusions.

4) A final queer Easter egg, for those who know to look for such things: the name that Oreo assumes, when she masquerades as a black maid, is Anna Christie — the title character in the film that gave Greta Garbo her first speaking role. There is comedy in deep-hued Oreo taking on a name made famous by the Swedish-American star, but the obvious contrast belies a deeper tribute. By the 1960s Garbo was understood within gay circles as an icon of queer Hollywood, albeit one forced by cinematic convention to star in straight romances. Critic Terry Castle names Garbo as the paradigmatic “apparitional lesbian” — the lesbian who hides in plain sight, layering herself in irony even as she is “in the midst of things, as familiar and crucial as an old friend, as solid and sexy as the proverbial right-hand man.” Garbo was also, as Sontag suggested in 1964, “the great serious idol of Camp taste.” Her voice, described by The New Yorker reviewer of Anna Christie as “a boy’s voice, really, rather flat, rather toneless,” was seductive precisely because it refused conventional femininity. What better alias for Oreo than this role — the one that allowed Hollywood’s great apparitional lesbian to speak, in a voice that no one expected?

¤

Talking with a Baltimore Afro-American reporter on the occasion of Oreo’s publication in 1974, Ross described it as “cockeyed and nutty” and predicted that its “heroine could be the new Wonder Woman.” Suffice it to say that Oreo did not become the next Wonder Woman. The only work of fiction ever published by Greyfalcon House, Oreo was ignored by The New York Times and other major newspapers. Library Journal’s reviewer opined, from his perch at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, that its dialogue “was a strange mixture of Uncle Remus and Lenny Bruce, and quite often unintelligible.”

The novel was reviewed more positively, and at greater length, in the pages of Essence and The Spokeswoman, a Chicago-based “independent monthly newsletter for women.” The latter described Oreo as “not so much a novel as a flight of fantasy, a catalogue of verbal tricks, a collage of symbols juxtaposed outrageously.” The reviewer, Jill Sellers, meditated on why this might be so, and connected it to the still-early days of women’s liberation:

Oreo’s humor has a brazen quality; she has taken up her quest with too-elaborate casualness, like someone taking privilege too long withheld. Perhaps this is because women have always stood outside the tradition, denied the kind of model of enduring and prevailing that Theseus (or Odysseus) provide. We still feel self conscious about appropriating and using these symbols, but it will get easier.

It never got easier for Fran Ross. Her relationship with Ann Grifalconi dissolved around late 1976, and according to Newbrough, Ross became doubly embittered — stung by the lack of recognition of her work and by having been deserted romantically. Her life became more physically beset: she had to move from the six-room apartment she’d shared with Grifalconi to a three-room apartment of her own in the same building. By 1977, she found herself in a Theater District apartment in what she called “the heart of porn country.” Though there was a burgeoning movement of black lesbian radicals in the mid-to-late 1970s — driven by the work of figures such as writer Audre Lorde and theorist-activist Barbara Smith, and coalescing in the self-consciously “Contemporary Black feminism” of the Combahee River Collective Statement — there’s no evidence that the irony-savoring Ross felt drawn to these circles. She was, and remained, singular.

For the rest of her creative life, Ross lived in a world of near-misses and of small successes tinged with controversy. The few pieces she published, crackling with irreverence, kept backfiring against her, like candy boxes exploding in her face.

In 1976, Ross added her voice to the feminist anthology Titters, which had been conceived with the goal of publishing female comic writers who’d struggled against the boys-club atmosphere around National Lampoon. There, Ross’s “A Guide to Black Slang” — a glossary pitched at white readers looking to get close to black life yet avoid the “minor social blunders” that result from “problems of vocabulary” — sat next to pieces by Fran Lebowitz and SNL’s Gilda Radner and Anne Beatts (the anthology’s co-editor). Ross’s piece was a work of pure invention, meant to ridicule the mythologies of American blackness:

American Express: A man who suffers from premature ejaculation. Used exclusively as a put-down of white males. Conversely, a Master Charge is one who has great staying power — that is, all black men. We leave to your imagination what Diner’s Club means.

junior jumper: A rapist under 16 years of age. A rapist over 16 is not a senior jumper but is probably a misunderstood brother who is being railroaded by a racist, oppressive judicial system with the help of some hysterical, uptight white chick.

Within the context of Titters, where it was accompanied by life-like illustrations of a zoot-suited black man waggling a finger at a stylish black woman gripping a drumstick, the satire sat right at the intersection of anti-racism and feminism. The butt of the jokes might be a dominant culture that turned black men into oversexualized cartoons, or the current of black macho (prominent in activists like Eldridge Cleaver) that papered over real acts of sexual violence.

The illustrations accompanying Ross’s piece in “Titters,” and in “Playboy.”

Yet when Playboy chose to excerpt Ross’s piece in its November 1976 issue, it looked different: it wasn’t bookended by other satires of machismo, as in Titters, and the life-like illustrations from Titters had been replaced by a single cartoon image of a black man toting a dictionary while decked out in a forest-green suit and matching crimson shirt, boutonniere, and wide-brimmed feathered fedora — a pimp-like figure who was 10 parts Superfly to one part Supernerd.

A revolt bubbled up from the black workers in Playboy’s mailing and circulation departments, charged with sending out the issue to subscribers; they read Ross’s glossary not as parody but as defamation. “I don’t give a damn if the woman who wrote that mess is black or white,” one worker told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s a disgrace for a widely read publication like Playboy to spread that kind of slander.” Playboy’s editorial director — the second-in-command under Hugh Hefner — quickly disowned the piece, sending an apology to all 240 blacks who worked at the company. The purpose of the piece, the editor explained, was to lampoon how “white people trip over themselves” trying to copy black slang. But the irony, obviously, was not telegraphed with enough clarity. “[I]t never occurred to the editorial department nor would we ever have considered running it had it occurred to us that this would have been taken in any way as a racial slur,” he wrote, noting in his defense that “[w]e saw this humor in much the same light as we might see the humor of Richard Pryor.”

Pryor was everyone’s reference point for incendiary, racially charged humor that somehow managed to be earthy and endearing; he seemed, to outside observers, to be enjoying a creative peak as a stand-up and comedic actor. Ross herself was a committed fan of Pryor’s more tender and nuanced material: she’d seen him perform his “Wino and Junkie” routine on three occasions, and it had moved her to tears. When, in May 1977, NBC greenlit a weekly variety show to be built around him, Ross saw it as the perfect entrée for her into the world of TV writing. She sent a care package of application materials (a copy of Oreo, spec scripts for Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Carol Burnett Show) to Rocco Urbisci, producer of The Richard Pryor Show — and was thrilled when Urbisci responded warmly. But there was a catch: Pryor himself would need personally to sign off on her hire, and he was tied up in Detroit filming Blue Collar.

Ross did some optimistic math, and calculated that a job on The Richard Pryor Show would give her the financial cushion she needed to write a second novel. She paid for her one-way airline ticket on “credit cards about to self-destruct” (as she declared in a razor-sharp account of the experience that she published two years later in Essence) and moved out of her Manhattan apartment with the understanding that she would spend the next five months in Los Angeles for the production of the show. Her much-anticipated first appointment in the production offices was not auspicious. Pryor was a no-show. She overheard one writer asking, incredulously, “She moved here?” The comedian Paul Mooney, who had earlier professed an admiration for Oreo, wondered openly, “Can you imagine — a Black woman writer?”

A week later, Ross was on her fourth straight day of baloney sandwiches and still had not met Pryor. When she was finally summoned to a meeting of Pryor’s inner circle at his house, she ended up with an intimate view of one of Pryor’s most consequential meltdowns. Gutted by his experience on Blue Collar’s set, he declared that he absolutely could not follow up on his commitment to produce the show. “I can’t go to Burbank, to NBC, every day. Just like I can’t do an album every nine months. I ain’t pregnant every nine months.” Ross punched back: “I have an 80-year-old grandmother who’ll probably come after you with a shotgun, Richard.” She approached Richard’s desk and stood directly in front of him, tears of anger welling in her eyes. “Do you have any idea how much I gave up just to come out here to have a chance to work with you?” she asked. “But I’m not crying just for myself. It’s the work you could do.”

It’s tempting to press the pause button here and imagine an alternative version of American history, in which Ross’s dramatic intervention pushes Pryor to recommit to The Richard Pryor Show and hire Ross onto its writing team. In this alternative history, Ross uses the project-manager acumen she developed through Media Plus to keep The Richard Pryor Show on track for several seasons of groundbreaking TV, while developing a sparkling and generative rapport with Pryor on the creative end. (After all, one of Pryor’s happiest and freest collaborations was his TV work with the gay Lily Tomlin, who shared with Ross a love for working-class characters who follow their own peculiar genius.) After her run on the show, this alternative Ross might leverage her capital in Hollywood to create more opportunities for herself and other gifted writers of color, or might simply execute her original plan to return to Manhattan to work on that second novel she desperately wanted to write.

In the real world, Ross’s teary appeal led Pryor himself to break into tears. “I don’t want to get fucked up again,” he said. He recalled how he’d lived through hellish periods of drug addiction; the pressure of the TV show, he ventured, was sure to lead him down that path. The meeting ended past midnight with the show in limbo; on the way out, Urbisci said to Ross, “This is the most bizarre night I’ve ever spent in the business.”

Ultimately, Pryor came to a legal accommodation with NBC and was able to back out partly from his commitment to the network: The Richard Pryor Show ended up lasting for four intermittently brilliant episodes, each one more scattershot and fascinatingly bizarre than the previous one. (The pressure of the show, as Pryor predicted, sent him further down the spiral of his drug addiction.) Cut loose in the chaos around the show, Ross was not hired for its writers’ room. When, 11 days after her meeting with Pryor, she received a check for $300 to reimburse her expenses, she was down to her last 12 cents.

Within seven years, Ross would be dead, of an aggressive case of lung cancer, at age 50.

¤

The paper trail of Ross’s last seven years is thin: other than her account of her unsuccessful pursuit of the Pryor Show job in Essence, we have a single short story, “How She Lost It,” which appeared in the May 1978 issue of Christopher Street and is a strange concoction, effervescent and bitter at once. Christopher Street aspired to be the “gay New Yorker”: it was sophisticated, urbane, liberal but not radical, and aimed squarely at a more affluent readership. For its fiction and interviews, it drew on a roster of the most acclaimed queer writers in America, from Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, and Christopher Isherwood, to Adrienne Rich, Edmund White, and Kate Millett. By publishing in the magazine, Ross was signaling not just her aspiration to be included among these literary heavyweights but also her sense of her own queerness. From what I’ve been able to gather, it was the most public gesture she made on that score, and also the last.

“How She Lost It” is a curious pendant to Oreo. While Oreo depicts its virginal heroine withstanding the predatory advances of a series of men, “How She Lost It” follows Maggie Wallace (who considers herself, at 35, the “oldest living walking-around uncloistered intact lady”) as she endeavors to lose her virginity to a man. Like Oreo, Maggie is sexually knowing — in this case, due to her experience with a succession of female lovers — and culturally sophisticated, with a “Herzogian appetite for letter writing.” Distraught over her breakup with her lover of five years (“I won’t go into how much I hurt. The appropriate metaphors have been reserved for the sufferings of Christ.”), she connects with a high-school friend, now a “happily married” high-school English teacher with three sons. The sex scene at the story’s center is a queer defamiliarization of straight sex: we see Maggie bemused by his “raspberry popsicle,” underwhelmed by his silence (“[d]ecorous moans would do, a little sigh wouldn’t hurt”), and baffled by his need to throw on his Fruit of the Loom underwear after the act.

The story ends with Maggie imagining the twist of fate that would have her, against the odds, becoming pregnant from her lone tryst. She projects herself into her ovaries, where her “eggs have lain […] disconsolately, growing staler and more bitter by the month”; she sees her current egg “leaping to meet the sperm cell, not the other way around […] [w]ith all the energy of her remaining cellmates.” In a moment of high irony, her egg takes on the kind of heroic agency that the self-deprecating Maggie never does. While Maggie’s quest is a quixotic chase after experience for experience’s sake, her egg is fighting for her life, throwing off the conventional “female” role of passivity and flinging her way to freedom and fulfillment.

“How She Lost It” was Ross’s final act of literary deflection: with the character of Maggie Wallace, she ventriloquized a hyper-intelligent and self-dramatizing lesbian who was implicitly white. Well into the story, Maggie provides a list of her physical attributes: “mink-brown feather-duster hair, gray blue eyes, smooth skin, firm flesh, and the legs aren’t half bad.” In Oreo, Ross had imagined a protagonist who was black and female but not gay; in “How She Lost It,” she imagined a protagonist who was female and gay but not black. The story largely evades the subject of race, except for one uncomfortable exchange between Maggie and her fellow tryster:

We talk about penis sizes. He says his is average and jokes about the sights he’s seen in locker rooms and showers. “Some of the black guys in the service — frightening.”

“One of Gore Vidal’s characters says that’s because black men are about the same seize erect as they are at rest. What you see is what you get.”

“I wouldn’t know,” he says pointedly.

Maggie’s implicit whiteness may be connected to another feature of hers: her elitism. When a taxi driver importunes her with a barrage of personal questions, she thinks, “The curiosity of hirelings annoys me,” then gives him half the tip he expects and sends him off with an insult that he does not understand. She closes the book on the encounter with a Wildean aphorism: “I hate it that one can effectively insult only one’s peers.”

We’ll probably never know why Ross chose this white mask in her last work of fiction — whether she was hoping to sneak her way into the pages of Christopher Street and so picked a disguise that would camouflage her well, or whether she was laughing to herself and sending up the very whiteness and elitism that marked the magazine. Perhaps it was some combination of the two. (Since she had traveled since the 1960s in largely white lesbian circles, it seems likely she knew the “Maggie” type well.) We can observe, however, that, as with her Playboy excerpt, readers had trouble understanding where the disguise began and where it ended.

In Boston’s Gay Community News, Brian Harper — a self-described “black faggot of insignificant means” — took up Ross’s story when he reviewed Aphrodisiac, the anthology of Christopher Street fiction in which it appeared. The story was “funny and would be charming,” he judged, except for its “offensive racial stereotyping” and “class bias.” In its prejudices, Harper thought, Ross’s story was all too typical of the offerings of Christopher Street, which “was notorious for pandering to the sensibilities of white, urbane, upper class homosexual men.” Noting that “gay people of color are non-existent in its pages,” he lamented the “offensive absence of a strong minority voice” in the fiction anthology it had produced. For Harper, Fran Ross had to be white, a minor variation on the character she had created — for why, when feminist poets were declaring No More Masks! and gay writers were celebrating the act of leaving the closet behind, would a lesbian writer be drawn to the complex-chiming ironies that a disguise afforded?

¤

Ross in three-quarter profile, from the New Directions reprint of “Oreo” (2015)

Trickster figures, Lewis Hyde observes in Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art, are overwhelmingly male: it has been men’s prerogative to be both the guardians of order and the lords of misrule. Zeus, Hermes; Odin, Loki. Fran Ross’s career is the story of what happened when a prodigiously talented trickster arrived in the body of a gay black woman, one who suffered to reveal that “the crossroads” was a place of considerable and unrecognized “intersectionality.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the one photograph that circulates of Fran Ross from the time of Oreo captures her half in shadow, pivoting toward a camera that appears to have just caught up with her; in her art she was a trickster, living with the awareness that her ruses were what kept her from being ensnared.

Most often Ross went unheard or unnoticed; other times, when attention was paid, she was presumed to speak with an earnestness that was never her style. Only a few readers — and they appear to have been either black or gay or female, or some combination thereof — got the joke: they understood how she was lampooning the interlocking operations of racism and sexism, and exulted in the blast of fresh air. “[W]here parody is able to strip the things it mocks of their charm, it opens up spaces in which something new might happen,” Hyde suggests. “When [a] trickster breaks the rules, we see the rules more clearly, but we also get a glimpse of everything the rules exclude.”

Ross’s mind was shrewd and skewering, and perhaps her writings will never sit easy among those who look for programmatic answers to the great problems we face. She lived to cut to the quick, her mind slashing through empty conventions at a speed that gives Oreo the whizbang tempo of the best screwball comedies.

Once, on a visit to the mountains of New Hampshire, Ross and Newbrough went on a hike. Their route skirted a bubbling stream; the surrounding landscape was bursting with green. At a small walking bridge, Newbrough exclaimed “Stop!” and pointed around her: “Look at this beautiful landscape.”

Ross, a product of the urban jumble and a lover of the masquerades it allowed, glanced in the direction Newbrough pointed, then kept walking.

Newbrough reproached her: “You didn’t look.”

“I looked,” Ross riposted. “I see quickly.”

¤

Scott Saul is a professor of English at UC Berkeley. He is the author of Becoming Richard Pryor (2014) and Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties (2004), and the editor-publisher of the digital projects Richard Pryor’s Peoria, The Berkeley Revolution, and The Godfather: Anatomy of a Film.

¤

[1] I would like to thank Ann Grifalconi and Himilce Novas, who shared their memories of Fran Ross with me and filled out the portrait that appears here; and Harryette Mullen, who blazed the trail I followed and offered encouragement as I did so. Mullen’s “‘Apple Pie with Oreo Crust’: Fran Ross’s Recipe for an Idiosyncratic American Novel” (2002) remains an indispensable starting point for understanding the novel.

The literary traces that Ross left are slender, but I encourage her devotees to read, in addition to Oreo, her story “How I Lost It,” easiest to find in the collection Aphrodisiac: Fiction from Christopher Street (1980); and her sparkling essay “Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor” (Essence, June 1979). Also, although Ross never contributed officially to Esquire, she fired off two short letters that were published in its pages — one in response to a dismissive treatment of Gayl Jones and her editor Toni Morrison (February 1976), and another in response to Jean Stafford’s withering review of Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (February 1977). 

[2] The Jazz Man is the story of a house-bound boy fascinated by a nearby musician, The Ballad of the Burglar of Babylon a dark tale of a Rio gangster hunted by police after his jailbreak — hardly the usual subjects of illustrated children’s books. Between 1974 and 1983, Grifalconi also collaborated with poet Lucille Clifton on five of her children’s books featuring the protagonist Everett Anderson.

[3] Media Plus’s productions included, in addition to those mentioned below, the short film “Poetry Is Alive and Well and Living in America” (dir. Fran Ross, 1969), which spotlighted the gay poets Edward Field and May Swenson and the black female poet G. C. Oden; “The Hole That Grew” (1969), a short film intended for grade-school use about the building of the New York City subway, driven by a song-verse by Ross; “Two Views of Monday” (1973), a short film, directed by Ross, about drug use and abuse; and “Loving” (1973), a short film with text by Ross about an eight-year-old boy discovering the interdependence of plant, animal and human life.

 

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