"Naked in the Promised Land" by Lillian Faderman

A lesbian scholar remembers her youth as a pinup model, stripper and wide-eyed adventurer among the denizens of the seamy Sunset Strip.

Published February 26, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

If Lillian Faderman has a particular genius it's for being first, or at least early; she was one of the first historians of lesbianism, launched pioneering classes in women's studies before the discipline officially existed and, according to her new memoir, "Naked in the Promised Land," co-edited one of the first multicultural poetry anthologies (also before the mantra of "diversity" was instituted). So it's surprising that she's late to join the ranks of feminist intellectuals going public about their experiences working in the sex industry.

Faderman's sex-work credentials are impeccable, if not downright historical. No come-lately tattooed gyrator on the stage of some contemporary, progressive, woman-operated strip joint like the Lusty Lady, Faderman worked as a nude and pinup model and as stripper back in the waning days of burlesque, supporting herself and her female lover while a college student at Berkeley in the '50s and '60s. She also dabbled in the Sunset Strip lowlife scene that the novelist James Ellroy has described so memorably (though Faderman takes a less swoony view of it).

And when Faderman was shedding her clothes for money, there was no possibility of squeezing material for a graduate thesis out of the gig; for her, it was strictly a matter of survival and a secret she had to keep from her family and fellow students. She discovered her lesbianism back in the days when that meant slipping into what to a cursory glance looked like an ordinary bar, until you noticed that the "boys" roaming around the dim, smoky room were actually girls decked out in duck pants and pomaded hair.

"Naked in the Promised Land" aims to account for a remarkable life. Faderman was the illegitimate daughter of an immigrant shopgirl and spent her first six years in the Bronx, raised as much by her homely aunt Rae as by her pretty mother, Mary. The two Jewish sisters had been sent to America to gather enough money -- preferably by marrying well, as Mary was expected to do -- to bring the rest of the family over from their shtetl in Lativa. Instead, Mary fell in love with a sharp-dressing operator named Moishe, who refused to acknowledge Lillian as his daughter. The money never materialized, the sisters' family vanished somewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe and Faderman's mother would be tormented with guilt for the rest of her life, sometimes to the point of madness.

After the sisters decamped to Los Angeles hoping for better luck, Faderman resolved to become a movie star to rescue her mother from a life of drudgery. She had a minor career as a child actress in local theater, but scored no significant cash until she began working as a pinup model at the tender age of 15, initially in order to pay for publicity stills. Faderman was, not to put too fine a point on it, stacked. "Absolutely outstanding!" crowed the agent who booked her, under the name of Gigi Frost, "38-21-36 ... Doesn't own a bra. Doesn't need one."

But whatever Faderman's figure earned her in cash was equaled by the other troubles it caused. As a naive 13-year-old, she'd drifted into dating a 24-year-old man, only to be shocked when he finally made a pass at her. Having convinced her mother to find a husband by engaging a matchmaker, she found herself fending off the advances of the candidates and their pals. A sleazy agent picked her up for a "screen test" then whipped out his penis in the car. The cool pachuco boy she admired at school took her out, felt her up and then told his friends about it. The silent film star who hired her to pose for his camera offered her money for sex. And so on. "A girl alone in the world is like a rabbit chased by a pack of hungry coyotes," she concludes, and you can't blame her for it.

Meanwhile, Faderman conducted several other lives. She hung out with fellow budding actors in their 20s, people who sound like supernumeraries from "Mildred Pierce," with their "late nights at Tiny Naylor's and weekends at the beach with the gang." She wore bobby socks and oxford shoes as a student at Fairfax High School. And although she had had an excruciating crush on her first drama teacher, a down-at-heels glamour girl with a voice the child Faderman likened to "liquid gold," when a gay male friend took her to her first lesbian bar, it was a revelation. "I'm never leaving," she announced.

At one of these bars, Faderman met a tough, charming butch who introduced her to "scary, funky" sex in a $2-a-night hotel. The butch, Jan, promised "I'm gonna make you cry Daddy" and had a "low, dirty laugh" and some odd scars that she explained thus: "Some john told me he'd give me five bucks if I could hold a lit cigarette to the back of my hand until he counted to three. I got two booboos there 'cause I ended up with ten bucks." Shacked up with Jan, Faderman meets junkies, hookers and pimps, and by the end of the week, with their money running low, Jan starts wheedling, "We can have everything. You know how much money you can make us with that fantastic body of yours? You know how quick it would be?"

Faderman manages to pull herself out of that pit, running scared from a "recklessness in me that resonated mindlessly to what was savage in her ... I had to control it or I'd do something crazy." Determined to pull herself together, she goes looking for a psychologist, and gets referred to a guy who counsels "underprivileged youth in trouble." She's told that "his clients are mostly male juvenile delinquents," whereupon she replies, "That's okay, I'm a juvenile delinquent even though I'm a girl."

After a few more travails, including a less dangerous girlfriend and a brief marriage to a gay man -- a loving arrangement between two avowed homosexuals that went terribly wrong once they became enamored enough of each other to sleep together -- Faderman, meets Sabina D'Or (nee Shirley Ann Goldstein). They fall in love and Faderman moves into D'Or's San Francisco apartment and attends college at the University of California at Berkeley. Unfortunately, D'Or has obsessive-compulsive disorder, which prevents her from working and Faderman must support them both by getting a job at Big Al's Hotsy Totsy Club as both a waitress and "Bubble Bath Girl," an act involving an empty bathtub and a machine that emitted colored bubbles: "I was supposed to saunter on to the tune of 'Night Train,' test the nonexistent bathwater with a provocatively graceful bare toe, disrobe, then slide into the bubbles and cavort charmingly for five minutes ... for this I was paid an extra five dollars a night ... no small sum in 1959." Later, she becomes a minor burlesque star under the name of Mink Frost.

D'Or, however, disapproves ("It's so tawdry!") and at one point irritatingly informs Faderman of a newspaper article about a study of exotic dancers that found the lot of them to be "women ... from the lower socioeconomic classes [who] were rejected by their fathers." This, and D'Or's tendancy to say things like "Ours is a mystical connection, rarefied, nebulous, beyond the sexual, far beyond good and interesting companionship," marks this relationship for an early death.

Two more serious girlfriends (the last one a keeper) and a Ph.D. later, Faderman becomes a professor, chair of the English department and an acting dean at California State University at Fresno, not an illustrious school, but one of the first to promote a woman to such exalted ranks and an early center for feminist studies. Her groundbreaking book, "Surpassing the Love of Men," published in 1981, argued that many "passionate friendships" between women of the 19th century and earlier could well have been erotic. (The book, though too didactic by today's standards, is considered a classic.) And in 1975, she finally gave her mother the grandchild she'd been begging for, conceived via in artificial insemination and raised by Faderman and her lover.

Yet for all the abundant, even overflowing material provided by her own life, Faderman seems unable to make much of this book. The simple, even slightly dazed tone of the early chapters, appropriate for a child or even an innocent adolescent's memories, never really deepens. Some matters seem to scream out for more reflection. How did Faderman feel about remaining in the closet to her mother and aunt, to the point even of inventing a phony husband? How did she square her years working in the sex industry with the often simplistic notions of such work held by other feminists of her generation? What does she think of younger women's efforts to overthrow those notions? (Since some of Faderman's pinup photos appear in the book, and she appears to have saved many of them, she seems to have seen some value in them, if only a personal one.) Was it difficult to reconcile her sense of men as predatory with the fact that some of her firmest supporters have been male? What exactly is her notion of feminism and how did it evolve over time, how did she use it to understand her own life? Does she see how the demanding, helpless and slightly crazy D'Or was a lot like her mother?

Instead, "Naked in the Promised Land" suffers from a weakness far too common in memoirs; call it the "I remember the smell of Grandma's house" syndrome. Often the memories that are dearest to the writer are the least interesting to her readers. Colorful and melodramatic immigrant relatives with their funny curses ("May an onion grow out of her nose!" is a particularly choice one here) and the food they cooked and the stories they told and the sayings they said, are a dime a dozen in memoirs and are all more or less alike.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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