Review: Outlaw Marriages


Outlaw Marriages
Rodger Streitmatter


2012 • 212 pages • Beacon Press

I’ll be real: Outlaw Marriages was not the book I thought I would read first in 2016. I’d started picking at Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace, but I didn’t get much reading done while out of my mind with anxiety while Rory Eccleston, my beloved laptop, was in the shop. (He’s been sufficiently retooled and replaced that I am considering renaming him the Centurion, even though I don’t really watch Doctor Who anymore.) I’m also waiting on several books at the library, the main source for all my reading, to come in, now that the holidays are over and my holds aren’t stopping and starting like a faulty car.

It’s not that I didn’t want to read Outlaw Marriages—it’s likely been on my reading list since it came out in 2012. (That seems like forever ago, sitting here in 2016.) But I’d been kind of looking forward to quietly tracking the diversity of my reading for realsies this year, and starting 2016 off with a book written by a man, albeit a fellow queer human being, felt a little like a step back for me from where I ended 2015.

Which, I suppose, is a good sign for how lady-focused my reading was last year.

Outlaw Marriages details the lives of fifteen committed same-sex couples through history—Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, Martha Carey Thomas and Mamie Gwinn, John Marshall and Ned Warren, Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, Bessie Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe, J. C. Leyendecker and Charles Beach, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner and Solita Solano, Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta, Aaron Copland and Victor Kraft, Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, James Baldwin and Lucien Happersberger, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, Audre Lorde and Frances Clayton. These relationships not only improved the lives of the lovers in question, but also contributed significantly to American culture.

It’s both cute and useful; I didn’t realize until I read the book’s epilogue that this is one of the few books that really talks about Frances Clayton, Audre Lorde’s ex-lover, in any great detail. The prose has been carefully pruned of any academic obstacle, which makes for quick, if sometimes repetitive, reading. (Streitmatter is very, very fond of the term “outlaw marriage” and deploys it constantly. Which is fine, as it’s the title of the darn thing, but my brain started drifting to cowboys and cattle theft after a while.) It’s exactly the kind of book you might get for a straight family member who keeps calling your girlfriend your “roommate.”

There’s definitely a smacking of respectability politics here, especially by focusing on couples whose relationships generated something valuable to American culture instead of, say, couples with more correspondence or who lived more openly. But, like anything remotely historically queer, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, smiling benignly at the adventures of John Marshall and Ned Warren, antiquities acquirers extraordinaire, blushing at the exploits of Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta and thoroughly enjoying the Bryn Mawr gossip inherent in the story of Martha Carey Thomas and Mamie Gwinn. (“Oh, I’m dean of Bryn Mawr now? Then our next graduate fellowship student shall be my girlfriend and, goodness, we’re so tight for space that she’ll just have to live with me!” – Martha Carey Thomas, probably.)

But I don’t walk away with the same kind of buoyant, inclusive feeling I left Truly Wilde with, even though Dolly Wilde’s life was objectively more tragic than the lives of most of the people discussed here. Rather, I was struck by the amount of physical, professional, and emotional labor that the lesser known partner in a lot of the relationships detailed here sunk into the relationship, only to never be acknowledged by the public (who, in most of these cases, didn’t know about the true nature of the relationship, if they knew about the relationship at all) and seemingly taken for granted by their partner. In particular, I was very saddened by the story of Audre Lorde and Frances Clayton. It’s sad enough that they drift apart, but things happen—what’s heartbreakingly tragic is that Clayton doesn’t rate a mention in Lorde’s obituaries, despite the amount of personal resources she poured into the relationship. Would the same, you think, have happened if Clayton was legally Lorde’s ex-wife?

I’d like to leave you with something pleasant, though, so here: Elsie de Wolfe, who basically invented the entire concept of being an interior designer, also invented blue-haired old ladies! She started dying her hair light blue after she went gray. THERE YOU HAVE IT, GRANNY HAIR WAS INVENTED BY A LESBIAN.

I rented this book from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Review: Outlaw Marriages

  1. While this is very tangential to your main point, I didn’t know that Walt Whitman had a longterm partner! Which is not surprising cause I don’t like Walt Whitman and I can’t be bothered reading about him but anyway, I wonder if he had him around when Oscar Wilde was visiting. Because the internet is sooooooo eager to think Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde slept together which there is no reason to think they did, and leaping to sexy historical conclusions on flimsy evidence enRAGes me. *grumps around the internet*

    • Well, Wilde and Whitman met in 1882 and Whitman and Doyle started regularly seeing each other in 1865 and stayed together until Whitman died in 1892. Of course, this only takes if you assume that Whitman wouldn’t have cheated on Doyle to sleep with Wilde. THOSE ARE THE FACTS, MA’AM.

  2. oh this is wierd timing! I was literally reading up on some of this last night after re-watching Beyond the Candelabra last night because i was kinda confused as to why liberace was adopting Scott. And jumping from one link to the other online i learnt that that was very normal because if you couldn’t marry it was the best way to be able be in hospital rooms with ill partners, be legally recognised when needed etc. it’s now a bit of a problem because if queer couples now want to marry they have to make sure they have dissolve the adoption otherwise they marry over it its legally recognised as incest in some states.

    sorry this was such a mega tangent anyway but anyway i thought it was really interesting bit of queer history.

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