When Rita Mae Brown’s first published novel hit bookstands in 1973, no one had read anything even remotely like it. Rubyfruit Jungle wasn’t the first mainstream lesbian novel, or even the first mainstream lesbian novel to rack up impressive sales—Patricia Highsmith’s pseudonymous 1952 romance The Price of Salt (later retitled Carol) supposedly sold more than a million copies after it was released in paperback. But Brown’s bawdy, wry coming-of-age romp was an altogether different beast than Highsmith’s understated love story. Racy, irreverent, and explicitly autobiographical, Rubyfruit Jungle was so popular in its initial release that its first publisher couldn’t keep up with demand. Brown is considered the first openly gay author to enjoy mainstream success.
Brown wasn’t even 30 years old when her debut novel was published, but she had already made her mark in the realm of feminist and LGBTQ activism, first as a member of the high-profile feminist organization NOW and then as one of the group’s most outspoken critics. According to The New York Times, by 1977, women were naming their cars after Brown and camping on the author’s doorstep. In the early 1980s, Brown’s celebrity was such that, when her relationship with tennis star Martina Navratilova ended, the breakup was covered by the Washington Post.
From her early forays into activism to her current life as a bestselling mystery novelist, here are seven things you should know about Rita Mae Brown.
1. Rita Mae Brown was allegedly forced out of college for civil rights activism.
Brown started her freshman year of college at the University of Florida in 1962. According to her 1997 autobiography Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser, that was the same year the school admitted five Black students and segregated them in a corner of a dorm. (Other sources place the number of Black students admitted that year at seven.) Brown writes that she was incensed by the students’ treatment and became involved in anti-segregation activism.
Brown left the university two years later. Some sources say she was expelled, but in her own telling, she left voluntarily after she was singled out for harassment by school officials and fellow students, fearing the school would sabotage her grades and make her ineligible for future scholarships. While the harassment was directly connected to Brown’s sexual orientation and her alleged outing of other students—a charge she vehemently denies—she believes her outspokenness about racial justice was the real reason she was targeted. She ended up attending a community college before heading to New York.
2. She witnessed the beginning of the Stonewall uprising firsthand.
Brown and a friend were walking through Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969, when they heard the approach of police vehicles. The two women watched as a patrol wagon parked in front of a popular gay nightclub called the Stonewall Inn. (Homosexuality was criminalized in New York at the time, and police routinely raided LGBTQ clubs.) Shortly afterward, Brown writes in Rita Will, “hordes of men exploded out of Stonewall.” Accounts differ about what triggered the revolt, but several eyewitnesses claim that police were abusive to arrestees and the crowd fought back, kicking off six days of protests that would become a pivotal episode in the civil rights movement.
“I still do not know how anyone can fight the police in high heels but drag queens did, clearly negotiating cultural femininity better than I ever did,” Brown wrote in a 2019 essay for Literary Hub. “God bless them.”
3. Brown helped stage a dramatic protest at the National Organization for Women’s Second Congress to unite women.
Brown joined the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1968, but it wasn’t long before she found herself at odds with NOW co-founder and prominent feminist activist Betty Friedan. In 1969, Friedan referred to NOW’s lesbian members as “the lavender menace,” insisting that their presence would make the group less palatable to mainstream America. Friedan was destined, then, to butt heads with Brown, who was pushing the group to be more supportive of gay women. Some sources say Brown resigned from NOW, but Brown maintains that she was kicked out.
Whichever was the case, Brown didn’t go quietly. When NOW held its Second Congress to Unite Women in May 1970, Brown and dozens of other lesbian activists essentially stormed the auditorium, sporting “Lavender Menace” t-shirts, lining the aisles, and holding the floor for more than two hours while they handed out copies of their manifesto, answered questions, and solicited input from the audience. Brown and her fellow protestors also used their time in the spotlight to call attention to the plights of Black and working-class women, who had been largely excluded from the event’s programming.
The group behind the Lavender Menace protest—the gloriously named Radicalesbians, co-founded by Brown—disbanded the following year [PDF], but its dramatic upstaging of NOW’s signature event has been credited with pushing the organization to become more inclusive. Within months of the protest, NOW passed a resolution establishing lesbian rights as “a legitimate concern for feminism.”
4. Brown’s debut novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, was a literary sensation.
Brown wrote Rubyfruit Jungle—a largely autobiographical coming-of-age novel about a young lesbian who moves to New York after being booted out of the University of Florida—in 1971, when she was 26 or 27 years old. After the manuscript was rejected by literary agents and mainstream publishers, she landed a book deal with a small Vermont-based feminist publisher called Daughters, Inc. The book was a surprise hit when it was released in 1973, and Daughters, Inc. couldn’t keep up with demand. By February 1977, Rubyfruit Jungle had sold 70,000 copies—a figure impressive enough that Bantam bought paperback rights for $250,000. Brown walked away with a check for $125,000, the equivalent of nearly $580,000 in today’s market. When Bantam released the mass-market paperback edition of Rubyfruit Jungle in September 1977, the initial 250,000-copy print run sold so well that the company quickly printed 50,000 additional copies. By 1985, Rubyfruit Jungle had sold more than a million copies.
5. She wrote the original screenplay for Slumber Party Massacre.
According to Rita Will, Brown bought a used Rolls Royce, loaded up her three cats, and drove to Hollywood in 1973, hoping to write screenplays. She eventually found her way into the movie industry via legendary exploitation film producer Roger Corman, who hired Brown to write scripts for him—provided, of course, that she’d work for scale. Brown agreed, and sometime around 1978 she wrote a screenplay called Don’t Open the Door, about a girls’ basketball team being menaced at a slumber party by an escaped mental patient wielding a giant power drill.
In her 1988 writing manual Starting from Scratch, Brown writes that the script sat on the shelf for three years before it was finally produced under the title Sleepless Nights. By the time the movie made it into theaters, the title had changed one more time, to Slumber Party Massacre. (The title Sleepless Nights had been a feint to make it easier for the producers to secure filming locations.)
Prior to the film’s release, Brown seemed excited that her first produced screenplay was headed to theaters. In a conversation with Armistead Maupin for the February 1982 issue of Interview magazine, Brown brings up the movie herself, still referring to it as Sleepless Nights, and calls it a “psychologically different” horror movie where “the girls save one other.” Once the movie was released, though, Brown spoke disparagingly of it. “It’s awful, don’t spend the money to see it,” she told The Boston Phoenix. “It’s a total piece of s**t.” Slumber Party Massacre was the first slasher film written and directed by women.
6. Brown has written more than 50 books.
In the late 1980s, Brown was working in Hollywood, mostly writing for television. When the Writers Guild voted to strike in 1988, she found herself without work for several months. She needed a fresh source of income, so she decided to try her hand at genre fiction—specifically, murder mysteries. Since then, Brown has carved out a comfortable niche as a writer of animal-centric cozies. She kicked off her popular Mrs. Murphy series in 1990 with Wish You Were Here; the 30th installment, Claws for Alarm, was released in 2021, and the 14th entry in Brown’s foxhunting-themed Sister Jane mysteries is due out in May 2022. Along the way Brown has also authored the five-book Runnymede series, two canine detective novels, several standalones, two poetry collections that were published before Rubyfruit Jungle, three memoirs, and even a cookbook.
7. Brown is a master of foxhounds.
These days, Brown spends her time on her farm in Afton, Virginia, where she writes mysteries and cares for a menagerie of rescue animals. She’s also a foxhunting enthusiast; she serves as both the Master of Foxhounds and Huntsman for the Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club, where the requirements for membership are “that you genuflect before the Masters, you stay out of the hounds’ way and you possess a good sense of humor because you’ll need it.” Brown’s duties include overseeing all aspects of the hunt, both on the field and in the kennel. If it makes you feel better, the club, like most American foxhunting groups, is a chase-only hunt and does not kill the fox; Brown is an animal welfare activist and has claimed to like animals more than she likes people.