Remembering Joseph Hansen
By Bruce Shenitz
I don't know which was sadder: the fact that writer Joseph Hansen just died, or the fact that he didn't quite achieve the level of literary fame and fortune that he deserved in his 81st year. He was, after all, pretty much the inventor of the gay detective mystery genre. In one of those coincidences that are unbelievable only when you read them in fiction, I'd actually been talking about Hansen's books with a friend, just a few hours before I found out that he died. My friend commented that he didn't know what the big deal about gay mysteries was, which was enough to get me started on the subject.
Even in a dark political moment like the one we're in now, it's hard to convey how stifling the gay silence was even 25 years ago. And how refreshing it was to come upon well-written books that featured a middle-aged, gay, private investigator, who was absolutely open, unashamed, and matter-of-fact about being a gay man. Somehow, even though I wasn't particularly interested in mysteries'and still skulked when I occasionally walked into a gay bookstore'I managed to find Hansen's books, which hinted that a life different than the one I was living was possible.
A sidenote: when I had the chance to interview and write about Hansen for Out a couple of years ago, I told him how confusing his book jacket bio was to me back then. He started reciting it back to me from memory: "Hansen lives with his wife Jane in Los Angeles with a household of cats and dogs." It was always a puzzle to me, and Joe's explanation of it still puzzles many. He was a gay man married to a lesbian in a committed and deeply passionate marriage. He insisted to me that he never set out to deceive anyone about who he was or what he was'and the fact that throughout the sixties and seventies he wrote and edited for pioneering gay publications bears that out. And the fact remained that he was an older gay man who, ten after the death of his wife, still missed her every day.
His life these past few years wasn't easy, though he appeared to maintain strong connections with a wide range of people through e-mail and phone. Though many of his books had gone out of print, he continued to write to the end. (His last posting to his blog was dated less than a week before he died. As a working writer to the end, Joe would've expected me to tell you its address, so here it is: http://josephhansen.blogspot.com.) His finances apparently weren't in great shape, and he had some major health problems; as he approached his birthday earlier this year, he wrote a very dark poem inspired, in part, by some recent angina attacks, and the fact that several close male relatives had died around the time they turned 80.
When I was in southern California this past spring, I visited with him one afternoon, and was both horrified and cheered when he greeted me at the door with an oxygen tube under his nose'and a lit cigarette in his hand. I couldn't help laughing, and he smiled. When I'd interviewed him the previous year, he'd talked about smoking, and I remember him describing Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist. "She was a great smoker," he said with some admiration.
As we talked last spring, he took issue with something I'd said or written not long before. "I've been meaning to speak to you about that," he said before jumping in with a critique. I imagine he would not have been an easy person to know well, or over a long period of time. But I also imagine that he was someone that you'd want on your side waging a fight. Which is something he did for us, as gay people.
Though he sometimes took issue with "the gay community," he contributed immeasurably to the very possibility of its existence. I wish there had been some way we could have designated him as an elder of the tribe, and accorded him the position, the respect'and maybe even some of the material benefits'that should come with such a title. Perhaps it's time to create an honor like that'and name it after him.
From the little that I knew him, I'm reasonably certain that Joe would not want a syrupy eulogy. He'd probably have some choice words for anyone who tried to write one. How about this tribute: a compliment or good word from him was even more precious than from most people, because you knew that he was perfectly capable of telling you the opposite. His words, then, had weight, and bearing. What better tribute could you give a writer?
To read a profile of Joseph Hansen from the September 2003 issue of Out, click here.