The Unthinkable Rita Mae Brown Spreads Around a Little 'southern Discomfort'

updated 04/26/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1982 01:00AM

When Rita Mae Brown breathes, she exhales bons mots—always funny, often outrageous. On her illegitimate birth, for example: "Let's say I had illegitimate parents, I was fine." On her labors: "I work six days a week and rest on the seventh. I figure if God did it that way, so should Rita Mae." And in her new novel, Southern Discomfort, she puts these words in the mouth of Banana Mae Parker, a Montgomery, Ala. whore feuding with a local preacher: "If God were so almighty smart, you'd think he'd do a better job of hiring." There is a method to her frankness. "If I don't raise your consciousness," Brown says, "I at least want to tilt it."

Brown, 37, has been a startler ever since the 1973 appearance of Ruby-fruit Jungle, her "loosely autobiographical" first novel about a young lesbian. It has sold more than a million copies. Southern Discomfort (Harper & Row, $13.50), her fourth novel, deals with the love between a wealthy white woman and a black youth in 1918 Montgomery. Next spring Bantam will publish Sudden Death, a story about the tennis tour inspired by her sportswriter friend Judy Lacy, who died in 1980, and a book sure to be read as a roman à clef about her two-year love match with Martina Navratilova.

That will be a mistake, insists Rita Mae, who is not coy about her relationship with the tennis star. "She was probably my first real love," Brown says. "She was the first person I married, let's put it that way." For two years she and Martina (who is 12 years her junior) shared a 27-room mansion in Charlottesville, Va. "When my mother first met Martina," Rita Mae recalls, "she said, 'Honey, have a child—don't marry one.' " But Brown felt she and Navratilova had a lot in common, including tennis (Rita Mae had played on her college team) and a bedazzlement with instant prosperity. "The first thing I bought myself was a Rolls-Royce," says Rita Mae. "I'm not one of those people who get money and drive a beat-up Dodge. Martina was the same. We liked nice things."

The fun ended in April 1981, when Martina left for Dallas to live with basketball star Nancy Lieberman (who says she's only a friend to Navratilova). "I was hurt terribly," Rita Mae says. "Instead of pretending I was big and strong, I sobbed for six months." Rita Mae put the mansion on the market and then moved to Los Angeles. There she helped write Norman Lear's recent I Love Liberty TV special and scripted Roger Corman's new horror movie, Slumber Party Massacre. Last month she moved to San Francisco to be near a woman restaurateur she dates, but she also aims to keep a Charlottesville home. "Most of the writers come from south of the Mason-Dixon line," she says. "We throw them like litters down there. You Yankees are too busy making money."

Rita Mae was born seven miles north of the line in York, Pa., and by age 1 was adopted by Ralph Brown, a butcher, and his wife, Julia Ellen, who worked in a bakery (and was the fictionalized heroine of Rita Mae's third novel, Six of One). They were poor but proud folk, and Rita Mae fondly recalls growing up "with chickens and animals and a large extended family." When she was 11, the Browns moved to Fort Lauderdale, where Rita Mae's instinct for a good time blossomed. "I wasn't one of those squeaky-clean kids," she says. "I made real good grades, but I never let anyone else know I was doing well. I was very social."

Her happy life faded soon after she went to the University of Florida in Gainesville on scholarship. In 1963 she was kicked out after agitating for greater racial integration, but what the school authorities actually nailed her for was her "pansexuality," as she puts it. "I was open to loving anybody." An officer of her sorority called her in and said, "White ladies aren't seen with 'nigras.' Would you want to marry one?" Rita Mae recalls her angry reply: " 'I don't care if I fall in love with a black or a white or a man or a woman or an old or young person. I just care that they have a good heart.' Within an hour I was in the dean's office being told I was a neurotic and a lesbian and demented. That was it. I was out. My world fell apart."

She hitchhiked to New York and in "desperation" lived for a while in an abandoned car in Greenwich Village with her cat, Baby Jesus. Finally she got a scholarship to New York University and earned a B.A. in English and classics, followed by a Ph.D. at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Then she wrote Rubyfruit, which was rejected repeatedly until a small feminist publishing house bought it and sold 35,000 copies.

When Bantam picked it up, the suddenly successful author told an interviewer: "I hope people get over calling me 'Rita Mae Brown, the lesbian author.' I want them to remember me as 'Rita Mae Brown, author.' And I hope they say, 'She was fun.' " She is getting her wish.

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