Around 1989 or so I was at the library flipping through a book the title of which I can no longer recall but it was something like Famous Gay People Throughout History. All the usual--and long dead--suspects were there: Sappho, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, etc. The book was breezily written, the author realizing that while the historical gayness of Sappho was a no-brainer, when it comes to someone like King James (best known these days for his Bible), it may be more a matter of conjecture. The fun was in the speculation. And the speculation got revved up quite a bit on the book's final page, which dealt with still-living celebrities who had not yet publicly announced their homosexuality. To avoid any lawsuits, the author had simply provided a page of initials, and it was up to the reader to figure out to whom these initials belonged. One set of initials read L.T. It didn't take much guessing on my part to figure out who that was. Not because of any rumors I'd heard but due to the fact that someone had penciled Lily Tomlin right next to it! Whatever anger I might have felt over the defacement of a library book soon gave way to a sense of intrigue. As a kid I had watched Tomlin on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and then, as I got older, watched her TV specials, the times she guest-hosted Saturday Night Live, the network showings of her feature films, and her talk show appearances. I found Tomlin funny, and considered myself a fan. Now to find out she was gay! Far from disappointed, I wanted to know more about this aspect of her life. Unfortunately, there was no Internet back then to do further research--remember, I was in the library flipping through a book--and the mainstream media of the day stayed out of Tomlin's personal life, as well they should. And really, it was none of my business. But if that mysterious pencil-carrying library vandal knew this about her, why shouldn't I? It was maybe another ten years before I pieced together not just the puzzle of her life but, as it turned out, her career, too, which has since become public knowledge. So, as this parade-less Pride Month quietly plays itself out, perhaps Tomlin's story can provide a bit of inspiration. It's not a float, but you won't have to go through the trouble of looking for a spot on a crowded sidewalk.
“Teach Me, Read Me” children’s bed sheets for Fieldcrest. Finally, writing. In 1969, when I was in the second grade, Wagner made her first professional sale as a writer, an hour-long children's special (almost immediately adapted into a book) titled J.T. Here's where that gap in her biography becomes, for me, particularly frustrating. Did Wagner send an unsolicited teleplay to CBS, or was this done through an agent? Either way, it was smart of the network to greenlight the project. Kevin Hooks, in an exceptional performance (of which there was another forthcoming in the feature film Sounder, and he was pretty good as Morris Thorpe in TV's The White Shadow, too), is the title character, a young boy living in Harlem who adopts a one-eyed alley cat. I was watching this on the computer a short while ago when I suddenly realized I had seen it the first time around! I remember liking it back then though my second-grade self was much disturbed by the feline's ultimate fate (honestly, my fifty-something self wasn't too pleased about it either.) J.T. went on to win the prestigious Peabody Award. Though ostensibly for children, it certainly can be appreciated by adults. One adult who appreciated it was Lily Tomlin, who then got in contact with Wagner, asking for help on her Edith Ann album. This I find a bit puzzling. J.T. may have been high-caliber television, but it wasn't a comedy. Tomlin never tells you where Edith Ann lives, but I very much doubt that it's Harlem. Nevertheless, Tomlin wanted Edith Ann to be less a caricature of a little girl and more like a real youngster, and Wagner wanted to show everyone that she, too, could be funny. According to Tomlin, when the two finally met in person, they immediately "clicked".
The result was 1972's And That's the Truth. Unlike on Laugh-In, where Tomlin was dressed up as Edith Ann and addresses the viewer directly, here she relies totally on her voice to achieve the same effect since, after all, there's no viewer, just a listener (well, there would have been viewers in the night club where this album was recorded, but even there I think she was out of costume.) But instead of being addressed directly, the listener gets to listen in as Edith Ann pesters a neighborhood lady (also voiced by Tomlin) walking to her home and then again at that home itself. The album did well, peaking at # 41 on Billboard's Hot 200 chart. Jane Wagner was also on the writing staff on all four of Tomlin's Emmy Awards-laden specials made between 1973 and 1981. The first three were produced by former Laugh-In writer and future Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. The fourth, Lily Sold Out, which ends with out heroine in a Las Vegas pool amidst a floating pair of push-up bra inserts, was produced by Wagner. The duo also collaborated on a couple of feature films, Moment by Moment and The Incredible Shrinking Woman, neither one of which garnered much in the way of critical acclaim or box office receipts, but that hardly slowed them down. Their real forte was the stage, where Tomlin got her start, except this time that stage wouldn't be in...
...some cellar nightclub.
As you may have guessed by now, or maybe even have known for decades (I'm talking to you, library book-defacer), Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner didn't just click professionally but romantically as well. By the time And That's the Truth went on sale in record shops, they had become lovers, and have remained lovers ever since. And in 2013 they became more than that when they picked up their licenses and were married in a private ceremony. Prior to them tying the knot, they were somewhat discreet about their relationship. In 1975, Time magazine offered Tomlin the cover if she came out, but she said no (two years later, all the TV specials and first Broadway show got her the cover anyway.) Like a lot of celebrities in recent years, Tomlin and Wagner relied on a kind of osmosis to get the word out as the LGBTQ movement picked up steam. You can pass judgement on them for their lengthy discretion if you wish, but few couples, gay or straight, have so successfully merged their professional and personal lives, and for that they should take a great deal of Pride.
The above clip is from the feature film version of The Search for Signs of Intelligence Life in the Universe. In the original stage show you wouldn't have seen the inside of a car with rain pelting the windows, nor Lily Tomlin in three different outfits and three different hairstyles, the editing to pull something like that off downright impossible in a live performance. No, it would have been Tomlin wearing black pants and a white blouse throughout the whole thing, changing only her voice and facial expression as she switched from one character to another. Pure acting.