French writer whose account of wartime love affairs caused a sensation in America for its lesbian content
TERESKA Torres, who died on September 20 aged 92, caused a sensation when her novel Women's Barracks was published in 1950; drawing on her experience of serving with the Free French forces in London in the Second World War, it sold four million copies in the United States alone, but caused a storm for its candid depictions of lesbianism.
Torres had written the novel as a serious-minded account of wartime situations rather than as a raunchfest. In her wartime diaries, Une Francaise Libre (published only in French), she wrote of the "end of the world" atmosphere of London during the Blitz: "the vulgarity, the love, the vice, the alcohol, amidst the bombardments, the death, the strained nerves..." Women's Barracks was intended to portray the way in which conventional mores break down during conflict, describing the fugitive, frantic love affairs (heterosexual as well as homosexual) of young people in uniform, free from parental control, who never know whether the next Luftwaffe bomb might have their names on it.
But Tereska Torres's publishers, the American pulp paperback imprint Gold Medal, had other ideas. Declaring the story to be a "frank autobiography of a French girl soldier", they gave the book a salacious cover featuring a changing-room scene, with one female soldier ogling three or four beauties in various alluring states of undress. Sold in paperback in dime stores, the book was a runaway success.
By today's standards the Sapphic passages were tame: "Ursula felt herself very small, tiny against Claude, and at last she felt warm," reads one of the raunchier paragraphs. "She placed her cheek on Claude's breast. Her heart beat violently, but she didn't feel afraid. She didn't understand what was happening to her. Claude was not a man; then what was she doing to her? What strange movements! What could they mean? Claude unbuttoned the jacket of her pyjamas and enclosed one of Ursula's little breasts in her hand." But that did not lessen their shock value at the time the book was published.
It was banned in several American states and in Canada, where a Crown prosecutor called it "nothing but a description of lewdness from beginning to end". In 1952 it was denounced by a Congressional committee on "Current Pornographic Materials" as an example of how the fledgling paperback industry was "promoting moral degeneracy". The committee did not go as far as banning the book, as Gold Medal had agreed to publish it with the introduction of a censorious "narrator" (added by Tereska Torres's husband Meyer Levin), so that they could argue that, far from promoting lewdness and depravity, the book actually taught "moral lessons" about the "problem" of lesbianism. To modern eyes it is the intrusive voice of the narrator, rather than the activities of the women, which gives the book its somewhat prurient, peeping-Tom tone.
Translated into 13 languages, Women's Barracks went on to sell millions more copies. Gold Medal was so pleased that it tried to persuade Tereska Torres to write a follow-up. Though she would return to the theme of lesbianism in By Cecile (1963), about a woman who steals her husband's mistress, she refused, feeling that the publishers had exploited her.
In 2003 the Feminist Press republished the book with the original cover, proclaiming it, to the author's dismay, to be "the first lesbian pulp novel" -- a book which had inspired a whole new genre of lesbian writing. "There are five main characters,'' Tereska Torres protested in an interview with The London Independent in 2007. "Only one-and-a-half of them can be considered lesbian. I don't see why it's considered a lesbian classic.'' Part of the problem, she felt, was the cultural gap between France and America. She had written "a very innocent book", she told Salon.com in 2005. "I thought, these Americans, they are easily shocked.''
She was born Tereska Szwarc in Paris on September 3, 1920, to emigre Polish Jews. Her father, Marek, was a prominent painter and sculptor, and her mother, Guina Pinkus, a novelist and poet. A year before her birth her parents had converted in secret to Roman Catholicism. She would explore their motives in Le Choix, published in 2002, and describe her own childhood and education in The Converts (1970).
Tereska was 19 when France capitulated to the Nazis in June 1940. Deeply ashamed, and knowing that her Roman Catholicism would not be enough to save her from Nazi anti-Semitism, she was delighted when she heard that General de Gaulle was continuing the fight from London. She immediately packed her bags and embarked on the long journey to London.
She was enrolled into the Free French "corps feminin" (a name that was quickly changed to "volontaires francaises" to deter ribaldry). Assigned to secretarial duties, she rose to the rank of second-lieutenant.
In 1944 she met and fell in love with Georges Torres, a French Jew also serving with the Free French and the stepson of the former French prime minister Leon Blum. They married after a brief courtship, and five months later Georges was killed in Lorraine while fighting with the French 2nd Armoured Division. Tereska was five months pregnant.
After the end of the war she returned with her baby daughter to Paris where, in 1946, she published her first novel, Le sable et l'ecume, begun when she was 17. It brought her critical acclaim but little financial reward.
The following year she accompanied the Jewish-American writer Meyer Levin, a friend of her parents, while he filmed a documentary about Jewish refugees from Poland trying to reach Palestine. Her diary about her experiences (which ended in her imprisonment by British forces in Palestine), was later published in German as Unerschrocken (Unafraid).
She and Levin married in 1948, and it was he who encouraged her to turn her wartime diaries into a novel, translated the manuscript into English and arranged for Women's Barracks to be acquired by Gold Medal.
Tereska Torres went on to write a further 14 novels, including Not Yet... (1957), The Dangerous Games (1957) and The Golden Cage (1959). A memoir, Mission Secrete, about her campaign to help the black Jews of Ethiopia emigrate to Israel, was published in France this year.
For more than 50 years Tereska refused to allow Women's Barracks to be published in French because it gave the "wrong impression" of what the Free French forces got up to in London.
In 2010, however, she relented and rewrote the book in French, as Jeunes Femmes en Uniforme, incorporating material from her wartime diaries and stripping out the moralising narrator.
Tereska Torres and Meyer Levin lived in Paris, New York and then Israel. They had two sons. But the marriage was not an easy one for Tereska. Levin was self-destructive and paranoid and launched a public campaign and legal action against Anne Frank's father, Otto Frank, and the producers of the 1955 play The Diary of Anne Frank. In Les Maisons Hantees de Meyer Levin (1974), Tereska wrote about his 30-year obsession, admitting that she had considered leaving him on several occasions and had contemplated suicide.
Meyer Levin died in 1981, and Tereska Torres is survived by their two sons and by the daughter of her first marriage.