Lisa Janssen profiles another favorite Gadabout – Joseph Hansen: author, radio personality, community theater actor, tv show writer, beloved writing teacher, poet, editor & gay rights activist.
Joseph Hansen (7/19/1923 – 11/24/2004)
Joseph Hansen was not a Gadabout in the classic sense, as he did write a successful series of detective novels. But this unassuming choirboy from the Midwest followed his dream down the crookedest path.
This path took the lesser traveled routes and then some as Hansen moved through incarnations: radio personality, community theater actor, tv show writer, gay erotica author, beloved writing teacher, poet, editor, and gay rights activist.
At ease with his homosexuality, it was a normal state of being to him even in the 1940s. And so it was for his most famous creation, the suave impeccably dressed insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter, star of Hansen’s great series of detective novels.
He was a Depression kid, born in South Dakota to a quintessentially Swedish-Midwestern immigrant family, pulling the weight of America out of the dustbowl. The Hansens relocated to the Los Angeles area to ride out the 1930s with extended family. He sang in the church choir and had his first real love with an actor from the Pasadena Playhouse.
Around 1940 Hansen moved to a Los Angeles rooming house near Hollywood and Highland. He worked nearby at the Pickwick Bookshop where he encountered many of the actors, writers (including a sodden Faulkner), agents, and eccentrics that would become characters in his novels.
In 1943 he met and married Jane Bancroft, an artist who was running a sheet-metal router at Lockheed Aircraft. She was butch as hell, but the relationship was a happy one. Both freely engaged in homosexual affairs outside the marriage while maintaining a committed and loving companionship.
He wrote novel after novel all rejected. A couple of poems published in the New Yorker kept the faith, but how to pay the bills? He scrounged the netherworld of workaday Hollywood: as TV writer on Lassie; singer of sea shanties; radio DJ on his own show “The Stranger from the Sea” on KFI-AM; before finally hitting paydirt in the gay erotica racket.
His first published novels were written under the alias “James Colton,” including Known Homosexual and Strange Marriage. He even tried his hand at gothic romance in two novels as “Rose Brock.” He was paying the bills.
Hansen was a cranky, stubborn man. He didn’t suffer fools, and in his mind, everybody was one. Those are not the best qualities to have when courting publishers, but they were essential in another place in his life: gay activism.
He connected with fellow curmudgeon Don Slater sometime in the ’50s. Slater was a co-founder of ONE, a groundbreaking gay rights organization, that in turn begat ONE magazine which showcased work by gay writers about gay issues. Most wrote under pseudonyms, of course. Hansen contributed pieces as “James Colton,” for ONE and later Tangents. He was there helping plan first Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade in 1970.
Switch gears. Hansen must have had a beyond human amount of energy. Running parallel to writing rejected novels and promoting gay causes, he began teaching a weekly poetry workshop at the Bridge bookstore. That little workshop grew up to be Beyond Baroque, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project of LA.
So it’s just about to be 1960 and Hansen is busting his ass. He’s married to Jane and they have an eight-year-old daughter. When Jane finds a new lover with three children of her own it’s all in the family. The Hansen’s buy a house for them all in Culver City, along with cats and dogs and books. Then he’s got a lot more bills to pay.
As if from heaven straight to Hansen’s pen, comes Dave Brandstetter, a happy, openly gay insurance investigator in 1970s Los Angeles. Independently wealthy, nattily dressed, with a taste for fine food, he can’t help but get caught up in the case when the insurance claim doesn’t add up.
Fadeout, the first in the Brandstetter series, sets the tone – awash in Los Angeles haze and vibrations. The stories take place in houses tucked in behind native trees and foliage off winding canyon roads. A gay community barely hidden in peripheral characters living perfectly normal lives, antique dealers, interior decorators, and Brandstetter’s current and former loves. Hansen clearly gave Dave the power and style he’d never have, with his fancy sports car and big house in the hills where he cooks deliciously conjured food for his longtime companion Cecil, a black, much younger, television news producer.
The series was a genre hit, critically praised and beloved by gay and straight readers alike.
He churned out 12 Brandstetter novels as he struggled to support the homestead: Jane, her lover and her three kids, the pets. But Barbara his daughter was gone. A mysterious rift grew between Barbara and her parents, she left home and cut contact with both of them for decades. When she came back into Hansen’s life after her mother Jane’s death it was as “Daniel.”
Seems s/he had a similar distaste for authority as her father, who every year became more embittered as his serious writing languished unrecognized, though now published. His biographical trilogy, Jack of Hearts, Living Upstairs, and The Cutback Path are often wonderful. 1940s Hollywood vivid through the eyes of a young would-be writer and his friends hanging in the gay bars of the East Side and debating amateur red politics.
In the late 1970s into the mid-1980s he taught extension courses in writing at UCLA. He was by all accounts a tough but beloved teacher who developed lasting friendships with several of his students.
I’m told a volume of Hansen’s selected poems is in the works now that his papers are open at the Huntington Library. One is a harrowing 14-page account of the last months of Jane’s life titled “The Dark/The Diary.”
Here we are let into their home, Jane and Joe alone after the lovers and children have gone. Joe gets prostate cancer concurrent with his wife’s decline. Jane is a hoarder clearly, as well as blind, unwashed, and nearly irrational, refusing medical help until it’s too late. The beloved cats and dogs turn feral. Some would call it lucky that Jane was in a nursing home when the Northridge earthquake hit and reduced their home of 40 years to dust. She died there soon after.
Stubborn Joseph Hansen would live another ten years, eventually settling in Laguna Beach. He kept a voluminous correspondence, in some cases for decades with writer friends, fans, and former students. Over the years he and Charles Willeford bemoan old age and computers, Dorothy S. Davis quietly comes out, Bukowski’s ex FrancEye sends poems, the history of a workaday writer unfolds, but it’s so much more.
Hansen’s daughter Barbara resumed contact after Jane’s death. No longer Daniel, he was going by “James” after sex reassignment surgery. His whereabouts today are unknown.
Joseph Hansen died of heart failure in November of 2004. I tear up as I write that.
Read about Lisa Janssen’s other favorite gadabouts: