Authors: Rita Mae Brown

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American novelist, screenwriter, poet, and prose writer.

November 28, 1944

Hanover, Pennsylvania


Since the publication of her autobiographical first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown has been an important literary force. She was born on November 28, 1944, in Hanover, Pennsylvania. She was adopted by Ralph Brown and his wife, Julia Buckingham. She attended the University of Florida and received a B.A. degree from New York University in 1968 in English and classics. That same year, she earned a cinematography certificate from the New York School of Visual Arts. From 1969 to 1970, she was employed by Sterling Publishing of New York City as a photography editor. From 1970 to 1971 she lectured in sociology at Federal City College in Washington, D.C. She was a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., from 1971 to 1973, receiving her Ph.D. there in 1976. After settling in 1978 in Albemarle County, Virginia, she shifted her focus from political feminist and lesbian activism to writing works portraying the importance of building communities (such as the one she has found) where creativity can be nourished and barriers of class, race, and sex overcome.

Although Brown had published two books of poetry previously, Rubyfruit Jungle was the work that first attracted widespread attention. After Rubyfruit Jungle was rejected by the major publishing houses, it was brought out by Daughters, Inc., a small company specializing in feminist works. The novel sold a surprising seventy thousand copies, thus encouraging a large firm, Bantam Books, to acquire publication rights in 1977. Another 300,000 copies were printed, and sales eventually exceeded one million.

Rubyfruit Jungle is a picaresque novel whose protagonist, Molly Bolt, has been likened to Huckleberry Finn. Molly is bright, lusty, and lesbian. She is also, like Brown herself, an adopted child who retraces part of the author’s past from Pennsylvania to Florida and New York, flouting conventions, overcoming poverty, and refusing to give in to defeat. Brown’s third novel, Six of One, and its sequel, Bingo, also focus on an adopted child (Nicole Smith), her female relatives and mentors, and her life choices as a lesbian who refuses the role of outsider to assume a central place in her family and community. The setting is Runnymede, on the North-South border, and Brown’s treatment of southern culture and attitudes in this novel, and later in Southern Discomfort, has caused some readers to think of her as a southern writer. (Brown rejects all labels vehemently.) Southern Discomfort ranges farther south, in fact: it is set in Montgomery, Alabama, and portrays an interracial and intergenerational love affair and the scandal it causes.

Sudden Death is set in the world of professional women’s tennis. Some have viewed it as a roman à clef based on tennis champion Martina Navratilova and her relationship with Brown. Brown says that her real motivation for writing the novel was a promise exacted from her by a dying friend. Judy Lacy, a sportswriter, had intended to write a novel using professional tennis as a background. In 1980, she was dying of a brain tumor and realized that she would never write the book. Brown reluctantly promised to write the book instead, and Sudden Death, exposing dishonesty and betrayal in the world of professional sports, is the result.

In the early 1980s, Brown began to devote her energies to screenwriting, an activity she characterizes as totally unlike novel writing. Her work in this field has been diverse. She worked on the script for Norman Lear’s 1982 television special I Love Liberty; her other scripts include the film The Slumber Party Massacre and the television miniseries The Long Hot Summer and Rich Men, Single Women.

Brown has also written the nonfiction A Plain Brown Rapper and Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual; produced the memoir Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser; experimented with mystery writing in Wish You Were Here and its sequels, including Rest in Pieces; and created such historical novels as High Hearts, on women fighting in the Civil War, Dolley: A Novel of Dolley Madison in Love and War, and Riding Shotgun, about a woman who travels to the year 1699. The “Sneaky Pie Brown” listed as her collaborator in her many mysteries, including the Mrs. Murphy Mystery series, is her cat. In 2000, Brown started another mystery series, known as the “Sister Jane” series or the Fox Hunting Mysteries. Brown has won consistent praise for the vitality, wit, and audacity of her fiction. She is extremely versatile. She explains in the introduction to Bingo that she has tried to reach as wide an audience as possible, inspiring their creativity and engaging them (along with her) in the task of building a stronger and more tolerant future.

Author Works Long Fiction: Rubyfruit Jungle, 1973 In Her Day, 1976 Six of One, 1978 Southern Discomfort, 1982 Sudden Death, 1983 High Hearts, 1986 Bingo, 1988 Wish You Were Here, 1990 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Rest in Pieces, 1992 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Venus Envy, 1993 Dolley: A Novel of Dolley Madison in Love and War, 1994 Murder at Monticello: Or, Old Sins, 1994 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Pay Dirt: Or, Adventures at Ash Lawn, 1995 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Murder, She Meowed: Or, Death at Montpelier, 1996 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Riding Shotgun, 1996 Murder on the Prowl, 1998 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Cat on the Scent, 1999 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Loose Lips, 1999 Outfoxed, 2000 Pawing Through the Past, 2000 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Claws and Effect, 2001 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Alma Mater, 2001 Catch as Cat Can, 2002 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Hotspur, 2002 Full Cry, 2003 Tail of the Tip-Off, 2003 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Whiskery of Evil, 2004 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Cat’s Eyewitness, 2005 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Hunt Ball, 2005 Hounds and the Fury, 2006 Sour Puss, 2006 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Puss ’n Cahoots: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery, 2007 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) The Tell-Tale Horse Hounded to Death, 2008 The Purrfect Murder, 2008 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) The Sand Castle, 2008 Santa Clawed, (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Cat of the Century, 2010 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) A Nose for Justice, 2010 Big Cat Nap: The 20th Anniversary Mrs. Murphy Mystery, 2012 Fox Tracks, 2012 Murder Unleashed, 2012 Sneaky Pie for President, 2012 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Litter of the Law: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery, 2013 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, 2014 Nine Lives to Die: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery, 2014 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Tail Gate: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery, 2015 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Cakewalk, 2016 Hiss before Dying: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery, 2017 (with Sneaky Pie Brown) Screenplay: The Slumber Party Massacre, 1982 Me and Rubyfruit, 1989 Mary Pickford: A Life on Film, 1997 Teleplay: I Love Liberty, 1982 The Long Hot Summer, 1985 My Two Loves, 1986 Rich Men, Single Women, 1989 The Woman Who Loved Elvis, 1993 Poetry: The Hand That Cradles the Rock, 1971 Songs to a Handsome Woman, 1973 Nonfiction: A Plain Brown Rapper, 1976 Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual, 1988 Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser, 1997 Sneaky Pie’s Cookbook for Mystery Lovers, 1999 Animal Magnetism: My Life with Creatures Great and Small, 2009 Translation: Hrotsvitha: Six Medieval Latin Plays, 1971 Bibliography Boyle, Sharon D. “Rita Mae Brown.” In Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Sandra Pollack and Denise D. Knight. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Profiles Brown’s life and work. Includes an extended discussion of Rubyfruit Jungle and a useful bibliography. Brown, Rita Mae. “A Conversation with Rita Mae Brown.” By Teresa Decrescenzo. Lesbian News, 1 Nov. 2014, pp. 1–3. MasterFILE Complete, Accessed 12 June 2017. An interview with Brown in which the author discusses her first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, educational background, the lesbian collective The Furies, and present-day lesbian culture. Chew, Martha. “Rita Mae Brown: Feminist Theorist and Southern Novelist.” Southern Quarterly 22 (1983): 61–80. Chew shows how Brown’s early novels are informed by a specifically “lesbian feminist political vision,” whereas her later works are “increasingly directed toward a mainstream audience.” Davies, Julia A. “Rita Mae Brown (1944–    ).” In Significant Contemporary American Feminists: A Biographical Sourcebook, edited by Jennifer Scanlon. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Analyzes how Brown’s political activities influenced her literary endeavors, particularly her novels featuring unconventional female protagonists and characters who challenge traditional gender roles. Day, Frances Ann. “Molly Bolts and Lifelines: Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973).” In Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender, edited by Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. Addresses the classroom study of Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle as it relates to the censorship of literature in schools. Identifies attributes of the novel’s protagonist, such as individualism, that are universal to most students. Decure, Nicole. “The Feat of Telling It Like It Is: Concealment Tactics in Rita Mae Brown’s Fiction.” Women’s Studies International Forum 17, no. 4 (July/August, 1994): 425–433. Treats Brown’s condemnation of women’s tendencies to conceal socially unpopular practices, such as lesbianism. Perry, Carolyn, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. The History of Southern Women’s Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Collection of essays includes discussion of themes in Brown’s literature within the context of the work of contemporary southern female authors. A biographical sketch of Brown by Harold Woodell discusses her works through her early mysteries. Van Dover, J. K., and John F. Jebb. Isn’t Justice Always Unfair? The Detective in Southern Literature. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996. Devotes a chapter to the examination of how rural settings, including those in Brown’s mysteries, are depicted and influence literary techniques to create characters, crimes, and plots in the mystery genre. Also addresses Brown’s portrayal of animals as sleuths. Ward, Carol Marie. Rita Mae Brown. New York: Twayne, 1993. Provides a comprehensive introductory overview of Brown’s life, writings, and philosophy and presents critical analysis of her works. Includes a chronology and an annotated bibliography. Zimmerman, Bonnie. The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction, 1969–1989. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990. Insightful study of contemporary lesbian prose that explores the interaction between fiction and community, specifically how lesbian novels and short stories have both reflected and shaped the lesbian community. Zimmerman describes Rubyfruit Jungle as the quintessential coming-out novel.

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