Kate Millett (1934–2017)

Kate Millett with her sculpture Kitchen Lady, 1997, mixed media. Photo: Linda Wolf.

. . . and then came Kate!

FROM MY INITIAL READING OF SEXUAL POLITICS (1970), I was a fan. I had earned my first master’s degree in literature in 1963, and no one was talking about the inherent sexism in plots, points of view, or authors’ personalities. And then came this explosive academic book, written as a Ph.D. thesis but serving as a clarion call for feminist action inside and out of the literary world.

How did I meet Kate Millett, Renaissance artist of literature, drawing and painting, sculpture and film? When did we become friends? The answer to the first question is fuzzy. Perhaps I met her after a screening of Three Lives (1971), her documentary, during which I remember being fascinated by the lesbian who somehow deconstructed the camera frame by rising into it from below. But I know I earned her respect as a friend by traveling by motorcycle with another lesbian filmmaker to Sacramento to attend the first Women’s Music Festival that Kate produced. There, on the lawn outside the university buildings and under a gigantic banner, women’s bands and solo acoustic performances went on all afternoon and into the night. We filmed and played on the banks of the Sacramento River, which borders the campus. Of course, there was a dance that followed, as happened after most early feminist/lesbian events “in the day.”

Kate and her lover at the time, Maria del Drago, had dinner with me one night at a Berkeley restaurant and then invited me to see Kate’s apartment on Derby Street off College Avenue. They offered it to me for a semester, as Maria had arranged a teaching job for Kate at Sacramento State.

It was the most luxurious apartment I had during my early Bay Area years, when I was a student at—and then graduate from—San Francisco State’s film department. I remember the light that came through double glass doors from the parlor to the living room.

Then, there was trouble. I heard there were ongoing arguments and tears that we called “dyke drama.” Maria told me Kate was manic with her new fame, with things like her Time magazine cover of August 31, 1970, and had signed a napkin at a restaurant, giving it to the waiter in place of paying her bill.

Kate went to Sacramento, where Maria was teaching; I lived in the leafy part of Berkeley. And then one day I was shocked to hear that Maria had committed suicide. Kate’s autobiographical novel, Sita (1977), is a rare inside account of a volatile lesbian relationship between two high-powered, deeply intelligent, and troubled, emotional women.

Kate moved to her Bowery loft, and I would see her in the city from time to time selling the Christmas trees from her Poughkeepsie farm, usually on the corner of Second Avenue and Houston, or at the well-attended holiday parties given by my friend the feminist architect Phyllis Birkby.

But it is a June night with fireflies and witches that I remember most. I was invited by the West Coast self-proclaimed witch Z Budapest, to attend a Sacred Circle, based on the four directions, that was to be held on Kate’s farm, which had by now become a collective living situation of sorts. Women travelers from all over the world would stop by to visit their icon and sometimes stay on in exchange for a half day of work. On that June night we gathered in a field. It must have been the solstice. Sue Kleckner, a documentary filmmaker and a friend of mine, had gathered a crew and was shooting the ceremony. The night was dark but for the moonlight, I was stationed at one of the four corners, and the ceremony began. It was so romantic in a mythological sort of way and filled with such verbose pomposity that I became bored quickly and abandoned my post to walk away into the night. I was forever ousted from witchdom after that rude behavior!

Barbara Hammer is a visual artist and experimental filmmaker whose retrospective at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York is on view through January 28, 2018.