Democracy Dies in Darkness

Checkpoint

The lost World War II letters of Edythe Eyde, who started America’s first lesbian publication

January 3, 2018 at 7:00 AM

A composite image of Edythe Eyde, one subject of The Washington Post’s ‘Letters from War’ project. (Courtesy of Vicki Venhuizen/)

Edythe Eyde was a secretary at a war dog training center in California in 1944 when she encountered a wounded veteran. He was on crutches after suffering injuries in the Pacific and Eyde invited him to her family’s house and baked him a chocolate cake.

“He’s a master sergeant and when in active service, flew aeroplanes and also jumped from the planes (with a parachute, of course. Even a master sergeant can stand only so much!),” she wrote her cousin, Ralph Eyde.

Edythe described the encounter in a letter dated Aug. 23, 1944, one of the many times she wrote to her cousins as World War II raged overseas. Her letters are part of The Washington Post’s “Letters from War” project, which traces the journey of a family of brothers from Rockford, Ill., as three of them served in the military and the fourth assisted in the war effort by working at a defense factory in their home town.

Related: [Brothers in arms: The story of four brothers’ journey through World War II, told through their own letters]

The story of the brothers — Frank, Sanford, Ralph and John Eyde — has been detailed in a long-form story, supplemental materials and a podcast, “Letters from War,” that published weekly since Dec. 6 and concluded Jan. 3. It relied heavily on the hundreds of letters they wrote one another that were eventually found abandoned in a storage unit in Mesa, Ariz.

Related: [Listen to the “Letters From War” podcast]

But Edythe’s role in the story has not yet been told. In addition to being a first cousin, friend and pen pal to the brothers, she would go on to start what is believed to be the first lesbian publication in the country in 1948. She used the pen name Lisa Ben, an anagram of the word “lesbian” that she’d stick with for years.

Edythe, a college student during the war, worked at the War Dog Reception and Training Center in San Carlos, Calif., where dogs were paired with handlers and trained. She often wrote to the Eyde brothers from a typewriter at work, sending her letters in envelopes stamped with the training center’s return address.

“Your play-by-play description of the battle was wonderful and positively scarifying,” she wrote to Ralph in 1944, after he recounted how he was wounded in the Battle of Kwajalein while serving with the U.S. Army in the Marshall Islands. “It must have been a dreadful experience indeed.”

Edythe grew up on an apricot farm in Palo Alto, Calif., and watched as her father, Oscar, served in civilian defense along the Pacific coastline after Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. As the war wound down, she eventually helped her family adopt a war dog.

By 1947, Edythe was working at RKO Studios, a movie studio in Los Angeles. As The Washington Post detailed in a piece last year, she designed and templated her magazine — Vice Versa — on RKO machines because under California law at the time, the publication of any lesbian publication was illegal and could have landed her in jail.

Edythe described the experience in her later years in a podcast called “Making Gay History.” She handed out her magazines at lesbian hot spots in Los Angeles, and urged women to pass them on to others rather than throw them away, she recalled. Edythe was lonely at the time and searching for a connection to others.

As The Post noted last year, Edythe predicted that magazines like hers would one day be accepted.

“With the advancement of psychiatry and related subjects, the world is becoming more and more aware that there are those in our midst who feel no attraction for the opposite sex,” she wrote in one issue. “It is not an uncommon sight to observe mannishly attired women or even those dressed in more feminine garb strolling along the street hand-in-hand or even arm-in-arm, in an attitude which certainly would seem to indicate far more than mere friendliness.”

Vicki Venhuizen, the closest surviving family member The Post found of the Eyde brothers, confirmed that the Edythe in the war letters and the Lisa Ben of Vice Versa are one and the same, and shared several photographs of her from a family collection.

“You’ve done your homework,” Venhuizen said.

Listen to the podcast featuring Edythe Eyde:

Hear more: Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Online

Related stories:
I wrote about one family’s history in World War II. Now I wonder more about my own roots.

The secrets and service of a World War II family, 76 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor


Dan Lamothe covers he U.S. military and the Pentagon for The Washington Post. He joined the newspaper in 2014. He has covered military operations for more than a decade, embedding with U.S. troops everywhere from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean.

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