Michael Denneny, 80, Dies; Editor Created Outlets for Gay Literature

Michael Denneny, an openly gay editor at a major New York publisher who started a pioneering imprint that was devoted to L.G.B.T. literature and who helped found a magazine billed as a gay version of The New Yorker, died on April 15 at his home in Manhattan. He was 80.

His brother, Joe, his only immediate survivor, said the cause was likely a heart attack.

For about 30 years, Mr. Denneny multitasked his way through a jampacked publishing career. His major mainstream successes included Judith Thurman’s 1982 biography of the Danish writer Isak Dinesen; the Watergate burglary mastermind G. Gordon Liddy’s 1980 memoir, “Will”; and the journalist Randy Shilts’s magisterial, best-selling history of the AIDS crisis, “And the Band Played On” (1987).

In 1976, Mr. Denneny and Chuck Ortleb started Christopher Street, a monthly magazine that would publish fiction and nonfiction by gay writers for the next 19 years. It was a risky personal move for Mr. Denneny, the rare openly gay editor in a publishing industry in which many gay and lesbian editors were still closeted.

Months before the first issue was published, several top gay men in publishing, who were not out, “took me out for lunch and subtly threatened to end my career if my name appeared in the magazine,” he told the New York newspaper Gay City News in 2004.

He did not back down.

By then, he was an editor at Macmillan, where he published a book version of Ntozake Shange’s feminist play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” which had its premiere in 1976.

But in 1977, Mr. Denneny was fired when Macmillan’s chief executive discovered that he had acquired “The Homosexuals,” by Alan Ebert, which featured interviews with 17 gay men. Mr. Denneny was rehired briefly to present the book at a sales conference when no other editors would. The book was published — but he was fired again, this time when his connection to Christopher Street became known.

When he hunted for jobs — by his count, 47, at a time when Manhattan was home to many publishers — he presented his interviewers with a copy of the magazine. In 2014, he told the Lambda Literary Foundation, which promotes L.G.B.T. writers, that he had informed each prospective employer: “Look I’m gay and publicly involved with this gay literary magazine, so if that gives you a problem, we should just forget about the job and enjoy lunch, since this is a very good restaurant and you’re paying for it.”

His only return call, and job offer, came from Tom McCormack, the president of St. Martin’s Press. Mr. Denneny had told Mr. McCormack that he believed there was a new market for gay fiction.

One of Mr. Denneny’s early acquisitions for St. Martin’s was the gay writer Edmund White’s second novel, “Nocturnes for the King of Naples” (1978), an unnamed narrator’s elegiac evocation of a lost love.

“‘Nocturnes’ was rejected by everybody,” Mr. White said in a phone interview. “I couldn’t get anybody to publish me again until my agent approached Michael. He was very generous, very smart and was very intellectual, but not in a show-offy way.”

In 1987, Mr. Denneny started Stonewall Inn Editions, an L.G.B.T. trade paperback imprint at St. Martin’s — a first for a major publishing house — that republished many of the gay and lesbian books that he had previously released in hardcover.

“Stonewall created a definition for gay books and gave a visibility that gay books had never had in the past, which were previously published by obscure houses or self-published,” Robert Weil, executive editor and vice president of the Liveright imprint at W.W. Norton, said in a phone interview. “Every gay man of that era knew Stonewall.”

Stonewall’s many paperbacks, released through 2004, include “Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog” (1988),” a collection of poems by Paul Monette on the death of his lover from AIDS; “Reports From the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist” (1994), by Larry Kramer; and Mr. Shilts’s “The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” (1988), about the openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who was assassinated in 1978 by Dan White, a former supervisor.

“No one had the influence and vision, who, in spite of everything, to say that it was OK to be gay, and he made that mark through publishing,” added Mr. Weil, who worked for a time with Mr. Denneny at St. Martin’s.

Michael Leo Denneny was born on March 2, 1943, in Providence, R.I., and grew up in nearby Pawtucket. His father, Leo, was a mill worker who later sorted mail for the Postal Service. His mother, Dorothy (Wilkinson) Denneny, also worked in a mill.

“Pawtucket was a gloomy mill town in the 1950s,” Joe Denneny said in a phone interview, “and Michael sort of retreated into books at an early age. He read a book or two a week.”

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Chicago in 1964 and stayed to do graduate work at its Committee on Social Thought, where he studied under the philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt. He then worked as a part-time editor at the University of Chicago Press.

“In 1971, as a result of Stonewall, I moved to New York City, mainly to be gay,” he said in the Lambda Literary Foundation interview, referring to the Lower Manhattan uprising in 1969 that helped ignite the gay rights movement. “I didn’t have a job or even a concrete plan, so the first few months were difficult.”

But he found a job, with Macmillan. In 1974, he spotted an article by Ms. Thurman in Ms. magazine about the Danish writer Isak Dinesen and contacted her.

“We met in a restaurant in Soho,” she said by phone. “I thought he’d be an old guy in a jacket with patches on the elbow, and he thought I’d be an old lady in a bun. But I was 25 and he was 28 or 29, and we got roaring drunk on martinis, and he pitched the idea of a book. I thought he was crazy. I was a poet and a struggling journalist. I said, ‘I can’t write a book.’ We had several more dinners, and he convinced me I could do it.”

“Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller,” was published by St. Martin’s after Mr. Denneny moved there; it won the 1983 National Book Award for biography and autobiography.

Among his other books at St. Martin’s were R. Buckminster Fuller’s “Critical Path” (1981), about the crises facing Earth; the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Black Book” (1986), a collection of erotic Black male nudes; and “The Simply Divine Cut-Out Doll Book” (1983), by Van Smith, a collection of pictures of costumes inspired by the cross-dressing actor Divine in the John Waters films “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray.”

Mr. Denneny also published “The AIDS: The Epidemic” (1983), edited by Dr. Kevin Cahill, an early book about the disease, and many more on the subject. In 1987, The New York Times reported that Mr. Denneny ”may have published more books on AIDS than any other editor at a commercial house.”

He left St. Martin’s in 2002 to become a freelance editor. Over the past few years he worked on “On Christopher Street: Life, Sex and Death After Stonewall,” a cultural memoir, published last month, composed of essays profiles and eulogies he had written, and interviews he had given, over the years.

“And when the great disaster of AIDS overwhelmed us,” he wrote in the book. “I thought I saw a heroic era in gay and lesbian history and an absolutely shining moment in gay writing, something truly worth remembering.”

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