"I'll tell you something very
interesting," says Patricia Cornwell, fixing me
with her Carolina-blue eyes. We're sitting in the
living room of a bird's-eye suite on the 53rd
floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Manhattan, not
far from the author's own Hudson River-view
apartment. "Many years ago I was at a dinner
sitting next to Billie Jean King, and we were talking
about this very issue, about being gay. And I said,
'Well, to me, it's a very private matter; I
never deny it if I'm asked, but I don't
go around talking about it.' She said, 'Wait
until you turn 50. You'll feel
I'll be 52 in June, and she's absolutely
right," Cornwell continues. "I
don't know what it is about turning 50, but a lot of
things don't matter as much anymore."
Then again, some
things start to matter very much. Speaking out for
equality, for instance.
"If I went
around hiding, maybe life would be easier, or my book sales
would be better. But I think for every straight person
I've lost, I've probably gotten a gay
[reader]. In the early days when this all started
coming out, it was, 'Ooh, this could really turn off
your male readers.' And you know what I want to
say: Do you not know what straight men's
favorite form of pornography is? It's women with
women, honey! I should have more of it in my books,
and if I didn't embarrass myself, I would!
ha ha ha," Cornwell lets out an infectious,
lighthearted chuckle--nothing like the laugh
that I'd expect from a motorcycle-riding,
helicopter-piloting alpha female who delves into the minds
of serial killers. In fact, her laugh is downright
ladylike. You can almost believe Cornwell would be
embarrassed to write sweaty sex scenes for Lucy, the
lesbian niece of her famed fictional heroine, Kay Scarpetta.
But no matter. Cornwell's like a new convert to
the cause of openness; she's not going to be
the slightest bit embarrassed to talk about gay pride.
The author of 25
books, including her 15-and-counting juggernaut series
of crime novels about forensic pathologist Scarpetta,
Patricia Cornwell is the kind of literary star
who's more or less permanently parked on the
New York Times best-seller list. She's
known for her exhaustive research as well as her
tomboy glamour. (Today she's wearing a designer
blazer, jeans with a distinctive silver belt buckle, and a
fabulous heart-shaped pendant pierced with a silver
dagger.) Although she never pretended to be dating men
after her 1989 divorce, Cornwell has been unwilling
until recently to open up about being gay--despite, or
perhaps because of, being spectacularly outed a decade
ago. (More about that later.)
Now, she says, in
her light Southern accent, "It's just wrong
and hypocritical of someone like me to say, 'I
can do anything I want, I can avoid the scene, I
don't have to be part of that at all because I live a
privileged life.' I'm not someone who's
going to be marching down the street; I'm
basically an introverted, quiet person. But if
asked--and especially now that I'm in a
same-sex marriage--I will [speak out]."
the most pressing reason for Cornwell's
all-the-way-outness. She's finally found a
sturdy relationship with a woman. Two years ago, she
legally married Staci Gruber, whom she met four years ago
while boning up on the latest brain research at
Harvard. Gruber, now 40, is a psychiatry professor at
Harvard Medical School and associate director of the
Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at McLean Hospital in
walked into the room, the lights got brighter," says
the still-smitten Cornwell of her wife. At their first
meeting, she briefly talked to Gruber, then made
excuses to return later for the proverbial
"extra questions." That turned into dinner and
three consecutive nights of sitting in a car talking
until 4 a.m. "Just talking!" Cornwell
wasn't looking for it [a relationship]. But I
basically went to Cambridge and never left. I ended up
living in a hotel room. I had just rented a house in
South Florida, but never once went back."
So, I ask, who
nags me about that," Cornwell smiles. "I
didn't ask her, I told her. I said, 'We
are.' It really wasn't about [the fact that
Massachusetts had legalized same-sex marriage]. It was a
decision. When I got married the first time I took it
very seriously; it was a contract. It's saying
'I am serious about this to the point that I want to
make it legal.' And at least in Massachusetts
we could, for as much as it's
worth--which is not as much as it ought to be worth,
as you and I both know."
first marriage, at age 23, was to her former Davidson
College English professor Charles Cornwell. She
pursued him for years before they got together, but in
retrospect she realizes she had subterranean feelings
about women as well.
might feel something about a roommate or someone, I
didn't pay much attention to it, because I was
convinced what pool I swam in," she says.
"When you look back on it, the person you picked as a
partner in a heterosexual relationship may be someone
who's not very accessible, so it's safe.
I picked someone who was a whole lot older [17 years], who
was a mentor, and that's a little different
than picking a guy on the football team."
Perhaps she was
also looking for a solid father figure. Her own lawyer
dad left when she was just 5, and her mother then moved the
family from Miami to tiny Montreat, N.C., where Mom
landed in the hospital with major depression and
little Patsy Daniels spent time in foster care. The girl
did find some solace under the wing of Montreat's
most famous residents, the Reverend Billy Graham and
his wife, Ruth, who became the biographical subject of
Cornwell's first book. "By the way, Ruth knew
about me and didn't care," Cornwell
says. "Everybody who I had a semiserious
relationship with I took up to the Grahams' house.
And she loved Staci; she met her. [She saw Staci]
before she died." (Ruth Graham passed away last
home to a famous Presbyterian retreat center, was certainly
not a place for a tennis-playing tomboy to discover an
"alternative lifestyle." "When I
was growing up in evangelical, fundamentalist Billy
Grahamville, as I call it--with all due respect to
him, because he's a nice man--I
hadn't even heard of a lesbian. I just knew that gay
people, or homosexuals--which always meant
men--were going to go to hell."
Her own incipient
feelings didn't have a name. "I thought that
if you enjoyed when your best friend sat too close to
you, it was just normal. But I felt different from
other people. I assumed that it was because I was from
the only divorced family in the whole area, I was very
artistic and sensitive, and I was a huge tomboy. In
that part of the world, [being gay] wasn't
discussed. If you had two librarians who had lived together
for 50 years, it was just two librarians who shared a house.
Now, looking back on it, I'd say, 'You
go, girls! Hope you were doing more than reading books
when you shut that front door!' Ha ha ha ha
Growing up in
such a world, she says, has made it hard to shake the last
vestiges of discomfort over being gay. Which may also help
explain why she was so reluctant to leave the closet
even after she was unceremoniously shoved out.
Aspects of that
time are rehashed in the new book Twisted
Triangle, author Caitlin Rother's retelling of
the near-murderous marriage breakup of FBI agents
Margo and Gene Bennett. Although Cornwell's
role in the real-life drama was minimal, the book's
subhead garishly highlights it: A Famous Crime
Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI
Husband's Violent Revenge.
Cornwell had met
Margo Bennett while taking an FBI training course in
Quantico, Va. (In fact, Cornwell, after first working as a
police reporter, essentially studied to be a crime
novelist by working in the Richmond, Va., medical
examiner's office for six years, assisting during
autopsies even though her actual job was as a computer
analyst.) According to Twisted Triangle, a slow
flirtation developed between the two women, with
Cornwell bestowing some generous gifts. Eventually
they kissed ("Plain nerve endings going Fourth of
July bonkers... I was mush," is how
Bennett effusively describes it), and slept together.
"It wasn't even two trips over the
rug," as Cornwell put it, Southern-style, to
Vanity Fair in 1997.
Cornwell's name appeared in the Bennett divorce
papers, and later in court after Gene Bennett
committed a pair of elaborate crimes--first
kidnapping Margo, then, after serving a year in prison for
fraud, bumbling through a scenario that included
kidnapping her minister, threatening a bombing, and
confronting Margo with a gun; it backfired when Margo
pulled her own gun on him. By the time of Gene
Bennett's second trial--at which he
received a 23-year sentence for abduction, attempted
murder, and other crimes--Cornwell's name was
all over the press, from the tabloids to The
Washington Post and Newsweek.
only say this much," says Cornwell, when asked about
Twisted Triangle, "It's funny
when something that was so quick and small can end up
becoming so big in terms of some great legend. That was a
long time ago--early 1992, when I was hanging
out at the FBI academy and [Margo] was assigned as my
supervisor. I got supervised, all right." Her
"ha ha ha ha" has a cold edge this time.
"People can say all sorts of stuff about me as
long as they don't slander me. But in this instance,
I think it's sad for her children. I even think
it's sad for her ex-husband in prison to have
his nose rubbed in it all over again."
I tell her that
she comes off pretty well in the book, however.
you, I'll sleep better tonight!" says
Cornwell, and I don't think she's being
facetious. "I just think it's sad for [Margo].
She deserved more dignity than that. She was a very
good FBI agent and was extremely kind to me when I
knew her a million years ago."
Vanity Fair put the story in klieg lights in its 1997
Cornwell profile, which featured an Annie Leibovitz
photo of the bloody-gloved writer at a morgue table,
cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. The
article itself bloodied Cornwell pretty badly: It revealed
her 1993 drunk-driving accident (which Cornwell says a
former friend of hers must have told the magazine
about, since the records were sealed), characterized
her as paranoid and manipulative, and generally made her
seem unhappy and rather unsavory--despite how
attractive she looked in Leibovitz's photos.
extremely hurtful," Cornwell says of the piece.
"I was still getting used to the whole fame
thing, and I didn't realize how terribly cruel
it can be. But I'm really glad it happened, because I
have a much thicker skin--it takes a whole lot
to get through to me in a way that would make me not
come out of the apartment for several days."
help thinking that someone who's spent hundreds of
hours at autopsies would have had a thick skin
already. But even as she answers my questions about
the rougher aspects of the morgue--sights,
smells--Cornwell talks feelings, connecting
bodies to souls.
"To me, a
dead body is just a lightbulb that's burned
out--the electricity is not there, it's
just the shape that held it," she observes.
"Which is all the more reason that prejudice is
so horrific. Because we're judging people by
the vehicle that contains them. You're being cruel
and disrespectful to their spirit. Spirit has no
sexuality or color or accent or even religion. I
suppose that's why it grieves me even more that
people behave the way they do in terms of us or
Which brings us
to the polarized politics of America, and, by extension,
Cornwell's decision to speak out about her own
convictions. Given that she's buddies with
Utah's conservative senator Orrin Hatch, that she
dedicated one of her books to Barbara Bush, and that she
contributed to the Republican Party, I had assumed,
maybe too easily, that Cornwell's politics also
those days, it really wasn't about being
Republican--it was about friends," she
counters, explaining that she and Hatch never agree on
anything, despite their friendship, and that she met Barbara
Bush when she interviewed her for the Ruth Graham
biography in the early 1980s.
"I got to
know her and what I call the real president Bush [G.H.W.],
and they would have me to Kennebunkport usually once a
year. They were always extremely nice and gracious.
But I don't think you can be friends with
people when you're so vocally opposed to their
son," says Cornwell, who's now a Hillary
Clinton supporter. "I don't get invited to
it's a very good time in Cornwell's life:
She's enjoying married life and working on a
new Scarpetta book ("I'd better hurry up
and finish it, I might add!"). And a week after our
interview, Lifetime TV announced a development deal
for movies based on two non-Scarpetta novels, At
Risk and her latest, The Front. (Incredibly,
there's still no movie deal for Scarpetta, despite a
number of tries.)
good friend Billie Jean King, who took a long time to fully
disembark from the closet after being outed herself,
applauds: "Patricia is [now] living her truth,
and she is able to live more freely and breathe
easier--all without being measured by others."
however, knows that it's not quite that simple.
"That level of discomfort [about being gay],
humming like a high power line deep down inside of me?
I don't think that will ever go away," she
"I did not
grow up in a society where that was normal. Those people are
still down there in Montreat, and they're the ones
who will hold up signs saying, 'You're
going to hell.' You have to have the guts that even
if that power line is humming inside you, tell it to
shut up. I'm going to [talk about being gay]
anyway. It's not my problem. Your behavior will
change your feelings. If you do things despite your fear,
the feeling will go away."