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The famed crime novelist has kept us spellbound with her fiction. Now she's telling her truth--as a happily married lesbian who's speaking out for equal rights.

"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 different.'

"Well, 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 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]."

And that's 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 suburban Boston.

"When she 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 insists.

"I 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 proposed?

"She still 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."

Cornwell's 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.

"When I 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 June.)

But Montreat, 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 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.

But 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.

"I will 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.

"Thank 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.

"It was 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."

I can't 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 them."

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 tilted right.

"Back in 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 Kennebunkport anymore."

Regardless, 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.)

Cornwell's 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."

Cornwell, 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 says frankly.

"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."

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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