Polaneczky: Who knew 'Murder, She Wrote' character was a gay icon?

Jordan Rockford, curator of "Where We Find Ourselves," with one of the gallery show's campier exhibits.

From 1984 to 1996, my mom’s favorite TV show was Murder, She Wrote

She’d settle into the den with a bowl of Bassett’s vanilla and watch as widowed mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury, solved local murder cases that the dimwitted police of fictional Cabot Cove could never crack.

The show was sweetly ridiculous – 264 episodes equated to 264 killings in a tiny town in Maine, which should’ve alarmed the FBI – but my mother happily suspended disbelief for 60 minutes of whodunit fun. Her friends loved the show, too, so it was easy to presume it appealed only to female viewers of a certain age, who identified with Lansbury’s character: a warm, no-nonsense, older heroine who triumphed over silly men whose egos blinded them to obvious clues.

But the show had a less visible gang of devotees: queer Americans. They saw in the Fletcher character a feminine/masculine duality that they themselves could relate to. Plus, Fletcher’s ability, week after week, to save the day against impossible odds was a fizzy counterpoint to the AIDS crisis, which was decimating the gay community with terrifying speed.

“Lansbury had long been a gay icon” — probably since her Broadway turn starring  in Mame  — says Jordan Rockford, an academic adviser and lecturer at the University of the Arts. “But Murder, She Wrote really broadened her camp appeal.”  

Rockford is the curator of “Where We Find Ourselves,” a new arts exhibition sponsored by the university. Opening Thursday at the Open Lens Gallery at the Gershman Y, it explores how queer individuals have sought their own reflection in mainstream culture. I caught up with Rockford this week as he hung various works in advance of the exhibition.

My sentimental favorite: a 3-foot-square work by local artist Brice Peterson starring the shrewdly perspicacious Murder, She Wrote sleuth herself.

Titled Mme. Fletcher, Hallowed and Verdant, it’s a campy, reverent, over the top, yet somehow endearing homage to the indomitable Jessica Fletcher. A haloed photo of her, looking stern and confident in her prim pearls and earrings, sits inside a gaudy frame of cotton balls, fake flowers, pine cones, and altar candles. It was startling to realize, gazing upon it, that the character spoke to a broader audience than I’d imagined when I chuckled through Murder, She Wrote with my little old mom.

“That’s the point,” said Rockford as we strolled around the gallery, which doubles as the Gershman Y’s lobby. “Queer culture has always looked for and found itself inside mainstream culture in ways that no one knows. It’s hidden.”

Also included in the small but fascinating exhibition is a series of watercolors by artist Tuesday Smillie replicating different versions of the front cover of The Left Hand of Darkness by sci-fi writer Ursula K. LeGuin. The 1969 novel unfolds on a planet whose androgynous human population develops sexual organs to complement those of whomever they’re about to canoodle with.

To straight readers, LeGuin’s novel seemed creative and unusual. But to LGBTQ readers in the heavily closeted 1969, Rockford says, the book offered a chance to see an idea of themselves in a well-received work by a critically acclaimed writer. Not that mainstream readers would’ve realized it.

“Especially for young queer readers, it was a very important book for that reason," says Rockford, who is gay. “I still have my copy somewhere." 

Other works in the exhibition are more visually arresting, especially Smoke, by Jamil Hellu, an artist who is Syrian and gay. His photographic self-portrait depicts both identities — Hellu in full Arab garb, then in leather gear — that melt in and out of each other depending on the angle at which the art is viewed.

This is Rockford’s second staging of “Where We Find Ourselves,” which originated at Penn State-Ogontz and was commissioned last year by its Woodland Gallery director, John Thompson. 

That was before November’s presidential election triggered our ongoing raging debates and demonstrations about identity in all its forms — sexual, ethnic, religious, political. So this time around, the we in “Where We Find Ourselves” may take on a crossover inclusion for viewers of all identities as they ponder where they, too, fit in the American mainstream — now that it's no longer recognizable as such.

At least, that’s what the exhibition triggered in me.

That, and an urge to re-watch a few episodes of Murder, She Wrote to see what else my mom and I might've missed all those years ago.

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