Marilyn June Coffey
Great Plains Storyteller
National prize-winning and internationally published author Marilyn June Coffey is a plucky writer.That was evident in 1973 when Marcella, her coming-of-age novel, broke a world record. It became the first novel written in English that used female masturbation for its main theme.
Feminists lauded Marcella. Ms. published a chapter. Gloria Steinem called the novel “an important part of the truth telling by and for women.” Alix Kates Shulman wrote, in New York Times Book Review: “Coffey skillfully weaves together the religious, sexual and musical themes that comprise the trinity of Marcella's obsession.”
When Marilyn turned to poetry, she won a national Pushcart Prize for her poem, “Pricksong,” in 1976. Pricksong originally meant written, or pricked, music, but the feisty poet gave it a modern twist. Los Angeles Times called “Pricksong” a “wry poem about an obscene houseplant.” Newsweek called it “surreal.”
But it took a flask of brandy to spur Marilyn to read her poetry to a New York audience. Later, she hired a reading coach. Her delivery, now brandy-less, improved. Stouthearted Coffey became an active, and popular, reader and storyteller who presented to 150 groups in twelve states, from Maine to Texas.
Asked where she got her spunky spirit, Marilyn replied, “My dad. He had the guts to tangle with Teamster Jimmy Hoffa and his thugs.” Coffey described that in her Great Plains Patchwork. She enlarged the story in her father-daughter memoir, I Watched My Dad Beat Jimmy Hoffa.
“I modeled myself on Dad in 1956, when I refused to wear the required rubber girdle that my sorority considered de rigueur. The sorority booted me out, the first such case at the university.”
After she graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1959, she devoured Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, quit her job and hit the road herself. Venturesome Marilyn went to Denver, St. Louis, crossed the southwest states to San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, and finally New York City where she lived for some thirty years.
In New York, Marilyn worked as a temporary writing teacher at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, in an era where the school never hired female English teachers full-time. That changed, but only through litigation. Resolute Coffey received a full-time job at Pratt as part of a class-action suit; four years later she sued again, successfully, for tenure.
Retired, Marilyn lived in Omaha with Jack Loscutoff, also a writer. The two exchanged spicy poems about “Elder Copulation,” as he called it. When Jack died, Marilyn told their story in a book, JackJack & JuneBug. To honor Jack, Marilyn published two of his books—his memoir, Aunt Gussie’s Socks, and his short stories, A Line of Shorts.
Marilyn continues to write her intermittent newsletter, a JoLt of CoFFeY. Her current book, Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers, is a sassy history of the dirty deals rampant from 1853 to 1884 as Nebraska was settled. Its oodles of unscrupulous characters include U.S. presidents, governors, generals, judges, Native Americans, and homesteaders.
Her Mail-Order Kid, a biography, tells the story of a three-year-old orphan train rider transplanted from a New York orphanage to an abusive Volga German home in Kansas. Teresa was part of a movement from 1854 to 1929 that relocated up to 400,000 children from East Coast cities to farm families over most of the United States. Mail-Order Kid, an Amazon best seller, won a President’s Award from the National Orphan Train Complex.
These days, Marilyn likes to relate the stories of her writing life to nonprofit and other groups. She tells audiences why Good Housekeeping fired her, why winning a short story contest made her dump her college sweetheart, and how she happened to shake Robert Kennedy’s hand.