Michael Denneny, who edited and oversaw the publication of many important LGBTQ-related books, including Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, has died at age 80.
Denneny was found dead Saturday at his home in New York City, The Washington Post reports. He most likely had been dead three days, probably due to a heart attack, his brother, Joe Denneny, told the Post.
Denneny had been an editor at St. Martin’s Press since 1977, and he founded an LGBTQ+ imprint, Stonewall Inn Editions, at that company in 1987. It was “the first gay imprint at a major publishing house,” the Post notes. He also was believed to be the first out gay editor at a high-profile publisher.
“It’s probably too much to say that without Michael there would be no gay literature, but it would be a very different landscape, because once he started to publish and show it was possible to write about these lives, writers and other editors were inspired and emboldened,” Keith Kahla, an executive editor at St. Martin’s and Denneny’s former assistant, told the paper.
In his acknowledgments for And the Band Played On, one of the most significant chronicles of the AIDS epidemic, Shilts said his “reporting would never have been transformed into a book if it were not for the faith of” Denneny, who “believed in this project when most in publishing doubted that the epidemic would ever prove serious enough to warrant a major book.”
Denneny brought out books, both fiction and nonfiction, by many other gay authors, including Larry Kramer, Ethan Mordden, Christopher Davis, Larry Duplechan, Malcolm Boyd, Paul Monette, and Edmund White. Several of the works he oversaw dealt with AIDS; The New York Times once noted that he “may have published more books on AIDS than any other editor at a commercial house.”
He “also was known for supporting authors across the literary spectrum,” the Post reports. Among them were Renata Adler, Ntozake Shange, Buckminster Fuller, and Judith Thurman, whose biography Isak Dinesen won the National Book Award. The Oscar-winning 1985 film Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, was based partly on it.
Denneny cofounded the gay literary magazine Christopher Street in 1976 and was an editor there for a time. Starting the publication cost him his job at the Macmillan publishing house. Most recently, he wrote the similarly titled On Christopher Street, a book of gay history since the Stonewall riots of 1969, and it came out just a few weeks ago. Earlier, he had written Lovers and Decent Passions, both nonfiction works about gay life and relationships.
He once said he considered his own community to be the primary audience for LGBTQ+ books. “I was never worried about educating straight people,” he told Gay City News in 2004. “All of us were self-hating. We needed to reformulate gay imaginations, reimagine sex and relationships. The way you do that is with books.”