My Favorite Pornographer

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The four covers of Ralph Ginzburg's "Eros," which led to a Supreme Court trial and a jail sentence.

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Like the foreign films of the time, which offered both snob appeal (subtitles and chess games with Death) and sex appeal (the occasional exposed bosom), Eros hoped to be a status symbol for the would-be liberated. Ginzburg, just 31 when he launched his dream book, would be Hefner with a higher IQ and a permanent pass to the New York Public Library's back room of naughty classical literature.

One problem. Hefner, in his robe, pipe and ascot, a blond on each arm and around each leg, really looked like a playboy. Ginzburg, unfortunately, was Central Casting's idea of a pornographer: shady, you might say shifty, with a thin, sallow face and a small mustache. But he, unlike Hefner, wasn't selling himself as the face of his magazine. And Eros was so gorgeous, it made the sex appeal of its editor-publisher irrelevant.


How did they get the name and address of a 17-year-old in Philadelphia? Typically, publishers buy subscription lists from other magazines, but I didn't subscribe to any. The truth is, I wasn't that special, since, in the months before Eros started publishing, Ginzburg had sent out 3 million brochures as bait. I was just one of the ones that bit,

I went for Eros not so much because I was a horny kid (though I was) as because I was a pretentious one. My bedroom library was stocked with such scholarly tomes as The Natural History of Love, Eros in the Modern World, the Kinsey Report and Ginzburg's own survey, An Unhurried View of Erotica. Of these books I remember little except odd bits of effluvia. Kinsey informed me that one in seven farm lads had engaged in, shall we say, animal husbandry ("Until," as Tom Lehrer would add, "they caught him at it"). From Ginzburg I learned that Benjamin Franklin had written a mock-scientific essay on the technique of farting, in which he wryly proposed giving the stinky gas a sweet fragrance through the ingestion of, I think, cloves.

None of these books had a priapic impact on me — that I would remember — and neither did Eros. Fact is, whatever the eventual tut-tutting of the courts, the magazine had loads of literary and artistic value. What it lacked for me, frankly, was redeeming prurient interest.

And here's the saddest confession of my late teenage years: I was going to college at a school nearby, and still living at home. So, folks, if Eros had really been pornographic, my good conservative Catholic parents would surely have raised a ruckus.


Let's. I did. Looking at the magazine for the first time (I swear) in 40-some years, I discovered that my teenage view of it hasn't changed. It's still a good-looking book with more airs than eros.

Spring 1962. Eighty pages, 16 in color, in the oversize, art-book format. The mustard colored cover has an embossed playing card of Bluebeard and one of his maids, the teaser to a five-page feature inside. Ray Bradbury contributed a lovely short fiction, a sort of "Gift of the Magi," in bed. Sixteen pages are devoted to a Guy de Maupassant story, Madame Tellier's Brothel, in "a new uncensored translation" and illustrated with 12 monograph sketches by Degas.

A sample of etymologist Eric Partridge's "vulgar dictionary" contained the commonest four-letter words, but they were masked with asterisks. The fun came in definitions of such obscure but piquant phrases as Back Gammon Player, Brother of the Gusset, Fire Ship, Irish Whist, Nogging House, Pushing School, Scotch Warming Pan and Whiffles. I suppose they might have raised a giggle from the youth of Olde England or 60s Middle America, but kids of the latter era were getting naughtier word play from Ian Fleming. Remember Pussy Galore?

In introducing some lubricious poems by the 17th century Earl of Rochester that had been published by Princeton University Press, the magazine went out of its way to refer to "the forces of censorship" in a complimentary way: "It is to their credit, and to the credit of the Postmaster's General's Office, that they have permitted the book to be freely sold and to travel unhindered through the mails these last 12 years." Attentive ears could detect the sound of sucking up to the Post Office. (Those kind words would fall on deaf ears.)

Summer 1962. The government official Ginzburg should have watched out for was the Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. But there he was indiscreet. The opening feature in issue #2 was a photo essay of women gazing adoringly at the President of the United States: Bobby's brother Jack Kennedy.

Expanded to 96 pages, 18 in color, the second issue began by thanking subscribers for their support. The photo essays were of Paris prostitutes (clothed) and India's erotic statuary (too time-worn to reveal much detail). The premiere issue had run reprints of quaint old ads from the backs of men's magazines; issue 2 featured an antique patent submission for a male chastity belt.

On the issue's last 16 pages were a few dozen of the 10,000 responses to the magazine's initial mailing. We were solemnly informed that all the responses had been donated to the Kinsey Institute (they're still there). Some of these scrawled missives have the puckish tone of work from the magazine's junior staff after a three-martini-lunch; but, true or fabricated, they're nonetheless instructive. A few examples:

"I've lived 57 years with a prude. She'd never let me have it. Sorry fellas."

"The body of a sensualist is the coffin of a dead soul."



This one, I don't care if it's genuine, for in two sentences it distills the richness of a Sinclair Lewis novel: "The man to who you sent your advertisement died suddenly last Thursday. He was a Sunday school teacher, leader in Boy Scout Council, loved by his sales force and customers — and hated by his wife for his sexual perversions encouraged by magazine's like yours. —Mrs. C.Z."

The most telling of the notes, which the Attorney General should have tacked to his wall, reads: "I read every word of your brochure several times very carefully and I want to tell you that it bored me to tears."

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