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.

Through the sleepy stupor of a Sunday morning came the elevating lull of National Public Radio. Nat Hentoff, free-speech champion, was paying tribute to Ralph Ginzburg, who had died July 6 at the age of 76. That snapped me awake. Ginzburg had been declared a pornographer, had lost a Supreme Court obscenity decision and gone to jail — all for publishing a magazine I'd subscribed to when I was 17.

It was called Eros, an elegant journal of the lower appetites, and at a Charter Subscription rate of $19.95 for four issues it could bill itself as "the most expensive magazine in the world." Eros proved plenty expensive for Ginzburg: he lost not only Eros, when the Post Office declared it unfit, but his career, when he was sentenced to five years in a federal prison. (He served eight months.) After Eros he put out other magazines, such as Fact, Avant Garde and Moneysworth, but never regained his footing or his brio. In his last years he was a news photographer, mainly for the New York Post.

To freshen my recollection of Ginzburg and his magazine, I looked at the New York Times obit, published the day after his death. He was lionized as "a taboo-busting editor and publisher, who helped set off the sexual revolution in the 1960s with Eros magazine and was imprisoned for sending it through the United States mail in a case decided by the Supreme Court..." The Times described Eros as "a stunningly designed 'magbook' devoted to eroticism... [It] covered a wide swath of sexuality in history, politics, art and literature. Mr. Ginzburg valued good writing, and his contributors included Nat Hentoff, Arthur Herzog and Albert Ellis."

Forty years ago, though, when praise from respected quarters could have done Ginzburg some good, The Times swatted him with its august contempt. In an editorial of March 24, 1966, the day after the Supreme Court upheld Ginzburg's conviction, the paper harrumphed: "Ginzburg was clearly publishing pornography... The Court inescapably concluded that Ginzburg had no scholarly, literary or scientific interests; he was strictly an entrepreneur in a disreputable business who took his chances on the borderline of the law and lost... The pornographic racketeers have cause to worry, and their defeat is society's gain."

Ginzburg a "pornographic racketeer?" The magazine with "no scholarly, literary or scientific interest"? Did the editors even look at Eros, which at its best was the most handsome publication around, and at worst, even by the starchy standards of the day, was mildly racy? If the editors did peruse Eros, and come to their conclusion, they were myopic; if they didn't, they were journalistically irresponsible.

That Eros was banned, and Ginzburg imprisoned, says less about the magazine and more about the times (and the Times). As everyone now agrees, the 60s really began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Vietnam protests, the ghetto uprisings, and of course sex, drugs and rock 'n roll cracked open, like a raptor from its egg. For the first years of that decade, we were, essentially, still in the 50s, with Doris Day reigning on the big screen and Father Knows Best on the small one.

There were hints of a change in the success of Playboy, which married an upmarket life style to photos of undressed cuties, and in court decisions that allowed the publication of sexually frank novels like D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. But pornography was something most people hid under the mattress. Eros was different. It said that sex wasn't dirty; it was a mark of connoisseurship. Eros was clean, a literary and lithographic work of art. Pristinely produced by art director Herb Lubalin, in an elegantly oversized format on both matte and glossy paper, and with hardback covers, it was meant to be displayed. It was a coffee-table magazine, the American Heritage of sexual literacy.

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