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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Well, one man's yawn is another's scream of outrage.

Autumn 1962. Eros hit pay dirt with Bert Stern's 18-page photo shoot of Marilyn Monroe, taken six weeks before her death and published six weeks after it. At 36, she looks lined and tired but engaged in her life's work of showing herself to the camera. Her body behind sheer strips of fabric shows the effects of dieting and gravity. Some of the workprints are X'd out —Monroe's nixing of their publication. It was both ghoulish and poignant to see the sex goddess in this post-mortem expos, while her name was still in the headlines. It's eerie now to recall that whispers were already connecting her sexually with Jack Kennedy, subject of the lead picture story in Eros' previous issue, and with Bobby, who soon would prosecute the magazine.

The issue also included instructions in "Sexercise" by Bonnie Prudden, whose was then fitness guru on the Today show, and "My Search for a French Tickler in Japan" by young Mimi Sheraton, later the Times food critic and a food writer for Time. (I didn't read to the end to see if she found one.) "The Brothel in Art" featured works by Hogarth, Utamaro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso. The book excerpt was from the 18th century novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill, which the Supreme Court would absolve from the charge of pornography on the same day it condemned Ginzburg.

An article on the American pornographer Samuel Roth, "Prometheus of the Unprintable," contained a passage that, read today, is creepy in its ignorant prescience: Robert Antrim writes of Roth: "His life would be worth noting if he had done nothing more than get himself prosecuted by the Post Office Department both for publishing obscenity and for not publishing obscenity. (The not-publishing charge, of course, was mail fraud; Roth, as he did more often than not, had published some tame stuff, advertising that it heaved with passion, The P.O. felt that he should have kept his word, even if it was a dirty word.)"

That's just what would happen to Ginzburg for publishing Eros.

Winter 1962. Another 96-pager, with a dozen in color. "Love in the Bible" opened the issue. Allen Ginsberg, who would later protest Ralph Ginzburg's conviction, offered a chatty letter. Frank Harris, author of the social and erotic confession My Life and Loves (which had not yet been legally published in the U.S.), got the biographical treatment. The mood lightened with a couple dozen limericks, familiar to centuries of frat boys. The harlot from Kew, the man from Stamboul and the fellow from Kent all made guest appearances, but not, alas, the hermit named Dave.

Finally, Eros published a piece that was erotic and artful: an eight-page "photographic tone poem" by Ralph Hattersley Jr., called Black and White in Color: African-American guy, European-American gal, both nude. They link hands; they kiss, in silhouette; and in the last shot they press against each other. The mood is chaste and a little solemn; no pubic parts go public. Yet this was the feature that got Eros hauled into court. Several commentators wondered at the time, and I do now, whether the essay would have been deemed so objectionable if the two people had been of the same color — and whether the furor was as much a matter of politics as of propriety, since it was published at the exact time of the Civil Rights demonstrations, and racist violence, in the South.


I have no idea how much money the magazine made or lost, before it was shut down, and what its true circulation was. I can guess that Ginzburg wasn't rolling in the dough. With the fourth issue came this flyer: "LAST CHANCE! If you act now, you may still become a Charter Subscriber to Eros." From the screaming capital letters and the shrillness of the italicized "now," even a teenager could tell that Eros wasn't a money-minter like Playboy. It wasn't sexy like Playboy either, and that was probably one reason I let my subscription lapse. Turns out, it didn't matter: issue #4 was the last to be published.

I should say, it didn't matter to me.

In June 1963, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (from whose jurisdiction the magazine had been mailed) heard the government's case that, though the material in Eros may not have been obscene, its promotion tended to "pander to prurient interests." Here are some of the lines from the brochure that the judges viewed as pandering:

"Eros is a child of its times. . . . [It] is the result of recent court decisions that have realistically interpreted America's obscenity laws and that have given to this country a new breadth of freedom of expression. . . . Eros takes full advantage of this new freedom of expression. It is the magazine of sexual candor. ... The publication of this magazine — which is frankly and avowedly concerned with erotica — has been enabled by recent court decisions ruling that a literary piece or painting, though explicitly sexual in content, has a right to be published if it is a genuine work of art. Eros is a genuine work of art."

Puffery, for sure. Pompous, it may be, But prurient?

Perhaps the Justices were aware that Ginzburg had posted the magazine from two tantalizingly named Amish towns, Intercourse and Blue Ball, Pa. But this was merely an example of the magazine's fondness for schoolyard raillery. Surely, even then, "obscene" was a weighter word than "adolescent."

Basically, Ginzburg, like Sam Roth before him, was convicted on a kind of Truth in Advertising sting: he suggested his magazine was dirty when it wasn't. Adding insult to injury, the same day the Supremes upheld Ginzburg's conviction, they overtuned a Massachusetts obscenity ruling on Fanny Hill. Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, stated that to be obscene a work must be "utterly without redeeming social value." That the judges could implicitly place the patently artful Eros in that unredeemed category is an irony they apparetly ignored.

As Ginzburg wrote, years later: "The High Court's Salemesque judgment, authored by the oft-lionized-as-a-liberal William J. Brennan, also upheld my conviction, along with its bloodletting fines and prison sentence of five years." But as the razing of New York's Pennsylvania Station roused the city's citizenry to band together and forestall the destruction of other landmarks, so the Eros conviction belatedly galvanized the intellectual community. Hentoff, Ginsberg, Sloan Wilson, James Jones, I.F. Stone, Grove Press' Barney Rosset and ACLUers far and wide rose to protest the pornographer's incarceration. "These eventually succeeded in having my prison sentence reduced from five years to three," Ginzburg wrote, "and in gaining my parole after I had been locked up for eight months."

This was 1972, 10 years after the brief, beautiful and tragic life of Eros. In that decade, so much had changed. In what was legally permissable as literature or entertainment, everything had changed. Say no more than that 1972 was the year of Deep Throat.

Arthur Miller had put the point smartly in the late 60s: "After all the legal, moral and psychological arguments are done," the playwright wrote, "the fact remains that a man is going to prison for publishing and advertising stuff a few years ago that today would hardly raise an eyebrow in your dentist's office. This is the folly, the menace of all censorship — it lays down rules for all time which are ludicrous a short time later.

"If it is right that Ralph Ginzburg go to jail, then in all justice the same court that sentenced him should proceed at once to close down ninety percent of the movies now playing and the newspapers that carry their advertising. Compared to the usual run of entertainment in this country, Ginzburg's publications and his ads are on a par with the National Geographic."

The sexual tide had rushed in, and Ginzburg had gone to jail for the crime of having once stood on the beach with dry feet and dreams of an ocean spray. Like Lenny Bruce — whom we'll get to in a few weeks, on the 40th anniversary of his death — Ginzburg was a pioneer in, and a victim of, the art of the permissable. He was not a martyr,, exactly; he didn't die for our sins. But he did time so that we could legally enjoy those sins of the flesh. And he helped us realize that they weren't sinful after all..

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