Monday, July 18, 2011

I Wrote For the Mafia

by Stephen J. Gertz

In late 1988, desperate for something green other than mold in my bank account, I contacted an editor at Pacific News, a periodicals distributor located in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, at the suggestion of a friend.

Pacific News had nothing to do with news. It was, rather, one of the major publishers and distributors of pornography in print, arguably the largest on the West Coast, one of the many wholesalers that, until his conviction in 1989 for income tax evasion (he refused to pay any. None. At all), had been a part of the infamous Reuben Sturman’s shady international porn empire. How shady was it? Sturman was  protected by the Gambino family of New York, soliciting their security services (read: partnership) after Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno of Los Angeles shook him down and beat him up. After Reuben’s incarceration, escape, and recapture - on the lam from everybody, he was nabbed with his girlfriend in a cheap motel room across the street from Disneyland in Southern California, his version of Fantasyland up for grabs - his organized-crime partners split up the syndicate he had created. Paul Wisner, who had been Sturman’s straw-man when he bought Pacific News in 1974, was still nominally in charge while the true owners remained in the background.

Reuben Sturman, behind bars.
This is one of the very few photographs of the man,
who, prior to his imprisonment, hated having his picture
taken and often wore Groucho glasses with rubber nose,
bushy eyebrows and moustache to vex photogs.

When I decide to write a porn novel I don’t mess around. I want a publisher with muscle in the marketplace.

I met the editor, Dennis Rodriguez, who had been working in the porn trade on and off since the 1960s. Without   benefit  of   writing   sample  he gave  me an  assignment and  informed me  of  the   basics.     "35,000 words; 150 pages, twenty-five lines to a page; a sex scene every three pages. All rights ceded outright." The fee? $500.

In 1968 pulp porn writers were earning upwards of $1200 per manuscript. That $500 in 1988 was worth $120 in 1968. With the visual supplanting the verbal the writers market for porn had drastically shrunk.

Speaking of the visual, Pacific's offices had my retinas working in overdrive. Three or four average-looking, to all appearances prim, secretaries sat at desks strewn with humongous upright dildoes. The women were blasé. One had a lampshade precariously balanced atop a particularly anatomically correct and ambitious latex proxy. Another used a Doc Johnson special as a paperweight. Just another day at the orifice.

O[y] Canada

Dennis made it clear that because the book would be distributed in Canada I'd have to follow a few special guidelines. He handed me a copy of a Canadian Customs Notice dated February 11, 1988.
Subject: Administration of Code 9956.

This is to provide further clarification of Customs guidelines with regard to the interpretation of the terms 'degradation' and 'dehumanization,' as they are applied in the administration of Code 9956 of Schedule VII to the Customs Tariff. The following examples from court jurisprudence are provided to assist Customs officials and the public in their understanding of how these terms may be defined in the context of applying the provisions of Code 9956:

1) Goods which depict or describe degrading or dehumanizing acts tend predominantly to deindividualize and impersonalize sexual acts by inciting the reader or viewer to look upon the     individuals involved as objects or means to be used for one's   personal gratification. In particular, the individuals are deprived of unique human characteristics in that they are portrayed as sexual objects whose only redeeming features are their genitals. For example, this type of degradation can be seen in potrayals of individuals as prizes or trophies for competitions where the winner uses the person as he/she chooses.

2) Goods which depict or describe an aggressive, powerful person who derives pleasure from inflicting pain upon a     weaker individual, degrading the victim by conveying the message that he/'she enjoys abusive anti-social behavior. An example of the manifestation of power used to degrade an individual is evident in pictorials, stories, films, etc., which show individuals who are in positions of power and/or authority who use abuse, force, coercion and threats to get their victims to perform sexual favors.

3) Another common theme which is used in sexually explicit material to degrade and dehumanize individuals is to depict them as having animal characteristics. The imagery of bars,     cages, collars, leashes, etc., is often used to reduce the individual to the status of an animal. In these instances, there is often an element of restraint (i. e., the person is being caged against his/her will) and the implication is that the individual is behaving like an animal.
4) Court jurisprudence has established that materials which depict or describe pregnant and/or lactating women in a sexually explicit context debases motherhood and are degrading to all women.
5) Further examples of acts which are considered to be degrading and dehumanizing are as follows: Group ejaculation on one person, excessive ejaculation on a person's face, double-penetration of an orifice and the insertion of objects that would or could cause pain, including the fist or foot, and submissive acts such as the licking of another person's boot in a sexual context. Depictions and descriptions such as these have been found by the courts to be obscene in that they exceed the standards of what contemporary Canadian society will tolerate.
Kinda gets the creative juices flowing (but, please, not on a person's face), yes?

Rodriguez further provided me with a company checklist: No force at all; No bondage and discipline; No dominance; No submission; No anal; No fetish; No incest.

I wrote the book in four days. It was difficult. I kept recalling the Canadian Customs Notice: "No lactating women, no pregnant women." It would never have occurred to me to include swollen damsels in my porn novel but Canadian Customs had infected my mind with images of debasing and dehumanizing sexual acts. Now they were all I could think about.

I wrote by the rules: Häagen Dazs™ vanilla bean  in a   hard-core cone. The novel's a snore, strictly scheiss und dreck. It was published by Lusty Library, distributed by Parliament News, and copyrighted by American Art Enterprises.

At the very top of the Customs Notice, a fax, ran the following: "9/28/88 [telephone number] TransMediaGrpUSA   Parliament News."

The Roots of Modern Porn

Pacific News was originally part of '60s porn-magnate Milton Luros' L.A.-based empire, which began in the late 1950s with American Art Agency (later Enterprises), a publisher of girlie magazines. Luros, who began his career as a respected illustrator for  science-fiction pulps during the  1940s - early 1950s,  soon moved into  publishing  nudist magazines, essentially full-frontal porn with legal blessing.  He was the master of the stretch, the cautious, incremental pushing of boundaries. With the U.S. Supreme Court obscenity rulings of the mid- through late-1960s, however, the walls came tumblin' down and hard-core came to town.

Science Fiction Quarterly, May 1951.
Cover by Milton Luros.
From cheesecake in space to
lord of porn: an artist's odyssey.

Early on, Luros established Parliament News (Paul Wisner was a staff-salesman, eventually running it for Luros), to distribute his wares and, over the years, had bought other, smaller, distributorships, including Pacific News, to consolidate his position as the largest, most respected publisher of pornography in the U.S. By 1974,  however, legal pressures had forced his retirement and he sold out to Sturman, who had been anxious to  add the Luros assets to his Cleveland (later L.A.)-based syndicate and extend his control of the East Coast trade to the entire nation. By 1988, Pacific News, under Sturman's arm's length leadership and brilliant (if typically unethical) business smarts (creating a massive, dizzying maze of interlocking corporations), had become  part of a global syndicate that vertically integrated porn across all media, including sex toys, manufacture to retail, and was corporately safe as milk. But still completely shady; the olive oil remained dark green and there was nothing virgin about it. Business methods often involved a little help from his friends, of the physically emphatic sort. The whole operation was creepy. Dave Gardner, who worked as an art director at American Art Enterprises during the 1980s, recalls:

"I worked under Jerry Pecoraro [who may have been the longest surviving staff member of American Art Enterprises, joining in the mid-Sixties] who was doing mostly old-style cheesecake stuff. I worked the softcore side, doing magazine layout and typesetting. They also published some crappy fiction (not porno but cheesey science-fiction, westerns, mysteries, action, etc.), to somewhat legitimize the operation…The 'other side' of the building was off-limits. It housed Paul Wisner's office, other administrative offices, and London Press…One of the other artists had a friend working in London Press, so I got to go over there just once to see the hardcore work they did, but otherwise it was an unwritten law to stay away from there, a separation of smuts, so to speak.

"I saw Paul only occasionally, as his office was on the 'other' forbidden side. Once in a while I'd see this small Italian guy come in and walk around like he owned the place. I asked one of the guys about him, who told me to cool it, that this guy was a serious Mafioso who came up to collect bags of cash, and not to ask any more questions about him."

Under Luros' ownership, American Art Enterprises and all of the Luros constituent division offices were typical businesses; just open the door and walk in. Not so now. Dave Gardner continues:

"At American Art, you had to get buzzed in after being scrutinized by the receptionist. One time, word went through the building that we were going to be raided by LAPD vice. I sure as hell didn't want to to jail, but the boss wouldn't let us go home. So all day, I sat there shaking and wondering when the cops were going to bust through the door and lead me off in handcuffs. It never happened, though. The overall feeling at American Art was crass; I learned how to be ashamed of my work. It had the air of true smuttiness about it. I got the feeling we were just a mob front at American Arts. It was not a very pleasant experience."

When Reuben Sturman entered the trade it was a business. When he exited it was an industry.

What has any of the above have to do with rare books?

Having ultimately written a handful of dirty books for Pacific News/American Art Enterprises, my contributions to the decline of Western civilization have become exceedingly scarce, if not extinct. Print runs for pulp porn had, by 1988, declined to 1500-3000 copies from a late 1960s high of 20,000-50,000, so there were not that many in circulation to begin with. Factor in that, once read, copies were tossed into the garbage, and unsold books pulped. Further consider that few cared to collect paperback DBs, a phenomenon that would not fully emerge until the 1990s, and they were most certainly not collecting mine; only pre-1973  dirty books, the genre charmingly known in the paperback collecting world as “vintage sleaze,” are highly desired. Hell, even I didn’t collect mine; I only have one copy of the four DBs I wrote.

BERMAN, Jay (house pseud., here of SJG). Tales of Lust.
North Hollywood, California: American Art Enterprises, April 1989.
Lusty Library LL-626. 16mo.154 pp. Photo-illustrated wrappers.

Introducing, in its first appearance in twenty-two years, the first published book by “Jay Berman." I submitted it under the pseudonym, “Jacques Toutight.”  My alternative was “Boris Whocutchyakokov,” presciently foreshadowing the John and Lorena Bobbitt story five years hence. (Though sorely tempted I resisted using "Jack Goff," a blue-ribbon porn pseudonym claimed, alas, by another during the '60s).

The plot line is simple: A pedantic, professorial blowhard with a soft spot for  sesquipedalian  exposition regales the patrons of the seedy dive he’s parked in with tall, highly apocryphal tales of his sexual exploits. Yes, it’s autobiographical. The blurb on the rear wrapper succinctly sums things up: “Hot pleasure was what he demanded of life and he was not afraid to walk on the wild side in search of it!”

Absolutely true. I demand  a nice, pleasurable  steam-bath every now and then and once dared to patronize a small, run-down, all-Jewish spa in the Pico-Robertson/Little Tel Aviv district of L.A. where you never know what's going to happen. You don't know from wild until you've witnessed smoked salmon swim Pico Boulevard upstream - during rush-hour traffic, yet  -  as I have.

I would have used the more appropriate Yiddish-Americanism, shvitz-bath, above but feared, given the context of the post, that some might  think it slang for a sexual act forbidden by Canadian Customs.

Factual information and interview with Dave Gardner referenced from An Amazing Kingdom of Thrills: American Paperback Erotica 1965-1973, the author's unpublished manuscript ©2001 (each rejection letter to my agent gushing before passing on it; Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, which, in part, also dealt with the porn trade, was making the rounds at the same time and got all the attention, i.e. offers).

Readers who would like to learn more about the fascinating Milton Luros - an honorable man in a dishonorable business - should read Everybody Loves Milton: Rabbi Porn, the definitive story, extracted from An Amazing Kingdom... and published in 2004 on veteran porn-trade editor Earl Kemp's website.

Portions of An Amazing Kingdom... were adapted for Sin-A-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties.

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