Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Notorious Book Condemned by the United States Congress

by Stephen J. Gertz

I, your merry gondolier through the murky waters and curious byways of literature that flow beneath the  bridge of dreamy sighs, bring to your attention, strictly as a caveat lectorem public service, a forgotten classic of 1950s sensationalistic narcotics paranoia and lurid drug eroticism so notorious that it drew the attention of United States Congressman Ezekiel C. Gathings (D-Arkansas) and the House Select Committee  on Current Pornographic Materials, Investigation of Literature Allegedly Containing Objectionable Material of 1952.

After spraying paraquat on Marijuana Girl, a paperback original by N. R. De Mexico (Robert Campbell Bragg, 1918-1954, a member of Anaïs Nin's poetry and erotica-writing circle in NYC), the Committee needled the following opus:

A “book which may be considered another Manual for the Guidance of Potential Dope Addicts is Lady of the Evening by Les Scott. The author does mention some of the evils of drug addiction but probably only as a screen to cover his emphasis of its delights. One chapter… is certainly a glorification of the ecstasies to be derived from marijuana cigarettes…There is also a chapter which describes ‘queer’ life in Greenwich Village, with a pseudo-philosophical discussion of homosexuality, both male and female” (House Select Committee  on Current Pornographic Materials, Investigation of Literature Allegedly Containing Objectionable Material, 82d Congress, 2d Session, 1953, House Report 2510, p.16). 

In sum, if not insane, a sultry dame seduces the male protagonist to join her in heroin addiction; household Hints From Heloise in Hell. Soon, he accompanies her to a dope-soaked orgy hosted by a lesbian junkie-pusher. Later, she takes him on a walking-working tour of a shooting-gallery. Later still, dope-crazy Heloise  rushes headlong toward plate glass to swan dive off a balcony yet behold! she is forcibly prevented from becoming a splattered junkie lady of the evening on the sidewalk only to wind up a screaming junkie lady of the evening in a straight-jacket.

Preceding Lady of the Evening, Scott's Touchable (1951) limns the cautionary tale of small-town girl Ruth, who loses herself in “The Inferno” (the Big City) where lesbianism, prostitution, degradation, absinthe, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin (here known as “The White Fairy”) find her. It's another don't-miss, over-the-top  pulp fiction portrayal of sex and drugs in post-WWII America. Or, at least, in Greenwich Village,  NYC, where the rest of the country expected this sort of activity and got a contact high reading about it.

("Robert W. Tracy," co-author of Touchable, was the pseudonym of Alvin Schwartz, whose enduring fame is as one of the early writers for Batman and Superman comics during the 1940s - he wrote the first Superman comic to feature Bizarro - and who, later, during the 1950s, wrote for Aquaman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman before moving to Canada in 1968 to write documentaries).

Of Scott's Twilight Woman (1952), its dust jacket's blurbmeister  writes, "Tom Grant was convinced that Iris had everything a woman needed. Only she wouldn't marry him. Why? Iris maintained that a woman of the twilight was not good wife material. Grant was convinced she would be better than the woman he had married, Bertha, his ex-wife. Bertha, utterly beautiful, utterly alluring, utterly frigid, but whose white body still held a terrible fascination for him"

"Of course that was before Bertha met Anthony Amato. And then there was red-haired Natalie Jarvis, the estranged wife of a friend. Not to mention Audrey, who 'did her part to keep the kettle bubbling'" (Howard Prouty, ReadInk). Busy Bertha's kettle bubbles bisexually and, by the way, Iris is an "ambisextrous hellion."

A look at the imprint's endpapers tells quite a tale. It's the story of "sophisticate," here a code-word for "adult content," as if the illustration didn't countersink  the nail. "Arco Sophisticates" set  sophistication back a century but made up for it with some of the wildest, most lurid pulp fiction in hardcover you'll ever come across.

Not quite so, however, the many books by Jack Woodford, the 30s-40s screenwriter and author of soft-core pulp, that Arco published. A successful, unpretentious ham n' eggs writer, Woodford wrote a few no-nonsense writing instructional books that get right down to the pith: “One of your first jobs, as you write for money, will be to get rid of your vocabulary.” “Money talks. And writes. And publishes. And reviews. But it can't read.”

Illiterate legal tender aside, the road to Arco Sophisticates begins at  Jack Woodford Press, an imprint established in the late 1940s and edited by two characters with experience publishing and retailing sex lit., Allan Wilson and Moe Shapiro, that the authorities kept their eyes on; it was a division of Citadel Press, which had a reputation for publishing Leftist and erotic literature, and Woodford had been on  the censors' radar for years. Jack Woodford Press reissued many of Woodford's books from the 1930s. By the early  1950s, however, Woodford was an angry alcoholic who felt taken advantage of.

"What Woodford really wanted was to find a publisher with whom he might make more money in royalties and over whom he might exercise more control.

"He had no trouble finding one. During 1951 and 1952, the Arco Publishing Company [established in 1937] issued between seven and twelve novels cowritten by Woodford, as part of their ‘‘Arco Sophisticates’’ series. Milton Gladstone, its founder, had made a publishing breakthrough with a book on how to study for the Army tests, and followed with others in the ‘how-to’ genre. He did not publish much fiction, but obviously Woodford was too tempting to pass up. There were several other writers in the series whose titles, styles, and themes imitated Woodford’s.

"The print runs were approximately 7,000; if Woodford’s contract was like that of other writers, he got an advance of $500 a book, and 50% of all subsidiary rights. In 1952, Gladstone was subpoenaed by the Gathings Committee, and reprimanded for several of the ‘Sophisticates’ because they touched on nymphomania, drug use, gambling, and 'perversions.' One committee member felt he could not even mention many of the titles (Carnal Cargo? Hot Star?); they were 'filthy' and ‘terrible’ (US House of Representatives 230; ‘News of the Week’ 2318). It may have been such pressure that made Gladstone stop issuing the ‘Sophisticates’ line" (Gertzman, Jay A. The Jack Woodford Press: Bestsellers at the Army Base, the Drug Store, and the Tourist Bookstore, 1946–1959. Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 40, Issue 1, February 2007,  pp 25–48).

Without putting too fine a point on it these titillating novels were not sold in mainstream book shops. In addition to drugstores,  Army bases, chain and department stores, typical retail outlets included urban tourist-tenderloin district, i.e. Times Square, NYC, bookstores.

Gladstone sold Arco Publishing Company to Prentice Hall, a division of Simon & Schuster, in 1978.

It would be a grievous omission to not take note of another of Les Scott's books,  Twilight Women.  “The story of a strange love cult and its secret rites! Rance finds himself in the midst of its wild, sensuous members. Trouble. To love them meant not only violating their society’s moral code but punishment by death.” Great cover art (alas, uncredited) illustrates a nude Betty Page-lookalike with a towel draped over her lap and a tree branch masking her breasts. Given the subject matter of Twilight Woman, the secret rites of the strange love cult in Twilight Women will come as no surprise. It's a fun, camp read.

Leslie Scott (1893-1975) was a prolific writer of pulp westerns with over 250 titles to his credit. Why he decided to rip the canvas off the Conestoga wagon to expose the shocking, sordid shadow-world of modern sophisticates remains a mystery but I suspect a shift in the marketplace led him to trade  gingham for sheer gowns.

That shift was quite specific. 1951-1952 heard the roar of anti-drug hysteria over a drug epidemic that did not exist, whipped up by the media after the Kevauver Crime Committee declared organized crime's involvement with the drug trade as "a frightening menace to the youth of America." Suddenly, dope-themed novels became hot-sellers, particularly in paperback. "Murder, rape, kidnapping speedily went out of style as first-choice plot material" (Gerrity, John. The Truth About the Drug Menace. Harper's, February 1952, p. 27, as cited in my Dope Menace).

I did not presume that Leslie Scott and Les Scott were one and the same person simply because the Library of Congress catalogs their books together so I contacted his son, Justin Scott, who confirmed that Les Scott was, yes, Leslie Scott of pulp western fame.

"He did indeed write Lady of the Evening, Touchable, and Twilight Woman. They were handsomely produced books. I've misplaced my copies, they're around the house somewhere I am sure - and I have fond memories of reading them when I was a child."

Yikes! Call retro-Social Services.

"As for reading the 'lurid,' I was a very lucky kid, because my father conveyed the fact - not often stated in those days - that men and women were equal partners in bed."

Cancel that call.

As for Lady of the Evening getting the third degree glare from Congress, he proudly states, "I cannot think of a higher compliment to my father's work."

It is unfortunate that few, beyond the dweeb writing this post, read United States Congressional Committee reports in search of book reviews. Had the Gathings Report been widely read by the general public I suspect that Lady of the Evening might have become a best-seller.

Lady of the Evening is an essential addition to any collection of drug literature, Touchable a tempting elective. 

SCOTT, Les. Lady of the Evening. A New Arco Sophisticate. New York: Arco Publishing Company,  n.d. [1952]. First Edition. Octavo. 176, [6, as publisher's catalog] pp. Pale green cloth, red lettered. Illustrated endpapers. Dust jacket. 

SCOTT, Les and Robert W. Tracy (pseud. of Alvin Schwartz). Touchable. A New Arco Sophisicate. New York: Arco Publishing Company, n.d. [1951]. First Edition. Octavo. 184, [6, as publisher's catalog] pp. Gray cloth, red lettered. Illustrated endpapers. Dust jacket.

SCOTT, Les. Twilight Woman. A New Arco Sophisticate. New York: Arco Publishing Company, n.d. [1952].  First edition. Octavo. 175, [6, as publisher's catalog] pp. Black cloth, silver lettered. Illustrated endpapers. Dust jacket.

SCOTT, Les. Twilight Women. New York: Beacon B-156, [1957]. 16mo. 186, (5) pp as adv. Illus. wrappers. First Edition, first printing, a paperback original. For some unexplained reason, some date this book to 1952. As Beacon did not begin publishing until 1954 this is clearly a mistake  easily avoided by consulting one of the many paperback reference works.

The Library of Congress' catalog of books by Leslie Scott/Les Scott can be found here.

Images from the author's collection, with the exception of Twilight Woman courtesy of ReadInk, with our thanks.

Thank you to Justin Scott.

A tip o' the hat to William Dailey for permission to plagiarize my catalog notes from yesteryear.

Special, impossible without him thanks to my friend and colleague in crime and publishment, Jay A. Gertzman, whose only connection to Stephen Jay Gertz is our mutual interest in erotica, the book trade, and censorship, fostered through my uncle and one of his mentors, Elmer Gertz, one of the great 1st Amendment/civil liberties attorneys in the United States during the 20th century.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Stephen. There's no erotica like the erotica of our youth. Less explicit perhaps, but a feast for adolescent imagination. Thanks for posting.


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