The Sporadic Beaver

Taking it Personally

July 1, 2014

Tags: Hustler, Back Issues, Larry Flynt, Michael Lee Nirenberg, Bill Nirenberg, Al Goldstein, Carl Ruderman, High Society, Screw, Swank Publications, Penthouse, Michael Musto, Gail Dines, Supreme Court, Beaver Street, pornography

I tend to write about movies that have a direct, personal connection either to my life or my books--see About Cherry, Magic Trip, and Chapter 27--and the latest such film to fall into this category is the generically titled Back Issues, a documentary about Hustler magazine. (Why not just call it Hustler?)

I enjoyed Back Issues in part because it adds an additional dimension to much of what I write about in Beaver Street. And Beaver Street, with its tales of High Society publisher Carl Ruderman trying to pattern his magazine after Hustler, only to end up as Hustler’s "Asshole of the Month," adds an additional dimension to Back Issues.

But the primary reason I’m writing about the film is because Bill Nirenberg, whom I used to work with at Swank Publications—the company at the center of Beaver Street—is at the center of Back Issues. Before landing at Swank, Bill was an art director at Hustler during its glory days, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, and watching the film with two of my former colleagues filled me with the disorienting sense of being back at Swank and listening to Bill regale us with his Hustler and Larry Flynt stories. Bill’s demeanor, his tone, his vibe, as well as the stories themselves are exactly as I remember them.

Capturing somebody on film just as they are in life is not an easy thing to do. But the reason Bill comes across so realistically—in fact the reason this film exists at all—is because his son, Michael Lee Nirenberg, directed it. And because of the intimate connection between subject and filmmaker, Michael was able to gain access to all the key Hustler players, including the often-inaccessible Flynt, as well as former editors Paul Krassner and Allan MacDonell, whose memoir, Prisoner of X, covers the same time period as I do in Beaver Street.

Michael also managed to unearth a number of documents that illustrate some of the most notable moments in the history of a polarizing magazine whose impact on American popular culture was profound. The most outrageous document is an audiotape of Flynt ranting at the Supreme Court justices, in 1983, when they were considering a libel case that Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione’s girlfriend, Kathy Keeton, had brought against Hustler. The language Flynt uses, a series of gratuitously racist and sexist slurs, is so inflammatory it transcends the realm of mere obscenity and serves as a sublime demonstration of a man rendered paraplegic by an would-be assassin’s bullet, who now thinks he has nothing to lose, speaking the truth (as he sees it) to power.

Among the people Michael speaks to who didn’t actually work for Hustler but still offer valuable insights about the mag, its founder, and the porn biz are Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein, who is at death’s door and giving what would be his last interview; writer Michael Musto, who does an excellent job of explaining how the Internet destroyed the porn magazine business; and professional anti-porn activist Gail Dines, who, uncharacteristically, comes across as a sane person.

But it’s the segments where Michael interviews his father, who’s now retired from the porn biz, that give the film a homey, intimate feel, which is unusual (if not unheard of) for a documentary that covers this kind of gritty and often offensive material. This intimacy also helps to make Back Issues an essential document for anybody who wants to understand not only Hustler’s place in the history of modern porn, but how, in the late 20th century, pornography was able to supplant rock ’n’ roll as the premier symbol of American pop culture.

House of Secrets

April 18, 2014

Tags: El Solano, Hustler, Larry Flynt, Florida, Palm Beach, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Nowhere Man, Addison Mizner, Cheiro, numerology

El Solano, in Palm Beach, designed by Addison Mizner, and home, at one time or another, to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Larry Flynt. Photograph courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach.
"House of Secrets" was originally published, under a different title, on a Florida-based design website that no longer exists. Some of the information in this article is drawn from my book Nowhere Man, in which I write in detail about John Lennon and Yoko Ono's stay in this Palm Beach mansion. In the book, I misspell "El Solano," calling it "El Salano." Should there be future editions, this will be corrected.

On March 6, 1978, a white-supremacist serial killer, outraged by an interracial photo spread in Hustler, pumped a .44-caliber bullet into Larry Flynt near the Georgia courthouse where the magazine publisher, on trial for obscenity, had just testified in his own defense. One year later Flynt, paralyzed from the waist down because of his injuries, rented the house at 720 South Ocean Boulevard--or S.O.B., as the locals call it--in Palm Beach. His landlady, socialite Brownie McLean, would have much preferred to sell the 10,000-square-foot white elephant known as El Solano. But in those grim days of hyperinflation and gas lines, there were no takers, not even the recession-proof Flynt. So McLean, who had once refused the Hope Diamond as a wedding gift from her husband because she believed the jewel was cursed, didn't hesitate to accept a much-needed cash infusion from the man who introduced "split beaver" to a mass audience.

Most of Flynt’s neighbors took the porn publisher’s presence in stride—even though it was common knowledge that he employed a team of photographers to shoot X-rated pictorials throughout the Spanish-style mansion’s six bedrooms, five servant rooms, ballroom, and sauna, as well as by the square “morning pool” and rectangular “afternoon pool.”

Through a spokesperson, Flynt has declined to offer any more information about his season in El Solano.

The current owners of El Solano also prefer not to discuss their winter residence—though they do say, through a spokesperson, that it’s “public knowledge” that they own it, and that it’s permissible to publish their names. Apparently, this wasn’t the case in 1993 when the extensive renovations of architect Darby Curtis, working with designer Robert Metzger, were documented in Architectural Digest—the most detailed and elaborate El Solano pictorial on record. The owners were quoted anonymously, and the story failed to mention that they were the architect’s parents: Alan Curtis, an investment banker, and Christine Curtis, a freelance writer, who had bought the house in January 1990 for $4,315,000, though it’s not publicly known from whom. More surprising than this was Darby Curtis’s reaction when asked if she might shed some additional light on her work at the historic abode: “I have nothing to say.”

Perhaps Curtis’s reticence is best explained by others who’ve worked in the house, some of whom were willing to speak (anonymously) of the fact that in a small community like Palm Beach, those whose livelihoods depend on access to the super-rich—and occasionally super-famous—would be foolish to make unwanted revelations about their employers (or parents). But in the same breath these people also speak of the house’s strangeness, of their belief that things have happened in El Solano that those who have lived there simply don’t want to talk about.

In a way, El Solano exists in the realm of the mystical, a piece of unreal estate—a mansion with a long history of secrets, celebrated owners, and at least one profound occurrence that changed the course of rock ’n’ roll.

The first person to live in El Solano was the man who built it in 1919, controversial “society” architect—many considered his designs hideous—Addison Mizner, who named it both for the hot Mediterranean winds that blow through Spain, and El Solano County, California, where he was born in 1872. A mythical figure whose 11-foot-tall statue now stands in Boca Raton, a city he helped develop, and whose Mediterranean Revival style came to define the look of Worth Avenue, the six-foot-two, 250-pound Mizner settled in Palm Beach apparently for health reasons.

(Stephen Sondheim has chronicled the Florida misadventures of Mizner and his flimflamming business-partner brother, Wilson, in his musical Road Show, which portrays both Mizners as incestuous, Addison as homosexual, and in the end, according to The New York Times, reduces the brothers to “cocaine-snorting wrecks.”)

Though Mizner’s Villa Flora, which he built for J.P. Morgan, and La Guerida, which became John F. Kennedy’s “Winter White House,” may be better known than El Solano, the latter is regarded as the purest expression of Mizner’s chaotic vision—a “stream of consciousness” consisting of idiosyncratically connected spaces, as designer Michael Christiano, who also worked on the 1993 renovations, described the house to Architectural Digest.

The house so intrigued next-door neighbor Harold Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, that he bought it from Mizner and added on—as did many of the successive celebrity owners, such as actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who briefly settled into El Solano in 1973 with his second wife, Mary Lee Hartford, heir to the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company fortune.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, too, were taken by the house, and on the advice of their tarot card reader, whom they called Charlie Swan, Patric Walker’s Town & Country horoscope, and Cheiro’s Book of Numbers, bought it—on January 27, 1980, for a million dollars, a price they considered a steal. (“John made the tea, while Yoko hammered out the negotiations,” real estate broker Ben Johnson told The Palm Beach Post.)

In years to come, many stories about the ex-Beatle’s El Solano activities would filter into the public domain—a rare breaching of the house’s shield of secrecy. Most of them were inconsequential, such as details about Lennon’s ongoing feud with Paul McCartney, reports of an ugly incident that occurred when the actor Peter Boyle and his wife came to visit, and tales of locals stopping Lennon on the beach, without realizing who he was, to talk about the historically cold weather that February. But one story of significance would emerge as well: After five years of musical silence, it was in El Solano that Lennon reconnected with his muse, which many in his inner circle had given up for dead.

On February 27, 1980, Lennon and Ono were watching the Grammy Awards in the den when Bob Dylan came on to sing his latest hit, “Serve Someone,” which says it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to have to serve either Satan or God. The song provoked from Lennon a spontaneous musical explosion called “Serve Yourself.” Accompanying himself on guitar, Lennon lashed out at everything and everybody: Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna, his sons, his mother—the world, the universe. And this song soon primed a flood of new material that seven months later appeared on Lennon and Ono’s album Double Fantasy. (“Serve Yourself,” which Ono considered too raw, obscene, and off-message for public consumption, wouldn’t be released for another 19 years.)

On December 8, 1980, Double Fantasy was riding high on the charts. That night, John Lennon, aged 40, was shot to death by a deranged fan in front of the Dakota, his apartment building on West 72nd Street in New York City. Among the candlelight vigils held throughout the world, one took place outside El Solano, which Ono kept until 1986, adding on to its chaotic sprawl and then selling it for a numerologically harmonious $3.15 million to a Bostonian family that preferred to remain anonymous.

Gloria Leonard: 1940-2014

February 4, 2014

Tags: Gloria Leonard, Carl Ruderman, High Society, phone sex, Hustler, Larry Flynt, Beaver Street

Gloria Leonard
The news is all over Twitter and Facebook, but has yet to penetrate the mainstream media: Gloria Leonard, a popular adult film actress of the 1970s, and the former figurehead publisher of High Society magazine, passed away last night, in Hawaii, after suffering a massive stroke. She was 73.

Leonard, whom I'd met on numerous occasions when I worked at High Society in the 1980s, was a skillful public relations professional who was instrumental in selling "free phone sex"--the first fusion of erotica and computers--to America. As I say in Beaver Street, she presented High Society to the media as "visionary corporation" run by "a media-savvy porn star/publisher who was now making millions of dollars with phone sex, an explosive new business that hadn't existed two months earlier." And the media bought into it with a vengeance.

Leonard made tens of millions of dollars for the real publisher, Carl Ruderman, who, terrified of being publicly identified as a pornographer, “hid behind her skirt,” as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt put it.

Leonard, however, was no fan of Beaver Street, and vehemently objected to her portrayal in the book as a “figurehead” publisher. She threatened to sue me unless I told the story the way she wanted it told. It was a forceful PR gambit that, unfortunately for Leonard, failed. I didn’t change a word and she didn’t sue. Still, it saddened me to find myself in an adversarial relationship with somebody I’d once admired.

Leonard has many fans and admirers in the adult entertainment business, and I’ve no doubt that they’re feeling her loss deeply. To them, and to her family, I extend my condolences.

AVN Reviews Beaver Street… and they like it!

February 5, 2013

Tags: Beaver Street, Adult Video News, reviews, Lou Perretta, Scott Garrett, Swank, High Society, Larry Flynt, Carl Ruderman

One of the odd things about the Beaver Street promotional campaign, which has been ongoing for two years, is that despite the coverage the book has garnered all over the cultural spectrum, in such places as Vanity Fair, Bizarre magazine, an academic site called H-Net, The Village Voice, Erotic Review, and Little Shoppe of Horrors (to name but a few), there hasn't been one review in any of the men's magazines that I write about in Beaver Street.

I suppose the primary reason for this lack of coverage is that Lou Perretta, who now owns two of the titles at the heart of the book, Swank and High Society, as well as every other porn mag except for Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler, is upset that I've blogged about the abysmal working conditions at his company and his campaign contributions to Scott Garrett, the Tea Party icon who represents New Jersey’s 5th congressional district. Perretta, apparently, has forbidden his merry staff, under penalty of termination, to so much as mention Beaver Street in or out of the office.

And I suppose that Playboy and Penthouse are not especially interested in books of any kind, and that Hustler doesn’t write about books unless Larry Flynt wrote them—though I’d think that Flynt would have gotten a kick out of my stories about his former rival, ex-High Society publisher Carl Ruderman.

Well, I’m pleased to report that a magazine read by everybody who’s anybody in adult entertainment has published a brilliant Beaver Street review in their February issue, which features a cover story about the “30 must-read books on the history of X.”

Adult Video News (AVN) has been called “the Billboard magazine of the porn industry.” It’s the mag that the mainstream media turn to when they need reliable information about smut. The review, “Walk on the Wild Side,” written by AVN editor Sharan Street, calls Beaver Street “brutally honest,” “compelling,” and says that it’s “a fascinating exploration of the common ground shared by [comic books] and pornographic magazines.” Street (Sharan, not Beaver) also does an excellent job of pulling out just the right quotes to give the reader a good sense of the book’s overall flavor.

I’d urge you all to read AVN’s review of Beaver Street. It made my day.

The Lifestyle of a Rich Pornographer

July 19, 2011

Tags: Beaver Street, Carl Ruderman, High Society, phone sex, Gloria Leonard, Larry Flynt, Hustler, Al Goldstein, real estate, pornography, Lou Perretta, The New York Observer

In Beaver Street, I write at length about Carl Ruderman, the publisher of High Society magazine, who, in 1983, launched the age of modern pornography by giving the world “free phone sex,” the first fusion of erotica and computers.

Ruderman was schizophrenic in the sense that he didn’t permit the word “pornography” to be used in the office—“adult entertainment” was the acceptable term—and he wanted to be both anonymous and as famous as Hugh Hefner. “I want High Society to be a household name,” he’d often say at staff meetings. Ruderman’s name didn’t appear in the High Society masthead—he hid behind figurehead publisher Gloria Leonard, the porn star.

With the exception of Larry Flynt crowning Ruderman Hustler’s “Asshole of the Month” in November 1983, very little about him ever appeared in the press. Al Goldstein called Ruderman the “Invisible Man” of porn.

However, I recently noticed that The New York Observer ran a piece about Ruderman in the real estate section of their September 8, 2009 issue. It said he was selling his “full-floor, 5,550-square-foot, 13-room, eight-bedroom” condo at the Bristol Plaza on East 65th Street in Manhattan for $13.25 million. The story quotes an architect, Frank Visconti, who’d done work for one of Ruderman’s neighbors, as saying that the former porn publisher is “a very nice man.” Referring to the bust of Ruderman, labeled “The Founder,” that once graced the High Society reception area (High Society is now owned by Lou Perretta), Visconti says, “You don’t see statues with glasses.”

Most surprising is the photograph of Ruderman that appears with the article. The ex-pornographer, smiling and tanned, now dyes his silver hair black. Photographs of Ruderman are so rare that Larry Flynt offered $500 for one to run in Hustler. But nobody who had a photo was willing to accept his offer.

House of Secrets

June 22, 2011

Tags: El Solano, John Lennon, Palm Beach, Larry Flynt, Hustler

I originally wrote about El Solano in my John Lennon bio, Nowhere Man. Lennon retreated to this Palm Beach oceanfront estate in February 1980, and it was here that he reconnected with his muse, ending a five-year musical silence. But Lennon was hardly the only person of interest who resided in this house. Larry Flynt spent time there, too, using El Solano for a series of Hustler shoots. Other former residents include Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Addison Mizner, the “controversial” architect who designed the house, and was the subject of Road Show, the Stephen Sondheim musical.

Now I’ve written a new piece about the curious history of El Solano, a “house of secrets,” as I call it, that was just published on a home design website called Life…Dzined. You can read it here.

The Business of Smut: Critique #1

June 14, 2011

Tags: Slate, smut, LA Weekly, Larry Flynt, Prisoner of X

As a public service, I’ve taken it upon myself to read the “five great reads about the business of smut” recommended by Slate, and began with “Scenes from My Life in Porn,” a 10,000-word opus, by Evan Wright, that ran in the April 6, 2000 edition of LA Weekly. I started with Wright because his experiences seemed similar to my own in certain ways, and he did transform his life after his three-year stint in porn, publishing books and getting high-profile magazine assignments.

Thumbnail Critique
Plot: Total loser lands job at Larry Flynt Publications (LFP), writing “girl copy” and reviewing porn videos. He meets porn stars and directors.
Format: Anecdotal
Mood: Depressed and depressing
Highlight: Watching a gang bang video with its naked, HIV-positive star, Brooke Ashley.
Sample Quote: “Fortunately, LFP provided a safe, nurturing environment for disturbed individuals exorcising their personal demons through pornography writing.”
Sample of Wright’s Girl Copy: Dee is “now free of the psychiatrist’s drugs that once made her a complete zombie with no will of her own, nor any control over what she did with her body.”
Also See: Prisoner of X by Allan MacDonell