The Sporadic Beaver

The Mike Nichols Reference in Beaver Street

November 20, 2014

Tags: Mike Nichols, Beaver Street, Buck Henry, Catch-22, Henry Miller, Screw, Hellfire, Al Goldstein, Mel Brooks, S&M

Mike Nichols, circa 1970, the year he directed Catch-22.
Mike Nichols, best known as the director of such films as The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge, died yesterday, at 83. Below, I give you the scene from Beaver Street, set in New York City's Hellfire Club during a Screw magazine Halloween party, in 1985, that references Nichols.

I wandered into a back room and saw Buck Henry, the frequent Saturday Night Live guest host, standing by himself and observing with clinical detachment a bleached-blond dominatrix walloping a naked man with a riding crop.

“Come here often?” I asked Henry.

“I’m Buck,” he said, shaking my hand in a firm, businesslike manner. “Yeah, I’ve been to Hellfire once before. But I was expecting a classier crowd tonight—since Al invited me.” He gestured towards the man writhing on the floor. “Is this the kind of stuff that usually goes on here?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “I’ve only been here once before myself, and very briefly at that. But I hear in the old days before AIDS, you could walk in any night and find a half-dozen piss drinking orgies—stuff like that. I can’t believe people are dying now for a little fun they had ten years ago.”

“The statute of limitation for these things should be five years,” Henry said, just as the dominatrix whacked her slave’s penis with a wicked shot that made us both wince.

“Absolutely,” I agreed, unable to take my eyes off the S&M show. “But you’ve got to admit, this is something you don’t see every day. It’s like a scene from Tropic of Cancer.

He nodded and said, “I met Henry Miller once at a Hollywood party. He was there with Mike Nichols. All he wanted to talk about was The Graduate. All I wanted to talk about was Quiet Days in Clichy.

I knew that Henry had written the screenplay for The Graduate, which Nichols had directed, as well as creating with Mel Brooks the classic sitcom Get Smart. “What are you doing now?” I asked. “Writing for Screw?”

“I’m waiting for my mother to die first,” he said.

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.

Natural-Born Pornographer

December 19, 2013

Tags: Beaver Street, Al Goldstein, Screw

Al Goldstein in the 1970s with a copy of How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, by Lenny Bruce.
In honor of Al Goldstein, who passed away today at 77, here's an excerpt from the "Natural-Born Pornographers" chapter of Beaver Street. Names of all non-public figures have been changed.

***
Soon after I took over as FAO's managing editor, my good friend Georgina Kelly landed a 'prestigious' $15,000-per-year part-time position at Screw as an associate editor whose responsibilities included finding whores for publisher Al Goldstein and helping Goldstein's managing editor, Howard Nussbaum, put out the paper every two weeks. Kelly was thrilled about the job because people inside and outside the industry feared and respected Screw more than any other pornographic publication, including Hustler. Screw's utter audacity in the face of possible lawsuits and the quality of its prose were the principal reasons for this. Chip Goodman, for one, lived in mortal terror that Screw would run more stories written by former employees about his cocaine habit. Other people of a certain ilk shared a well-founded dread of waking up to find themselves the subject of one of the crudely constructed photo collages that ran in almost every issue. These collages generally consisted of huge penises penetrating the orifices and ejaculating on the faces of whatever high-profile decency advocates, aspiring censors, and porno competitors Goldstein had a hankering to infuriate. As of late, the objects of his rage included President Ronald Reagan, First Lady Nancy Reagan, Attorney General Edwin Meese, 'moral majority' leader Jerry Falwell, the Reverend Pat Robertson, radical feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

Unlike most people in the porn biz, who thought it prudent to seek employment elsewhere, Kelly wasn’t troubled by Goldstein’s fanatical commitment to the First Amendment, or by the daily bomb threats from assorted psychos and religious fanatics, or by the fact that the entire staff had been marked for assassination by a fundamentalist Islamic death squad after publishing ‘The Dirty Parts of the Koran’ in an April Fool’s issue. On the contrary, she was delighted to have finally latched onto a corporation that offered so much opportunity for advancement.

What made Screw great, Kelly explained, was that ‘Al’ understood his audience perfectly—because he was his own perfect audience. He knew that only a handful of readers bought Screw for the political satire or for the celebrity interviews he threw in when he could get them—like the one in 1972 in which Jack Nicholson admitted that he’d “jacked off to Screw.” The real readers—the ones who’d kept Goldstein in business since November 1968—were the desperately horny men who bought Screw for the hooker ads and the detailed guides to peep shows, whorehouses, and swinger clubs. It was universally acknowledged that Screw was the best and most reliable place to find out where to get laid, blown, jacked off, or lap-danced in the New York metropolitan area.

And that’s the way it had been since Goldstein, with an initial investment of $300, published his first issue, on the day after Richard Nixon was elected president, and then watched the tabloid explode on newsstands with a Beatles-like intensity that forever changed the way America perceived pornography. Now, after nearly two decades of hate mail, death threats, obscenity busts, high-profile publicity, and lawsuits, Screw had become an icon of American sleaze culture, the magazine that people loved to hate, even if they’d never seen it. Goldstein himself, who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the forties and fifties dreaming about “tasting pussy” (and thinking he never would), had become a despised and admired gadfly smut-publisher who was tasting a lion’s share of pussy—and now had Georgina Kelly on staff, in part to ensure that he never went without pussy again.