The Beaver Street Interview
In the second part of my interview with author Marshall Terrill, we talk about Beaver Street, my book about the pornography industry. The conversation has been edited for clarity. Our discussion of A Brooklyn Memoir, scheduled for publication in July, will follow in part three.
Marshall Terrill: Your second book, Beaver Street, chronicled your years in the porn business. What was the impetus for that memoir?
Robert Rosen: I'd spent 16 years working in the adult entertainment industry, as it's politely known. I was the editor of a bunch of porn magazines. Between 1983 and 1999, I had a ringside seat to a lot of things that nobody had written about. Virtually all the books about the porn business were either porn-star memoirs or unreadable academic dissertations. So I thought that a mainstream book about porn was the thing to do. Beaver Street is a history of late-20th-century culture, technology, economics, and politics as seen through a pornographic lens. It's a serious history that reads like a comic novel. And like Nowhere Man, I ran into a brick wall as far as getting it published. Editors said it wasn't a history, it wasn't a memoir, it wasn't an academic book, and it was neither pro- nor anti-porn. It was an unusual book that didn't fit neatly into any category. Headpress finally published it in 2011, first in the UK, then here.
MT: One of the more ironic things that struck me in reading Beaver Street was the workers were smoking pot during the day while putting together an issue on deadline. Yet there was a rigidity that I can't quite put my finger on because of the fact that the publishers were afraid of criminal prosecution. Did you find that ironic as well?
RR: I worked for three publishers. The first was Carl Ruderman, who published High Society, the magaine that invented free phone-sex, the first fusion of erotica and computers. Ruderman was very controlling, a very ugly personality. He was schizophrenic in the sense that he wanted to be Hugh Hefner and he wanted High Society to be as famous as Playboy, but he also wanted to be anonymous. He didn't want anybody to know that he was publishing porn magazines, so his name wasn't in the masthead. But everybody who worked for him had to use their real name in the masthead. He was worried about the consequences of doing porn, and after I left the company, sure enough, federal marshals extradited him to Utah to stand trial on phone-sex charges—underage people were calling the phone-sex lines. He managed to get off on that particular charge, but that's the kind of thing porn publishers were worried about.
"After Ruderman got out of porn, he went into the securities business, and his company, 1 Global Capital, defrauded their clients out of $320 million."
After Ruderman got out of porn, he went into the securities business, and his company, 1 Global Capital, defrauded their clients out of $320 million. It was a Ponzi scheme; he was like mini–Bernie Madoff. Though some of the company's executives went to jail, he didn't, but he was responsible for personally paying back more than $49 million.
After High Society, I moved to Swank, published by the late Chip Goodman. Chip was more liberal than Ruderman. For the first couple of years, Swank was kind of a loose, fun place to work. As long as the magazines came out and Chip continued to make money, he didn't care what we did. We'd get stoned at lunch. Then we'd come back to the office, look at dirty pictures, and pick out the best ones. It wasn't difficult to do this when you were stoned. It might have even helped. But then the Traci Lords thing happened and the atmosphere changed. Lords was the most popular porn star of her generation—until the FBI found out she was underage. There was at least one picture of her in every magazine we published for about three years—I'm talking about hundreds of issues and scores of titles. They all had to be destroyed. And that's when Chip decided he wanted to get out of porn. In 1992 he sold all his porn magazines to Lou Perretta, and the staff went to work for Perretta.
Perretta was a printer who started buying up porn magazines as fodder to keep his presses running 24/7. It was like working on an assembly line in a Chinese dildo factory. At one point Perretta owned everything except Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. He was an awful guy to work for. He was a bigot. I'd never worked in a place where there was anti-Semitism, but it was there. He eventually got sued for age and sex discrimination, and the whole porn-magazine business went down the tubes.
These three men were as wealthy as Bob Guccione, Larry Flynt, or Hugh Hefner. But nobody outside the business knew who they were because they went to extreme lengths to portray themselves as legitimate businessmen.
"It's not like I was doing a large-breast magazine and I suddenly developed a fetish for big silicon breasts."
MT: The other thing that struck me about the book was the porn industry seemed to take all the sizzle out of sex. Did working in the industry impact you in some way?
RR: Well, it didn't impact me personally in the way I think you're suggesting. It's not like I was doing a large-breast magazine and I suddenly developed a fetish for big silicon breasts, or I was doing a shaved magazine and I developed a fetish for shaved heads and genitalia. It was work. And the main effect it had on me after 16 years was that by the time I finally left the business, I couldn't stand looking at pornography. And I didn't look at it for the next five years. I was sick of it.
"Porn is not about sex. It's about using sex to separate people from their money."
MT: The book seems to underscore the fact that the porn industry is a business built solely on money, and caters to people who have issues with intimacy.
RR: The people who were the best porn editors were the ones who created the magazines for themselves. They put together the kind of magazines they bought before they became professional pornographers. Before going to work at High Society, I was familiar with Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. I really did buy Playboy for the articles, and my roommate in graduate school subscribed to Penthouse. We both liked the Penthouse Forum letters. I didn't realize how many niche porn magazines there were until I started working for one. I'd never heard of High Society, but I needed a job, I applied for the High Society job, they hired me, and I was able to do it. And you are correct. Porn is not about sex. It's about using sex to separate people from their money.
MT: What's the state of the porn-magazine business today given that everything seems to be going towards streaming?
RR: It's pretty much over. I think Penthouse, Playboy and Hustler still publish a print magazine. The other ones, as far as I know, are gone. It's completely Internet-oriented now.
My latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, is available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.