I got an email from a documentary filmmaker a few weeks ago. She was wondering whether she could interview me for a feature she was making about Hugh Hefner. She wanted to know more about my role, and about the “cultural context” of the time.
I told her that I’d been the editor of Oui magazine for one year in the early 70s. I said that the cultural context of the magazine was vaginas.
I haven’t heard back.
But what I said was literally true. That’s the beginning of my memory core dump. In the 70s, the cultural context of pretty much everything was different. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I often feel like a time-traveler these days. Look, Maude, it’s a telephone with pictures.
Let’s start with Bob Guccione, a name that is thankfully sinking beneath the waters of history. Guccione started Penthouse magazine in 1965. It was intended to copy Playboy, but without the jazz-and-fine-wine gloss that was part of Playboy’s gestalt. But it was still all about naked women.
Guccione was not a particularly adept magazine publisher — Hef was an absolute pro, although his image was very much of a louche sybarite who happened to publish a magazine. Guccione did know how to do one thing: Torment Hefner.
At that time, showing any hint of actual vaginas in girlie pictures was strictly forbidden. Hefner never wanted to challenge that convention, because his aesthetic was all about improbably smooth skin and improbably large breasts. But Guccione didn’t care. His photos began to take the viewer closer and closer to the promised land.
In the industry, the phrase was “showing pink.” Penthouse girls were threatening to show pink. Actual pubic hair was hinted at. The circulation of Penthouse soared, while Playboy’s suffered. Clearly, it was a race to the bottom.
I had been living in Berkeley for a decade, so I knew that going to work for a T&A magazine was not a cool thing to do. But I’d just spent time as an editor at a fashion magazine (Rags) that had upended the traditional model. Our thesis was that fashion in our time came up from the street, not down by fiat from designers and rag trade executives. Maybe I could do the same thing with sex. I figured I could hire women in creative positions, which I did, and connect with feminist organizations to begin what you might call dialectic. I did that too.
For a man of my generation, the sexism was baked in. I grew up with a set of assumptions that I didn’t know were assumptions. There was no push-back from the dominant narrative. So I was a good liberal (equal pay for equal work, etc.) but I did not see the sexism in my heart. It has been a long struggle for me to understand the reality of reality. I’m still learning new things.
So yeah, I objectified women. I viewed advertising images, probably thousands of them, that treated women as attractive accessories, and I did not say a word, did not think a thought. I was clueless; it was 1972 and cluelessness was all the rage. But half a century later, I’m still clueless, although I like to think that my cluelessness is of more nuanced kind.
So I shut up and listen. I no more understand what it’s like to be a woman in this culture than I understand what it’s like to be a black man. About two years ago, I decided to refrain from opinions about African-Americans. They are having their own conversations about their experiences and their identity. It’s a great, eloquent, angry conversation, and its existence out in the open is a tribute to the idea of democracy.
The same with women. They too are now telling their stories, claiming their narratives. It’s exhilarating to listen to, and listening is what I should do. I have a sense of the patriarchy crumbling, and I’m sure that’s scary to people, particularly older white men who grew up learning things about masculinity that are not true. (You don’t have to “prove” you’re a man; you already are one. So whoever you really are, that’s masculine. Relax).
Donald Trump has become a radicalizing force. I find that fascinating; I find the whole thing fascinating. Scary as fuck, but useful. I await developments.
I understand that I was complicit. I had millions of unindicted co-conspirators. I think back on those years, and I realize how bloody naive I was. I was in a world I absolutely did not understand. Dumb as a bridge abutment? Oh yeah. This is horrifying, and it makes me wonder why I didn’t notice it. Perhaps I did not want to see it. Maybe. Probably. Anyway.
Back to Hef’s dilemma. He did not want his faux-respectable magazine tied up in court if some sheriff in Omaha busted a 7-11 for selling Playboy. So he thought: I’ll start another magazine! If they bust that, no problem. But his advisers said: Too expensive. So he came up with another plan.
There was a French magazine called Lui. It was a direct rip-off of Playboy. So Hef thought: I could buy the American rights to Lui, hire a few French people to run it, translate the articles and use the pre-existing photographs. He would call the magazine Oui, which was what French women say when approached by a slick American stranger. Because, you know, French women.
Alas, it turned out that the articles (which no one seemed to have read) were either libelous, boring or on topics Americans didn’t care about. Also, the woman they’d hired to translate was the girlfriend of the editor they sent over, and while her conversational English was fine, she was not a writer and had scant experience at translation.
The new magazine had been announced. They were a month from “color closing,” when the photos had to be shipped to the printer. They needed an American editor, they needed an American staff. And they wanted someone young, someone who knew what the kids wanted.
I had worked for Rolling Stone, so clearly I was an expert on those darned kids. I was employed by the Los Angeles Times, so I clearly wasn’t one of those drug addled rock writers. I was a 29-year-old journalist. Candidly, I really had no idea what the kids wanted. Also, I didn’t want to live in Chicago. I didn’t want to edit a T&A magazine.
As my cousin John used to say, “no” is the sexiest word in the English language. My reluctance made me irresistible. Hefner put on the press. Private late-night conversations at the mansion. Bonding over being magazine geeks. Drinking amazing wine and shooting the shit. So I said yes. The money was good; the perks were incredible.
Also, they let me hire my own staff. Desperate? I should say.
Three weeks later, we walked into the iconic Playboy building on Michigan Avenue for the first time. We were given a wide berth — it was a little like the magnificent seven walking into a troubled town while the residents cowered in fear. Color closing? No problem. We were magazine cowboys. Among the people I brought with me, then or later: John Burks, Mary Robertson, Carol Troy, John Lombardi, Ed Ward. We all stayed in the Playboy Hotel and drank in the hotel bar. We made up stuff as we went along.
I never saw a live naked woman in a professional context. All that happened in France with Lui photographers. Here’s what I remember from my first week on the job: There was a big corkboard in the art department. Pinned up were 12 or so candidates for the centerfold. Five middle-aged white guys were staring at the photos.
I was invited to join them. Perhaps I knew what kind of boobs the kids liked. There was a long silence as the men pondered the issue. One them, a guy with a brush mustache that made him look just a tiny bit like Hitler, finally pointed to one of the photos and said:
“There’s a muscle in her thigh.”
It was apparent that I was not an ideal representative of the Playboy world. I dressed in flowing Indian shirts. I had a rabbinical beard. (Lettuce got caught in it several times). I played a wood flute in the office. I was uninterested in the details of the planned invasion of pink.
The disconnect between me and the organization was quickly manifest. As Arthur Kretchmer, the smartest of the Playboy executives I met, once said, “it’s hard to work at a place you have contempt for.” The executives were already circling, waiting to include Oui in their expanded fiefdom.
Then the unthinkable happened: The magazine was a success. The first issue sold out in 24 hours. Dick Cavett made a joke about it. Plans to can me were deferred. Maybe I did know what the kids wanted after all. (My own theory is that its popularity had nothing to do with my no-doubt outstanding editing, and more with the overwhelming adolescent desire to see a racier Playboy).
We kept selling magazines. I went to Paris. I went to London. I met dope-smoking provocateurs. I rode on hippie buses and assigned stories to a diverse group of people, some of whom were talented. I tried to subvert the dominant paradigm, but in an outstandingly half-assed way.
Of course, I was eventually forced out. My territory was too attractive, and my intransigence was irritating. By that time, real pornography was overtaking mock pornography. Oui went on for years; Playboy is still with us. Me, I got money, experience and fun. Four months later, I met Billie Jean King and helped start WomenSports magazine. I worked for free. I guess it was my penance.
I’m not sure when I’ll produce the next column. We’re going to Argentina pretty quick now, so my writing logistics are unclear. But I’m relatively certain about one thing: It’s going to be a letter from Argentina. Which is either exciting or not, depending on your interest in mate, gauchos and the tango.
See, I’m stereotyping again. I was in the journalism business far too long.
Photography by Tracy Johnston
Various helpful things by Michelle Mizera
38 thoughts on “Sex and magazines”
“I’m stereotyping again. I was in the journalism business far too long.” HAH!
Love this story, and your framing of it! Thanks.
Also, I’m very interested in maté and tango. Gauchos, not so much, but I’m sure if you write about them it will be worth reading. Have a great trip, and don’t forget to write.
Wow. We are the miraculous survivors of ourselves, no?
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Loved the piece for all its history and your place in it. Good pictures too. So glad you had daughters. Oh, and I hope you eat meat as the grass fed beef there is to die for.
Buen viaje Jon y Tracy.
Have a great time; it’ll be springtime in Argentina!
Oh, I love this piece. While you were swanning about with Hef, I was typing execrably written letters for morons and being yelled at for editing them because What are you thinking changing my letter goddamnit? And yet I was happy to be called an “executive secretary” even though I appeared to be a girl typist in skinny jeans and silk scarves. A wonder that we lived to tell the tales.
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Okay, now I really must adopt you (little brother).
Love Tracy’s work and your thinking. Well, writing’s okay, too.
XOX, Diana Drnichols1@gmail.com Vancouver, WA – formerly SF, CA
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“Where ignorance is bliss, …” Nothing like a “colorful history”. If I sound jealous, I am. I yearned to be a hippie but was too old, and too young to be a beatnik. I have lived vicariously in the limbo between them.
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Love it. Thanks, Jon. Have a grand trip, you two. You’ll be missing so much here, lucky you.
Cool story, welcome humility. Safe travels!
Oh, God, I am such a fan of your writing. Travel safely.
In keeping with your referencing your time with Rolling Stone, I must mention a quote from “Up, Simba”…a journalistic piece by my favorite author, David Foster Wallace, which he did for R.S. in 2000, when he was assigned to follow the McCain campaign for ~1week…….You will note, though, that the author is usually still referred to in the document as “Rolling Stone” or “R.S.” I’m sorry if this looks strange to you, but I have declined to change it. Part of the reason is that I was absurdly proud of my Rolling Stone press badge and of the fact that most of the pencils and campaign staff referred to me as “the guy from Rolling Stone”. I will confess that I even borrowed a friend’s battered old black leather jacket to wear on the Trail so I’d better project the kind of edgy, vaguely dangerous vibe I imagined an RS reporter ought to give off. (You have to understand that I hadn’t read Rolling Stone in quite some time.) Plus, journalistically, my covering the campaign for this particular organ turned out to have a big effect on what I got to see and how various people conducted themselves when I was around. For example, it was the main reason why the McCain2000 High Command pretty much refused to have anything to do with me, but why the network techs were so friendly and forthcoming and let me hang around with them (the sound techs, in particular, were Rolling Stone fans from way back)……
The Erotic Review has done the same thing as Mr.Hefner. They have taken their freedom of expression to Netherlands where their servers are safe.
As it is our editorial opinion that the trend of self express by prostitution clients cannot be prevented, perhaps editorial involvement like yours is a better strategy? Application to involve and improve. Something we had never considered.
We have rejected stories of human trafficking and TER member violence to activists. We do so, not because we don’t care. We do so because they do not seem to be constructive. How do you journlistically balance what could be just moralistic crusading. Crusading inflicting of the views of some against the base carnal drives of many?
If we were confident all the women involved were compensated and there of their own free will, it would be simple. As an unquantifiable percentage are probably not, how would you approach this? This new form of porn media is growing exponentially with married & single males. Growing as fast as naughty magazines did in their infancy. Copy cats arrive almost weekly.
We have the humility to ask for ideas. We need Concepts that cast a constructive but humane way to inform our readers and honour our mandate to solve, not expose. To accept human behavior without judgement but to still aspire to more through accentuating universal positives, not thrashing subjective negatives.
Your brash and exotic prose caught our eye. As did the provocative subject. Enjoy your sabbatical.
Thanks Jon. I was thinking of men coming together in protest of the “groping Donald” issue. I was thinking of the good guys in Washington; some of whom must be our age and remember the “culture context” you referred to in your piece. I believed then, that by now, it would be over. We still speak of vaginas when we mean labia. What is that pussy? Is that the vulva? It’s so sad to not speak correctly regarding “down there”. Don’t worry I would never want to embarrass anyone. So sorry. However, my vagina is the part INSIDE of my body from which I gave birth……. Where is my pussy? I may not know what it is but I must have one. Right? No? Too old? Don’t worry I don’t want to embarrass anyone. Never mind. Sorry. Thanks for the space to rant.
Rant away. I’m happy to listen to it.
Excellent. Those were times, they were. Safe journeys to you both.
Ed Ward? Is he doing music reviews on Fresh Air now? Name resonates…….
I worked a longish editorial stint at another gentleman’s-interest magazine in L.A., more famous and less respectable than Oui. In the intervening decades I’ve had occasion to explain or justify my involvement in such an exploitative enterprise, and I’ve never phumphfered as serviceable a response as Jon provides here: “Perhaps I did not want to see it. Maybe. Probably. Anyway.” It’s expiative while leaving open the possibility of differing views. Very effective; it’s mine henceforth.
I’m guessing Chic. And I suppose that response is as good as any.
That all sounds about right. You nailed Guccione, and dear Hef. Sitting in one of the outer pastures with my underground comix, it was a joy to watch the changes. Tonight at a lecture at UC Berkeley I had to tell about how when Playboy was imported to Japan, and at that time showing pubic hair, the distributors had to hire a hundred artists to go into each issue and with paint brush, brush out any bush. Socially uncool to do. Eventually, certain brushers began to have a following as it was assumed the style of brushing conveyed great information about the concealed promised land.
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The world is an amazing place.
I remember short but torturous discussions on lesbian feminist magazine collectives in the late ’70s—would we ever take money from Playboy if it offered? It was kind of like a test of your soul…or something! Thanks for sharing your insider look at Playboy and Oui. How young we all were. Safe, happy travels!
You will forgive me. I not being trite.Perhaps it is my British up bringing, I do not know how to interpret- “Yow.” As we are new to WordPress it would be best if our integration into the blogger community was appropriate. Was a comparative to your articles content too much? Should we have limited it to just a simple accolade on your, admittedly direct and powerful prose?
It was just a lot of take in; overwhelming and murky. I was unable to tease out meaning from some the sentences.
I do that. I am too verbose. It real hurts my ability to distill.
Thank you for the courtesy of replying. It was refreshing and further heighten my opinion of you.
Prostitution porn is the new sex exploration method. As it can’t or perhaps shouldn’t be stopped. would it be better for one of our staff to get involved with it professionally as an employee, rather than whine about it externally.
Human sexuality is a profoundly wonderful thing. Some people are forced to participate in this sexual media type. Should we just accept that?
Should we spend time reporting on ways to prevent the abuses in the context of suggesting solutions. Avoiding of course any puritanical interference. If so how?
Any better ? Perhaps not lol.
Enjoy your writing, go recharge and keep creating. Literature is the worlds most empowering medium. We are the publics eyes, ears, shield, & sword.
Thank you for continuing to do what you do so well.
Richard L. Barnes
“Sex and magazines.” The A-bomb of recreation for young men when I was a young man. Even after we had real girlfriends, we hid Playboys in the closet. Nice post.
Have fun, travel safe, drink champagne & Malbec, go to the Eva Peron museum.
Don’t forget to come back, and to mail in your absentee ballot before you leave.. And take along your sweatshirt with a little Canadian flag on the pocket, just in case.
Absentee ballot mailed. Oh damn, no Canada stuff. No obviously American stuff either. Hmmm.
I am so happy to have run across your blog, Jon. I am an old fan from the Chron, you and Adair used to make my day. I lived in Argentina for 2 years and I wanted to say you forgot to mention beef and leather shopping. Have a safe journey.
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Reminds me of Margaret Mead’s comment: The elderly are “immigrants in time, immigrants from an earlier world,” and the “young are at home here.” It resonated with me. Also let me feel less foolish for not being able to keep up with all the social media and electronic gadgetry.
Thanks for the vaguely prurient ramblings of your tumble thru ’70’s porn publishing. What a strange flesh pot trip!
BTW, it’s maté, mate!
Google didn’t have the accent. And yes, I;m going to try it. Reviews are mixed.
An entire chapter of the curriculum vitae of Jon Carroll of which I was virtually ignorant. Ever so glad to fill that in! The description of the bearded counterculturalist in the belly of the T&A beast is especially vivid and rich. And then we come to your 2016 humility in the face of changing mores. It’s a fine turn, and I for one am all the more admiring of you manning up about it.
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