Sex and magazines

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.

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This image did not appear in Oui magazine

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.

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This person is uninterested in my spiritual quandaries

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.

Enter moi.

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.”

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She has a muscle in forearm.

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

Pieces of my brain #3

On a cool windy evening in San Francisco, we found ourselves at the corner of Fell and Van Ness. Across the street, there was the brightly lit condo tower.  We decided to investigate, partly to get out of the wind, partly because Tracy’s near-legendary curiosity leads her almost anywhere a  human can go without encountering armed guards.

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TJ at work

The lobby was in that high commercial modern style favored by builders going after millennials, particularly tech-enabled milliennials. Lots of clean blank walls; a lobby desk shaped like an emaciated shark.  There was a tree growing out of a hole in the desk where the shark’s anus would be.

There were perhaps 30 people in the lobby, clustered in conversational groups or checking their phones. We entered, bringing with us a gust of cold air. Everybody turned towards us. It was like one of those science fiction movies where almost everyone (except our hero) is controlled by an alien intelligence. They all looked at us without expression. A telepathic whisper went through the room: Old People among us. Try to stay calm.

We walked around a bit. We tried to make eye contact, but no one would look up. They were afraid the old was contagious. You don’t want to get the old on you; it can decay your teeth and turn your hips into bone-on-bone battlegrounds. No matter how hard you scrub, the old lingers.

This is not the first time my gray beard has provoked silent horror in young people. Many are kind (the old enjoy kindness), although they often feel the need to explain to us things we already know. “The white zone,” they will say considerately, “is for loading and unloading only.” Sometimes that’s entirely charming.

Sometimes: Not.

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Fifteen minutes later, we were standing in a stairwell of an old second-floor dance studio. We were waiting to be let in to the space, now repurposed as a theater. Once again, we were the oldest people in the building, but this time we were ignored. Everyone was ignoring everyone else, in the manner of people standing in an elevator. I stared at my phone for a while, but I didn’t want to text anyone. I was just being pretentious.

On the steps below us, four people played a version of charades. One held up a phone to his/her forehead. On the phone was a word. The others tried to get the phone holder to say the word, using only gestures. Splendid idea; this is technology we can believe in.

Then the door above opened, and we poured into the space.

Many years ago, I spent some time as a non-sexual groupie of The Committee, a now-legendary improv comedy group started by Alan and Jessica Myerson, late of the Second City in Chicago. Unlike the Second City, The Committee did not turn out famous comedians who went on to  success. Still, I thought Larry Hankin was the funniest man alive, and Gary Goodrow was a comic genius. Anyway: What I saw in that large room reminded me of The Committee.

Imagine six extremely energetic humans. Imagine a bare stage, minimum props, primitive lighting.  Imagine lots of running around and yelling and standing still and whispering, all at break-neck pace. The players are known collectively as the San Francisco Neo-Futurists.  Their show is called “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.” It is not improvised;  each of the “30 Plays in 60 Minutes” is written and rehearsed, although a lot of the writing process does seem to have to do with improvisation. The show is funny, sometimes hysterically so, but it’s also poignant and angry and surrealistic.

What reminded me of The Committee was the sense of possibility. The Neo-Futurists have been around since the 80s, but I don’t think the people in the cast can make that claim.  There’s talent up on stage; more importantly, there’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of theater. Ryan Patrick Welsh is clearly the first among equals, but every performer is  enthusiastic and committed.

Here are some of the play titles: “David Mamet’s The Little Mermaid;” “Robo Libido Fugue State:” “Questions for a Twinkie;” “How I Bore Mission Bartenders;” and “WHAT I ASSUME GETTING YOUR PERIOD  IS LIKE ACCORDING TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD  OF TV ADVERTISEMENTS”.

You could spend your entertainment dollar on Meryl Streep pretending to be somebody or other, or, for just a little more, you could see The San Francisco Neo-Futurists. Come early, stand in the stairwell, laugh unreservedly. There’s a soupcon of audience participation (nothing embarrassing, although I was asked politely to eat one bite of a dreadful sandwich, which I did, for which I was called a “hero,” a double-decker sandwich joke) but mostly not; this is not some Vegas hypnotist’s show.

Out by 11. Steps away from BART. Everything perfect.

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Last time, in pursuit of happiness, I published a few jokes I’d picked up here and there. (I found 500 banjo jokes, none of them funny). My friend Carol Carr sent me a few she’d saved over the years. If you hang out with the science fiction community, you may know Carol, or have heard of her. She is not, by the way, the Carol Carr who killed two of her sons. Just clarifying.

Anyway:

What do you get when you cross an elephant with a peanut butter sandwich?  Three elephants that stick to the roof of your mouth, and one peanut butter sandwich that never forgets.

What do you get when you cross a Mafia hit man with a performance artist?  Someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand.

“I just learned the answer to the question asked in Hamlet, “What is he to Hecuba, or Hecuba to him?”  Answer: “The shortest volumes in the encyclopedia.”

A Jew gives a blind man his first piece of matzo.  The blind man takes it and rubs his fingers over the surface for several seconds, then says, “Who wrote this shit?”

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This very morning, I was driving home from random errands (grocery store, bank) when I thought: I bet Pancho is in my wire basket now. He’s there most every morning; you can set your watch by it. And then I thought: I really do think a lot about Pancho’s habits.

His smiles, his frowns, his ups, his downs, are second nature to me now.

And that’s strange, don’t you think? I can see the point in petting a cat, snuggling with a cat, watching a cat doing cat antics — sure. That’s pet ownership: The cross-species exchange of affection. But I think I have something different: The cross-species crush.

When  I was a young man and subject to crushes, everything about my love object was fascinating. Her handwriting, her lunch preferences, the books she read, the music she listened to, her feelings about insects and aviation and deep soulful kissing. And maybe I would bicycle by her house, not in a stalking way because I didn’t actually stop, except that one time I saw her watering the lawn. “I was in the neighborhood…” I said, which was true. I was in the neighborhood.

And now I have memorized Pancho’s routine. He’s extremely predictable. Cats may be independent creatures, but they like their habits — as do most humans. Habits are comfortable; they free your mind to think of other things. Each night I close up the house, check the doors and windows, straighten up the kitchen, let Pancho in, turn out the lights. Pancho will inevitably check his food bowl, then amble up the stairs, where he curls up on the bed in Tracy’s office.

Once in a while, that doesn’t happen, and I worry that Pancho is sick. But no, he’s exercising his free will — when he remembers that he has free will. I have free will too, but I’ve lived in the same place for 35 years.

I brought the groceries in and checked. Sure enough:

 

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Find the missing number on the clock!

 

Photography by Tracy Johnston, except the one that obviously isn’t

Behind-the-scenes competence by Michelle Mizera