- The Case of Times Square Porn King Eddie Mishkin
- By Jay A. Gertzman
Throughout the 20th century, erotica writing and distribution was part of the larger story of American literature. Writers need money, and writing about sex for a prurient, horny, and eventually tumescent audience never deterred them. Nor was the result necessarily hack work. In Earl Kemp's ezine (see e*I*11), he provides several examples of good writers: Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, John Jakes, Harry Roskolenko, and Cordwainer Smith, among others.
A New York bookseller contracted writers such as Gershon Legman, Henry Miller, and Anais Nin in the early 1940s on behalf of an Oklahoma erotica collector who wanted to masturbate to a story he had never encountered before. Therefore he needed an endless supply. At the same time a group of writers produced type scripted pornography, which was reproduced and sold or rented at high prices. Some of its members, who also wrote for the Oklahoma collector, were Nin, Jack Hanley, Clement Wood, and Bernard Wolfe, later one of the first "beat" novelists (The Magic of Their Singing).
It is not clear when this erotica combine started to work, but one of its productions was a set of stories, circa 1938, known collectively as The Oxford Professor. Gershon Legman says that Gene Fowler, one of several Hollywood members, wrote The Demi-Wang and Nirvana under its auspices. In the 1950s, one of the writers and editors for the Magazine Management group of "hairy-chested men's magazines" was Bruce Jay Friedman. He remembered that "Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos." When Star Distributors, Ltd., maintained a stable of New York based novelists to churn out their glut of hard core paperbacks in the 70s, one of their number, writing either under a pseudonym or anonymously, was Marco Vassi. Vassi's fictional explorations of pansexual energy marked him as a disciple of Wilhelm Reich.
Among the many talented Essex House novelists who wrote for that Milton Luros imprint in California in the late 60s, one has to mention a key figure in any discussion of American literary erotica: Michael Perkins. Perkins was one of the talented writers Al Goldstein hired when Screw began publication. Readers shocked by American Psycho would suffer coronaries if faced with Perkins' Evil Companions (1968). A group of East Village roommates engage in kidnapping, rape, necrophilia, and sexual mutilation. The book depicts a nightmare of sex and violence that replicates in its insanity the combat zones of Vietnam, urban ghetto riots, Hoover's FBI files and crusades, the Kennedy and King assassinations, police riots, and the Weathermen.
I am studying the distribution and prosecution of pornography in New York's Times Square of the 1950s. Eddie Mishkin, publisher, distributor, and bookstore owner, was a prime target for district Attorney Frank Hogan. In 1955, he had been called before the Kefauver Committee investigating the effect of pornographic materials on juvenile delinquency. Shortly thereafter, he and the Times Square booksellers to whom he distributed were enjoined from distributing a 16-volume set of hastily prepared typewritten and illustrated booklets entitled Nights of Horror, which focused on flagellation, torture, and bondage. In 1959, the police started intense surveillance of Mishkin's warehouse. He, his printer, and at least two writers were among those arrested; 17,000 booklets (43 separate titles) were impounded. The transcript of his 1960 trial presents detailed evidence of connections between a porn "kingpin," his primary readership in the gay and fetish subcultures, the Greenwich Village party scene, and some New York-based writers and artists.
Three writers were subpoenaed to testify against Mishkin. One, who wrote under the name "Justin Kent," was held as a material witness for over a month. Both he and a woman unfortunately named Leotha Hackshaw stated that Mishkin told them to write about "rough sex," with "strong lesbian scenes," "high heels," "perfume fetishes," "bondage," etc. He lent Hackshaw texts on sexual deviations, including Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, so that her stories focused on spanking, whipping, and the "weals" left in male and female flesh by violent foreplay. Many of the booklets were illustrated by the fetish artists Gene Bilbrew and Eric Stanton. In appearance, these publications suggested cheapness and unreliability, an impression reinforced by a five-dollar cover price for badly edited, cheaply produced, typewritten texts some of which were nicely illustrated, but with line drawings unrelated to the narrative itself. Sample titles were "Screaming Flesh," "Return Visit to Fetterland," "The Hollywood Spankers," and "Sex Switch." Newspaper reporters, prosecuting attorneys, and judges noted that the appearance as well as contents of Mishkin's booklets epitomized "dirt for dirt's sake," with no purpose other than to appeal to prurience to make as much money with as little expense as possible.
Inevitably reinforcing this impression was the kind of store in which they were sold. In Publisher's Outlet, The Metropolitan Book Shop, The Little Book Exchange, Square Books, and The Midget Book Shop one found rack-loads of cellophane-sealed, highly priced, paper-covered booklets, and nude and near nude photo sets, as well as prurient fiction, sexology, and girlie magazines. Eventually, in 1966 at the Supreme Court level, Mishkin was convicted and sent to prison. He was judged to have appealed to a "clearly defined sexual group" by titillating that group with the intent of making as much money as possible, at the same time ignoring state law that a publisher state his true name and business address in his books and magazines.
Mishkin's audience must have included members of the gay and fetish subculture in midtown New York. A large gay community had existed in nearby apartment houses from the 1930s. As New York's many daily newspapers reported the trial, they must have swallowed their anxieties as phrases such as "deviant fantasies" and "all morality done away with" were parroted. So was the boilerplate equating sexual deviancy and juvenile delinquency, current since the Kefauver Committee Investigations of the latter in 1955. It would be a revelation to find that one of Mishkin's writers was motivated by a desire to defy this kind of scapegoating. He or she might have written even in a sleazy digest-sized booklet--a story of alternative sexuality which included a warning that parents, teachers, and religious advisors reassess why their teenagers were ignoring them, and consider what young people learned about power and violence from looking around them as the Korean War ended. People had been dismissed from their jobs through blacklisting; alcoholism and divorce were increasing; school students were taught how to "duck and cover" in case of atomic attack; and hydrogen bombs were being tested in the Western deserts. Meanwhile, ambitious senators and sensation-seeking dailies assumed the citizenry's best interest would be served by begging the question regarding the connection between borderline smut and tabooed sexual practices on the one hand, and juvenile delinquency and lack of moral "purity" on the other.
It's exhilarating to think that an iconoclastic, imaginative, and opportunistic writer ready to address himself to the patrons of some of Times Square's raunchy book stores would have honest motives for publishing a typewritten, salaciously illustrated sex story for a sleazy publisher. It would be published under a pseudonym. Appreciative readers could not communicate with him/her directly, but they might ask the clerk or owner of the store in which he bought the booklet if he had more by that author. This kind of interest would be more likely directed to an artist than a writer, but it could happen, which is one reason erotic books are published under fictitious "house" pseudonyms. Most of their writers were mediocrities, like Kent and Hackshaw. Maybe someday someone will discover that a particular piece of writing declared obscene because it was considered "smut for smut's sake" was the work of William Burroughs, John Reichy, Erica Jong, Patricia Highsmith, Kenneth Patchen, or Samuel Delany.
It's the kind of pipe dream to keep an erotica collector frustrated for three lifetimes. That said, there was one writer of considerable reputation, leftish leanings, experience, and talent who wrote at least three stories for Mishkin: Harry Roskolenko. A world traveler since he left home at 13, a Trotskyite active at times in radical causes, a member of the W.P.A. Writers Project, an army officer in World War II, a poet and novelist, Roskolenko had in 1952 published a book of short stories with the Woodford Press, the most successful of the late 1940s hardback faux-erotica sex pulp outfits. In the same year, the Padell Book Company issued his memoir, Baedecker of a Bachelor, and two years later a novel about a white man transformed into a black man, Black Is A Man. Both publishers were New York based, and distributed heavily to the Times Square market, Padell with pamphlets on police ju-jitsu, boxing, wrestling, hypnotism, dancing, and swimming, card tricks, and "How to Make Love," as well as a set of joke books. Their author, by the way, was Louis Shomer, who a decade earlier published erotica and sexology and was prosecuted by the Post Office. In the 1950s he was distributing stag films for Abe Rubin, one of Mishkin's mentors in the porn trade.
Roskolenko (who oddly enough identified himself as Hyman Rosen, saying that Harry Roskolenko was one of his many pseudonyms), first met Mishkin in 1954. His testimony implied that he had come to see the publisher to ask if he wanted a book. The pornographer accepted, saying, "spice it up." Apparently "I'll Try Anything Twice" (by "John Thomas") was one of Roskolenko's first "little booklets." "French Girl on the Stairs Parts 1 and 2" was written about 1957, about the time Mishkin conceived the project which got him arrested.
I haven't seen "I'll Try Anything Twice" or "French Girl on the Stairs," but the author apparently thought they were not hack work, and might even add to his reputation. The transcript records the following:
- Attorney for defendant: And you find nothing of any value in the other types of books [those in evidence not by Roskolenko] . . . ?
- Roskolenko: They are not literature to me.
- Justice Galloway: Mr. Rosen, "French Girl on the Stairs" you consider literature, I presume?
- Roskolenko: That's a serious book
- Justice: That's what I thought.
- Roskolenko: Outside of the pictures.
The reason a professional writer would take on an assignment such as a Mishkin S-M story, as Earl Kemp has explained to me, is money. And Mishkin had the money to spend. He must have treated his artists and writers well, or he would not have been able to hire the premier fetish artists in New York at the time. He paid between $100 and $350 per story, according to testimony at the 1960 trial. For a single drawing, Gene Bilbrew, who did illustrations for covers, got $30 or $35, and Eric Stanton, for interior work, got $10 or $15. According to the Department of Labor's Consumer Price Index, $100 in 1959 would be the equivalent of almost $640 in today's currency. All these deals were strictly in cash, which changed hands in one of Mishkin's stores or in a bar called Dino's on 42nd Street. The IRS need never know. The work could be finished quickly, and subsequent assignments might mean not only groceries, but time to be spent writing instead of slaving at a menial job.
Where would a writer learn of this kind of opportunity? Word of mouth is the obvious answer. That was the method by which pornography and where to find it became known to potential customers. A professional writer was obliged to sniff out money as avidly as a horny man did his sexual outlets, and usually with a lot less guilt and furtiveness. There were several kinds of sources. Ms Hackshaw stated that under the name "Lee Morrel," she wrote two books "now on the stands," and had written TV scripts. Most likely not a habitué‚ of 42nd Street, she may have heard of Mishkin from her agent. If the two books she mentioned were hardback sex pulps, like those "Justin Kent" had done for Gil Fox (The Vixen Press) or Abe Lieberman and his partner Arnold Hausner of Book Sales, Inc., then she would have had other conduits to Mishkin.
We know Mishkin and Lieberman did business with each other. Any one of the sex pulp publishers who followed the lead of the Woodford Press in the late 40s and 50s would have had their books distributed in the Times Square bookstores. Roskolenko published several works under his "Colin Ross" pseudonym with Allan Wilson and Moe Shapiro, owners of Woodford. As we've said, he also wrote for Max Padell. Roskolenko writes, "Under five pseudonyms, I wrote a variety of novels [in the 1950s] for various publishers." He states the number to be fifteen. At the same time, he was contributing stories and articles to many magazines, some literary (Sewanee Review, New York Times Book Review, New Leader), some general-interest (Mademoiselle), and some erotic. "I had learned the art of concocting in the men's magazines…where nothing worthy is confidential and everything useless is exposed; the sacred is profaned by association, and the profaned made sacred material; for without the latter the circulation of these magazines would disappear. Whatever was the fatal flaw in the American male, these magazines had found it."
It's possible that a needy writer might have made inquiries in bookshops themselves. The tourist bookstores carried various kinds of erotica as well as other kinds of literature, nonfiction, text books, pamphlets, and magazines; Padell was a chief wholesaler of the latter three genres. Owners and clerks would see the advantages of steering suitable writers and artists to a publisher who knew that their customers had the kind of impulses they would not try to restrain if a "just out" package were offered them. The more "hot stuff" around, the better for the bookseller's business, although not for the publisher.
The above were possible ways a writer or artist could become wise to a sleazy, underground, and possibly subversive employer. And he or she had to be needy, otherwise a writer might have balked at playing by rules considerably more akin to racketeering than anything else the literary life might lead one to. With Mishkin, who was in the numbers game before being schooled in pornography, payments were strictly in cash; inventory was secreted in a bunker-type room in the basement of his warehouse; the markup on the manufactured book was several hundred percent; the books appeared without publisher's identification and thus violated the state's General Business Law; the subject matter was considered, despite the absence of scatology and explicit descriptions of intercourse, to be "deviant"; and in case of police action the dragnet might, as it did in 1960, include the writer.
It also included one of the typists. One was put on the stand, and the name of the other was mentioned. The latter was Virginia Admiral, an artist and a close friend of Anaïs Nin, wife of the artist Robert de Niro (they are the parents of the film star). Nin mentions in her Diaries that she worked in a typing service to make money. Admiral may have been one of the typists for the stories written for the Oklahoma collector. Being part of Nin's Bohemian set, she may have been quite willing to type up other erotic writing, as she obviously was for Mishkin's printer. She may never have met Mishkin, but the connection is worth mentioning.
There was a final conduit to this kind of employer: contacts in the Bohemian subculture. Gil Fox recently provided investigative journalist Doug Valentine with a fascinating story involving the Greenwich Village party scene. A CIA agent named George White, who had a supply of LSD (the agency was experimenting with it at the time), posed as a "Bohemian artist" and joined Fox's set. He used the drug to facilitate his wife-swapping adventures, to which Fox himself and his beautiful wife Valentine tells us, were partial. White, Fox remembers, lowered the inhibitions of couples who caught his fancy by putting the drug into their food or drink. One can only speculate that among the guests at Fox's Christopher Street parties may have been Harry Roskolenko and one of the Woodford Press' meal tickets, Joe Weiss. Both men had reputations as having very active libidos. Weiss, as his novels attest, fantasized about spanking women. Fetishes and lesbianism were often the subject of Fox's own writing, and of other Vixen Press books. Vixen books would of course have depended heavily on the Times Square booksellers. Fox most likely did business with Mishkin. According to a California researcher, he certainly knew Stan Malkin, who owned Seventh Avenue's Liberty Gift Shop, and had part ownership in 42nd Street's Little Book Exchange.
Malkin published sleaze paperbacks (Wee Hours, After Hours, Nighty Night, Unique, etc.). Some of these were by Gil Fox, who wrote under the pseudonyms of Dallas Mayo, Zane Pella, and Peter Willow (a shared house name). Eric Stanton did a lot of illustrating for Malkin, who was very generous with him and earned his respect and affection.
Other Greenwich Village social activities centered around the gay or lesbian subculture. Marijane Meeker's recent memoir of her life with Patricia Highsmith describes other writers of soft-core paperbacks with whom they spent time, discussing the assignments they had accepted from mass market paperback firms which realized the interest women as well as men had in lesbian novels. At the same time a surreptitious Midtown fetish and S-M scene was active. A publisher and distributor named Lenny Burtman was at the center of it. He and his wife, model Tana Louise, hosted swinging parties in their apartment. Burtman and several associates financed the film Satan in High Heels, many scenes of which were shot there.
Mrs. Burtman appeared in his digest-sized magazines such as Exotique, "a new publication of the bizarre and unusual." Many copies were seized in police raids on Burtman's warehouse in 1958. Exotique, and other Burtman publications, were classified as deviant because of the leather, high heels, and attendant fetishes, to which the publisher appealed with stories, advertisements, drawings, photos, and correspondence from enthusiasts. Times Square bookstores carried his fetish booklets and magazines extensively, and his distribution system was more far-reaching than those of Mishkin or of Irving Klaw (whose booklets featuring bondage and flagellation were as notorious as Mishkin's). It is probable that both Bilbrew and Stanton attended Burtman's parties, if only because both illustrated Burtman's publications.
Also present were dancers, female impersonators, dominitrices, transsexuals, and aficionados of fetish clothing. Robert V. Bienvenue, who has recently prepared a dissertation on the sado-masochistic subculture in the United States and the business enterprises sustaining it, states that Burtman did extensive business with Irving Klaw, Mishkin, and Shapiro. Unlike them, he was not only supplying furtive men with images which excited them for reasons they did not care to explore, but also filling the needs of people actively pursuing radical, deeply tabooed sexual alternatives. Burtman was a businessman not a creative artist, but he provided materials and a setting for an innovative and liberating style of expressing tabooed libidinous needs. Such an atmosphere may have lured not only dancers, actors, and photographers, but writers. The practical reason for the contact must not be lost sight of, for it would have been the same as that which brought them to Mishkin.
The urban entertainment or vice zones in which one bought erotica or porn are also integral to the creative imagination. So were the eroticized popular culture movies, music, stage shows, taxi dance halls, magazines, and books attracting people to city centers. Among the writers, artists, and film makers who have brooded upon Pre-Disney Times Square, are Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, John Reichy, Samuel Delany, Don DeLillo, Carl Hiaasen, Richard Price, Eric Bogosian, Reginald Marsh, David Fredenthal, Paul Schrader, Joseph Cates, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, John Schlesinger, and Rem Koolhaaus. In the Times Square bookstores and sex emporia danger, depredation, iconoclasm, and criminality were all present. That combination was a powerful lure. So was the money that writers, as well as distributors and booksellers, could take home by meeting the demand for sexy books, magazines, and pictures. The result was some strange bedfellows and interesting collaborations.
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- Copyright 2004 by Jay A. Gertzman. All rights reserved.