Dirty Words: An Interview with Robert Rosen, Author of "Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography" (Headpress)

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Robert Rosen has climbed from the primordial pool of porngraphy and lives to tell about it in his biography "Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography" (Headpress). You can find a link to purchase the book at the end of the interview. You can also visit Rosen at his own website. And you should do both, but first don't deny yourself the pleasure of the following talk in which Rosen reveals the secrets to the slap books you love. 

What’s your first experience with adult magazines? Did you find your father’s Playboys, or stumble on a discarded stroke book in a bathroom trashcan? 

I grew up in a candy store and was surrounded by magazines of all kinds. That’s how Beaver Street opens, in my father’s candy store, in 1961, with the neighborhood regulars hanging out and talking about dirty books, like Tropic of Cancer, which he carried in addition to the magazines. 

I don’t remember the first time I saw Playboy, but I was pretty young, probably about six. What I do remember is that every month my father brought home all the men’s adventure mags, as they were called at the time—Stag, True, Saga, Argosy. And I read those religiously, not so much for the cheesecake photos, but for the war stories and the stories about tracking the Abominable Snowman. 

My first genuine interactive experience with Playboy occurred a few years later when I discovered my uncle kept a stash of them in his closet, along with some “harder” mags that I’d never heard of, that showed pubic hair, and that he probably bought on 42nd Street. I was quite taken with the “Little Annie Fannie” cartoon strip. 

 

You didn’t make a conscious career-track decision to work as a dirty books editor, but once you found yourself behind that desk how did the actual job differ from your idea of what you thought it would be like?

The first place I worked was High Society and it was pretty much what I thought it would be from looking at the magazine—writing “girl copy,” making up reader letters, organizing shoots, interviewing models and porn stars, and brainstorming ideas for articles and pictorials. What surprised me was the atmosphere there—the non-stop tension and homophobia, a constant barrage of gay jokes and AIDS jokes. But I was also amazed by how much money phone sex was generating and by the way the mainstream media portrayed this sophomoric, sleazy magazine as a “visionary corporation.” And I had no idea there was such a thing as Canadian censorship and that Canada banned so many different sex acts, from the mildly kinky, like spanking, to the totally perverted, like incest. I couldn’t believe how much time I spent “translating into Canadian,” as I called it, stories about S&M and anal sex, which were two more things that Canada banned.

 

Did you think of pornography as an outlaw, transgressive and countercultural expression of rebellion and freedom when you first got hired, and, if so, do you still?

I used to think of pornography that way. There’s a chapter in Beaver Street, “How I Became a Pornographer.” I talk about being at the City College of New York in the 1970s, and working for the “alternative” student newspaper, Observation Post, or OP. I reviewed bestiality movies, like Animal Lover, and wrote humorous stories about necrophilia. I describe OP in the book as “a student-funded incubator for an emerging punk sensibility soon to burst into full flower” and “an anarchist commune whose members performed improvisational experiments with potent images and symbols designed to provoke, or to ‘shock the bourgeoisie.’” Among those images were a cover photo of two students fucking on a couch in the OP office and a cartoon of a nun masturbating with a crucifix. The cartoon led to Senator James Buckley calling for a federal investigation of OP and the censoring of all college newspapers in America, which prompted The New York Times to run an editorial defending OP in the name of the First Amendment. Several years later, as a “tribute” to the original nun cartoon, OP ran a series of photos, including one on the cover, of the editor wearing a nun’s habit and masturbating with a crucifix. That, apparently, was going too far, and it led to a bunch of Moonies burning the issue on campus, the City University chancellor apologizing to Cardinal Cooke, Hustler running a picture of the cover, and the college finally pulling the plug on OP once and for all. 

Being on OP was like being in the Sex Pistols. Working at Swank, especially after Lou Perretta bought the company, was like working on an assembly line in a Chinese dildo factory. So no, I no longer see porn as a transgressive and countercultural expression of rebellion and freedom.

 

Was your work experience strictly writing and editing or did you ever get to join in on the visual side of the production? 

I became editor of D-Cup in 1986, and that’s when I began going off to London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm to find new models and direct shoots. So, from then until 1999, when I left the biz, I was doing a lot of directing, at least one or two pictorials in every issue. As I say in Beaver Street, this “required certain skills—a discerning pornographic eye, a comprehensive knowledge of U.S. and Canadian censorship regulations, [and] a measure of self-control.”

But before this, after I’d been at Swank for about a year, I became curious about what it was like to perform in front of the camera. I wanted to get insight into the mind of a porn star. What’s going through their heads? I thought that I’d take journalism to a place it had never been before. No real writer had ever done first-person reportage on what it was like to be a porn star. I was managing editor of For Adults Only at the time and I asked the editor—I call him “Izzy Singer” in Beaver Street—if I could be the male model in one of the amateur shoots that he was always doing in his apartment. He thought this was a great idea, probably because he was on a tight budget and didn’t have to pay me anything extra. The plan was for me to pose for pictures to illustrate a story I’d written called “The $5 Blowjob.” So, it was a blowjob shoot—me and this Hungarian model who spoke virtually no English and somehow had slipped out from behind the Iron Curtain and made it to New York. This was long before Viagra was invented, so I had to perform on cue without the aid of erection-enhancing pharmaceuticals. Let’s just say I didn’t have what it took to be a professional porn stud. The model, however, employed the tried and true technique of squeezing my cock at the base to make it look bigger on camera, and the resulting pictures were good enough to publish in For Adults Only. I became “The Accidental Porn Star”—that’s the chapter title in Beaver Street. But my co-workers were repulsed by it. They didn’t understand how somebody who didn’t have to, somebody educated with a good job, who didn’t need the money, would pose for a sleazeball magazine like FAO. I told them I did it in the name of journalism, but they didn’t believe me. They thought I just wanted a free blowjob. It’s coming up on 30 years and people still bring it up (so to speak). “Hey, remember when you took your dick out in the magazine?” Yeah, I remember.

 

How do you see dirty magazines evolving from your tenure from the 1970s through the 1980s?

I didn’t start working in porn until 1983, when High Society hired me. Before that, I’d never heard of High Society. Like most people, the magazines I was familiar with were Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. I’d pick up Playboy if I was interested in the interview—I bought it for Hunter Thompson, John Lennon, and Jimmy Carter. 

My roommate in grad school had a subscription to Penthouse, and I was quite impressed with the letters. We spent many a night discussing if they were real. And yeah, the pictures were a lot hotter than the ones in Playboy

I bought the first issue of Hustler when it was published, in 1974. Everybody was curious about the split beaver and open anus shots, and it was rather shocking to see that for the first time. I also bought a couple of issues of Hustler when Paul Krassner was editor. Again, the curiosity factor. But the main reason I didn’t buy many porn mags between 1970 and 1982 was because I was usually broke. I could barely afford to pay the rent. Mostly I read porn books—Diary of a Flea, My Secret Life, stuff like that. Plus, in 1978 and ’79 I was living with a topless dancer—the OP editor who posed for the masturbating nun pictures. My life was pornographic enough without dirty magazines. So I’m no expert on the evolution of porn mags in the 1970s.

The 1980s, at least from 1983 on, were, financially speaking, a great time to be working on porn mags. They kept throwing more and more magazines out there and everything was selling—especially after the Traci Lords scandal, which, despite the legal threats we were dealing with, put porno on the front page and created this intense interest in the so-called “barely legal” woman. It was free advertising. The Lords scandal sent sales skyrocketing into the stratosphere. 

What happened in the ’80s was an explosion of niche and fetish publications: young girls, old women, very old women, pregnant women, lactating women, shaved women, hairy women, blonde women, black women, Asian women, women with large breasts, women with small breasts, fat women, couples mags, interracial couples mags, orgy mags, leg mags, foot mags, ass mags, lesbian mags, porn movie mags, porn star mags, mags devoted to only one porn star, like Seka or Vanessa. It was endless and, as I said, they all sold very well. 

It was towards the end of the ’80s that oversized silicone breasts started coming in, and that just became a whole thing unto itself.

 

How did working for a porn mag change your views on sex, if it did, and was being immersed in explicit and fetishistic sexual material change your personal sexual life for the better or ill?

I don’t think that working for porn mags really changed my view on sex or changed my sex life. Editing D-Cup didn’t turn me into a silicone-breast fetishist and editing Shaved didn’t turn me into a shaved fetishist. If anything, I saw so much silicone that I developed a greater appreciation for natural breasts. And I saw so much shaved pussy that I developed a greater appreciation for lush pubic hair. For 16 years I had to crank out so many magazines under so much deadline pressure that by the time I left the biz, in 1999, I couldn’t stand looking at porn anymore. It took about five years for that to wear off.

 

New York City during the time you worked at girlie mags was, in places, like those pages made flesh. Did your work take you to the peep shows and sticky floors of porn houses in Times Square and other dark corners of the city?

I’d been managing editor of Stag for a few months when the editor gave me $50 and told me to go to Show World and write a story about masturbating in the peep-show booths. I’d never done this before, so I asked the resident expert, “Izzy Singer,” if he had any advice. He said, “Yeah. Don’t jerk off with the same hand you use to talk on the phone, and if you drop a token on the floor, don’t pick it up—don’t pick up anything off the floor.” So, I went to Show World and burned the 50 bucks talking on the phone to a couple of girls through the Plexiglas partitions. I was telling them what to take off and what to touch, but I didn’t actually jerk off because I found the whole thing too weird and uncomfortable. I then wrote a very graphic story under the byline Devil Dog describing how I jerked off. That was my assignment and I did it. My girlfriend at the time, who was an editor at Screw, saw the story and freaked out. She came home from work and told me I was a dirty pig for jerking off at Show World. I told her it was fiction, but she didn’t believe me. We had an awful fight. 

 

There were only a handful of major publishers of men’s mags and some independent operations, and you worked for many of them, were the publishers and owners the stereotypes we expect from the media depiction? And, while you’re at it, who were the more eccentric of the bunch?

I’m not sure what the stereotypical publisher is. Is it Hugh Hefner in his pajamas surrounded by Playboy Bunnies? Is it Al Goldstein eating pussy at a Screw Halloween party at the Hellfire club? Is it Larry Flynt in his gold-plated wheelchair ranting at the Supreme Court Justices? Is it Bob Guccione posing with his gold chains and large dogs? These guys are American icons, self-made men who took pride in what they did. The guys that I worked for, Carl Ruderman, Chip Goodman, and Lou Perretta were anonymous. They might have been as rich or richer as any of the “icons,” but nobody outside the business knew who they were. They didn’t put their names in the mastheads and they went out of their way to keep their names out of the press. They were porn publishers for one reason—it’s illegal to print money.

These anonymous porn kings have five things in common: They’re all men. They were all born to wealth. They all used their wealth to create pornography empires. They all increased their wealth immensely by producing pornography on an industrial scale. And they all went to great lengths to publicly portray themselves as respectable businessmen, unconnected to XXX.

Ruderman was the only one who might qualify as eccentric. He was definitely the craziest of the three, primarily because he wanted to be Hugh Hefner and he wanted to be anonymous at the same time. He dressed in beautiful $2,000 custom-made suits, he smoked big Cuban cigars that he had people smuggle in from Canada, and he had a chauffeur drive him around in a Rolls Royce that used to belong to Queen Elizabeth. (After I left, he upgraded to a helicopter.) At staff meetings he’d say things like, “Mister Rosen, what have you done this week to make my magazine a household name?” If I said something he liked, he’d say, “Mister Rosen, you’re a creative genius!” If I said something he didn’t like, he’d say, “Mister Rosen, do you want to be standing on the breadline?” The guy was a character in every sense of the word and I’m grateful to him for all the material he gave me, unintentionally, that I was able to use in Beaver Street.

 

You write about Carl Ruderman, reportedly the secret owner of Crescent Publishing Group, publishers of High Society, Cheri and others; what can you say about the alleged mob ties to the business?

I didn’t learn about the mob ties until I began doing research for Beaver Street. As I understand it, the company was taken over by the Gambino crime family. They swindled something like a million readers out of $730 million with phony credit card and telephone charges when the readers took a “free” tour of the High Society website or called an 800 number for a “free” sample of phone sex. The mob apparently thought people would be too embarrassed to complain about it. They were wrong. People complained and they eventually got nailed for mail and wire fraud, extortion, and money laundering. The company had to pay their customers $30 million in damages and some of the Mafia guys went to prison. But Ruderman told prosecutors that he was a silent partner who had nothing to do with the company’s day-to-day operations and he wasn’t charged with anything.

It was a crazy frat-like atmosphere at midtown offices of Crescent in the 1980s, what was the atmosphere at Swank, where you toiled next, in New Jersey like in comparison?

Crazy frat-like atmosphere? Are we talking about the same company? When I was there in 1983 and 1984, they called the company Drake, not Crescent, and it was more like a police state than a frat house. I was hired right after “free” phone sex had exploded and a couple of hundred thousand dollars a month in phone-sex revenue was pouring in. Carl Ruderman was paranoid. He thought that Larry Flynt had planted a spy in the office to steal his phone-sex secrets. So he listened to everybody’s phone calls—or he had his personal spy listen to everybody’s calls and then report back to him. I was working there for about a week when my officemate told me, “Don’t ever say anything on the phone you don’t want Mister Ruderman to hear.” You also weren’t allowed to close the door to your office. They wanted to be able to see you at all times. You weren’t allowed to say the word “pornography.” You had to say “adult entertainment.” That was part of the reason I got fired; I called High Society a “porn mag” in the New York Post. You weren’t allowed to read anything at the office except other porn mags—preferably Hustler. You had to use your real name in the masthead, even though Ruderman hid behind Gloria Leonard and didn’t have his name in the masthead at all. And it got worse after Flynt made Ruderman Hustler’s “Asshole of the Month.” There was constant fear, intimidation, repression. The editor was so inhibited he couldn’t say the word “pussy.” As I said in Beaver Street, “The product, as well as my job, was anything but transgressive; it was corporate moneymaking at its most cynical, conservative, and tightly controlled. It wasn’t even about sex; it was about using sex to separate people from their money.”

Swank was still in Manhattan, on 57th Street, when I went to work there in 1984. The atmosphere was a lot better than High Society, at least for the first couple of years, before the Traci Lords scandal. Chip Goodman, the publisher, wasn’t ashamed of publishing porn mags and he put his real name in the masthead. He also gave us decent salaries, good health insurance, sick days, very generous vacation time, and a 401(k) plan—Ruderman had none of this. And the job itself was a lot more interesting. I had more autonomy, more freedom. After a while, Chip started sending me off to Europe to find new models and direct shoots. But mostly the good atmosphere can be attributed to my coworkers—everybody had something going on on the outside. There were actors, writers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians, and artists. It was an intensely creative place. But things changed dramatically after Traci Lords was found to be underage. That was when Goodman took his name out of the masthead and started looking to sell the company so he could get out of porn. And he eventually did sell it, at the end of 1992, to Lou Perretta, who moved us to New Jersey. 

It wasn’t that bad at first. Perretta left us alone to do our jobs. But sales started to collapse in 1995, when the Internet began kicking in, and that’s when it got ugly. Perretta owned a printing plant in Poughkeepsie, and that’s why he bought the magazines—to keep his presses running seven days a week, 24 hours a day. So it was no longer a publishing business, it was a printing business. And the worse sales got the more magazines we had to crank out—smaller and smaller press runs of more and more titles. By 1999 I was doing about 150 magazines a year. As I describe it in Beaver Street, the job had become “little more than assembly-line toil at its worst… an exercise in postmodern sweatshop drudgery.

But the worst part of the job was Perretta himself. He’s an ignorant man who didn’t understand the difference between being a printer and being a publisher, and who held his employees in utter contempt. He thought we were all idiots when, in fact, he had no idea who we were. I doubt he knew I was a writer. Eventually he was sued for age-and-sex discrimination and he’s lucky he wasn’t sued more often. I’d never worked in a place where there was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. “This place is starting to look like a yeshiva,” he told me once. What was that supposed to mean? Too many Jewish employees? And then there were his occasional outbursts of overt racism. I once heard Perretta tell a black art director, “Shrink that picture… like your ancestors shrunk heads!” It was simply the most demoralizing, degrading place I’ve ever worked.

Swank was founded by Marvel Comics’ Martin Goodman, was there any crossover between the two companies?

According to Bruce Jay Friedman, who edited Swank under Martin Goodman, Swank (the magazine, not the company, Swank, Inc.) was founded in the 1920s by Arnold Gingrich, who also founded Esquire. Goodman bought it from Gingrich in 1954, and then sold it two years later to Walter Zacharius. Martin Goodman’s son Chip then reacquired Swank in 1974. But from 1932 to 1972, Marvel Comics and a slew of men’s adventure mags, like Stag and Male, were parts of the same company, Magazine Management. This kind of confusion is typical of the entire history of the magazines and comic books that Martin and Chip Goodman published. “The Secret History” chapter in Beaver Street is devoted to untangling and explaining the connections between Marvel Comics and the men’s adventure magazines, which eventually evolved into porn mags. 

Chip Goodman was schizophrenic about the company’s history. In 1984, when he offered me the job as managing editor of Stag, he spoke with pride about how his father had published Swank, Stag, and Marvel Comics, and he gave me a copy of Swank’s 30th Anniversary issue, which had just come out. It contained interviews with Friedman and Mario Puzo, who also worked on the men’s mags. They talked about working with Stan Lee and how for a period of time it was the men’s mags that kept the struggling Marvel Comics division alive. By the time I started working there, a month later, it was as if the 30th anniversary issue had vanished down a “memory hole.” And though you might occasionally overhear a couple of old-timers whispering about coming in to work in the morning to find Puzo asleep over an empty pizza box after having spent the night cranking out a 30,000-word “nympho jungle trek,” nobody talked openly about Marvel Comics or Martin Goodman or Magazine Management. It’s as if Chip did everything possible to obscure the connection between his father’s company and Swank, Inc., as the company was called at the time.

I think Chip realized that while his father’s company had given birth to Spider-Man and The Godfather, all he’d created was a bunch of schlocky porn mags featuring split beaver and hard cock. He must have found the contrast humiliating.

 

Does the porn business in your experience attract the cliched damaged goods, libertines or just working stiffs doing a job like any one else? 

The porn business attracts all kinds of people. As I said before, when Chip Goodman owned Swank, most of the people working there were artists, writers, actors and musicians. To them, cranking porn was a sophisticated alternative to driving a cab or waiting tables. But you also had a substantial number of damaged-goods types who generally washed out pretty quickly. I think Dorothy Gallagher, who worked as an editor for Martin Goodman, describes very well in her essay “Adventures in the Mag Trade” how the Goodmans assembled their workforce. Though she’s writing about Martin, she may as well have been writing about Chip: “He collected has-beens and soon-to-bes; the desperate, the bitter, the hopeful, the alcoholic, the extremely eccentric, the flotsam of society.” At Swank, we had them all.

 

There’s a double standard in life after porn. People like Steve Heller, who worked as an art director at Screw magazine in its early days, went on to art direct The New York Times Book Review and is now a renowned writing on the arts. Yet, writers who came up through the porn industry have a harder time making the transition to mainstream publications. Was your many years working in porn a problem? 

The short answer is No. Lou Perretta fired me about two months after I got a deal for my John Lennon bio, Nowhere Man. Soon after I left, the book became a best seller in multiple countries, which made the transition to life after porn very easy. I dropped out of the workforce for 14 years, wrote full time, and took on the occasional freelance job. Unfortunately, 14 years was about five years too long. Just when I started looking for a job the economy collapsed. There wasn’t a lot of work available for anybody, especially in magazine publishing. Last year, however, a mainstream magazine hired me to work in the production department. They know about my past and it’s a non-issue.

 

Do you keep up with the porn industry at all, and is there even any porn magazine production that isn’t just a legal loophole to hold onto the brand name, like National Lampoon magazine? 

I keep in touch with some of the people I used to work with. Two of them are about my age and they both devoted their entire careers to porn. One of them got laid off a couple of years ago and has not been able to find work outside of the occasional freelance job. The other is a long-time freelancer whose magazine assignments have been cut down to almost nothing. From what they tell me, it just keeps getting worse and worse. Perretta now owns virtually every porn rag save for Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. He just keeps laying off people and cutting fees for writers and photographers. Everybody who made up the original crew that Perretta shanghaied from New York has been laid off. It amazes me that these magazines continue to exist, but they do. Penthouse, I hear, is again in serious financial trouble and, as you say, it exists as little more than a brand name. I assume the same thing is true for Playboy and Hustler

 

What are you working on now?

I just finished a darkly humorous, voice-driven novel that I’ve been working on for several years. It’s called Bobby in Naziland and it’s set in Brooklyn, in the 1950s and 60s, a place where, as I describe it, “concentration camp survivors and army vets who’d fought the Nazis” lived side-by-side and “World War II lingered like a mass hallucination on East 17th Street and in large swaths of the surrounding borough.” It might sound very different from Beaver Street, but it’s the opening pages of Beaver Street, set in my father’s candy store, in Brooklyn, that gave me the idea. I knew as I was writing those first few pages that it was rich material that needed to be explored more fully. So that’s what I did—as fiction. Now comes the fun part: finding the right publisher.

 

Any final words for creatives who answer a want ad and find themselves with an opportunity to work in the porn industry?

I don’t see how there’s any future working in the porn industry, certainly not in magazines and probably not in video or on the Internet. Professional pornographers are competing with ordinary people, amateurs, who post hot videos on sites like YouPorn. These amateurs aren’t doing it for money. They’re doing it because they’re exhibitionists and that’s how they get off. How can you sell something when the competition is giving it away? You can’t. We live in an age where anybody with a willing partner, a cheap video camera, and an Internet connection can be a “porn star” today if they want to. Obviously it’s possible to still make money doing live shows if you’re a genuinely famous porn star, somebody like Belle Knox. And I suppose you can still make money doing live, interactive video. But for people who want to be writers, editors, or filmmakers, porn is over as a moneymaking business.

 

Buy "Beaver Street" by Robert Rosen here

Tagged in: playboy, slap books, d-cups, beaver street, robert rosen, high society, pornography, hustler

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