Advance Praise for
Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!
“Mike Edison can go toe to toe with some of the best writers of the (old) New Journalism. This is foul-mouthed popular history at its most entertaining. Plenty smart, too—and also, strange to say, poignant and loving.”
— Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
“Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! is a book that really lives up to it’s title. It’s not only dirty—it’s funny, highly opinionated, and—God help us—informative. Hard to believe someone hasn’t written the history of American pornography before this, but Mike Edison is absolutely the man for the job.”
— Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City
Excerpt from Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!
Among the respondents not living in New York City or Los Angeles and who do not work in publishing or media, the number-one answers were Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt, the irrepressible founder of Hustler and subject of the eponymous movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Reversing the process, and asking the non-Big City, non-media types if they knew who any of these people were, Anna Wintour, Graydon Carter, and Jann Wenner received varying degrees of name rec, and most women over the age of forty correctly identified Gloria Steinem as “a feminist” even if they could not remember the actual magazine she founded. But no one flinched for a second at the unholy trinity of Hefner, Flynt, and Bob Guccione, the pornographer’s pornographer who made Penthouse the sine qua non of muckraking and masturbation. Everyone who was questioned not only knew who these three were, but also had a strong opinion of them, running from hero worship — mostly “XY” respondents, natch — to disgust — mostly “XX,” ditto.
Al Goldstein, the fourth horseman in this front line of rebellious American publishers, was known primarily by people who lived in New York, thanks to his outrageous X-rated cable TV show Midnight Blue, which aired for almost twenty-five years and had become a staple for the most famous names in the history of magazine publishing, bar none.
They are icons for their fearlessness, distrust of authority, and strong sense of individuality, not to mention their legendary status as sexual outlaws in a country that loves to fuck, but hates to talk about it. They are, or were, entrepreneurs par excellence.
They all knew this truth to be self-evident: Men are obsessed with sex. We will do pretty much anything for it. We will wreck our cars for a glimpse of forbidden flesh peaking out over the dark band of thigh-high nylons, and walk into lampposts straining for a furtive glance of smart, cleaving breasts or a bouncy, heart-shaped ass. That is the tie that binds us together as a herd. There is not much more to say about it, that is just how God made us, and Darwin be damned, it is the signature riff of Intelligent Design, and the prime-mover for the procreation of the species, and, perhaps ironically, also the root of our retarded socio-cultural de-evolution. Because let’s face it, when it comes to women, men are just plain fucking dumb.
Hefner, Guccione, Flynt, and Goldstein understood that. And they were just as ga-ga as anyone — hell, between the four of them they had fifteen ex-wives. But they knew how to channel this, uh, dumbness, into personal fortunes. The dross of the male libido spun into gold.
America, the most audacious of cultures, remains one of the most repressed, and all four of these men have fought the good fight for freedom of expression, using sex as their weapon of choice. In some cases they chose the battle, in others, they had it thrust upon them, but even liberal anti-porn knee jerks, fear mongering right-wing moralists, and hate-filled anti-sex feminists cannot deny that the First Amendment is stronger thanks to them.
Gay Talese, author of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the sprawling history of the sexual revolution and a journalist of some pretty decent stature, told me, “I profited from those magazines, every writer has…We got freedom thanks to the pornographers, not the fucking elite like Alfred Knopf and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. We need a free society, and freedom is not won by literary tea parties and well meaning, virtuous academies, it is won by disreputable people like al Al Goldstein.”
At the top of their games Hefner, Guccione, Goldstein, and Flynt were world-beaters. Women wanted to sleep with them, men wanted to be them — at their best they all stunk of the American Dream — twenty-four-hour-a-day-sex and if-I-can-think-it, I-can-have-it-hedonism — but they could not possibly be more different.
Hefner, who began Playboy in 1953 and took every chance he could to lay claim to beginning the sexual revolution, was more uptight, coy, and cynical than his public would have ever been lead to believe. He had a boatload of demons and deep-rooted frustrations to motivate him. Playboy may have looked like a pure celebration to the punters and would-be swells who bought it, but behind the bow-tied Bunny, the gorgeous Playmates, and editorial that set the pace for every American magazine that existed in its wake was a vein of sexual frustration, spite, and a steadfast refusal to grow-up that would have sent most men into years of mental therapy.
Playboy sparked scads of competitors, me-toos, knock-offs, and wannabes, but none that seriously challenged it until Guccione launched Penthouse. Guccione, too, had his fair share of monstrous, ego-driven problems. In spite of this, or thanks to it, Penthouse became a towering success and turned him into one of the richest men in America while besting Playboy on the newsstand with photographs of increasingly unctuous erotica. But in the end he would piss away hundreds of millions of dollars chasing windmills and lose everything including his home — generally regarded as the largest residence in Manhattan — and his legendary art collection. His is one of the greatest riches to rags tales ever told, rife with the kind of hubris and abuse the Greeks only dreamed about.
Al Goldstein, who had turned a filthy tabloid into a fortune, too, somehow managed to burn through it all, but not before blasting away at the final frontiers of free speech — he was arrested 37 times for obscenity, with one conviction. Like his friend Larry Flynt — a self-described Kentucky “chicken-fucker” who among this bunch was the only one smart enough to see the impact of video and the Internet creeping over the horizon in time to save his business — Goldstein pushed the possibilities of filth and humor to dizzying highs and disgusting lows. Unlike their well-heeled counterparts Hefner and Guccione, Goldstein and Flynt were willing (eager it would often seem) to become public spectacles. They were reckless in whom they would attack in the pages of their magazines, bludgeoning celebrities, moral hypocrites, and politicians all the way to the Supreme Court (whom Larry would call “eight assholes and a token cunt” straight to their faces, before being acquitted for libeling Guccione’s wife) — while literally blowing the magazine game wide open with the newsstands’ first split beavers.
Goldstein was the only one of this group who began his business with a militant political agenda — Screw, started in 1968, was a product of the underground, as much anti-war as it was pro-sex, vigorously testing the boundaries of First Amendment absolutism, and in its street-level world view as far away from Hefner’s advocacy of sophisticated but conspicuous consumption as Abbie Hoffman was from Richard Nixon. As one former Screw editor once commented, “Thanks to Hef, I need a Mercedes to get laid. But thanks to Al I can get a hand job for thirty bucks.”
But all of them — no matter the denials from Hefner, who has always been the most concerned with his respectable image and legacy as an intellect and champion of civil rights — were pornographers. As Gay Talese says, we owe them. Just think how a truly free press might have changed history if it had prospered, say, under Hitler or Stalin, or any number of Middle East theocracies? To say that unholy genocide could possibly have been avoided is hardly a stretch.
A latter-day philosopher once opined “free your ass and your mind will follow.” Hefner, Guccione, Flynt, and Goldstein plied the same theory in reverse. Sexuality has always been politicized — and these magazines kept it at the forefront of a society, forcing the issue to keep America truly free. As a group they will always be far more admirable than any self-righteous politicians peddling morality, anti-sex religious fundamentalists, gay-bashing Boy Scouts and homophobic Republican creeps, pederast priests, and proselytizing family-values fascists who claim to be the backbone of the community. The straight-laced and scared may hold them responsible for the erosion of “traditional values” — just as others may see them simply as misogynist pigs — while generations of men revere them for opening up the possibilities of unfettered erotica. Nothing about this is easy. And it may well be true that if you lie down with pornographers you don’t get to soar with eagles —but you will always meet more interesting people.
Now I want to tell you their story. And then some.