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The Dirty Life and Times of Al Goldstein

NY [NY Times] – At age 17 I was the first art director of Screw, the infamous underground “sex review” that grew out of the 1960s sexual revolution, co-founded by the notorious Al Goldstein. For the better part of my subsequent 39-year career (32 of them at The New York Times), in accordance with my grandmother’s deathbed wish, I’ve tried to distance myself publicly from this dubious past. Although, in truth, I have used any flimsy excuse to tell my war stories from the porno trenches.

However, when the Book Review editors, who had heard these tales countless times, asked me to review “I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life,” I initially declined. Reason 1: Goldstein had been my friend, and a cardinal rule at the Book Review is never to review anyone you know well – friend or foe. Reason 2: I was convinced my wayward teenage exploits would be embarrassingly dredged up throughout the book, since I was not only present at Screw’s inception and other best-forgotten events, but also had quit the magazine tearfully after fighting with Goldstein about an inane logo he wanted me to use. I had then co-founded a short-lived competitor, The New York Review of Sex (and Politics). It folded after 20 issues, prompting our distributor to claim I was the only person in New York who could make a sex paper fail. A few years later, I returned for a two-year stint at Screw (the health benefits were quite generous), at which time it achieved a suprisingly high circulation and peak media attention – no doubt the result of my inventive art direction. After leaving Screw for The Times in 1974, I was subpoenaed as a hostile prosecution witness at Goldstein’s federal obscenity trial in Wichita, Kan., though my defiant testimony did not help the government’s case. (Goldstein was acquitted.)

Needless to say, I read “I, Goldstein” closely to see how I was treated, and found to my utter bewilderment I was mentioned only twice, both times in the same short paragraph, along with two other art directors who also later moved to The Times. “Heller was so young,” Goldstein writes, “that, during one of our busts, he was thrown in juvenile lockup.” Actually, I was busted not at Screw but at The New York Review of Sex. And I wasn’t sent to juvenile lockup, but placed in the adult lockup with the prostitutes.

Moreover, Goldstein says not a word about my groundbreaking typography for Screw, nor about my designs for other Goldstein publications: Mobster Times, Gadget, Smut, Smut From the Past and Gay. There is also nothing about how I hired the best illustrators from Time, Newsweek and The Times, knowing they would give the publication some legitimacy. Nor any hint that I once asked Salvador Dalí to design an entire issue (he considered it for two weeks and then demurred, saying the fee was too low). There is even a photograph I believe I should be in – I vividly recall the shoot and everyone in it – but I’m not. I’m guessing I wasn’t airbrushed out, but rather that the published picture was taken when, for a split second, I left the room.

Well, that was the final insult! Realizing my credibility would forever be challenged at the Book Review office, I accepted this assignment – if only to set the record straight.

Yet aside from the humiliation of being all but erased from the story, given my firsthand knowledge of everything from the founding (I was there when Screw was conceived, during a meeting at The New York Free Press) to the birth of Goldstein’s son (I was outside the delivery room), I can attest that the record is set forth faithfully, for the most part, and also entertainingly. And I believe this ribald, at times insightful and illuminating autobiography, written with Josh Alan Friedman, is overdue. In fact, Goldstein’s life and legacy actually deserve even fuller analysis to truly establish what, besides dirty words and deeds, he has contributed to American pop culture, and in particular to the cause of free sexual speech.

While Goldstein, over the years, has been vilified, satirized and marginalized, he has also been one of America’s more complex and interesting outlaws. His brushes with the law on First Amendment issues are legendary and significant. Even though he never had a case tried before the Supreme Court, he deserves at least the same cinematic treatment as Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler – a magazine Goldstein inadvertently sponsored, in his telling, since Flynt repeatedly “poached my editors over the years.” (Then again, “I have always considered my employees to be like Kleenex – meant to be used and discarded.”) Flynt had his Hollywood moment: after winning a free-speech case before the Supreme Court, which stemmed from a legal altercation with Jerry Falwell, and getting shot and paralyzed by a would-be assassin, he earned himself a critically acclaimed 1996 biopic directed by Milos Forman. That same year Goldstein, who has consistently played second fiddle to lesser outlaws, was the subject of a mediocre documentary, “Screwed: Al Goldstein’s Kingdom of Porn.”

And yet when he and Jim Buckley founded Screw, nothing like it – not Hugh Hefner’s Playboy or Ralph Ginzburg’s Eros or Barney Rosset’s Evergreen Review – had come close to addressing sex with such unvarnished candor and biting wit. Goldstein was an equal opportunity exploiter of men, women and art directors, but his raunchy humor raised the bar for porn from socially unredeemable smut to ironic social commentary. Sure, it was shocking, offensive and downright obscene – but as the motto on its early covers announced, Screw was “Best in the Field It Created.”

Before founding Screw, Goldstein was a radio car driver for Walter Winchell, a photographer for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (he was once jailed in Havana), a press photographer for Pakistan International Airlines (he accompanied Jackie Kennedy on her goodwill tour of Pakistan in 1962), and an industrial spy for a large corporation. He was also employed by the tabloid publisher of the “blood and guts” men’s magazines Hush Hush News and The National Mirror. (He used his friends’ names in stories with gory headlines like “Lover Shoves Icepick Up Lover’s Nose.”)

As a respite from this sordid journalism, he approached The New York Free Press, an underground paper where I was art director, and sold us his guilt-ridden confessions of being an industrial spy, which I illustrated. He often railed about having to write such unremittingly gratuitous violence while sex, which his editors called “unmentionable acts,” remained taboo. He deemed his employers “bottom-feeders” and decided to start a publication along the lines of Consumer Reports that would “detail sex, but never violence.” He was also eager to experience his fair share of those unmentionable acts. And so, in 1968, Screw was born.

At the time, social and political underground papers, like The East Village Other in New York, were making considerable income from personal ads. The New York Free Press, as I recall, sold best when seminude women were featured on the cover even if the rest of issue was devoted to, say, the rioting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The first issue of Screw I designed (if one can call it that, since I had no idea what I was doing) was a ragtag assemblage of typo-filled articles and stock photographs of simulated carnal congress. It also included “Homosexual Citizen” (to my knowledge the first gay-themed column published in a heterosexual magazine); Goldstein’s regular porno movie review column, with its unorthodox rating system; and a mildly pornographic comic strip I drew, which caused me some trouble during my freshman year at New York University because I’d named the protagonist after my philosophy teacher. How the school found out, I can only speculate. The cover showed a fairly plain woman kneeling in a two-piece bathing suit, staring fetchingly and holding a very long salami. As an afterthought we slapped a warning label on a corner of the picture.

Goldstein and Buckley hand-distributed the copies, which were surreptitiously printed at night in Brooklyn, and then waited for something to hit the fan. One outcome, in addition to their own frequent arrests, was that blind newsdealers were jailed for selling pornography. Goldstein, who leaned politically to the left, promptly translated this harassment into a constitutional issue and turned Screw into his soapbox against censorship. Those of us who worked for him also believed we were fighting for the cause. It was the ’60s, after all.

Goldstein was the archetypal pornographer – bloated, goateed, cigar-chomping, apparently eczema-ridden. But he also saw himself as belonging to a distinguished line of outlaws, including Lenny Bruce and Henry Miller, whom Goldstein proudly interviewed in Screw. Pornographers usually kept a low profile, but not Goldstein. He reveled in his role. He also attracted the likes of Gay Talese (who wrote about him in “Thy Neighbor’s Wife”), Philip Roth (whose alter ego Nathan Zuckerman impersonates a Goldstein-type figure in “The Anatomy Lesson”) and Jerzy Kosinski (who, Goldstein reports, accompanied him to Plato’s Retreat for a night of debauchery). He also hobnobbed with the stars who submitted to the Screw interview. He had a high-priced psychiatrist, Theodore Rubin, and a prestigious constitutional lawyer, Herald Price Fahringer (who was my lawyer first). He even befriended one of his ideological enemies, the conservative legal scholar Ernest van den Haag (who testified against Goldstein in his first trial).

Goldstein, in addition to being a porn king, made an art of self-loathing. It pervades “I, Goldstein” and was his most driving and destructive force. Despite his aggressively funny writing style, Goldstein doubted he was truly intelligent. A self-described “bed-wetting stutterer from Brooklyn” and a punching bag for neighborhood toughs, he feared he would become a milquetoast like his father, a photojournalist who exhibited courage in World War II, working alongside the likes of Ernie Pyle, but addressed elevator operators as “sir.” (He later toiled in Screw’s mailroom.) Goldstein, forever self-conscious about his weight, compensated by making voraciousness the cornerstone of his identity. He describes, touchingly, how as a teenager he was treated by a diet doctor – with whom it turned out his mother was having an affair, because “my father was so inadequate.” Thus he entered manhood primed to defy all who crossed him, and he fulfilled this wish, metaphorically flushing hypocrites and incompetents from President Nixon to his auto mechanic in a ceremonial toilet bowl.

Above all, Goldstein really wanted to be somebody. His memoir chronicles the improbable rise of a guy who each year renewed his taxi license just in case he hit the skids, and who was deeply in debt (his Jane Street apartment was stuffed with electronic gadgets bought on credit) but later owned a town house in Manhattan, a mansion in Florida, cars with drivers and millions of dollars’ worth of watches. Then came the spiraling downfall: the costly lawsuits, criminal battles and divorces. Screw went out of business in 2003. “Marshals were summoned for nonpayment of rent,” Goldstein notes. In the past couple of years he has been convicted of harassing a former employee and sent to Rikers Island, where he became gravely ill. He has lost his entire fortune. He has been homeless, living on the street. He currently resides in Staten Island in an apartment paid for by the comedian and magician Penn Jillette. The one-time pariah, the host of the pioneering cable TV show “Midnight Blue,” who enraged feminists like Andrea Dworkin, now wanders the Manhattan streets: a porn king without a crown, throne or Screw.

Goldstein was never as presentable or culturally palatable as Hugh Hefner, and Screw was never a beautiful and expensive production like Playboy. But had Al Goldstein not dared to create his “sex review,” the floodgates of a more expansive and liberating publishing culture might never have opened. As for me, had I not been Screw’s art director, and been given the freedom and encouragement to learn my craft, I would not have gotten my job at The New York Times.


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