I Was a Seventeen Year Old Pornographer

Here is another installment (see others here and here and here and here) in my early life and times. All events are true, although my memory is fading fast.

I was a pornographer at seventeen years old. That’s how a young assistant district attorney described me to a sleepy Manhattan night court judge as I stood before him in the wee hours of the morning on July 3, 1969. I had been arrested the afternoon before, but because the DA’s vice squad detectives didn’t know in which downtown precinct to book me, we were too late for day court and so was held in Manhattan’s Tombs until the night session began round 8:00. Since the docket was full of petty criminals, prostitutes, and drug dealers, I didn’t go before the judge until two in the morning. Instead I spent many hours being moved from one overcrowded cell to another—like passing through the digestive tract of the criminal justice system—until finally spit out into a brightly lit courtroom.

I was the art director and co-publisher of an underground paper called The New York Review of Sex (& Politics), an odd mix of new left politics and sexploitation that grew out of a paper called The New York Free Press when it was discovered that the Freep, as it was known, only sold-out when nudes (preferably women) were put on the cover. Like the other New York undergrounds in 1969 (The East Village Other and Rat) we at the Free Press started a sex paper to subsidize our political publication. However, after a month or so of simultaneous publishing we folded the Freep and devoted our energies to the more profitable sex paper.

I was pasting up our fourth issue when we received a telephone call. “That was the DA’s office,” said the office manager excitedly. “They said that you, Sam and Jack [the editor and co-publisher respectively] were under arrest and should not leave the premises.” Sam was on an errand and Jack had absconded with all the money in our bank account a week before. I broke into a cold sweat.

I was alone and under age. I called our lawyer. He was in a meeting and couldn’t be disturbed. “I’m about to be arrested,” I told the secretary frantically. “I’ll give him the message,” she said calmly. Next, I called our distributor, a nasty little man whose relatives were Murder Inc. mobsters during the thirties. His secretary said that he had been called by the DA’s office and had left the premises. Finally, I called my father (I still lived at home). He was out, too. For godsakes, where was everyone? I told his secretary to tell him I was being arrested and would probably be home late for dinner.

The moment I hung up the phone, two burly detectives entered the office. Both looked surprisingly familiar. I had seen the younger one on the TV news a few nights before talking about investigating mob in New York. The older one had come by the office a week before to buy copies of the newspaper, claiming he was a bookseller from Long Island. They showed their badges, read me my rights, and asked the whereabouts of my two partners. I told them I had no idea. I asked if I could go to the bathroom. They came with me while I tied my shoulder-length hair in a pony tail just in case the stories I had heard about goings on in jail were true. I asked if they wanted to handcuff me; they said no, unless I was planning an escape.

As I sat between them in the front seat of their unmarked car, they informed me that all the underground sex paper publishers and distributors were being rounded up. “We figured you’d all be at Woodstock,” said the heavy set one who had heard on the radio that the rock festival, which began that day, was already attracting thousands of people. “I would like to go,” admitted the young one, but said he had to work. “I decided to work this weekend, too,” I volunteered. They asked me exactly what I did. The question seemed innocent enough that to reply without a lawyer being present would not jepordize my case. “I’m the art director,” I said proudly. “What’s that mean? You photograph the models?,” asked the heavy one. “No I design the format, pick the typefaces, crop the pictures, buy the illustrations, pasteup the mechanicals, and sometimes work the typesetting machine, and get paid very little in the bargain,” I said.

Actually, during the time it took to find the booking precinct and then get down to the courthouse for arraignment the young one and I developed a good rapport. He told me that he really didn’t want to arrest me; he was after the mob. He hated the mob, and pledged to distrupt as many of its operations as possible.

“But we’re not mobsters,” I said. “Maybe our distributors are, but all newspaper distributors, restaurant suppliers, and private trash disposal companies are the mob run. We’re just trying to publish an underground paper that takes jabs at authority and hypocrisy.” I told them that my Murder Inc. distributor accussed me of being the only person in New York who could make a sex paper fail. (Incidently, the issue they were busting us on was called “Our Especially Clean Issue,” the only vaguely hardcore sex photograph in the entire issue was an ad for Screw (four months earlier I was the first art director of Screw). Everything else was not only soft-core, but no-core: the hottest picture in the issue was a fully clothed woman in a raincoat sitting on a fire hydrant). Nevertheless some citizen had complained to the DA’s office about the all the sex papers, and that was impetus enought for the vice squad to take action.

When I reached the Tombs a few of my elder colleagues from the other sex papers had already been processed, and ready to make their courtroom appearances. My arresting officers hastily tried to get me through the clogged system, but without success. When the court authorities found out I was still a minor (my eighteenth birthday was only days away), I was put through even more red tape before being allowed to appear in court. As a minor, I was eventually placed in a pen with the prostitutes where, between scarfing down their bologna sandwiches and drinking Kool-Aid (that day’s holding pen rations), they teased me and played with my pony tail until my name was called. When I entered court, I found that my distributor had provided a lawyer, and I was released without bail pending trial.

In the period between the arrest and the trial I was arrested again in another roundup. This time I was eighteen, and the process was not as much fun. My elder partners and I were placed a huge holding cell full of the flotsam and jetsam of New York’s streets (my partner Sam even tried bartering me for a few cigarettes, but mercifully without success). We learned that these roundups of publishers and distributors were intended to put us out of business by harrassment because the DA really had skimpy legal grounds for censoring our publications. No matter how distasteful they were, the DA could not prove pornography. Indeed one of the indictments against Kiss, the sex paper of the East Village Other, cited an R.Crumb cartoon for obscentity. The case was thrown out of court, but only after costly legal battling.

After the second arrest The New York Review of Sex (& Politics) was on its last legs. Our distributor gave us an ultimatum that we either include enough hard sex to interest a viable readership, or fold. Our response was to add “& aerospace” to the already cumbersome title, include even more political content, and ultimately call the publication the NYRS&P (& Aerospace) — not even mentioning sex in the title. Brad Holland designed one of the NYRS&P covers using an illustration that was so unerotic that the paper looked exactly like the unprofitable underground paper we were before entering the sex trade. The distributor cut us off and the paper died. Nevertheless I was still under indictment. I still had to appear in court on felony charges. And I still faced a prison sentence if convicted. Art direction was sure a dangerous job.

By now we had a reputable Constitutional lawyer, paid by our former distributor. In fact, he later went on to defend Jean Harris and Claus Von Bulow (and lost both times). His strategy was to petition a three judge-panel prior to our initial trial on the grounds that the NYRS&P and Screw were unlawfully censored (citing prior restraint). The judges had to determine whether the DA was indeed harassing us, or based on the content of the paper had a reasonable cause for confiscating issues and arresting principals. They were also to determine whether each issue could be reviewed by judges before warrants were issued, or if that was also unconstitutional. The legalities were complex, but fundamental. Somehow during the blitz of briefs and testimony it was determined that the DA did not adhere to the law, and we were exonerated on all charges before going to criminal trial. Nevertheless the NYRS&P had folded and I returned to art direct Screw.

Winning this case meant that New York City and State authorities left the sex papers alone, and Screw took every opportunity to see how far that tolerance could be stretched. While during my two-year tenure the legal actions against Screw were minor, shortly after I left my stint as art director, the Feds indicted Screw in Wichita, Kansas (the hub of the postal service) for pandering through the mails. This was not taken lightly since Ralph Ginsburg, former publisher of Eros, was found guilty and imprisoned on similar charges.

Given my own experience, I knew that before Screw could be convicted for pornography it must be proven that it was void of any redeeming social value, which without excusing its rampant sexism, it had in that it was a journal of cultural criticism pegged to sex. I knew that as art director I could help Screw pass muster if ever it was judicially scrutinized by maintaining a high level of design and illustration to offset the truly awful photography. Hence I suggested that Push Pin Studios redesign Screw in 1971 (which they did, though badly) and also hired some of the best artists to do the exclusively illustrated covers (such as Brad Holland, Marshall Arisman, Ed Sorel, Mick Haggerty, Philippe Weisbecker, Jan Faust, Don Ivan Punchatz, John O’Leary, and others. Doug Taylor even won an AIGA award for one of his covers.). Some of these were erotic, but most were very witty commentaries on sex and mores. I took a similar approach to inside art, too. Whenever I could I’d replace bad photography with good illustration. My strategy was put to the test when, only a few months after I left Screw for the New York Times, I was ordered to appear first before a Federal Grand Jury, and afterward as a hostile witness for the Wichita Federal prosecutor in the trial against Screw.

Unlike the Warren Commission, these proceedings can now be told: I was warned that if I refused to testify I would be imprisoned for contempt; yet little did they know I wouldn’t miss this for the world. When it came time for me to testify the prosecutor (whose wife, for some reason, sat behind his desk in the courtroom knitting like Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities) showed me large blowups of some of Screw‘s more prurient pages taken from two or three issues. He asked me to explain how they were put together, what contribution I made to the makeup, and, most critical to his case, did I believe there was any artistic merit. I detailed the way type was set, the distinction between type faces, and the decisions that led to the design. I admitted that some pictures might be distasteful even to me, but that the entire publication had great artistic merit. While reminding the jury I was a hostile witness, he tried to prove otherwise. Under cross-examination, Screw‘s lawyer also brought forth blowup pages, most from the same issues which included illustration. He asked what the drawing depicted, who did the drawing, and what was the rationale for using a drawing, not a photograph. Each question was a planned opening to wax poetical about the art, describe the achievements of the artists (i.e. Brad Holland appears regularly on the Op-Ed Page of the New York Times, does covers for Time Magazine, has been honored by the Society of Illustrators, Art Directors Club, and teaches at Pratt Institute, etc.). With each description of a distinguished artist the case for redeemability was reinforced and the prosecutor’s case faded away.

The jury found Screw not guilty as charged after a short period of deliberation. The lawyers said that calling me as witness was a major mistake for the prosecutor, because my testimony solidly helped convince the jury to bring in a not guilty verdict. However, it was the last time I was involved with pornography. But I learned an invaluable lesson: art direction can be dangerous when you mess with the law or play with taboos.

(Images below: Special section of photographs with commentary by Allen Ginsberg. Screw cover by Marshall Arisman.)

6 thoughts on “I Was a Seventeen Year Old Pornographer

  1. Pingback: The New York Review of What? Steven Heller on His 1960s Sex Newspaper Days

  2. Pingback: Mr. Heller Goes to Washington — Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers

  3. Hugo Martinez

    Despite the  misspellings, this was one of the most enjoyable stories you have posted, Mr. Heller. As a 3 year art director I have nowhere been near these hurdles. On another note, maybe I am out of the loop here, but it doesn’t seem like there are any sex related magazines today that try to deal with politics or mores without trying to titillate. Any suggestions?

  4. Daniel Donnelly

    Great story, but hard to read when there are so many typos in the article. I expect more from articles coming from Heller and Imprint.

  5. JG

    Is your proofreader out sick or on vacation? A few edits:
    “I was the first art director of Screw.”
    “Everything else was not only soft-corebut no-core:”
    Kool-Aid
    “Flotsam and jetsam
    three-judge panel”
    “the NYRS&P and Screw were unlawfully censored”
    “during my two-year tenure”
    “the legal actions against Screw were minor”
    “without excusing its rampant sexism”
    “I could help Screw pass muster”
    “the prosecutor (whose wife”
    knitting like Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities
    “some of Screw’s more prurient pages”
    “the distinctions between typefaces
    “the decisions that led to the design”
    “I admitted that some pictures”
    “Under cross-examination,”
    “the case for redeemability [sic]”
    However, it was the last time”

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