Another Mixed (Up) Review

Hero or Hypocrite: A Life of Alton Abermarle
By Philip Flunt
Jorgensen Press; 221 pp.
Alton Julius Abermarle’s Pleasure Palace, a massive stone structure with turrets, hidden chambers and an eat-in kitchen, is mentioned for the first time on page B7 of the Charleston Post and Courier, on February 3, 1861. An accompanying photograph shows a smiling Abermarle shaking hands with President Lincoln. Abermarle, in his free hand, holds a laminated sign that reads, “Right after this photo we’re going out for chili dogs.”

The photograph adorns the cover of the historian Philip Flunt’s new biography of Abermarle, the South Carolina aristocrat renowned as an evangelist of unorthodox sexual practices, proponent of a life centered around sadomasochism and inventor of a bestselling device called the Sue Schwartz. In his journal, Abermarle described it, in typical blushing and giggly fashion, as “a thing that, with the push of a button, pours hot coffee on your unsuspecting partner’s back while you and your unsuspecting partner are you-know-whatting.” His inventions and writings, especially the 1864 novella “Reader, I Blindfolded Her,” have earned him the longtime and unparalleled renown of the S&M community, but Flunt’s book has unleashed a moral outcry and fierce debate with its assertion that Abermarle owned slaves.

In “Hero or Hypocrite,” Flunt gets several prominent intellectuals on the record, and even tracks down the elusive president of the Abermarle Society, who agreed to an interview only if Flunt would strap him into a leather chair and sear the answers out of him with a hot poker. There is a touching scene when Flunt has a moment of ethical reckoning: “I knew from experience that no doesn’t always mean no, but every time I touched the poker to his back he cursed me and cried out in agony for his Aunt Beatrice. Yet the interview was going quite well: such great quotes! Later, as we sat pleasantly over fruit tarts on his delightful wraparound porch, I learned that his Aunt Beatrice singlehandedly raised him and his seven siblings. What an amazing woman.”

Flunt also speaks with Bob Gerston, the editor of The Abermarle Quarterly; its pages have lately raged with debate on whether, given the slavery possibility,  Abermarle still deserves unequivocal praise. “When I was young, I worshipped Abermarle,” Gerston tells Flunt, disappointedly adding that he considers slave ownership a “deal breaker.” “He was my moral compass,” Gerston continues. “As a young man I retraced the steps of his 1854 pilgrimage to Barcelona. Later, I reenacted, down to the last detail, the events of his 45th birthday party, which is to say I watched as my 18-year-old son, who had given his consent, was ceremonially slathered with chipotle mayonnaise as I received a back massage from a recently-fired short order cook. Imagine my shame and sense of moral betrayal when I learned Abermarle was capable of treating other human beings with anything less than respect.”

But while some have turned against Abermarle, others accuse defectors of naivete. “How do you think he built the Pleasure Palace?” asks Gio von Pinclowicz, an associate sadist with the firm Punch, Morrissey, and Slaps. “Certainly not by himself, and certainly not by paying construction workers a living wage. Abermarle, famously, only paid for three things: knit caps, humorous welcome mats, and matches, which he would use to set his own leg hair ablaze while gazing through binoculars at a framed portrait of his attractive fourth-grade teacher, Sue Schwartz.”

If anything, the book leaves you with a sense of just how important it has become for intellectuals to take a stand on Abermarle, and the perils of taking the wrong one. One fervent Abermarle supporter, the gaffe-prone masochist Leonard Sprits, has found himself an outcast in the community after suggesting that even if the Pleasure Palace was built with slave labor, the slaves were duly compensated. “We have records of the slaves being humiliated and even called filthy, offensive names,” he tells Flunt. “It was basically paradise.”

Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays and book reviews have appeared in The New York Times.