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Traders in Prurience Pariah Capitalists and Moral Entrepreneurs
In the 1920s and 1930s, when sexually explicit books and magazines and their illustrations, not the Internet and video cassettes, were considered a chief corrupting influence in American homes, censorious authorities pointed suspiciously at booksellers of widely varying types. Everyone in the trade knew about the "bookleggers," "Fourth Avenue pirates," and underground printers and publishers. Many carried their wares sexological or anthropological tracts, titillating novels, histories of curious usages to which the human body had been subject, or under-the-counter banned titles sold to trusted customers. The owners of one well-established New York bookstore, Biblo and Tannen (later a reprint publishing house), made ends meet on Fourth Avenue during the Depression by selling pornographic pamphlets or "readers," staying open Saturday night until 1 A.M. to do so. The owners kept a sharp eye out for agents for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), hoping they did not work during the midnight hours, when the demand rose steadily. All sorts of books about sex moved well, but there was a high risk that the existence of both borderline and flagrant types would electrify activists worried about declining moral standards in their cities. Consequently, police or their deputized agents might visit the often unsuspecting wholesalers or retailers.
The late Louis Cohen of the Argosy Book Store in midtown Manhattan recalled that he scrupulously kept his distance from erotica, even instructing hisclerks never to refer a customer to stores whose owners felt that they would have had to close their doors without dealing in it. However, in 1935, Cohen received a subpoena from John Saxton Sumner, secretary of the NYSSV. One of Sumner's undercover agents had purchased a recently shelved book on flagellation from the Argosy's restricted-access curiosa section. At the hearing, the nervous bookseller armed himself with evidence of catalogs and customer endorsement, and the judge quickly dismissed the case. But Cohen knew the fate of some of his colleagues; visions of padlocks and bankruptcy justifiably troubled his sleep. With Sumner on the loose, these could be any bookseller's fate.
The Town Censor and Broadway Sam
On 4 October 1929, Sumner and several of his agents searched the offices of the Golden Hind Press, at 122 Fifth Avenue, and impounded books of both dubious and notorious reputation. The borderline items included Oscar Wilde Three Times Tried, Petronius's Satyricon, which portrayed three men's bisexual escapades, and Hands Around, a translation of Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen (La Ronde), a drama of linked episodes, each culminating in a sexual encounter. The owner, Samuel Roth, watched Sumner's men carry away cartloads of the Kama Sutra and a lucrative piece of hackwork, Observations of an Old Man in Love, which was a spin-off from Frank Harris's lubricious four-volume autobiography, My Life and Loves. The next day, at a storeroom also rented by the Golden Hind, the vice-eradicators found 2,290 volumes, a treasure trove consisting of many banned books, including unexpurgated copies of Fanny Hill, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Ulysses, as well as "pictures, very filthy." Sumner also grabbed assorted correspondence from Roth's desk. Order forms for Forbidden Books, a catalog with erotic excerpts from works published by the notorious European pornographer Charles Carrington, and for Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley were discovered. These were from booksellers,including James A. Delacey of Dunster House, whose sale of these books would make him a defendant in one of Boston's most celebrated obscenity trials. Roth, his wife, Pauline, who was registered as proprietor of the Golden Hind, and his brother Max ("Moe") were all arrested.
Under the alias Harry Burke, Max Roth had personally contacted people he thought would be interested in purchasing back-room or under-the-counter books. As Samuel Roth's daughter later recalled, one was a lawyer named Marcus who, as bad fortune would have it, was a member of the NYSSV. Marcus had received a Golden Hind circular for a book entitled Bundling and had thereupon contacted Sumner, who requested that he respond. He did, indicating that he already knew about bundling, a venerable puritan exercise in sexual restraint. Could the Golden Hind locate, as Sumner put it in his testimony at the trial, "any other spicy books" for Marcus? Harry Burke called the lawyer and made an appointment with him. Burke brought to the man's office copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover, A Night in a Moorish Harem, The Amatory Experiences of a Surgeon, and "probably ten other books of that type," as Sumner later testified. Max did not recognize that among three other gentlemen present, one was Sumner himself. He unwittingly sold three books to an undercover policeman, as well as a copy of Chatterley to Marcus. Max Roth was soon on his way to prison for possession and sale of obscene books.
So was Sam Roth, for violation of parole. In June of 1928, Sumner and his agents, "an evil, foul-smelling lot" in Roth's opinion, had prepared a net of deception in which to snare him and his wife at their Book Auction (Figure 4). According to Roth, Sumner had forced a bookseller, who had been arrested just nine days before, to leave, some illicit photos and drawings at the Book Auction the day before Sumner raided the premises. They were not discarded, Roth asserted, only because he and his wife knew the man who had brought them in, Henry Klein, and knew that Klein was in trouble because Sumner had recently raided his store. They looked out for their colleague, assuming he would return for the material the next day. This may have been preposterous self-justification, or the claim may well have been true; what is almost certain is that the materials in question were not the only erotic ones on the premises. Roth, who had been arrested previously, swore to his probation officer that Sumner was "trying to frame him up." The vice society's annual ledgers record Klein's arrest and his suspended sentence in 1928, even though he was a wholesaler. They also record his workhouse sentence for possessing Harris's My Life in 1925, and his penitentiary sentence four years later. That Klein managed to avoid a jail sentence in 1928 might well indicate that he acted as Sumner instructed him.
While serving four months for his Golden Hind activities, Roth wrote Stone Walls Do Not: The Chronicle of a Captivity, in which Sumner had a place. In a long poem titled "The Censor," "S ... ner"
takes the precious volume From its own appointed shelf, And his eyes as he scans its pages Shame it even to itself;....
From his slightly shabby office in what used to be the dining room of an old Manhattan brownstone at 215 West 22nd Street, Sumner, the "town censor," directed a crusade against "immoral" plays and movies, burlesque houses, publishers, and bookstores of every size and description. He was a recognizable figure to New Yorkers of all five boroughs (Figure 5), the equal in the public mind of fellow mugwumps such as Reverend Charles Parkhurst (witness to, and decrier of, East Side debauchery), Republican counsel Frank Moss (author of American Metropolis), and Judge Samuel Seabury (whose investigations into the magistrates' courts brought down Mayor Jimmy Walker).
Sumner was the hand-picked successor to the NYSSV founder, Anthony Comstock, the lifelong fervent crusader for moral purity, who, although a private citizen, was the author of the federal antiobscenity postal statutes that bear his name. The law resulting from Comstock's efforts in Congress prohibited "every obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile article, matter, thing, device, or substance; and ... [e]very article ... which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for preventing conception or producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral use."
The appeal of the Comstock Law was its assumption that in an era of social change and urban growth America was engaged in a life-and-death fight waged on behalf of "decent" people. At stake was the nature of the community itself. The enemies were two very different but equally pernicious types, either immoral sensualists or quick-buck opportunists. The former were the intellectual decadents advocating free love and birth control, thus challenging family structure. The latter were venal merchants peddling pornography. If left unchecked, both would destroy the moral consensus necessary for a Christian social conscience to prevail in America. John Sumner battled tirelessly against both kinds of offenders.
Sumner was a soft-spoken man, not a charismatic, fire-and-brimstone evangelist of the Billy Sunday type. He did not make a point of publicly labeling offenders as being of the wrong class, nationality, or faith although he carefully observed these qualities in those he investigated. He was no vulgar demonizer of agnostic scholars, liberal clerics, and sex-obsessed writers for the delectation of scapegoat-hungry yahoos. He had, however, what historian Richard Hofstadter has described as the "one-hundred per cent mentality," that is, one who knew that the newfangled "sophisticated" literature and drama that emerged after the Great War needed careful watching. He saw a strong relationship between religious orthodoxy, patriotism, and repression of the "animal passions." As leaders of the "preventive" or "purity" societies such as the NYSSV saw it, the interwar decades of the twentieth century presented an unprecedented set of enticements to immorality and sensual gratification. Popular entertainments, especially in the burgeoning urban areas, titillated large numbers of people with allusions to taboo language and behavior. Amusement parks, dance halls, restaurants, saloons, nickelodeons, with their ragtime, hands-on dancing, dizzying ups-and-downs, raunchy clowns, musicians, and song lyrics, invited paying customers to enjoy themselves recklessly and for as long as possible, thus eroticizing leisure time (see Chapter 2).
Conservative moralists recognized that these pastimes were encouraged by a new and suspect group of businesspeople. These entrepreneurs realized the American Dream by pioneering new businesses in which restrictions based on class, sex, or ethnic background were absent. Any capable individual could rise to the top. Immigrants and their offspring were establishing themselves as prosperous restaurant and theater owners, actors, and publishers, all proud and grateful to call themselves Americans. They were not necessarily attuned to the moral and social proprieties that established bankers, property owners, and manufacturers, as well as veteran publishers, found easy to profess, and Sumner's crusade targeted those who used popular entertainment to make a wider public comfortable with sexual explicitness. Print media were not his only concerns, but became an area in which the vice squad, busied with prostitution, bootlegging, and gambling, needed help.
The NYSSV was one of the last of a breed of moral-reform organizations that had included the Committee of Fourteen (founded to fight "disorderly resorts") and the Anti-Saloon League. As Sumner put it, "Where there are so many subdivisions of commercialized vice, it is apparent that a city official having jurisdiction over the whole field cannot specialize in any one feature." At his society's head stood Sumner, prominent among his fellow crusaders as a "moral entrepreneur," an enterprising crusader with social position, professional standing, expertise in the use of political influence, and until the Depression solid financial backing. He had the respectful endorsement of a large segment of the general public and its political and religious spokespeople. Occasionally, when the general public could be moved to outrage at a particular moral transgression, the support was fervent. Often, however, it was shallow and cosmetic. Real estate moguls, after all, benefited from the success of brothel owners, and bankers from that of the distillery business. But if support among the urban social elite and professional classes was often not enthusiastic, that fact only hardened the moral entrepreneur's resolve. The pursuit of obscenity remained intense, and apparently uncompromising. Sumner, for example, showed no leniency for the heathens who peddled copies of Fanny Hill or who advocated Margaret Sanger's birth-control programs. To him, all were outsiders who professed to make the world better by their efforts but who really sought only to improve their financial status; all used moral standards repugnant to Sumner and his constituents in attempting to determine which books and ideas to distribute and how. It was this sort of impertinence that led Sumner to make special targets of merchants as diverse as Samuel Roth, Frances Steloff of the prestigious Gotham Book Mart, the irascible bookseller and translator Bernard G. Guerney, and the publishers Thomas Seltzer and Horace Liveright. If Guerney, Seltzer, and Liveright were literati, so much the better. Many citizens wanted to believe their own convictions would eventually prevail. Sumner could assure these supporters that the contumely of the highbrows would reinforce his society's standing among all "right-minded" people. Moral entrepreneurs, above all, needed the public eye. Most of Sumner's constituency were not literati, and knew purveyors of "dirt" when they saw them.
Samuel Roth was one of Sumner's most dating adversaries. "Broadway Sam" described himself as a pioneer publisher of modernist texts, and for thirty years pointed to his edition of Joyce's Ulysses as only one of his contributions to freedom of expression. But the edition was unauthorized, as were, most likely, excerpts Roth printed in one of his magazines. Not only Sumner but also Joyce and a large part of the outraged literary community did everything they could to stop him. In 1927 friends of Joyce put together an international protest against Roth's handling of the book. His piracies of Lady Chatterley's Lover, both in expurgated and complete editions, provoked similar protests from the estate of D. H. Lawrence. In and out of trouble for decades, Roth in 1936 received the most severe prison sentence possible under the law for brazenly using the Postal Service to distribute flagrantly obscene books. For years, Roth deposited banned books in the mails, stored them in subway lockers, and then had them delivered in person to offices and homes. He teased postal inspectors so often with borderline items that they took to prosecuting him for fraudulently selling books that although touted as sexy, were in fact insignificantly so. Roth was the most often incarcerated, the most feckless, and quite likely the most resourceful booklegger of his time, challenging moral and legal authorities with a quixotic bravado. As fervently as Sumner pursued him, so fervently was he shunned by many of his colleagues in the book trade. And just as fervently, he defended himself against charges of purveying pornography and sullying the reputation of booksellers in general. He was preposterous, resourceful, and relentless. A writer himself, he was also capable of expressing on paper, and exemplifying in his own conduct, the emotional strains of venally exploiting prurient curiosity and of being censored (see Figure 46).
Roth and Sumner, their contemporaries must have thought, deserved each other. By their very presence and the nature of their operations, the erotica dealers provided the vice societies, police, postal authorities, politicians, and clergy with a clear and present enemy. Beating the stigma of a moral degeneration spreading through their communities, Roth and his cohorts took their place alongside bootleggers, tenement and sweatshop managers, opium smugglers and traders, pawnbrokers, bookies, and numbers runners. They were pariah capitalists who did dirty jobs, and who could not have operated without the tacit sanction of established society.
If the tenement managers were in a symbiotic embrace with wealthy owners of real estate, the bootleggers with distillers, the bookies with racetrack owners, the symbiotic relationship in which the publishers of sexually explicit literature found themselves was more subtle. The erotica dealers and the moralists and prosecutors whose reason for being they provided needed one another no less than the sweatshop owners required the legitimate "needle trade" outlets. In addition, only through the operations of the smutmongers could the authorities who indicted them on the charge of sex for its own sake augment their ideological, if not material, capital. So-called pornographers necessarily appealed to prurient fascination, and thus sexuality remained associated with the furtive and the shameful. It may seem as if the large number of erotic books made available subverted the moral consensus. In reality, they were themselves a form of repressionand a safety valve providing fantasies whose satisfaction allowed people to tolerate, not rebel against, conventional ideals of decency. Many readers of erotica not only quietly and guiltily siphoned off the frustrations caused by their culture's restrictions on sexual impulse, but did so harmlessly that is, without criticizing the ideology itself. Thus, ironically, conservative American institutions and their spokespeople were able to have their distrust of carnal instincts reconfirmed by the same erotica publishers and distributors who said (or who hired lawyers to say) that because their books had educational or artistic value, and because the average intelligent reader would not be debauched, they were fighting against puritanism in the name of freedom of expression.
The success of these selling tactics does not mean that people always and everywhere identified sex with prurience. The more we learn about how individuals really behaved, even at the height of the supposedly inhibited Victorian and Gilded Ages, the more we realize that people could think creatively about sex, and express their desires in a satisfying or imaginative manner. If and when they did so, they often took advantage of what distributors of erotic books made available to them, ignoring the language and illustrations of the advertisements, as they did the warnings of the dour moralists. This important qualification aside, given what Americans had been told about their sensual desires in the home, school, and church, and how their urges affected their psyches, their prurience was internalized. Distrust of sexual instinct and of people who wrote about it were, to borrow the beautiful phrase the poet John Sanford used to describe the ideological ambience of his time and place, "the color of the air."
In the crucibles of moral ambiguity and social change that America's cities had become, most booksellers would struggle mightily to avoid being thought of as cut from the same cloth as Sam Roth. But many different kinds of bookmen could be, and were, accused of obscenity and indecency. Roth evinces the single-minded determination associated with the exploitation of prurience, but he was a writer himself and a lover of literature. In that respect, he had much in common with other members of the book trade. It would be a mistake to think of the story of erotica merchants as merely a chapter in the history of twentieth-century obscenity legislation, for it is integral to the social history of American literature, and to modernism.
To be sure, some of those fined or imprisoned for dealing in obscenity were dispassionate predators. There were circumstances under which reputable publishers had every right to distance themselves from the "dirty underside" of their profession. In New York, if a publisher planned to bring out a book with an erotic flavor, he was forced to look over his shoulder at the Fourth Avenue pirates who might get wind of his edition. In 1932, Bennett Cerf wisely set the price of the Random House Ulysses at a reasonable two dollars and fifty cents, because he knew how easily it could be photolithographed and a cheap impression produced "with no plate costs." His inquiries with those in the know produced a likely booklegger. Cerf asked his attorney, Morris Ernst, to threaten the man with an injunction and confiscation of any pirated copies.
However, evidence shows that a large number of erotica dealers had some claim to be considered men of letters or social reformers. Samuel Roth supported and published writers such as George Sylvester Viereck, poet, political controversialist, and self-styled "stormy petrel"; Clement Wood, prolific journalist, etymologist, novelist, and poet; Gershon Legman, erotic folklorist and analyst of sexual mores and the motives for censorship; and Milton Hindus, whose groundbreaking study of Céline was based on personal interviews. Samuel Curl, publisher through the Phoenix Press of lending-library sex-pulp novels, issued the first English edition of impressionist poet Walter Mehring's No Road Back, with illustrations by George Grosz, in 1944. Jacob ("Jack" or "Jake") Brussel, an erudite and energetic antiquarian book dealer, was one of the most resourceful of those who published and sold erotica, including legally banned works, first at his Ortelius Book Shop and then at other Fourth Avenue locations in New York City, as well as by mail order. In 1940, among the erotica traced to him was the underground "Medvsa" edition of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, resulting in his conviction and incarceration.
Joseph Lewis, founder of the Truth Publishing Company, professed atheist. birth-control activist, and advocate for separation of church and state, championed Margaret Sanger and Arthur Garfield Hayes. He was prosecuted by John Sumner in 1927 for publishing and selling William J. Robinson's Sexual Truths, perhaps because the work reprinted Benjamin Franklin's famous "Advice to a Young Man on Choosing a Mistress." Beginning in 1921, the iconoclastic Lewis's edition of Robinson's Sexual Problems of Today included the following statement by the intrepid physician: "I know that the dissemination of any information regarding the prevention of conception carries with it the extremely severe penalty of a $5,000 fine or five years at hard labor, or both." Robinson proceeded to describe, in a chapter so titled, "Four Absolutely Infallible Methods for the Prevention of Conception." He was obviously being sarcastic in listing only the ones he could suggest without landing in "Joliet or Leavenworth": abstinence for life; marriage to a woman no longer capable of conceiving; castration; or removal of the wife's womb. He ended the chapter by stating, "Oh, what a stupid world we live in." Postal authorities refused to see the irony, and threatened to have Truth Publishing prosecuted for fraudulent advertising, since it had included the chapter title in its circulars. At a hearing, one of the counsels stated that a federal indictment was being prepared against Truth, because it was suspected of sending not only information regarding contraception to certain customers but also prophylactics themselves.
Two chief mail-order erotica dealers were Esar Levine and Benjamin Rebhuhn (Figure 6). Levine, as the introductions and notes for several of his Panurge Press titles attest, was a scholar; after the imprint's demise, he focused his efforts on analyses and compilations of wit and humor. Rebhuhn was Levine's close friend and an aspiring novelist who, in the course of his life, developed close personal relationships not only with Frank Harris but also with two other renowned public figures: the free-speech crusader Theodore Schroeder and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Rebhuhn's commitment to free dissemination of information about birth control, and his opposition to the Catholic Church's policies regarding boycotts and licensing, led him to give away, possibly as premiums, many copies of a sixteenth-century account of Jan Hus's execution for heresy. Levine and Rebhuhn specialized in mail-order sexology in the 1930s, and the Justice Department prosecuted them vigorously. These two men shared similar responses to inequities in government, methods of social reform, aesthetic standards in art and literature, and repressive conventions regarding social and sexual mores. Aspiring writers, they had met while students at the City College of New York. Together, they had attended Frank Harris's lectures during his visits to New York. In 1920, the young men purchased steerage tickets and sailed to Mexico, interested in the socialist reforms being fervently advocated in the country at the time, and in the possibility of its evolving a radically different regimen of individual conduct from that of the anxiety- and cash-driven United States. Probably they were inspired by the Mexican Constitution of 1917. As a way of becoming part of this new social order, they planned to open a vegetarian restaurant in Mexico City. For a time, Rebhuhn, who had tutored in English in New York and taught writing at City College, was employed by the University of Mexico, until he was released because of his radical political views. Revolutionary fervor and the country's uncertain economy forced Levine and Rebhuhn to leave Mexico in 1924. While there, they clandestinely distributed copies of volume one of the four-volume My Life and Loves, in which the iconoclastic Frank Harris cast himself as an Edwardian Casanova. They continued this enterprise, to their regret, in New York.
The Ethnic Middleman
The hostility of the community toward those identified as erotica dealers, and the calling to account that accompanied it, was grounded on the way erotica seemed to subvert the moral consensus. There were other factors at play in the hostility, however, having as much to do with who the dealers were as with what they did. As was (and is) the case with other "middlemen minorities," erotica dealers formed a tight-knit, and therefore persistent, resourceful, and resiliently successful entity. They were easy to stigmatize as a group set apart from the majority, even if they had the same goals and methods of doing business as general book dealers.
In New York at least, during the period from 1880 to 1940, many were members of Jewish immigrant families. Jewish erotica dealers seem to have become prominent in the field soon after the eastern European immigrants began arriving in record numbers in 1880. The best evidence of this, apart from the names of offenders as reported in newspapers, are the listings in the yearly ledgers of the NYSSV, as compiled by Comstock and then Sumner (Tables 1 and 2). These ledger entries for "Nationality" and "Religion" of people arrested may have been derived from police blotters and may not have been inclusive, although entries do seem to have been made in careful chronological order, with details regarding circumstances of offense and disposition of case. They include the various activities the society deemed violations of the Comstock Law: printing, publishing, selling, or lending offensive books, magazines, photographs, pamphlets, and artwork. The material was sold from cigar-, book-, or drugstores or newsstands, or peddled at hotels or burlesque houses. The figures may be skewed regarding Jewish involvement given the important fact that the "Religion" column was left blank fairly often.
At first, the vice-society ledgers note, many Jews of German origin were cited (German immigrants were skilled printers, lithographers, and typesetters), then many eastern European Jews, as well as some Austrians, English, and Germans. In New York, Jews do not seem to have replaced any other specific ethnic group in this industry. The ledgers list other religions (including "heathen" and "free lover or luster") much less often than Jews; non-Jewish nationalities are variously Italian, Spanish, German, and Irish. There is, therefore, no phenomenon similar to those documented in other contemporary immigrant workforces managed by innovative middlemen such as the construction trades, where lower-salaried Italian immigrants, well-organized by padrones, ousted Irish, or the needle trades, where the success of Jewish middlemen-contractors, the "sweaters," in organizing a low-paid, largely female workforce drove independent German tailors out of business. The absence of any single ethnic group of erotica dealers in New York City prior to the Jewish presence can be accounted for by the fact that, as compared to tailoring, construction, shopkeeping, domestic or municipal service, or clerical work, the erotica business supported a relatively small number of workers. The work itself did not have different organizational principles, or less need of innovative middlemen, than other emotionally taxing low-status occupations despised by more secure native citizens.