The Fall and Fatal Triumph of Sleaze

“You shall not conceal the sleazy, fraudulent hours you have slipped into the piece… or fear that any honest thread will not testify in the web.”

– Emerson

American history is a quarter loop of fraud, imitation, sleaze, and sneer. It drives relentlessly on, casting no shadow, egging our capital gains along highways with the white whip and virulent speed so particular to this haunted country.

For example, the American Gold Rush was sleaze at its absolute zenith, the injection of fools’ gold and an overabundance of the bona fide article into the coffers of the world’s rich and terrible. No wonder Chaplin chose this demented episode to show the violence of parody and the eruption of made little masters into the arena of old European gods. Sleaze and cheapness recorded the Wild West in sideshows and ratty pamphlets. The legends of the American dead roads are vibrant with half-foggy images where words occasionally ooze out of the sold sweat and sleaze. Sleaze is fraudulent thunder and its ideal speech is the American cant, a vigorous compound chatter of malaprop and guffaw. Sleaze follows the mainstream of American kulchur, both informing it and taking its piss until it eventually devours the whole landscape. Most of all, sleaze is an eel meandering effortlessly through the waters, driving the price ever downward, hitting quick and vanishing, like Mao’s perfect guerilla. Accompanied by dark laughter and the occasional bobbing corpse, Sleaze loves the Image best of all. America was once a rolling combine of powerful, sleazy images.

Sin-a–Rama, lovingly edited by B. Astrid Daley and Adam Parfrey and published by the great Feral House, collects the bright softcore porn paperbacks of the Sixties, a light-world of absurd passions and silly momentum. These books were the perfect expression of our star-spangled-to-death fascination with Protestant frigidity and Late Roman swank. The tension between these two pathologies holds the artifact together until the cheap glue gives and the whole gizmo finally collapses to reveal a ridiculous vision of creatures ever on the make. The covers of cheap sex epics are our Mughal miniatures. Their hold has become strangely eternal, at least for a while.

The smut boom of the 1960s filled newsstands and book stores with works like Ringside sinaramaTarts, Pit Stop Nympho, ESP Orgy, Satan Was A Lesbian, and Ape Rape, to name just a few of the most enticing titles. Print runs were mammoth. For example: 20 titles in one month at a print run of 75,OOO each = 7.2 to 9 million copies per annum (Milwood-Tower Press); 12 titles with a run of 25,000 = 3.1 million per annum (Bee-Line Press). 590 copies of Sex Life of a Cop were confiscated by the FBI from Saber Books.

Many of these stone-age classics were churned out by science-fictioners tossed on the dole after the death of the Golden Age pulps; among them, Robert Silverberg (who supplies an amusing and unrepentant memoir here), Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Harlan Ellison. And the skinbooks paid very well, even by today’s standards. Silverberg bought a large house, a car, supported his family, and earned a pretty $1500 a week in his prime. He churned out some 150 novels; others hammered out twice as many. Bestselling crime writers like Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake started in the skin trade. Others, like poor Ed Wood of Plan 9 From Outer Space, eked out a living and followed their fiercely independent obsessions to solitary ends.

Inside man and Sin-a-Rama co-editor Earl Kemp provides much valuable testimony with his rollicking tales, birdseyes of the terrain, and moving obits of the talent involved in middle-period smut. The softcore scene was ever on the move and dodged the FBI in Chicago, LA, and as far as Guadalajara; some did prison time. J. Edgar Hoover, the epitome of sleaze and hypocrisy, hated the mannerist low-rent pretender as much as he hated Dr. King and communism. Kemp also hints at Mob-Fed collusion in control of the puerile market, a French Tickler Connection worthy of further investigation. Jay Gertzman, Lynn Monroe, Stephen Gertz and Astrid Daley clue you in on the wider milieu and the money with admirable economy: brief as a peep show, learned and naughty. John Gilmore and Lydia Lunch add fugitive, enticing contributions.

Works like Dr. Dildo’s Delightful Machine were aimed at an ever-randier white middle class. They radiated debased decorum, with plenty of room for light raunch and suburban sprawl rather than the upward cramp of the megalopolis. The idea was to tempt in order to make tame, to find price equilibrium in the wages of sin. Understudy Stud and its clones traded in the rubber innuendo, an easy flow of yankee crabapple metaphor done to mush, and OPEC Orientalism. Their covers parodied the elastic Tide or Chesterfield Kings ad: a girl a pretzel in ecstasy, a hypnotism wheel erupting from points of contact, and the damp visage of a pervert or leering houngan suspended over the action. Gene Bilbrew is the premiere stylist here. His filth revels in every gargantuan crevice and the old Hindu hook of the physically-impossible tryst. All of this is drawn with a smart cartoony disregard for graphic anatomy and shows the oily gleam of a genuine downward spiral. Bilbrew, about the only black artist in the biz, ended sadly, with his needle in the back of a lewd emporium. But most of the other artists, such as Robert Bonfils, managed to carry on fine after the fad disintegrated. The reproductions of these covers, which rightly make up most of Sin-a-Rama, are superb: many are of them full-page, splayed in all glory.

Prudish John Birchers or Billy Sunday revivalists railed against the louche book racks, but by the late 1960s this opposition became a shoeless relic. The mid-level executive embraced swinging and the hip jive-ass openly read Playboy for Mailer and how-to radical chic. In such a climate, how could a sincere wax-bean of a cleric or an honest devotee of Knave survive? The scene became more hardcore to compensate, but this only showed its desperation. Images and words were whittled down to the stark and humorless in all markets: the conceptual over the cheap bourgeois; the closed-circuit spyglass over the exotic vaudeville panorama. Mainstream cinema and advertising had long been dominated by the frame-bursting, porous close-up. Fleshpot culture could only reflect an impotent shadow of the official story.

Sin-a-Rama gives us a small walk-on part by Charles Keating, the Great Sleaze behind the apocalyptic Savings & Loan swindle of the 1980s. At the time he was a vocal opponent of dirty books: “It is not a question of depicting sin as virtue… the magazines advocate a pagan, libertine life”. 20 odd years later, he was building Ponzi schemes and pimping jailbait for worthies who may have grown up on copies of Lust for Kicks. In the stark new world of Total Sleaze, there can be no room for the colorful amateur. We and our mafias have moved on to faster, more liquid pleasures.

The final victory of Sleaze might give you pause to remember, thanks to Feral House, the borderland life of our old smut before it was consumed by a most jealous host. Written anonymously or by nom de grossier, like the everyman plays and spell books of the High Middle Ages, these are perhaps the only classics our cold wars will ever produce. Last irony in the final triumph of sleaze and its little-known fall.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.