If they ever give a Pulitzer Prize for best obituary of 2013, will somebody with the clout to get this done please nominate Andy Newman of The New York Times? His piece on Al Goldstein is a classic of how to tell the brutal and brutally entertaining truth, expressed as a high resolution word picture.
Goldstein was the inventor, editor and publisher of a vulgar pulp newspaper called Screw, one of the first to offer classified ads for sex services, as well as nude and ranchy photographs of people performing sex acts, and reviews of New York’s once-ubiquitous “massage parlors.”
I know, I know, all this is very un-Christmas-y. But so was Goldstein, whose unregistered trademarks included a middle finger raised in defiant bad taste. Its very seasonal inappropriateness is what makes this an appropriate memorial essay.
Two meetings and an
I met Al Goldstein three times, twice in a more-or-less professional capacity as a “Madmen” era advertising copywriter moonlighting as a journalist. The third meeting was an accident.
I despised the man.
But also, I liked him a lot.
That’s not quite as contradictory as it sounds. Goldstein was both the sort of person you love to hate, and the sort you hate to love, but do. What was loveable about him was his abjectly vulgar and often highly irascible authenticity. He was a man who eventually won a major victory against censorship. True to form, he censored nothing, least of all the language that spewed out of his own mouth.
While you couldn’t be absolutely sure that everything he told you was the truth, it was surely the truth as he happened to see it at the moment he spoke it. And sometimes, things he told you that seemed patently false turned out to be pretty much true after all. Here's a case in point.
Goldstein, Ed Koch, and a
disputed case of “begging”
Back in the 1970s,while working for an advertising agency, I moonlighted by writing articles for a couple of iffy little magazines devoted primarily to, uh, sex. But I wanted to do legitimate journalism, so the editor of an “adult” magazine sent me to interview Goldstein, a friend of hers, about Goldstein’s candidacy for mayor of New York. (Yes, he actually did that.)
Goldstein insisted he was a viable candidate. In fact, he boasted, New York’s beloved Mayor Ed Koch, then up for re-election, “called me up and begged me not to run against him.”
That sounded like utter nonsense. Goldstein’s candidacy had been widely regarded as a self-indulgent joke. And Koch was a very popular mayor. Nevertheless, Goldstein had given me a good quote and Ed Koch deserved an opportunity for rebuttal. I called Koch, expecting either no reply or a flat denial. I was wrong.
Koch returned my call and what he gave me, couched in a pro forma denial, was an admission that Goldstein was essentially speaking the truth.
I told Koch, “Goldstein says you called him and begged him not to run against you.”
“That’s not true,” Koch replied. “What I said to him was, ‘Al, I wish you wouldn’t run against me, because the people who are likely to vote for you are the same people who would otherwise vote for me.’”
I nearly fell out of my chair at the ad agency. Koch had almost as much trouble censoring himself as Goldstein.
My story was published under a pseudonym, so as not to offend either my blue chip advertising clients or my bosses at the blue chip ad agency where, at least according to my title, I was an officer. My position was too exalted to traffic with the likes of Goldstein or a slick-but-trashy sex magazine. Especially not when the article I wrote bore the title, “Al Goldstein Throws His Pants Into The Political Arena.”
The 20 megaton temper
It was during my interview with Goldstein concerning his mayoral candidacy that I learned, first-hand, what it was like to be a victim of his infamously explosive temper. I had been taping the conversation on a cassette recorder. (This was decades before digital technology.) Suddenly the cassette failed and began spewing a twisted tangle of tape. Goldstein instantly exploded.
“I don’t know why I waste my time with assholes like you with your cheap piece of shit tape recorder,” his rant began. He continued in similarly vituperative language. No need to reduplicate all of here. However, I ought to point out that it’s in considerable part thanks to Goldstein that we can reproduce language like this for public consumption at all, if we choose.
After a while, Goldstein threatened to throw me out of his office and stormed out of the room. I was packing up my things when suddenly he returned with a yellow legal pad, which he flung at my head, followed by a ball point pen, aimed like a missile.
“Here asshole, write it down!” he said to the reporter who was about to write a magazine profile of him.
“Something tells me, Toto,
we’re not in New York any more”
Another interview with Goldstein was for a story I wrote concerning his battle with the U.S. Government. Powerful forces were lined up against him, intent on putting him out of business, perhaps because he had run an article in his publication, Screw, suggesting that J. Edgar Hoover was gay (which, it turns out, he most probably was.)
The problem was, most juries would, by then, roll their eyes at the Government’s prosecution of pornographers. Or at least they would roll their eyes in New York, where Goldstein was committing his “crimes” of printing vulgar nude pictures with language to match, and running massage parlor and swinger ads.
So the Feds tried a cleverly oblique strategy. They got some postal inspectors in Topeka, Kansas, where Goldstein had never distributed his newsstand publication, to order copies of Screw by mail. When the requested porn arrived, the Feds charged Goldstein with pornography crimes, in conservative and pretty-much-fundamentalist Kansas. Goldstein was creeped out, as you might be, if you went to sleep in Manhattan and when you woke up the words going through your head were, “Something tells me we’re not in New York any more.”
But the Feds miscalculated. The expected guilty verdict was reversed on an appeal alleging government misconduct. A second trial – even in heavily-fundamentalist Kansas – resulted in a mistrial. The government forgot that conservative fundamentalism often goes hand-in-hand with a stubborn streak of libertarianism.
“Who are a bunch of people in Washington to tell me what I can and cannot read?” commented one Kansas jurist after the trial. It was another illustration of the old saw, relating to finding yourself in deep dung, that “it’s not necessarily your friends who get you out of it.”
Death by legal expenses
But Goldstein didn’t escape the Kansas porno rap cheaply. He complained to me that each time he went on trial in Kansas, not only was his business interrupted, but he had to live there, and pay to keep his topflight attorneys living there, week after week until the trial was over. The previous trial had cost him, I think I remember him telling me, $90,000.
That may not sound like a totally crippling expense for a prosperous little publishing business today, but when Goldstein told me this, I had recently purchased a nice suburban house for considerably less than his $90,000 legal fees. To give you an idea of how badly Goldstein got hit, the same house last sold in June 2006 for $1.6 million, according to Zillow. The Kansas case was the beginning of the slow financial unraveling of his porn empire.
My third encounter with Goldstein was by chance. It was some time in the 1980s. By then I had moved from the ‘burbs back to Manhattan. The woman to whom I was then married and I decided to spend a summer weekend in a rough approximation of the country. So we checked into the resort-style Woodliffe Lake Hilton in New Jersey, where we could loll around the swimming pool.
By coincidence, directly across the pool sat Fat Al Goldstein and whichever of his five consecutive wives he was married to at the time. She was a pouffy-haired bottle blonde, attractive in a no-class sort of way. She sat on a chaise lounge at the pool apron, balls of cotton inserted between her toes, adding pink polish to her toenails. Goldstein sat on an adjacent chaise. I waved to him and nodded. If he recognized me, he offered no acknowledgement whatsoever.
A few minutes later, the couple broke into a loud, vituperative fight. It was a big pool, and I couldn’t make out the precise nature of their argument, but after a while, Al muttered a thunderous obscenity and stormed off, his big belly hanging over his paisley bathing suit.. The wife offered the poolside audience a huge and wildly theatrical palms-up shrug. Then she shook her head and returned to her toenails.
The point of all this?
The next general
in the war to save humanity
may be a serial nose-picker
Great victories for freedom are not necessarily won by nice people. Or by attractive people. Or by well-mannered people. Or even by superficially pleasant people.
If today you can watch a show with overt sexual references and unrestrained language, whether live on Broadway, at the movies, or on Cable TV, Al Goldstein is one of the people whose ghost you can thank. (The inventors of the birth control pill and the lawyers and judges who defended and decided in favor of “I Am Curious (Yellow),” are among the several others.
[Another side note: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis went to see the Curious (Yellow) movie when it opened legally in New York. Coming out of the theater, she decked one of the paparazzi who wanted a picture of Jackie exiting a porn flick. This soon inspired a rhyme in a New York Magazine contest: “Higgledy Piggledy/Jacqueline Kennedy/Flipped a photographer/Over her head/Changing his countenance/Melodramatically/ Curious (Yellow)/ To Furious (Red)”]
So say a grateful prayer for Al Goldstein. That fat, disgusting pig earned it. But if there’s an afterlife and you run into his obnoxious soul, don’t expect him to thank you. More likely, he’ll flip you the bird, throw a sharp object or two at you, and loudly say something that, until he came along, used to be considered unprintable.