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A Tribute to Eros

When Ralph Ginzburg died this past July at age 76, he was variously remembered as a controversial publisher, foe of both Bobby Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, successful photographer, leading opponent of circumcision, and a master of disguise, his most favorite being that of a minister. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Ginzburg attended City College, where he edited The Ticker, a campus newspaper. After graduating in 1949, he went to work in publishing, and eventually found his first calling in literary smut. His 1958 book An Unhurried View of Erotica, a collection of risque material plucked from many of the world’s leading libraries, sold more than 125,000 copies in hardback and over 200,000 in print. Such sizable readership prompted Ginzburg four years later to launch Eros, a hardbound quarterly that would last for only a year.

The four issues of Eros nevertheless would be memorable for many reasons, not least because they served as the basis of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s prosecution of Ginzburg in 1963 on obscenity charges. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 against the publisher, causing him to be sentenced to five years in prison (he served eight months). Even so, the Village Voice’s Nat Hentoff, an original Eros contributor and a First Amendment historian, maintains that Ginzburg’s efforts helped move the Court towards an implicit recognition of sexual content as free speech. Ginzburg’s next magazine, the short-lived Fact, sparked controversy in 1964 when, based on a survey of 12,000 psychiatrists, it characterized Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater as an “unbalanced paranoid.” Goldwater sued for libel and won, and the Supreme Court again ruled against Ginzburg. (In retrospect, Goldwater personally may not have been an “unbalanced paranoid,” but his politics most certainly were.) Notoriously flamboyant and caustic, Ginzburg through the ’80s and ’90s became, among many other things, an acclaimed city photographer for the New York Post.

Ginzburg, though, will perhaps be most remembered for Eros, which he conceived of as a cross between American Heritage and Playboy. The early ’60s were indeed the era of high-brow smut, and the four editions of Eros found a loyal reader in Hanover, Pennsylvania by the name of Alton Hamm. I’m not entirely sure which salacious stories my grandfather, an arch-conservative candy salesman, most enjoyed. But from his collection I’ve culled just a few fine examples of what Eros was all about.

—T. H.

from “The Love Life of Napoleon”
by David Bar-Illan (Autumn, 1962)

An exhaustive investigation of Napoleon’s sexual history would tax the skill of a statistician, the patience of a Buddhist priest, and the curiosity of a voyeur. His bedmates, staggering in number and kaleidoscopic in variety, ranged from Egyptian whores to the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor; from overly ripe society women twice his age to barely developed teen-agers; from nymphomaniacal, opportunistic actresses and courtesans to inexperienced, frightened virgins; and from anonymous females with whom he never exchanged a single word to—possibly—his sisters, stepdaughter and niece. The variety and frequency of his attachments make the story of his love life appear like a one-man Kinsey report. But the mere enumeration of his inamoratas would, like the Kinsey report, only intoxicate us with useless, meaningless numbers while bringing to light very little information about the quality of his affairs and the role they played in his life. Only with a measure of insight into Napoleon’s personality, and particularly into the physical and psychic forces and handicaps that ruled his life, can this spectacular conglomeration of sexual liaisons be brought into perspective.

More books have been written about Napoleon than about anyone else except Jesus, but the emergence of an unpromising youth into the greatest national leader since Caesar remains inexplicable. In his genius for leadership and in his invincible self-confidence he was far superior to all his contemporaries, and to most men in all of history. But in his sex life he was not essentially different from most men of his generation. Like them, he was a victim of the conflict between the unnatural sexual mores of the time and his natural sexual drives. The only great difference was that Napoleon, when he became an all-powerful dictator, could indulge in all the extra-curricular “sinning” that for his less powerful contemporaries remained in the realm of daydreaming. Nevertheless, being a product of his time he felt impelled, even while indulging in a marathon of debauchery in his court, to pay lip service and conscience homage to the sexual values of his time. He could say, while committing adultery with every woman who caught his fancy, “Nothing can be worse in a ruler than immorality.” With the mentality of a greedy shopkeeper, he could consider a perfect marriage one that effected a family merger and was dictated by monetary and political considerations, and he often declared, “Love is injurious to society and to the individual happiness of man….I neither want nor am able to fall in love.” But this did not prevent him from behaving like a fervent adolescent in several of his courtships and from invoking the divinity and irresistibility of love to induce Josephine to marry him. To reconcile his marriage to Josephine—a lascivious, promiscuous society mistress—with his nagging conscience, he “rechristened” her by changing her name and forbade her to continue seeing any of her “loose” female friends. (This did not have a marked effect on her behavior. Ten days after their wedding she took on a lover.) When his brother Lucien married a similar woman, he ordered him to divorce her: Lucien’s refusal triggered a lifelong feud between them. Napoleon was a graduate of military school and an artillery officer who made his career in the field, but he never allowed an “obscene” joke to be told in his presence. His sexual insatiability was common gossip in all Europe, but he ordered all the naked statues in Paris covered, and when he saw a fountain with a group of naiads spouting water from their breasts he ruled that “the naiads were virgins” and had the statues removed. There was hardly an attractive married woman in his court whom he did not cajole, summon, or order into bed with him, but he insisted on the inclusion of the uncompromising section on “The bride’s duty of obedience” in his Civil Code, and he bullied his chief of staff into separating from his mistress, forcing him to contract an “honorable” marriage with the Princess of Bavaria. (The Princess, being of the old nobility and still uncontaminated by this bourgeois “morality,” allowed her husband to keep his mistress indefinitely, and they lived happily ever after in a tranquil ménage a trios.). Like any good “family man” craving respectability, Napoleon used to say, “One should wash one’s dirty linen in private,” but he thought nothing of slipping his hand into Josephine’s bodice in front of his guests and of taking such shocking liberties in public with his sister that, inevitably, rumors of incest spread…

from “President Harding’s Second Lady”
by John Hejno (Winter, 1962)

...While Harding failed even to become the greatest failure to reach the White House, he nonetheless can lay claim to one accomplishment unmatched before or since and a feat that may never be equaled. He is the only President of the United States to be accused of making love in a White House closet.

The woman who benefited from Harding’s resourceful ardor has described the scene. “Mr. Harding said to me that people seemed to have eyes in the sides of their heads down there and so we must be very circumspect Whereupon he introduced me to the one place where, he said, he thought we might share kisses in safety. This was a small closet in the ante-room, evidently a place for hats and coats, but entirely empty most of the times we used it, for we repaired there many times in the course of my visits to the White House, and in the darkness of a space not more than five feet square the President of the United States and his adoring sweetheart made love.”

The woman who kissed and told was a girl from back home in Marion, Ohio, Nanna P. Britton. She disclosed the incident in 1927 in a book that made her, overnight, a celebrity of sorts. For the title of the book was The President’s Daughter, and Nan Britton’s claim not only was that she had been Harding’s lover for years but that she had borne him a child, named Elizabeth Ann.

By the time the book appeared, the United States retained few illusions about Warren Harding, except that that fine figure of a man with the noble brow and resolute nose surely must have been faithful to his wife. The Teapot Dome was only the most famous of his Administration’s scandals to ooze into the light after his death. A van load of his appointees were hustled off to jail for such offenses as bribery and fraud, and a brace of his cronies who might also have ended up behind bars committed suicide. But Harding’s personal life was another matter. Certainly he had not given adultery a home in the White House.

Nan Britton changed all that, but it took some doing. When she found no publisher would take her book, she set up the Elizabeth Ann Guild, dedicated to the struggle to legitimatize illegitimate children, and made plans to bring out the expose herself. Upon hearing of the project, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, led by the zealous John S. Summer, swept down upon the printing plant and confiscated the plates. But Nan and her lawyers eventually carried the day and the book furtively appeared. In the preface, Nan avowed she was striving only to advance the “Cause” of bastard children.

Be that as it may, the book quickly became a best seller. The voters were delightedly shocked at the prospect of reading at the prospect of reading about Warren Harding with his pants off. It did not matter that many reviewers refused to touch it, or that many stores refused to carry it. Someone was selling it, for an estimated 90,000 copies were placed in circulation—and how they did circulate! More copies of The President’s Daughter were passed discreetly from hand to hand in paper bags than any other book of the ‘20s.

Today the reputation of Nan Britton’s book as a bit of dangerously hot stuff still persists, although the author is now a grandmother. The New York Public Library still prudently keeps the book hidden away among its choicest pornography, and Princeton University stores the volume carefully out of the reach of undergraduates on the theory, apparently, that it would either inflame their lust or dampen their patriotism.

from “Memoirs of a Male Chaperon”
by John Sack (Winter, 1962)

Every time I get back from a trip abroad, I discover, clinking around in my head, the small change of a dozen languages or more, everything from the French for “good night, dear” to the Greek for “copious use of the letter m”—mytakismos. I am scarcely proud of the limited fluency I’ve acquired over the years. But a few summers ago it did land me an agreeable five-day job on the staff of the international bathing beauty contest, the Miss Universe pageant. I was asked by the Pageant’s directors to serve as a multilingual escort to twenty-one of their bathing beauties, the “Miss”es of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Morocco, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and Tunisia. These beautiful girls, I was told, would be publicizing the Pageant by driving down the Eastern seaboard on a chartered bus, and I was needed on board to keep them all oriented whenever they put in public appearances at such monoglot ports of call as Dillon, South Carolina. Frankly, I wasn’t convinced that a phrase like “bon soir, cherie” could be of much help in this context, but I accepted the job enthusiastically. Greyhound buses are my idea of fun; and fortunately, it turned out, a bathing beauty’s idea of fun is talking in any of several pidgintoed dialects of English. Thus our tour director never had to ask me to interpret from the Icelandic. He just had to understand that if one of our beauties spoke of having caught a colt, someone should fetch her a Bufferin tablet rather than a branding iron.

Free of linguistic responsibilities, I could devote myself on this dizzly perfumed vehicle to learning whatever there was to learn about bathing beauties. Such questions as “Are they truly beauties?” and “Are they truly bathing beauties?” didn’t exactly agonize me as I left on this junket, but I was curious to learn the answers—as were many of my insanely jealous friends. In the next several minutes, I shall try to settle the questions that are still being asked of me. I suppose it goes without saying that the most persistent question of all, whenever my friends turn the conversation to bathing beauties, is simply, “Well…?” However, I’d prefer to come back to that one.

Are Bathing Beauties Beautiful? Yes, indeed. So beautiful that all twenty-one of them blossomed from the bus’s door at the White House, the President’s official welcomer was seized with a sudden fit of mytakismos. “Mmm…mm” was all he could say, and I’m please to let those homely words of welcome be this question’s answer.

But Curiously, bathing beauties aren’t so much bathing beauties because they are beautiful as beautiful because they are bathing beauties. Let me enlarge on this ticklish esthetic point.

The afternoon we left the White House we had to make appearances at Arlington, Bowling Green, and Richmond, Virginia, then have dinner with the Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Junior Chamber of Commerce. A hot, oppressive afternoon, by five o’ clock it had left these girls as withered as Hooker’s army. Flat on the bus’s back seat, asleep, and snoring softly under a rack of damp crinoline petticoats was Miss Greece, a toppled goddess whom the mimeographed hagiologies had listed as 5-10 in height and 38-24-38 in bust, wait and hips. Still, I couldn’t envy any future husband who would confront such a sight and sound in the early morning. A few seats ahead of herm and down at 5-7 and 37-22-37 in the same official scratch sheets, Miss Holland was also sleeping at the post, having spent the last calorie of her mad energies laughing at Miss Greece and trying to slip a corncob pipe, a souvenir of Richmond, between Miss Greece’s lips; and Miss Denmark, across the aisle and at 5-5 and 36-24-36, was only awake because of being carsick. “Ohhh,” she kept telling us with hideous gestures, “I think it will come up. Which is the right word for come up?”

“Upchuck,” one of the beauties helpfully told her.

“Ohhh, I think it will upchuck,” Miss Denmark kept saying.

Finally on this awful afternoon, our shipment of Raggedy-Ann dolls had reached the city limits of Rocky Mouth. “Ba-a-thing beauties,” our tour director cried on the same piercing public-address system that he had roused us with at every point of dubious interest. “In ten more minutes, the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Oh, ba-a-thing beauties!” At those words, a sense of their selves as beautiful women started to rise like sap in wilted roses. It quickened as they caught sight of a hundred waiting jaycees and listened to their trusting serenade of “ooh”s and “ah”s. The bus came to a stop; the bathing beauties walked off fresh, wide-awake, and exuberant; and I almost wept with delight to see the metamorphosis of our twenty-one ugly ducklings.

I decided then and there, Beauty is not quite Truth. Men, the fastest way to have lovely wives and girl friends is simply to tell them they are.

from “Love Making Can Be Fatal: In France they call it ‘The Sweet Death’”
by John Erno Russell (Autumn, 1962)

Among all the exertions of man none is so pleasurable and few are so strenuous as the act of love. The precious moments impose a physical burden of such magnitude that numerous human beings are unable to stand it. In fact, thousands die of it. Many die, furthermore, while actually entangled in love’s embrace, thereby bequeathing temporary discomfort and lasting embarrassment to their luckless bed partners.

As any ambulance driver can testify, people who perish in the labors of love are invariably sufferers from diseases of the heart or the blood vessels. Some of them know of their afflictions but deliberately risk death in the hay, as if abstinence from love were worse than death. The others die blindly; they have cardiovascular ailments but do not know it, having refrained from the periodic medical examinations that are a routine practice among sensible adults.

Be that as it may, those who sacrifice their lives on the alter of passion are treated with as much pious respect as would be accorded to them if they fell dead in church. Our extreme delicacy in such matters impels us to bury the truth along with the corpse. The pastime which precipitated death is never mentioned in the newspaper obituaries nor lamented in the funeral orations. The only witness to the final raptures of the deceased is permitted—nay, encouraged—to confect whatever cock-and-bull version of the event seems likely to invited the fewest public chuckles. This policy of concealment explains why there are no reliable statistics on the frequency with which Death appoints itself as a delegate to the sexual congress. But most county coroners, having scrutinized any number of bodies found in motels and similar recreation centers, are full of lore. What the French call La Mort Douce is by no means an uncommon occurrence.

As might be expected of them, the French not only give “The Sweet Death” its name but pay rather more attention to its incidence than we do. In 1929, for example, the medical faculty of the University of Paris awarded a doctorate in medicine to a student whose thesis was entitled La Mort a l’occasion du coit (“Death associated with Coition”). The student’s name, so help me was Pierre Petit, which may be something for Freudians to think about, and he was a conscientious researcher. He compiled an impressive number of case studies of men who expired in brothels, of woman who died in the arms of their lovers and even of men and women whose deaths were attributable to the activities of the marriage bed. His conclusion, with which there can be no disagreement, was that each fatality had been caused by the inability of a weak cardiovascular system to survive the rigors of passion.

The same diagnosis would apply to many of the sudden deaths that occur in our own country. All careful readers of newspapers surely remember the movie star who died unexpectedly on the couch of a lady not his wife, and the jazz immortal who tapped out under identical circumstances and the celebrated statesman who returned from his honeymoon in a coffin. Incidentally one of the first statesmen known to have died in this fashion was Attila the Hun, the barbarian who conquered Europe in the fifth century and died in bed on his wedding night while in the company of a blonde who, some historians think, was not his bride.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2006

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