Category Archives: Non Fiction

A Great Holiday Story from Jim Steranko

From his twitter feed. His website is Prevuemag.

I moved away from home before Christmas when I was 17, taking some clothes, a towel, eating utensils, two dishes,1 and a measuring cup from which to drink2. The cheap, furnished, one-room apartment I found had a worn-out, hideously-green linoleum floor with an eye-torturing pattern;3 I had to stand in the doorway to open the refrigerator4. I had nothing and was nothing. A girlfriend occasionally brought some food. Someone gave me an old radio5. I spent most of a year in the room—which had a bed, a standing wardrobe, and no chairs—6 or in movie theaters, which I broke into and would hide out in until darkness fell. I created another identity for myself7. I feared being outdoors during daylight; there were at least three former associates in the city who would kill me on sight8.

I made furtive trips to the YMCA, where I continued to lift weights and box. One day, across the street, a building was demolished9. In the rubble, I found a solid, plain wooden door, which I hauled back to the apartment, along with two big strap hinges10. Later that week, I found a chest of drawers in a trash pile on the street and appropriated it, too11.By sawing off a third of the door and attaching it with the hinges to the furniture top, I made a drawing board12. I sat on a beat-up bar stool someone had thrown out, even though I couldn’t put my legs under the table13. Bricks elevated the board and a discarded lamp I found on the street illuminated it14. In the isolation of the bleak, little room, I began sharpening my drawing skills. Charles Dickens eat yur heart out!15

Weeks merged into a Kafkaesque mirage of pathetic daydreams & nightmares, where it was difficult to tell where one began & the other ended16. Christmas promised to be particularly desolate. I wanted to get my girlfriend a present, something she least expected: a fur coat17. I found one in a store window priced at $150, which might as well have been $150,00018. I hardly had two nickels to rub together. Some days, all I had to eat was a head of lettuce or a quarter jar of peanut butter19. I drank soda that I cut with tap water to make it last longer. I made tomato soup with ketchup and hot water. Some days, there was nothing20. I needed to look deep into my bag of tricks to survive and score the fur jacket. I found both21.

I borrowed $100 from an acquaintence, which I exchanged at a bank for four new $20s and 20 $1s22. Then, I talked a local printer into giving me a few sheets of blank Strathmore 20-pound bond typing paper (with obvious rag content),23 and began by placing them for a day in a solution of weak coffee to mitigate their brightness24. Meanwhile, the four new $20s were soaked in a saucer of tap water, then split along their edges, lengthwise, with a razor blade25 (each bill is made from three pieces of paper). The result was four fronts and four backs. Four $1 bills were also split26. The coffee treatment gave the bond paper the texture and background color of real greenbacks, and, when they were dry,27 I drew, with pen and India ink, four $20 fronts on one of the sheets28. Matching the minute engraving was difficult and mistakes were not acceptable. It took time and patience, which I had in excess29.

The next step was to paste the four drawn $20 fronts to four real $20 backs30. Then, the four real $20 fronts were pasted to four real $1 backs. Finally, the four real $20 backs were pasted to four $1 fronts31. After they were assembled, I’d wrinkle them, dump them in a bag with some dirt and gravel,32 then put the bag in a laundry clothes dryer to tumble around for 20 minutes33. When the bills were retrieved and straightened, they were almost indistinguishable from the real thing—hand-drawn fronts and backs included34.

That’s when my passing strategy kicked in35.

I took the bogus roll into the busiest department stores during high weekend customer traffic and spotted the youngest cashiers36. I’d buy something for about $25 and offer two drawn $20 with real backs37. I’d get $15 in change, then take the item to customer service for a refund38. The result was $40 in real money. Another pass at a different store netted me $80 authentic39.

Next, I repeated the process with the $20 fronts pasted to $1 backs, being careful to hand the bills to cashiers in face-up position–40 the same way they’re usually stacked in the register41. I counted on them not being turned over in the rush. They weren’t42. Finally, I’d pass the real $20 backs with the $1 fronts back side up to the most harried and inexperienced cashiers,43 those just hired for the Christmas rush44. (Sometimes, l’d buy a $22 item and pay for it with a counterfeit $20, plus two real ones on top.) No bills were ever questioned.45 My $88 investment netted $240 in real cash46 Repaying the $100 loan left me with $140 plus an additional $16–the singles which were not split—for a total of $156,47 just enough to buy the coat and a super-special card for the girl who stood by me during my darkest period48. She loved the coat, the card–and, last but not least, me, too!<<49

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A scene I really hope is in the movie of The Wolf of Wall Street

(Spoiler in terms of a possible scene giveaway, but no plot twists.)

A moment from Jordan Belfort’s memoir The Wolf of Wall Street where, in the midst of a cocaine haze, the author has just destroyed a TV and now has an argument with Nadine (“The Duchess”), his wife:

I walked back to my desk and sat down, then I dropped my bleeding nose into the pile of coke. But rather than snorting it, I simply rested my face in it, using it as a pillow.

I felt a slight twinge of guilt that my children were upstairs, but since I was such a wonderful provider all the doors were solid mahogany. There was no way anyone had heard a thing. Or that was what I’d thought until I heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. A second later came the voice of the Duchess: “Oh, my God! What are you doing?”

I lifted my head, fully aware tht my face was completely covered in coke, and not giving a shit. I looked at the Duchess, and she was stark naked – trying to manipulate me with the possibility of sex.

I said, “Fred Flintstone was trying to come through the TV. But don’t worry – I got him. You can go back to sleep now. It’s safe.”

She stared at me with her mouth open. She had arms crossed underneath her breasts, and I couldn’t help but stare at her nipples. What a shame the woman had turned on me. She would be difficult to replace – not impossible, but difficult.

“Your nose is gushing blood,” she said softly.

I shook my head in disgust. “Stop exaggerating, Nadine. It’s barely even bleeding, and it’s only because it’s allergy season.”

She started to cry. “I can’t stay here anymore unless you go to rehab. I love you too much to watch you kill yourself. I’ve always loved you; don’t ever forget that.” And then she left the room, closing the door behind her but not slamming it.

“Fuck you!” I screamed at the door. “I don’t got a fucking problem! I could stop anytime I want!” I took a deep breath and used my T-shirt to wipe the blood off my nose and chin. What did she think, that she could bluff me into rehab? Please! I felt another warm gush under my nose. I lifted the bottom of my T-shirt again and wiped away more blood. Christ! If I only had ether, I could make the cocaine into crack. Then I could just smoke the coke and avoid all these nasal problems. But, wait! There were other ways to make crack, weren’t there? Yes, there were homespun recipes…something having to do with baking soda. There had to be a recipe for making crack on the Internet!

Five minutes later I had my answer. I stumbled to the kitchen, grabbed the ingredients, and dropped them on the granite countertop. I filled a copper pot with water and dumped in the cocaine and baking soda, then turned the burner on high and put a cover on it. I placed a ceramic cookie jar on top of the lid.

I sat down on a stool next to the stove and rested my head on the countertop. I started feeling dizzy, so I shut my eyes and tried to relax. I was drifting…drifting…KABOOM! I nearly jumped out of my own skin as my homespun recipe exploded all over the kitchen. There was crack everywhere – on the ceiling, floor, and walls.

A minute later the Duchess came running in. “Oh, my God! What happened? What was that explosion?” She was out of breath, almost panic-stricken.

“Nothing,” I muttered. “I was baking a cake and fell asleep.”

The last thing I remember her saying was: “I’m going to my mother’s tomorrow morning.”

And the last thing I remember thinking was: The sooner the better.

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“This did not seem like the future.”

There are many moments in Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs when I find him exasperating. In “(anti-homeless interlude),” where he bewails a beggar for her disturbing him, the irony does not quite play as well as he thinks: it’s supposed to be about the writer’s self-absorbtion, but the woman remains an inhuman prop. In something like “Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink,” his sloppy arguments in favor of Billy Joel remain are a petulant whine, touching in their sincerity while empty of persuasion: the cool kids don’t like Billy Joel because he lacks the je ne sais pas of coolness. They make me wonder if I overestimate the thoughts in his head; his repulsive remarks about Lucinda Williams in “Toby Over Moby” make me want to throw a bottle at it. You keep going, however, because he can often be a very funny and insightful writer. The essay, “Porn”, on the seaminess of the early internet, shows him off at his best; here is a fragment:

People always forget how new the Internet truly is. I was a senior in college during the spring of 1994, and I knew exactly two people who had e-mail addresses. They wrote e-mails to each other. It seemed completely impractical and a total waste of time. From what I could tell, the only people who were sending e-mail were people who drank Zima, and they mostly used the Internet to discuss properties of calculus or to send Steven Wright jokes to other weirdos in Canada. They were mostly CompuServe users. I can recall an extremely antisocial MC Hammer fan in my dormitory who had a Macintosh in his room and once tied up the phone line for five hours while he downloaded the Batman logo for no apparent reason; soon after, he unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of Ibuprofen. This did not seem like the future.


Haruki Murakami on Running

(What follows is taken from Haruki Murakami’s What I Think About When I Talk About Running; all these sentences are from the book preserved and intact, though I have edited their order and placement. The addendum, from the ending of a different book, is quoted whole.)

I’ve gotten back into a running lifestyle again. It’s been ten years since I last lived in Cambridge. When I saw the Charles River again, a desire to run swept over me. What this might mean for me, now that I’m in my late fifties, I don’t know yet. But I think it’s got to mean something. Maybe not anything profound, but there must be significance to it. Anyway, right now I’m running hard. I’ll wait till later to think about what it all means. (Putting off thinking about something is one of my specialties, a skill I’ve honed as I’ve grown older.) I shine my running shoes, rub some sunscreen on my face and neck, set my watch, and hit the road.

I’m often asked what I think about as I run. On cold days I guess I think a little about how cold it is. And about the heat on hot days.

When I first started running I couldn’t run long distances. I could only run for about twenty minutes, or thirty. That much left me panting, my heart pounding, my legs shaky. But as I continued to run, my body started to accept the fact that it was running, and I could gradually increase the distance. I was starting to acquire a runner’s form, my breathing became more regular, and my pulse settled down. The main thing was not the speed or distance so much as running every day, without taking a break.

Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel he’s accomplished what he set out to do, and if he can’t, then he’ll feel he hasn’t. Even if he doesn’t break the time he’d hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction at having done his very best—and, possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process — then that in itself is an accomplishment, a positive feeling he can carry over to the next race.

The same can be said about my profession. In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing. Maybe numbers of copies sold, awards won, and critics’ praise serve as outward standards for accomplishment in literature, but none of them really matter. What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.

In certain areas of my life, I actively seek out solitude. Especially for someone in my line of work, solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it. You could see it, too, as a kind of double-edged sword. It protects me, but at the same time steadily cuts away at me from the inside. I think in my own way I’m aware of this danger — probably through experience — and that’s why I’ve had to constantly keep my body in motion, in some cases pushing myself to the limit, in order to heal the loneliness I feel inside and to put it in perspective. Not so much as an intentional act, but as an instinctive reaction.

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world?

No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel kind of lethargic and don’t want to run. Once, I interviewed the Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko, just after he retired from running and became manager of the S&B1 company team. I asked him, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?” He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!”

When I first started to run the Jingu Gaien course2, Toshihiko Seko was still an active runner and he used this course too. The S&B team used this course every day for training, and over time we naturally grew to know each other by sight. Back then I used to jog there before seven a.m. — when the traffic wasn’t bad, there weren’t as many pedestrians, and the air was relatively clean—and the S&B team members and I would often pass each other and nod a greeting. On rainy days we’d exchange a smile, a guess-we’re-both-havingit-tough kind of smile.

I remember two young runners in particular, Taniguchi and Kanei. They were both in their late twenties, both former members of the Waseda University track team, where they’d been standouts in the Hakone relay race. After Seko was named manager of the S&B team, they were expected to be the two young stars of the team. They were the caliber of runner expected to win medals at the Olympics someday, and hard training didn’t faze them. Sadly, though, they were killed in a car accident when the team was training together in Hokkaido in the summer. I’d seen with my own eyes the tough regimen they’d put themselves through, and it was a real shock when I heard the news of their deaths. It hurt me to hear this, and I felt it was a terrible waste.

Even now, when I run along Jingu Gaien or Asakasa Gosho, sometimes I remember these other runners. I’ll round a corner and feel like I should see them coming toward me, silently running, their breath white in the morning air. And I always think this: They put up with such strenuous training, and where did their thoughts, their hopes and dreams, disappear to? When people pass away, do their thoughts just vanish?

The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.

Sometimes people will ask me this: “You live such a healthy life every day, Mr. Murakami, so don’t you think you’ll one day find yourself unable to write novels anymore?” People don’t say this much when I’m abroad, but a lot of people in Japan seem to hold the view that writing novels is an unhealthy activity, that novelists are somewhat degenerate and have to live hazardous lives in order to write.

Basically I agree with the view that writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place. (Please excuse the strange analogy: with a fugu fish, the tastiest part is the portion near the poison — this might be something similar to what I’m getting at.) No matter how you spin it, this isn’t a healthy activity.

So from the start, artistic activity contains elements that are unhealthy and antisocial. I’ll admit this. But those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within. Do this, and we can more efficiently dispose of even stronger toxins. In other words, we can create even more powerful narratives to deal with these. But you need a great deal of energy to create an immune system and maintain it over a long period. You have to find that energy somewhere, and where else to find it but in our own basic physical being?

People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that.

I can try all I want, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to run the way I used to. I’m ready to accept that. It’s not one of your happier realities, but that’s what happens when you get older. Just as I have my own role to play, so does time. Even when I grow old and feeble, when people warn me it’s about time to throw in the towel, I won’t care. As long as my body allows, I’ll keep on running. Even if my time gets worse, I’ll keep on putting in as much effort — perhaps even more effort — toward my goal of finishing a marathon. I don’t care what others say — that’s just my nature, the way I am. Like scorpions sting, cicadas cling to trees, salmon swim upstream to where they were born, and wild ducks mate for life.

Breathing in the crisp, bracing, early-morning air, I felt once again the joy of running on familiar ground. The sounds of my footsteps, my breathing and heartbeats, all blended together in a unique polyrhythm.

Generally, unless some great change takes place, rivers always look about the same, and the Charles River in particular looked totally unchanged. Time had passed, students had come and gone, I’d aged ten years, and there’d literally been a lot of water under the bridge. But the river has remained unaltered. The water still flows swiftly, and silently, toward Boston Harbor. The water soaks the shoreline, making the summer grasses grow thick, which help feed the waterfowl, and it flows languidly, ceaselessly, under the old bridges, reflecting clouds in summer and bobbing with floes in winter — and silently heads toward the ocean.

Seeing a lot of water like that every day is probably an important thing for human beings. For human beings might be a bit of a generalization — but I do know it’s important for one person: me. If I go for a time without seeing water, I feel like something’s slowly draining out of me.

The surface of the water changes from day to day: the color, the shape of the waves, the speed of the current. Each season brings distinct changes to the plants and animals that surround the river. Clouds of all sizes show up and move on, and the surface of the river, lit by the sun, reflects these white shapes as they come and go, sometimes faithfully, sometimes distortedly. Whenever the seasons change, the direction of the wind fluctuates like someone threw a switch. And runners can detect each notch in the seasonal shift in the feel of the wind against our skin, its smell and direction. In the midst of this flow, I’m aware of myself as one tiny piece in the gigantic mosaic of nature.

As I suspect is true of many who write for a living, as I write I think about all sorts of things. I don’t necessarily write down what I’m thinking; it’s just that as I write I think about things. As I write, I arrange my thoughts. And rewriting and revising takes my thinking down even deeper paths. No matter how much I write, though, I never reach a conclusion. And no matter how much I rewrite, I never reach the destination.

One by one, I’ll face the tasks before me and complete them as best I can. Focusing on each stride forward, but at the same time taking a long-range view, scanning the scenery as far ahead as I can. I am, after all, a long distance runner.

An impenetrable mystery. . . .” He walked disregarded. . . . “This act of madness or despair.”

And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable — and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

From Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.


1 S & B is a major japanese herb and spice manufacturer.

2 The course around the Jingu stadium. More information on the practice routes of Murakami in Japan can be found at Runner’s Diary #002 Follow the footstep of Murakami Haruki.

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Peter Coyote on Easy Rider

Most memoirs by actors of some renown I find very dull, with their only anima the nimbus of fame that surrounds people involved in mildly amusing, if not dull, episodes. Peter Coyote’s Sleeping Where I Fall is a happy double exception, an interesting memoir by an actor and an unsentimental fresh look at a decade of hallucinogenic blur and napalm death. Coyote does not write of this period as if it were a roll of icons, or a series of exhibits in a museum, but his own journey through vivid, youthful life. His work in independent theater and independent communities of that strange time are given in details, rather than as manifestations of a larger thesis of the era, be it sentimental picturesque or toxic underworld. Each fascinating person is given their space, with no celebrity given exceptional status – someone will need to stay at someone’s house to give birth, and maybe the houseowner will be Janis Joplin. It is a memorable portrait in part because it does not attempt to be the exceptional, definitive, or all-encompassing look, but simply the memories of a man who often had an exceptional view of the rarer landscapes of an upset world, whose quakes still ripple, above and below the surface of our own ideological patchworld quilt, where sex and drugs are finally becoming an entirely private matter, while workers, like those at the very site where you might buy Coyote’s book, are treated like scum, cattle, dirt.

A good, quotable section is his view on a landmark film of the time, an insightful perspective of countercultural man on countercultural product. The Mime Troupe were an experimental theater group Coyote was involved in, while Dennis and Peter are the obvious suspects:

Despite good feelings for Dennis, Easy Rider remains a sore point with me. Peter and Dennis had seen and been excited by the Mime Troupe and suggested that I write and direct a scene with the company for inclusion in the film. I was excited by this prospect and pleased because it could funnel a little cash into the pockets of my fellow performers, who were still subsisting on a five-dollars-a-show salary.

Several months later, they called with an offer: twenty dollars a week and a place on Fonda’s couch for me, but nothing for my friends – “because this is a real low-budget thing, we’re doing it because we believe in it” (as if we did not behave that way daily). I wrote them off angrily as spoiled brats and refused to play. Even in the realm of low-budget independent films and even in 1968, twenty dollars a week was a beggar’s wage.

The finished film added insult to injury when the two protagonists visit a commune in the Southwest where sincere and drab hippies, the kind of nutless townfolk John Wayne might have protected in a corny western, are given the full Hollywood spin as “good people,” as if they were Franciscan monks who just happened to smoke dope and dress funny. The community entertains itself by watching a clutch of dodos clump through a mindless commedia-type stage play announced by a crudely lettered sign as “Gorilla Theater” – an obvious travesty of the Mime Troupe’s guerilla theater and a backhanded slap at the communards, who are less hip than the individualistic, wandering biker heroes.

This was an inaccurate, smug, and insulting reflection of the life my friends and I were creating out of hard labor, with minimal assets and comforts. It was galling to see our style and our intentions misunderstood and misrepresented to the vast cinematic audience. What elicited my enduring scorn, however, was the film’s ending, where the two “free spirits” are blown off their motorcycles by rednecks in a pickup truck. This ending was more than infuriating and dishonest; it was counterpropaganda that suggested that the cost of living free in America was death – so if you don’t want to die, boys and girls, stay home and be audiences; real adventures are for charismatic, handsome people like Hollywood actors. But in fact, people were living “free” all over the United States at that time, dealing with the tough issues of subsistence, making peace with their neighbors, and developing appropriate spiritual and community practices while this sorry-ass subtext was being promulgated by guys who were queasy about leaving their safe haunts in their own hometown! This was the status quo in hip drag, and I was disgusted with it. I did not see Dennis Hopper for many years after that. When I did, we had both been resurrected as actors and men, and the joy of seeing him healthy and well (and the clusters of memories we share) wiped away all my bitter associations as if they had been fog.

Years have gone by since that film made a fortune and introduced America to national treasure Jack Nicholson. Peter, Dennis, and I have grown and changed, and I have no desire to chain anyone to an identity they’ve since transcended. However, that slow-motion cinematic death still burns in my mind as a betrayal of the sensibilities it capitalized on. Far fewer people will read these words than have seen that film, I am sure, but at least I’ve marked my objections, and I can drop that chip from an overloaded shoulder, leaving it in the road behind me with those crushed bikes, sprawled actors, and fake blood.

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Celebrity Profiles: Actress X

You get paid to be looked at. You get paid for looking away. The now infamous profile by Steve Marche, “Megan Fox Saves Herself”, embodies both ideas. It is an essay centered around looking, her moon pale skin, her divine symmetries; where another piece might note the sweater or unruly hair of the subject, here, the physical essence is its heart. This looking is not simply lexical, there are accompanying photos. The actress may not have been paid, or paid only a token fee, for this attention, but she gets the publicity of a magazine cover. There is also a looking away: the writer’s focus is only pm the extraordinary beauty of this person, the fame of these looks, and the evocation of mystic ritual to somehow capture the power of this woman’s symmetries. Though this entire transaction is financial (Fox gets her cover publicity, Esquire gets sales and clicks with their cover), the more direct, finance-based, question is never asked: is it possible that this beautiful woman, famous for her beauty, isn’t bankable at all?

The profile, almost always of female celebrities, where you get proximity and don’t get anything like proximity, did not begin and end with this piece, but is part of a long, painful tradition. The perspective of the essay reproduces the perspective of the accompanying photos: a beautiful woman, a more beautiful woman than we will ever know, is briefly made known to us, in her underwear or intimates, her being known to us, briefly, a moment of great significance to the humble man, because her looks are touched by the divine. For a small interval, a goddess walks among us. Such a profile enforces a relationship between an attractive woman and a writer, of object and adulator, and both parties hate it. It opens up both for mockery for playing these roles. “Esquire’s Interview with Megan Fox Is the Worst Thing Ever Written” wrote Jamie Lee Curtis Taete; five years prior, Ron Rosenbaum had asked1, of an essay on Angelina Jolie which accompanied a photo of her nude with a sheet, is this “The worst celebrity profile ever written?”. That the process is openly disliked by both is there in the profile itself, by Tom Chiarella of Halle Berry, “Halle Berry’s Date with a Perfect Stranger”: “I never like meeting celebrities. Worst part of the job, really. Invading someone’s life, if only for a moment — lousy. Everything you do is built upon a trust that is illusory at best, an utter lie at worst.” Chiarella describes throwing up all morning before these interviews, and of how one writer feels sickest right before the car arrives to take him to the meet: the sort of physical reaction one expects before a sitdown with a mafia chief or the head of a country’s secret police. They asked me, Chiarella has to repeat to himself, over and over again. They asked me.

That the writing is bad is not due to the writer, but the Procrustean bed in which he has been fitted: the woman will be photographed and positioned as an object of divine beauty, not simply as an attractive, charming, or incredibly eye-catching woman, but the most beautiful woman in the (United States/World/Universe) / of (the decade/century/history of earth) (Beyoncé, for example, has just been granted by GQ one such title). Tom Junod, the writer of the Jolie profile is a man of excellent skills with an enviable track record (there are many to choose from, but my favorite piece of his would be “Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?”). The problem is the constraint of writing an ode to a building that is not a building, a garden that is not a garden, a statue that is not a statue.

The beauty is presented as something mystic, something without limit, something outside man, infinity. This is not a new idea, and is simply a modern extension of what can be found in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:

To be certain, each of the sexes embodies the Other in the eyes of the complementary sex; but to his man’s eyes it is, in spite of everything, the woman who is often regarded as an absolute other. There is a mystical surpassing insofar as “we know that in and of ourselves we are insufficient, hence the power of woman over us, like the power of Grace.” The “we” here represents only males and not the human species, and faced with their imperfection, woman is the appeal of infinity.

That the woman does not simply have gorgeous skin or hair, but must be written of to embody this infinity is what provokes the risible metaphors. This infinity calls to mind the mystic and the overwhelming, so images associated with these are cited, and the association is ridiculous. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, asked one scribbler; that he was writing of a boy doesn’t matter. Simple modest lust has found more than enough in a newfound day to convey the pleasure in seeing the woman who carries the nimbus of all our hopes and appetites. Infinity, however, demands something greater; the Jolie profile asks, shall I compare thee to 9/11? The Fox piece: shall I compare thee to an Aztec sacrifice? What about the search for bigfoot? Leprechauns?

Like nuclear war, which Angelina Jolie’s gorgeous looks may or may not have been compared to, the only way to win this game is not to play it. Even, however, when the game is exposed as a game in the first paragraph of such a profile, the game continues to be forced on others. Here is Bill Zehme, a biographer of Andy Kaufman, laying it all out in the opening of his feature, “The Heather Graham Story”:

Here in the new world of magazine making, it is a distinct pleasure to give you precisely what you want. It is a pleasure most distinct. For instance, the various persons who nowadays frequently appear on our covers without wearing very many clothes appear there for you and for people just like you. They know that you want them to appear there as much as we want them to, especially because you want them to. Often, these cover persons are photographed weeks before a writer is dispatched to divine their inner truths and tender secrets–that which becomes the nutmeat of the text (this) that accompanies photographs like the ones you may be noticing at present (those).

What follows is less a profile of Graham than an examination of the celebrity profile process itself:

Here in the new world of celebrity appraisal, this is how things have been working: A writer is first permitted to meet a famous subject someplace other than the subject’s home (intrusive, presumptuous), and then they Go Do Things together (or Create Events) so that the writer can observe the subject attempt to Approximate Reality, whereupon the writer can then write about these experiences as though they were, in fact, actual unchoreographed happenstance, so that the reader will gain visceral glimpses of revelatory behavioral traits, or candor, thus rich insight. If this sounds like fun, it is. Publicists and editors generally broker the details of such staged assignations between client and writer, so that the initial meeting will often feel like a blind date–albeit one set up by other people whose judgment (both parties pray) will be trustworthy. If this sounds exciting, it is.

This was one way to evade the usual indignities; the other is “Halle Berry’s Date with a Perfect Stranger”, where the profile is actually an interview of Tom Chiarella by Berry, with the writer, Tom Chiarella, appearing in the footnotes. It’s more entertaining than Zehme’s piece, and probably the best I’ve read in this cringeworthy genre: the hilarious buddy movie that the actress hasn’t made yet. Berry laughs at the fact that Chiarella is trying to lose weight and avoids the bread, but eats the pastrami. “Hey, genius, ever heard of the Atkins diet?”, quips a footnote. The essay does not feel like an escape to a gossamer world of breath-taking unearthly objects, but very much our own. Chiarella writes of an ex-wife delivering premature babies from crack addicts who quote scripture instead of taking birth sedatives. When Berry enters the restaurant, her name is sounded through the crowd of diners like a drum signal, and the sensation does not feel welcome or comforting, a sensation far more acute than the banality celebrity is hard stuff, guys!, but Berry takes no notice: “The woman could walk a steel wire through an ice storm”, Chiarella writes, admiringly. That the work of Zehme and Chiarella has not ended the genre is because movies still need advertising, celebrity profiles are free (or close to it) advertising, and what Zehme and Chiarella do is not safe. The Graham profile shifts the focus to the profile itself; in the Berry profile, Chiarella comes off better than Berry, simply because one is an experienced writer, and one isn’t: even a goddess has her limits.

The sole purpose of this exercise, after all, is to sell a movie and to sell mags. This is a profile designed around the photos of the woman, and its primary function is to pose this woman’s physique as something close to divine, and to present an intimacy that is not intimacy. The movies are a business, the magazines are a business, the woman is a business. This is made clear in the ways the article is made search engine friendly2. Zehme’s “The Heather Graham Story” gets the title “Heather Graham Hot Pics – Sexy Photos of Actress Heather Graham”; Chiarella’s “Halle Berry’s Date With A Perfect Stranger” has “Halle Berry Photos – Hot Pictures of Halle Berry in Lingerie”; Carla Gugino, an actress I’m greatly sympathetic to and whose talents are substantial, receives the aboveboard “Carla Gugino: A Woman We Love” and the belowboard “Carla Gugino Nude Pics – Carla Gugino Naked Pictures and Video”; Naomi Watts and Rosario Dawson are given nunly discretion with, Watts’ “Naomi Watts: The Storm Took Its Sweet Time Building” carrying “Naomi Watts Pictures – Naomi Watts Photos and Interview” while Dawson has the dignity of an article where the web page title matches that of the profile, “Breaking Commandments with Rosario Dawson”; Angelina Jolie “Dies For Our Sins”, and since she’s anyway dying, sin away with “Angelina Jolie Photos – Sexy Gallery and Profile of Angelina Jolie”; Megan Fox is offering herself up for sacrifice, as the article title implies, “Megan Fox is Saving Herself” but she’s offering herself up as well, as the web page title implies: “Megan Fox Cover Interview – Megan Fox Sexy Photos”. Fox may be a beauty that connects her to a long mystic tradition, but the essay’s accompanying photos carry the tags of the material world: “Megan Fox Lingerie”, “Megan Fox Sexy”, “Megan Fox Dress”, “Megan Fox Breasts”. It seems we campaign in poetry, govern in biology.

So, the potential reader, or more likely, potential viewer, is expected to be an impatiently sex hungry lowbrow, an inferior creature in supplicatory adoration of this greater object. Though I don’t think I’m a big fan of A.J. Jacobs’ work, his “Breaking Commandments with Rosario Dawson”, assumes the aptest pose for all this: because of a book he was writing that I don’t think I want to read, he must live biblically, spending some time with the gorgeous actress without besmirching himself with sinful thoughts. That he must be so close to this woman who will be presented as an erotic object, without any erotic possibility, where the very evasion of the erotic only emphasizes the erotic quality of the object, all these are the common traits of the writer’s role in these profiles, acting as the reader’s proxy; the dutiful schoolboy composing laudatory odes of this distant goddess, all while trying so very hard not to masturbate.

That this approach is not inevitable given its subject, even a female performer who defines herself by her sex, can be found in other profiles. There is the possibility that “Jenna Jameson’s Forbidden Desires”, about the porn star, and “The Dirtiest Girl In The World”, about Sasha Grey have a different tone because the writer is female than male, and certainly the talents of Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author of both, are formidable3, but a large part of the distinction is the simple choice to write of these women, not as objects of divine beauty briefly granted to humanity, but as one writes of any man or woman, the closely observed details forming a portrait, which, though not unsympathetic, does not create the amorphous pliant image of, to employ the Esquire style, hot sexy Sasha Grey acting hot and sexy! Jameson comes across as savvy, tough, with a growing disenthusiasm for porn, and a low simmering hostility towards the rest of the world. Do you remember me from that night in New York, asks a fan, I spent twenty thou on you. If you spent twenty thou on me, Jameson replies, I would have remembered you, before she turns away4. There’s a mention of how awful it is to get your period in Vegas, and only one mention, in the story’s middle of her looks: “Her body is really beautiful. Everything except for her breasts is utterly in proportion, her skin creamy, thighs and ass taut, no evident blemishes or cellulite.”

Grey comes across as a horny boy’s genie wish, the typical such wish gone awry, though it’s exactly what’s been wished for: a beautiful smart girl, who’s also into girls, with the sexual hunger and attitude of a man. Sometimes women are referred to by their genitalia, and some might refer to female genitalia as an abyss: Grey is an abyss that stares back. The overwhelming sense of her is someone smart, cold, dedicated, and intimidating, able to switch an erotic hunger on and off like a switch. She lives a carnal life on-screen, but an aesthete’s one off: she has only slept with six men, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink. Again, there is only a brief, unpoetic mention of her looks: “At five feet six and 110 pounds, with straight black hair that shoots to her lumbar spine, Grey’s naked body is exquisite and natural, with taut skin free of blemishes and tattoos (she resembles Kate Beckinsale in physique, and her affect is a similar mix of languor and brutal hauteur).” In different circumstances, she might have been a hedge fund manager rumored to own a mansion with a well-equipped dungeon, or the notorious head of a revolutionary cell, known throughout tsarist russia for her discipline, endurance, and lack of mercy. “You’re like the wife!”, she yells at her sweet, liberal fiancé. As they say, this is what you want, this is what you get.

Another approach can be found in, “Leap of Faith” by Adam Green, last month’s Vogue profile of Anne Hathaway. It is actual life sculpted into fantasy, though a fantasy as active subject, rather than object, a fantasy that would appeal to some women: being very successful in a competitive and glamorous profession, getting the role of Fantime, being photographed by Mario Testino, ending up married to a solid, kind man, wedded in a wedding gown designed by Valentino. Though Steve Marche, in the Fox profile, turns up his nose at many attractive women, I think even he would concede the beauty of Hathaway, but this quality is only given a one sentence mention: “Hathaway is known for walking the red carpet in Valentino or Stella McCartney, but I can report that she also looks pretty swell in a T-shirt and jeans.” Her looks are obvious, and they must be considerable if she’s on the cover of Vogue, but the degree of such beauty goes unstressed. Dwelling on such a thing would imply less a gift, than an inconvenience – being a well-admired statue gets in the way of doing actual work. For this is the other striking difference from the other profiles, as it gives lengthy space to her surrounding workplace of Les Misérables, what the part involves, and what she did to prepare for it. It remains, I think, movie life portrayed as fantasy: there are no saccharine episodes, but we get only the good moments of film-making, a hard-working cast and crew getting along. That she is at work, actual difficult work, of which she is a part of a larger project, rather than a vanity piece seemingly designed around her, there is no question, and that this is part of the fantasy there is no question either; the active achieving life, rather than life as still object. At one point, on set and in costume, Hathaway, rail thin with two missing teeth, asks the Vogue writer, teasingly, aren’t you going to tell me how I look? It is followed with: “Welcome to my world.” One wonders, what world? The world of acting, or the world where it’s decided one’s chief role is as an object of desire and all else is a detriment to that?

Work is what all these women seek, and it is the search for work, the difficulty of finding good work in Hollywood, which is the undertone of many of the profiles. “We are supposed to be actors, aren’t we?”, asked Carla Gugino with exasperation over people being unable to link her to a specific part from the varied ones she’s played. In 2000, Heather Graham was declared to be the twenty-sixth sexiest woman in the world, but: “it’s still hard to get some jobs.” Adam Stein writes in “The Summer of Jessica Biel” of her role in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “there has got to be better material than this.” Or, perhaps not, he thinks, as he moves on to her work in Cellular and Blade: Trinity. Biel, in the profile: “I want choices. I want options. I want to lay out all the directions I could go and have the ability to choose.”

Doing publicity such as this, to be photographed in your underwear and for others to wax lyrical about, supposedly expands the choices available to you, demonstrating that you are co-operative and willing in the studio’s wishes, that you will do your part to generate publicity for a movie; of course, such publicity demands are all in your contract, but you are helpful enough to allow them to be in your contract. The humble demographic mass of men may have nothing like the powers of this exceptional woman, a goddess, but they have one: they can make her strip. In being given the gift of one infinity, another is taken away, because beauty fades. The woman defined as a divinity by her looks will discover soon that she is no longer divine, and she will be defined by what she used to be, what she is not now, a fallen goddess, and people will take pleasure in her taking this fall, at her arrogance for even assuming a title of divinity, even when it was given to her by others. In reply to a Slate article, “Porn and the media: How the pornography industry wants to be covered”, one commenter wrote: “‘Entourage’ in no way means that Sasha Grey has gone mainstream. She will be back doing the adult film stuff in no time, if she isn’t already. Because she’s good at it, and not very good at all at the mainstream stuff.” It was said, I think, not without glee, and even as cold-blooded an animal as Grey might feel heartbreak at this dismissal. Some glee might be felt over this heartbreak as well, as if some sword had finally managed to pierce the skin of some deadly beast.

Marche, in an infamous passage of “Megan Fox Saves Herself”, writes:

Megan Fox is a bombshell. To be a bombshell in 2013 is to be an antiquity, an old-world relic, like movie palaces or fountain pens or the muscle cars of the 1970s or the pinball machines in the basement. Bombshells once used to roam the cultural landscape like buffalo, and like buffalo they were edging toward extinction.

Liberation and degradation both played their part. If you want to see naked women, of virtually any kind, do virtually anything to their bodies, it’s a click away. And women no longer need to be beautiful in order to express their talent. Lena Dunham and Adele and Lady Gaga and Amy Adams are all perfectly plain, and they are all at the top of their field.

There’s no doubt that this transformation has been overwhelmingly excellent. But we’re losing something in this process. Because creativity is, was, and always will be sexual. Some of the very first works of art were figures of hugely fecund women dropped all over Europe tens of thousands of years ago. American movies expressed that great fusion of sex and art, too. They are magnificent pagan dreams, utterly profane and glorious. Such movies need bombshells. They need to consume beautiful flesh in their sacrifices.

De Beauvoir, in Second Sex, anticipates all this, and invokes the mystic tradition just as Marche does:

In any case, some will object that if such a world is possible, it is not desirable. When woman is “the same” as her male, life will lose “its spice.” This argument is not new either: those who have an interest in perpetuating the present always shed tears for the marvelous past about to disappear without casting a smile on the young future. It is true that by doing away with slave markets, we destroyed those great plantations lined with azaleas and camellias, we dismantled the whole delicate Southern civilization; old lace was put away in the attics of time along with the pure timbres of the Sistine castrati, and there is a certain “feminine charm” that risks turning to dust as well. I grant that only a barbarian would not appreciate rare flowers, lace, the crystal clear voice of a eunuch, or feminine charm. When shown in her splendor, the “charming woman” is a far more exalting object than “the idiotic paintings, over-doors, decors, circus backdrops, sideboards, or popular illuminations” that maddened Rimbaud; adorned with the most modern of artifices, worked on with the newest techniques, she comes from the remotest ages, from Thebes, Minos, Chichén Itzà; and she is also the totem planted in the heart of the African jungle; she is a helicopter and she is a bird; and here is the greatest wonder: beneath her painted hair, the rustling of leaves becomes a thought and words escape from her breasts. Men reach out their eager hands to the marvel; but as soon as they grasp it, it vanishes; the wife and the mistress speak like everyone else, with their mouths: their words are worth exactly what they are worth; their breasts as well. Does such a fleeting miracle — and one so rare — justify perpetuating a situation that is so damaging for both sexes? The beauty of flowers and women’s charms can be appreciated for what they are worth; if these treasures are paid for with blood or misery, one must be willing to sacrifice them.

The poses in the photos from the Fox piece, the whole purpose of the enterprise, glow not so much with sensuality, but boredom. One, of Fox lying on a couch in a white dress with a partly see through top, evokes despair. What perhaps helped Fox as much as her appearance in Transformers were some accompanying photos for a GQ story (“Megan Fox was a Teenage Lesbian!”, by Mark Kirby), shot by Terry Richardson, which emanate a raw, nasty sexiness5. The current Esquire pictures, especially the cover, suggest a hostage situation: the game is dull now, the game has been dull for quite a while. In “The Self-Manufacture of Megan Fox” by Lynn Hirschberg, she complained, “I do live in a glass box. And I am on display for men to pay to look at me. And that bothers me. I don’t want to live that character.” That was three years ago.

Occasionally, I copy the sentence of the book I’m reading so I can keep track of where I am. One, from my notes, is “We won’t be pinned down, either. We have no one law that governs us. For me there is only one law: I am I.” It’s from Lawrence’s Twilight of the Unconscious; but I was sure it was from The Second Sex.

(Originally, this piece was supposed to be part of something slightly longer, dealing with other themes – whether it ever assumes this other, native ideal, is an open question. On July 18th, 2014, footnote #5 was added.)


1 Though I knew of this piece beforehand, and was planning on referencing it, I think I would be remiss if I did not mention that a Slate podcast which deals with, among other subjects, the Steve Marche profile, brings it up as well, along with the earlier Lynn Hirschberg piece on Fox. I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that Junod gave a reply to Rosenbaum’s piece: “Tom Junod Responds To 2,000-Word Slate Swipe”.

2 Again, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Choire Sicha, in his evisceration of the Marche piece, “Lena Dunham, Adele, Lady Gaga, Amy Adams All Very Ugly, Says ‘Esquire'”, also brings up the strange contrast between the titles written for swooning hearts, and the titles written for, well, let’s say more earthly purposes, and designed for search engines; the slate podcast makes the point as well.

3 Though just about every by Grigoriadis is worth reading, I’ll quote a section from her recent “Bret Easton Ellis’s Real Art Form Is the Tweet”:

And then we’re sauntering down the well-proportioned corridors of the mall at the same lugubrious tempo as everyone else, and he’s talking about the Microsoft swag event in Venice last week, and he’s saying “it’s crazy it’s so nice out—it’s the winter.” And he buys some noise-canceling Bose headphones that he selects from under a blue sign with white lettering that reads GIVE THEM WHAT THEY REALLY WANT and we go into the Mac store to get him an iPhone case and he looks at them but thinks they’re too expensive and he gets flustered and says “it’s so fucking annoying” but buys one anyway. And we’re back outside waiting for a coffee and people are buying Christmas cards and he’s talking about the Gus Van Sant premiere that he walked out of last night because he likes to sit in a particular place in the ­theater and he was nowhere near that place.

The next paragraph begins: “In a lot of ways, it’s more Ellis’s world than ever, as if he had invented it.” And, of course, the previous paragraph, done without explicit mention of its intent, is a pitch-perfect imitation of Ellis’s style.

4 This is a slight, unmalicious, juggling of the material. I give the original section from which this is taken from.

There’s a bodyguard and a rope blocking the banquette, but people keep leaning over. “Do you remember me from that night in New York?” asks a guy with a goatee. “I spent $20,000 on you.”

“Um, I think I would remember if you spent $20,000 on me,” says Jameson, turning away.

Another man grabs her hand.

“You give me pleasure,” he whispers.

“Ewww she shrieks, cowering. “I’m so over this.”

5 The mention of this infamous photographer in this context, and perhaps in any context, perhaps requires an explanatory caveat. The allegations against Richardson go beyond what is labeled “scandalous behavior”, and fall under the catergory of coerced sex. Some of these allegations can be found at “Why I’m Finally Speaking Up About What Terry Richardson Did to Me” by Anna Del Gaizo, “Terry Richardson Is Really Creepy: One Model’s Story” by Jamie Peck, “Another Model Comes Forward With Horrible Terry Richardson Allegations” by Callie Beusman (this model would turn out to be Charlotte Waters, as mentioned in “Anonymous Model Who Accused Terry Richardson of Assault Comes Forward”, also by Beusman), “Everything Wrong With New York Magazine’s Terry Richardson Cover Story” by Callie Beusman (commenting on the original profile, “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” by Benjamin Wallace), and “A Horrifying Timeline of Terry Richardson Allegations, From Trash Cans to Tampon Tea” by Hannah Ongley. I think Richardson is a talented photographer, someone whose photos are very effective at coveying youth and energy, though I also think his talents are narrow. They take all things and convey only these qualities, or nothing. Where the photographs of Herb Ritts focus on textual contrasts, such as taut skin and hard grains of sand, or Helmut Newton produces unsettling, unassuring nightmare scapes, Richardson’s photos take the Hugh Hefner aesthetic of turning sex into a harmless, friendly and unthreatening playground, then amps up the mass franchise sunniness. The essay that best captures the Richardson aesthetic isn’t about Richardson, but BuzzFeed: “794 Ways in Which BuzzFeed Reminds Us of Impending Death” by Heather Havrilesky. Richardson’s photo of Megan Fox is like his photo of Mila Kunis, which is like his photo of Sasha Grey, which is like his photos of the cast of Glee: youth and sexiness is conveyed in each, the “eternal, unnervingly upbeat present tense”, to use Havrilesky’s phrase, with nothing of the actual performer conveyed. There is something in BuzzFeed‘s quizes and lists which tends to banal anonymity, and despite their erotic vibrancy, there is something in Richardson’s pictures that is ultimately anonymous – the subjects are stripmined for this erotic vibrancy, and everything else is left behind. Absent the youthful sexy feeling, when Richardson photographs Angela Lansbury, Woody Allen, or Oprah Winfrey, there is just absence. There is an emptiness underneath the happy sexiness of Richardson’s happy sexy photos, and here there is just emptiness.

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Gore Vidal (1925-2012): The Patrician Defector

He wrote often of politics, sometimes very compellingly, not as the rabblerouser grafittiing up a monument, but an exile from the patrician elite. John Kennedy asked him to help kill a story on his Addison’s, and he heard first hand from Eleanor Roosevelt of the measure of Kennedy pere‘s indifference to Nazi domination of Europe*. The conspiracies of the political class in his novels and essays are accompanied by no ominous piano chords; it’s everyday work to treat certain people less well, not stemming from the evil of any man, but a common feeling that there are lessers and betters, and it’s no great issue for the lessers to get a little swindled or have a few of their children die in a war, and any petulance on the part of the lessers to this is rather tiresome. That Roosevelt allowed the bombing of Pearl Harbor so that the U.S. might enter the war is given not as dramatic revelation, but a casual aside, and the very casualness gives it the aspect of truth, though the underlying facts do not. The sordid details of this class are told, not as blemishes on a myth, but like the bathroom life of anyone. Yes, of course Lincoln had slept with whores. Yes, of course Mary Lincoln had gone insane because of syphilis contracted from her husband. This is related to the guileless reader not in a tone of angry defacement, but the mild exasperation of the sophomore advising a wide-eyed innocent who’s never given a blow job**.

The american political system of his novels and essays was no idealistic engine, or even such an engine gone astray, but resembled something like the politburo, its members pre-sculpted for the demands of the institution, the institution and its interests demanding fealty to those interests first, all while making a few happy noises about god’s children and equality as necessary cover. The exceptional presidents, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, were those who became double agents at the pyramid’s zenith, giving assurances to the moneymen and influence holders that they would be following orders, then through guise and guile, having the audacity to do a few things for the people’s benefit. Vidal wrote of this as a separate world, like a defector who’d scaled america’s own iron curtain, a Gilded Wall perhaps, and his manner was always of his exiled class. His attitude could be as disdainful as a soviet agent now stuck among malls where nobody’s heard of Tolstoy. The infamous sparring with William Buckley was not a fight between the within and the without, but something like a debate between Khruschev’s propaganda minister and an emigré spy chief, men who disliked each other, but were both familiar with the texture of Russia’s black earth and could quote Lermontov with ease.

His father served under Roosevelt as head of the FAA, and his sister, through his mother’s re-marriage, was an obscure figure sometimes known as Jackie O. He was often seen as a liberal, and this may have been a mis-indictment. Vidal’s politics were those of a man of the west, forever suspicious of the stock jobbing con men back east. His isolationism took after William Jennings Bryan, as did his other ruling passion, a horror for paper currency. Some saw his siding with Timothy McVeigh, in part because of the latter’s cause for a metal currency, as a momentary lunacy, when it was nothing of the kind: the animus of paper dollars is there in his scathing look of Alexander Hamilton in Burr, and the deal over scrip in Lincoln. This was not a man who was moved to a better life for others after seeing his father destroyed by coal mine work, or someone who might happily pore through inches of labour stats. He wanted as small a government as possible, but as long as the ruling committee were going to raise funds for ordinance to kill Vietnamese or Koreans, they might as well spend that cash on schools and hospitals. He likewise had no interest in ivory tower theories on sexuality or being part of any guild because of a sexual act. You pulled certain people into bed, and all that he required was that no meddlesome fanatic should intrude: if a certain pesky Nazarene’s act hadn’t caught on, Rome would have been a better place, and so would the United States.

When he was to be cast as the snob villain in the terrible movie With Honors, the producers wanted someone with a haughtier Oxbridge accent, but Joe Pesci demurred: “Why go with one of these english assholes when we’ve got one of our own?” I am a far more sentimental man than Vidal, but I find the necessity to find a compassionate humanity to enwreath in epitaph as tiresome as he would, something like an inverse Egyptian death ritual, where a beating heart is now placed back in the body. I didn’t read Vidal because of his overwhelming kindness, any more than I read him for christian ethics. His essays, and some of his fiction, were good because they had an easy, funny eloquence; as usual, of course, I mean easy as easy to enjoy, not easy to achieve. This photo, accompanying a memorable eulogy by Christopher Buckley, shows the imperial look of a gorgeous young man, which emphatically declares “No…I don’t think I’ll be sleeping with you.” Such an attitude impairs his novels, where the characters are simple puppets of a political system, as well as simple puppets of the writer, but that same arrogance only enhances his essay work, which is joyfully piercing and arsenic stained. Lee Siegel points to Vidal’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky as an example of his empathy with the working poor. I observe instead a man who had an unostentatious ethic that you do solid, good craftsmanship, whatever the material, if someone’s paying you for it. His scriptwork on Ben-Hur demonstrates this same principle, not any hidden sympathy for the teachings of the galilean carpenter. He was as prolific a writer, a sitting at a desk activity, as he was at a sleeping in a bed activity, and he looked at both with a lack of piety: you read not because you wish to kneel at any holy place, but for the same selfish pleasure that the cruel, heartbreakingly beautiful boy or girl gets chosen over the kind-hearted wallflower.

His last years were not his best, the casual asides of state evil becoming now something witlessly screechy. The cruel dismissal of Roman Polanski’s rape victim suggests to me nothing more than Michael Richards, a comedian whose old material is getting a nonplussed stare, so he tries for a rise with a few vile fireworks. A last brief skirmish involved a Minnesota schizophrenic, mistakenly admitted to Congress rather than a more apt public institution, who credited her political genesis to the violent offense she felt at Thomas Jefferson’s depiction in Burr. The man who’d served in World War II and made his own fortune through writing embodied once again anti-capitalism and anti-americanism, this time for a woman who’d spent most of her pre-political time at the IRS, almost all of it on maternity leave. Great, he might have thought. My epitaph’s now going to read, Gore Vidal, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, wit, skeptic, and: co-creator of Michelle Bachmann. He prophesied many times the coming end of the United States, and, once again, it couldn’t come soon enough.

POSTSCRIPT (21/07/2014): Though I took some small pride in this concept of a patrician in exile, it was while looking through an old issue of Playboy (the magazine is an invaluable source for research, with the monomorphous perversity funding excellent reporting and interviews), that I came across this very same insight in a Q and A with Saul Bellow. From their May 1997 issue:

PLAYBOY: You’re already on record for saying that writers seldom wish other writers well. Did winning the Nobel Prize widen the gulf between you and your peers?

BELLOW: I suppose that was Truman’s problem. Maybe even Gore Vidal’s problem. Gore never mentions me without treating my head like an ashtray, flicking his cigarette on it.

PLAYBOY: Hold on. Vidal said in Palimpsest that, with the exception of you, his “celebrated contemporaries all seem to have stopped learning in their 20s.”

BELLOW: Well, that’s true. But I looked up some of the references in that book and they were not as kind as all that. He can’t resist putting me down.

PLAYBOY: Is Vidal a better nonfiction or fiction writer?

BELLOW: His novels lack originality. His essays are much more interesting. Gore Vidal is a good writer, he’s just not as good as he thinks he is. I often thought of Gore as a patrician who got trapped among plebeians, and somehow he was condemned by his sexual perferences to live a level or two beneath the station to which he’s entitled. He’s always resented it a great deal: He doesn’t see why homosexuals should not also be aristocrats. Well, he’s right about that.

* The sentence of an earlier edition of this post read instead “he knew from his father of Joseph Kennedy’s enthusiastic desire to help Nazi Germany”; I mis-remembered that Vidal heard from Eleanor, not his father. I’ve also slightly shifted the claim to safer ground. What Eleanor related to Vidal was of her husband being deeply, deeply offended by what his former ambassador gave as advice. FDR was a cold-blooded political realist, isolationism was not difficult to find in the country, yet somehow, what Kennedy said to the president went so far as to cause him to never want to see this man again. It was not blackmail, because the president happily took up cudgels against his former ambassador. It can be presumed to be something truly vile, in the context of the war, but what that is, from Vidal’s claim of Eleanor’s remembrance, is unknown. The original sentence perhaps weighed the scales down too much, but perhaps not entirely without basis.

My knowledge of this incident comes from Seymour Hersh’s disturbing and controversial The Dark Side of Camelot.

Here is the context prior to the last meeting of ambassador Kennedy and the president.

Three days after the [1940 presidential election], [Joseph] Kennedy self-destructed. In an interview with Louis Lyons of the Boston Globe and two other journalists, he essentially declared that Hitler had won the war in Europe. “Democracy is finished in England,” Kennedy told Lyons. “Don’t let anybody tell you you can get used to incessant bombing. There’s nowhere in England they aren’t getting it…It’s a question of how long England can hold out…I’m willing to spend all I’ve got to keep us out of the war. There’s no sense in our getting in. We’d just be holding the bag.” The story made headlines. Ther American response was devastating for Kennedy: thousands of citizens wrote Roosevelt urging him to fire his defeatist ambassador.

Here is Eleanor’s recall of the meeting itself, related to Vidal:

Roosevelt finally lashed out at Kennedy after a private meeting with him at Thanksgiving: Kennedy was to be a weekend guest of the president and his wife at their estate at Hyde Park. It is not known precisely what took place, but Roosevelt ordered Kennedy to leave. Eleanor Roosevelt later told the writer Gore Vidal that she had never seen her husband so angry. Kennedy had been alone with the president no longer than ten minutes. Mrs. Roosevelt related, when an aide informed her that she was to go immediately to her husband’s ofice.

So I rushed into the office and there was Franklin, white as a sheet. He asked Mr. Kenendy to step outside and then he said, and his voice was shaking, “I never want to see that man again as long as I live. Get him out of here.” I said, “But, dear, you’ve invited him for the weekend, and we’ve got guests for lunch and the train doesn’t leave until two,” and Franklin said, “Then you drive him around Hyde Park and put him on that train.” And I did and it was the most dreadful four hours of my life.

Just what happened between the two men is now known, but Vidal, recounting the scene in a 1971 essay for the New York Review of Books, quoted Mrs. Roosevelt as wistfully adding, “I wonder if the true story of Joe Kennedy will ever be known.” (Discussing the scene years later, in an interview for this book, Vidal said he thought at the time that Mrs. Roosevelt’s real message was not only that the truth about Kennedy would not be known, but that it would be “too dangerous to tell.”)

The book then follows with a possibility of what led to this complete rupture:

Published and private reports available to the White House and the British Foreign Ministry early in 1941 alleged that a notorious Wall Street speculator named Bernard E. “Ben” Smith had traveled to Vichy France in an attempt to revive an isolationist plan, favored by Kennedy, to provide Germany with a large gold loan in exchange for a pledge of peace. Kennedy, still intent on saving American capitalism from the ravages of war, was described in one British document as “doing everything in his power to try and bring this about.” Smith, known as “Sell ‘Em Ben” in his Wall Street heyday, was identified as Kennedy’s emissary. In a confidential report to the Foreign Ministry dated February 4, Kennedy was reported to have sent Smith to visit senior officials of Vichy France in an effort to encourage “Hitler to try to find some formula for the reconstruction of Europe…Having secured this, [Kennedy] hoped that, with the help of two prominent persons in England [he could] start an agitation in England in favour of a negotiated peace.” Roosevelt learned of the Kennedy plan in advance, according to the Foreign Office report, and was able to abort it. Smith, a heavy contributor to Wendell Willkie’s presidential campaign, did travel to Vichy France in late 1940, but the plan went nowhere.

** I give a better example of this casual intimacy with a ruling class than what is there in the opening paragraph or the first footnote; it is the beginning of the essay “Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy”, from The Second American Revolution and Other Essays (1976-1982) which I came across around November 21, 2013, the date on which this footnote was added:

In Washington, D.C., there is – or was – a place where Rock Creek crosses the main road and makes a ford which horses and, later, car could cross if the creek was not in flood. Half a hundred years ago, I lived with my grandparents on a wooded hill not far from the ford. On summer days, my grandmother and I would walk down to the creek, careful to avoid the poison ivy that grew so luxuriously amid the crowded laurel. We would then walk beside the creek, looking out for crayfish and salamanders. When we came to the ford, I would ask her to tell me, yet again, what happened when the old President Roosevelt – not the current President Roosevelt – had come riding out of the woods on a huge horse just as two ladies on slow nags had begun a slow crossing of the ford.

“Well, suddenly, Mr. Roosevelt screamed at them, ‘Out of my way!'” My grandmother imitated the president’s harsh falsetto. “Stand to one side, women. I am the President.” What happened next? I’d ask, delighted. “Oh, they were both soaked to the skin by his horse’s splashing all over them. But then, the very next year,” she would say with some satisfaction “nice Mr. Taft was the president.” Plainly, there was a link in her mind between the Event at the Ford and the change in the presidency. Perhaps there was. In those stately pre-personal days you did not call ladies women.

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Big-Eared Tu (Tu Yueh-Sheng): Great Non-Fictional Character

(What follows is a mild re-arrangement of content from Sterling Seagrave’s too little known The Soong Dynasty)

He was a man with the relaxed, satisfied eyes of a well-fed rat in a starving city. His shaved egg-shaped head was flanked, of course, by large jug ears. He was born very poor, his parents died when he was very young, and he was given frequent beatings by his adoptive uncle, leaving him a face that was a pile of lumps surrounding large, yellow teeth. Born in Kaochiao, it was on the Shanghai waterfront that he made his career, first as a pear seller, then as an opium dealer and killer for hire.

There were three gangs, the red, the blue, and the green which dominated the port city. Tu started out in the red, before the three joined forces, and Tu was made head of the green gang, which would soon take over all opium traffic in the city’s international settlement, that part controlled by colonial powers such as France, Germany, and Japan, where their respective citizens worked and pleasured. Tu would end up controlling all the city’s opium, and all the city’s guilds, from longshoremen to bank tellers. Shanghai’s postal workers let him pry into any man’s mail. Any company he wanted, he bent their board of directors to his will, and their employees made part of a guild that marched to his orders. Occasionally, a man might disagree with big-eared Tu. That man would be sent a gorgeous coffin, and that man would then come round to a different way of thinking. Tu soon had millions from others’ easy living, and he gave it away freely. He gave freely to widows, he gave freely to orphans, all of Shanghai’s many misfortunates. He liked nothing better than bullying Shanghai’s pawnbrokers, the vermin who preyed on the indebted. He relaxed by smoking opium with the Blue Chamber District’s prostitutes, women who had feet bound to three inches or less.

Big-eared Tu knew the Kungs, the family that ran the Shanghai banks. Big-eared Tu went to whorehouses with Chiang Kai-Shek. During the beginning of the Chinese civil war between the communists and the nationalists, it was the green gang led by big-eared Tu, with help from the colonial powers, which liberated Shanghai for Chiang, the city’s merchants paying a hefty tax for their liberation. With Chiang in power, Tu became a respectable figure, not only sitting on the Currency Reserve Board, but lauded as an influential resident and well-known public welfare worker in Shanghai’s Who Who. He continued to control opium, not just in Shanghai, but throughout China, with Yunnan province bright with the red, white, and mauve colors of the crop. He exported heroin overseas, sometimes in diplomats’ luggage, and when he couldn’t meet local opium demand with local supply, he imported from Persia. Tu remained a close friend of the state, and it was this closeness that allowed the traffic to take place. A good chunk of drug sales went into the treasury, allowing finances to stay upright, whatever financial mis-steps the state might make. When the government had a bond sale, green gang soldiers strong-armed Shanghai merchants into buying them. When american warplanes needed to be bought to fight communists, Tu gave up the cash. Once, the finance minister’s wife tried to be helpful, and told Tu of some upcoming foreign exchange transactions, so he could make a little change. Tu misheard the advice, and lost a good chunk of money. When he asked the finance minister to be compensated for his loss, he got a rare refusal. That night, the finance minister was gifted with a beautiful coffin. He convened the central bank’s board, and reimbursed a patriotic citizen.

When outrage became overwhelming at the plague of opium addiction in the country, Chiang organized a National Opium Suppression Committee, which simply formalized the tithes drug producers handed over to the state. Tu was made a Chief Communist Suppression Agent fo Shanghai, giving him and the gang license to do violence to whoever they wished. The new deal was sealed with six million dollars handed over to Chiang as advance down payment. Even Tu could sometimes change his mind, and right afterwards, he asked for the money back. The prime minister gave back the six million, but in government bonds. That week, when the prime minister was leaving Shanghai’s train station, a group of men fired a mass of bullets at him and his bodyguards. The prime minister’s secretary, walking alongside him, was riddled with bullets and died. The prime minister, unscathed, got a message as lucid as an ornate coffin: we can hit you as easily as we can hit him. The french administration soon tried to take a hard line on opium as well. Tu paid off the consul-general and police captain of Shanghai’s french area, but the hard line persisted and the two men were recalled. Tu invited both men to his house for a farewell banquet, after which both became violently ill, the consul dying in agony. A dinner guest later noticed that Tu always drank his tea from a small golden teapot, kept only for his use, its cover sealed by a golden chain, its spout so thin and snaking nothing might be placed in it.

After WW II, Tu’s power faded. He was a dealer who’d for decades gotten high on his own supply. He had a the wealth of a pasha, and rotten teeth. His eyes were dark and blurry as swamp water. When his son got involved in stock fraud, the son was arrested, tried, and convicted. If anyone got a coffin, it made no difference now. When the communists fought again for Shanghai, Tu would not be fighting back. He fled to Hong Kong days before Mao’s takeover, there to spend the last years of his life, so poisoned with dope he could no longer walk. When he was still at his zenith, he took out the usual death insurance, and was baptised in the christian faith. That no lightning struck the church might be taken as a symptom of an undemonstrative divinity, a very forgiving divinity, or no divinity at all. Chiang’s wife thought she saw a sign that the creed had been sincerely embraced: kidnappings in Shanghai, after all, had gone down.

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Reuben Sturman: Great Non-Fictional Character

(The following is a slight re-arrangement of content in Eric Schlosser’s underestimated and strangely obscure Reefer Madness, an excellent trio on dark markets of drugs, pornography, and migrant labour, that should be far better known, and has had me pining hard for his next major piece of writing. What follows, obviously, deals with the content of Reuben Sturman, a colossus of the obscenity economy, whose obscurity is equally strange as Mr. Schlosser’s book. The detail of the swan filled lake at Sturman’s mansion is from Dave Gardetta’s fascinating “Doctor’s Orders”.)

Of the four men of prominence who made fortunes in obscenity, three easily summon up an image. Hugh Hefner is the slightly handsy pajama clad grandfather, eternally obsessed with the donna angelicata of Illinois; Bob Guccione is the craftsman on a renaissance church who sells dirty engravings on the side; Larry Flynt is the backwoods youth who had sex with chickens but also pushed himself through Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The fourth, Reuben Sturman, summons nothing and is unknown to almost all: the one who once made the largest fortune making women more visible is the invisible man.

His parents were russian emigrants, and they ran a grocery in Cleveland. Whatever influence they had on his life, there were two that had a greater one: Sanford Aday and Earl Warren. Sturman graduated from Western Reserve university, became an affable wholesaler of comics and other mags which he built into an eight city wide business, was married with three kids. Along with comics, he sold crossword, movie, and car mags. At an employee’s suggestion, he started distributing titles that would outsell everything else he had twenty times. These were nude mags and erotic pulps. One of these was Sex Life of a Cop. The book was written by Sanford Aday, and got Sturman his first obscenity indictment, after which he sued J. Edgar Hoover for violating his civil rights. It was the start of a lifelong difficult relationship between Sturman and the law, with Earl Warren giving him his only legal daylight, finding a social value in Sex Life of a Cop, throwing out his conviction, narrowing the definition of obscenity, and allowing Sturman first to make a small fortune and then a huge one. His money would be made through three ancient elements: naked women, lawyers, and secrecy.

By the end of the 1960s, Sturman was the largest distributor of dirty books and magazines in the United States. He then went into the dirty movie business, developing the ingenious idea of the coin operated peepshow booth, moving the stag film from the group viewing of a Kiwanis club or frat house to a small dark space. He funded his own dirty films, printed the dirty books, owned the stores that sold the books and had the peeps. It was a classic case of vertical integration, with Sturman having a grip on every aspect from production to distribution. Every connection between Sturman and his business was hidden; if no evidence existed of Sturman’s hand in the company, then Sturman could not be indicted for its violations. Canadians, many of them young refugees from the draft, were recruited to be placed as figureheads of the various parts of the Sturman empire, as canadian tax records were outside IRS eyes. His Cleveland assets were owned by The Bahamian Company, whose president and CEO was a carpet store owner in Ontario. Memos from Sturman were adressed, “To whom it may concern”. Business letters from him closed with “Best regards”, and nothing else. Sturman changed his appearance day by day, sometimes with a long beard, sometimees staches, sometimes glasses, other days clean shaven and clear sighted.

Security cameras surrounded Sturman’s headquarters, and heavy steel doors blocked the way. Those asking for Sturman were told no one by that name worked there. After a year of surveillance, FBI agents demanded entry to the building, showing their badges to the cameras. They were still not let in. The steel doors were battered down. A year after, Sturman was indicted on obscenity charges for distribution of various films and mags through the mails. The content was undoubtedly disturbing, Sturman’s lawyer admitted. After seeing some of these movies, he warned, you’ll never eat a marshmallow pie again. Sturman and his associates were found not guilty. The jury sent the judge a note critical of the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity.

Sturman now owned a Tudor mansion with a swan filled lake. Sturman drove several cadillacs. Sturman had a former prizefighter as a bodyguard. Sturman gave to the Cleveland ballet.

Richard Rosfelder was a twenty-seven year old investigator for the IRS Criminal Division. Richard Rosfelder lived in a condominium complex. A young employee of Sturman’s also lived in the condominium complex. Rosfelder knew of the young employee. The young employee owned two matching cadillacs. Reuben Sturman would come to wish like hell that the young employee had owned fewer cadillacs.

Rosfelder thought the cadillacs were interesting. Rosfelder thought the canadians were more interesting.

Rosfelder believed the same methods Sturman was using to disguise asset ownership might be used to avoid tax payment. Rosfelder went to Sturman’s headquarters to interview him. There’s no one by that name here, he was told. A cadillac drove by with a man giving a friendly wave. The friendly man was Sturman. Sturman was called in to give signature samples. A man came by in a big cowboy hat. The cowboy hatted man was Sturman. His signatures were illegible. The samples were worthless.

The money from Sturman’s peep booths was entirely in coins, with hundreds of employees making the collection in daily and weekly rounds, paying store owners and managers their cut, then pushing out dollies loaded with thousand dollar bags filled with quarters. Because of the lack of receipts involved, the take entirely in small change, it was possible to divert money out of records and move it overseas. Rosfelder suspected Sturman of doing something like this. Sturman was doing something exactly like this.

Anywhere from twenty five to fifty percent of the money from the booths was converted to cashier’s checks of $9999, to avoid the federal disclosure laws of checks of $10 000 and more, sent overseas and invested, or returned to the United States in a new form. In 1974, Sturman was arrested in Switzerland after he tried to open a bank account with a fake passport. I’m trying hide my money in Switzerland, he told the police, because I don’t like paying the tax. Why should he pay taxes, Sturman felt. So he could help pay salaries for the federal prosecutors and agents trying to destroy him? Fine by me, said the Swiss arresting officer, I don’t like paying taxes either.

The incident gave Rosfelder proof that Sturman had criminal intent. Rosfelder now just needed proof of crime.

Sturman had already restructured his company several times after tax authourities became interested in him. He had first transferred ownership of his companies to establishments chartered in Liechtenstein, which had some of the tightest corporate secrecy laws in the world. A Liechtenstein establishment was a legal entity whose directors had to be citizens of the country, and the entity issued nameless bearer shares held by the owner of the company. Only by finding out who had physical possession of the shares could company ownership be determined. Other companies were set up in Panama, where corporate secrecy laws were even stricter. When Liechtenstein amended its laws so that establishment directors were now liable for the establishment’s activities, Sturman transferred all his newly formed companies to Liberia. Liberia had stricter secrecy laws than either Panama or Liechtenstein. Liberia had a similar system of bearer shares to Liechtenstein. Liberia had the american dolllar as currency. Monrovia, Liberia was now the legal center of Sturman’s worldwide empire.

A crucial part of every structuring, was a series of Swiss bank accounts established under fake names, accessible only to Sturman and a handful of close associates. Wherever his companies were legally, a substantial part of the company’s revenue always ended up in these accounts, away from the eyes of tax authourities. In 1979, Sturman may have been the richest man in Ohio. On his tax return that year, he listed no overseas bank accounts. On his tax return that year, he declared an income of about twelve hundred dollars.

Three years into his investigation, Rosfelder and his associate, Thomas Ciehanski found a cheque from a bank in the carribean island of St. Vincent’s. The bank did not exist anywhere except on paper. The cheque’s destination was one of Sturman’s companies, its source a Swiss bank account. The paper trail led to a former attorney of Sturman. The former attorney refused to talk. The former attorney was told he would be a defendant in any tax case against Sturman. The former attorney then explained the set-up with the Swiss bank accounts. Rosfelder asked the Swiss government for access to the accounts, on the grounds that Sturman was involved with organized crime. The access was granted. This evidence for the connections with organized crime has never been seen, by either the public or Sturman’s attorneys. Reuben Sturman’s name did not appear anywhere on the accounts or in connection with the accounts. Rosfelder needed a handwriting sample to prove that they were Sturman’s. Sturman was detained. Sturman provided samples. The samples were illegible, worthless.

Reuben Sturman began to realize that Rosfelder was very serious about this. Reuben Sturman began to think about retiring.

Sturman, divorced from his first wife, married a young singer named Natalie Delgado. He sold many of his companies to their managers. Since, legally, he did not own the companies, the companies were transferred to the new owners, with Sturman afterwards hired as a consultant: the company was bought through a consulting fee transferred to Sturman. A federal grand jury subpoenaed Sturman’s business records. Sturman spent three weeks shredding them. Rosenfeld got trusted aides at every level of the organization to start talking and start co-operating. Sturman began to close his Swiss bank accounts. He was arrested again by the Swiss police. Sturman was asked again for a handwriting sample. The signature was legible. Sturman was indicted on various tax evasion counts in 1985. In 1987, he was indicted again on obscenity. During his tax evasion trial, one associate talked of moving gold bars in a cardboard box to avoid a paper trail. A Sturman accountant revealed that the company officers listed on financial records were picked at random from the white pages, the persons unaware that they were top executives in the largest porn distribution business in the United States. Sturman arrived at court in a Groucho Marx mask, his face hidden behind a plastic nose, dinky glasses, and oversized eyebrows. He was convicted of every count of tax evasion in 1989. In 1991, the obscenity case ended in a mistrial. The government had no case against me, Sturman told reporters. Sturman made his statement wearing a surgical mask. In 1992, Reuben Sturman was sentenced to four years fro tax evasion at Boron prison camp, in the Mojave desert.

The IRS now began to try to collect over five million owed in back taxes. Sturman terminated all his consulting contracts, asking his managers to either pay him in cash or send the money to overseas paper corporations. Sturman made all his purchases via a Visa card issued from a Swiss bank, with funds from a Panamanian company. The IRS seized the Tudor mansion with the swan lake. The IRS then sold it cheap to some faceless company headquartered overseas. The faceless company was owned by Reuben Sturman.

Some managers refused to pay Sturman. Business was good, business was possible without further harassment from the IRS. A store owned by a manager that stopped paying had its peeps destroyed by a gang with sledge hammers. Eight Chicago bookstores owned by another welshing manager were also targeted. The bookstores’ peep shows were powered by electric boxes. The electric boxes were to be destroyed with radio controlled bombs. The gang set off one bomb at a South Cicero bookstore. On the way to the next target, a traffic light signal or other radio wave triggered a bomb in the gang’s car. One man died, and the survivors began talking to the authourities. They had no idea who Reuben Sturman was. They had been commissioned for the work by Mickey Fein. Mickey Fein had no idea what the feds were talking about.

On December 1, 1992, Reuben Sturman wrote the third of a series of letters to a judge pleading for a reduced sentence. The juge denied his request. One week later, at Boron prison, there was a nightly bed check. Reuben Sturman could not be found at the bed check. The next day, Richard Rosfelder was having lunch with some reporters when he was told to call his office. The matter was urgent. Reuben Sturman had escaped from prison.

Stephanie Friedman was Sturman’s secretary. Richard Rosfelder and another investigator, Tony Olivio, saw the names of Stephanie and Douglas, her brother, showing up again and again in the prison visitor logs. The Friedmans would be subpoenaed. Stephanie would confess that she would receive checks from around the country for companies based in Liberia and elsewhere overseas, to be sent on to bank accounts in Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Stephanie would also confess that Douglas had driven the car which had picked up Reuben Sturman after he jogged through Boron’s softball field and climbed under a prison fence.

Stephanie also had an interesting story to tell about the tax evasion trial. A young juror had noticed a beautiful woman in the court gallery. During a recess, the young juror was on a payphone when someone handed him a note, with a restaurant address, a time, and a lipstick kiss. The young juror met the beautiful woman for dinner at the restaurant. It could have been a pleasant meal, but: the woman kept wanting to talk about the trial. She was certain the defendant was innocent. Both the man and the woman had issues. The young man had a girlfriend. The beautiful woman was married. The beautiful woman was married to Reuben Sturman. The beautiful woman was Natalie Delgado. The man became very uncomfortable during the meal. Though he did not know who the beautiful woman was or who she was married to, he refused to see Delgado again. Richard Rosfelder heard this, and went pale. Reuben Sturman had almost gotten away again.

On February 9, 1993, federal marshals entered a small apartment in Anaheim, and arrested Reuben Sturman. On March 10, 1993, Sturman was indicted on extortion and other charges related to the destruction of adult bookstores. A jury found him guilty of extortion, but innocent of direct connection with the bombings. The judge refused to impose the large fine demanded by the government. Sturman told the court he was penniless. After being indicted for jury tampering over his wife’s involvement with a juror at his tax evasion trial, Sturman submitted a financial statement that declared his liquid assets to be roughly ten dollars. He was appointed a public defender.

In 1996, writer Eric Schlosser visited Sturman at the medium security Manchester prison in Kentucky. “You wanted to know how the industry started,” said Sturman. “You’re looking at the person who started it.” After the interview, Schlosser wondered if Reuben Sturman didn’t have one last trick up his sleeve. A year later, Sturman pulled his last escape: he made the jailbreak we all make, dying of heart and kidney failure on October 27, 1997. His death went almost entirely unnoticed. The next day, the New York Times published obituaries for art historian S. Lane Faison Jr. and federal judge Arthur Stephen Lane, but none for Sturman on that day, or any day after.

The industry which celebrates corporeality has become itself incorporeal. The sensual information of Sturman’s empire is now part of the electronic ethereal. The very qualities of invisibility and intangibility of an internet stream that make obscenity laws near obsolete has allowed freejackers to atomize profits, leaving the survivors to rip apart what’s left like rabid dogs.

In the mid-seventies, for the first and last time, Reuben Sturman dropped by the set of a porno he was funding. Shortly after, he walked off. He’d never been so bored in his life.

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The Smile

From George W. S. Trow’s Within the Context of No-context.

What is so defeating is this everlasting good-spiritedness, this application of enthusiasm against loneliness. The expression of the force that seeks to go with the grain – actually to become the grain – is, everlastingly, a smile. But the smile is a lie, and it makes people glum. And the glumness then flows against the grain, being confident of its bit of truth: that there is a lie in the smile. In our time, nearly all art has been made from glumness and has had very little power, because I feeds on this tiny bit of truth: that there is a lie in the smile.

It’s so little to feed on. That little bit of truth. Feed on it only and you go mad. Nourished by just that little truth, how can you have strength to resist your enemies? The smile for instance?

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