It’s been a porny month here: I wrote a piece about Playboy for The Conversation (mostly about how the magazine wasn’t porn, but still); I gave a talk about Porn Studies at the University of Oregon, then drove (!) from Newark to Madison, Wisconsin, to give a paper on the editing of adult films on VHS at the Film & History conference; finally, I’ve put in some labor-intensive editorial work on a collection about pornography in the 1970s that should finally come out next year (more on that later).
It was all tremendously refreshing, in the sense that I had been suffering from smut-overkill after writing two books on the matter. My academic interests had shifted toward leftist film history, the Queer Newark Oral History Project, and other things that I’ve been working on lately. But meeting a dizzying roster of scholars, archivists, and writers working on porn (and exploitation film)—Peter Alilunas, Chuck Kleinhans, Laura Helen Marks, Casey Scott, Dan Erdman, Kevin Heffernan, David Lerner, Finley Freibert, Maureen Rogers, and more!—really highlighted how much exciting work is going on in this area, and reinspired me to stay engaged with it.
All of which is a preface of sorts to this, a sketch history of pornography in Newark. For a few years, I thought maybe a history grad student could write a strong master’s thesis on the topic, but since no one is beating down my door to do that, I figured I’d take on the project as a sheer labor of love and write this as a sort of indulgence, to wallow in a world where no copyeditor can strip me of my semicolons (look ma; no grammar!). It also gave me an excuse to finally visit the Newark City Archives . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Newark’s history of smut doesn’t seem to get really robust until the advent of hardcore in the early 1970s. But before that, there were several skirmishes over varieties of adult entertainment that set the stage for later porn politics, while also reflecting the changing social and political history of the city. So, things get more graphic in later posts, but here’s what I dug up through the 1950s:
The earliest reference I can find—and I’m not being systematic here; I visited several archives for this series, but my base methodology is really just googling around and using a few databases, so there is assuredly a pre-history to this, probably mostly located in local legal records—to smut in Newark comes, fittingly enough, from my colleague Donna Dennis’ truly fantastic book Licentious Gotham, about erotic publishing in 19th century New York. Showing that early-1840s obscenity cases against the so-called flash press of young libertine men’s magazines like The Rake often “involved some degree of defamation against individuals” (rather than mere content-based charges for explicit sexuality per se), Dennis notes an 1842 case against Whip publisher George Wooldridge, based on five articles including “Seduction-Conviction of the Libertine,” which “accused a man in Newark, New Jersey, of repeated acts of seduction and libertinism and also made a thinly veiled request for payment.” So, Newark: subject of some quasi-smut, but not really yet the site of it.
Obscenity didn’t really flare into an issue of national concern until the 1870s, when anxieties over urbanization, immigration, changing gender roles, and the devastating onset of modern corporate capitalism manifested in widespread anti-smut sentiment among the WASP bourgeoisie. The young dry-goods clerk Anthony Comstock capitalized brilliantly on this moment, building a moral empire through his New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and spearheading the passage of the 1873 Comstock Act, the first federal obscenity law with real teeth.
This story has been told many times—Dennis covers it in her book, I write about it in Obscenity Rules, and Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz gives perhaps the best telling in Rereading Sex, showing how Comstock’s relentless self-promotion and use of the media gave his seemingly anti-modern politics a distinctly modern bent. Much Comstock scholarship revolves around his home base of New York City, but his federal appointment kept him on the move for four decades, including some memorable moments in Newark—in fact, when I assigned my Gender & Sexuality history students some passages from his overwrought 1883 anti-porn manifesto Traps for the Young, I lamented that it didn’t include anything about Newark, since it discusses some other cities. As my students astutely pointed out, Newark does in fact make a cameo; anyone who laments contemporary undergraduate reading practices, take note: they gave it a better close reading than I did! Score 1, Rutgers-Newark students:
In fact, Comstock arrested the aforementioned Charles Conroy in Newark (without a warrant, as D.M. Bennett pointed out in his landmark 1878 critique Anthony Comstock: His Career of Cruelty and Crime, available at the Internet Archive and well worth reading). And when he did, Conroy “lunged desperately” with a knife—as Charles Gallaudet Trumbull reports, “he tore Comstock’s face open and slashed through four facial arteries.” Comstock lived, but carried “a deep scar, several inches long, running across his left cheek.” One lesson to take away: don’t fuck with Newark.
(Comstock, for the record, employed his own scorched-earth tactics. When Ann Lohman, the famous abortionist known as Madam Restell, committed suicide after he arrested her, his response was simply, “a bloody end to a bloody life.” And the sexological writer Ida Craddock blamed his persecution for her death in her public 1902 suicide letter, as powerful an indictment of obscenity law as anything I’ve ever read. So it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Comstock, period.)
Comstock returned to Newark at least a few more times. In 1892 he announced “a deplorable state of affairs among the pupils of one of the public schools of Newark, N.J.,” tracking a “vile” paper being read by a group of schoolboys back to “a well-known business man of Newark.” Nothing about this story really rings true—was he just hanging around Newark making sure kids weren’t having too much fun? (well, okay, maybe that is plausible after all)—but it does reflect his effective moral entrepreneurship, in which he announces a problem whose only solution is—SURPRISE!—himself.
Still, not even Comstock could singlehandedly suppress the rising tide of mass culture and its eroticized entertainments, and in one amusing 1894 incident, his moralistic speech to the New Jersey chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was paired with licensed vendors alongside the conference who included “thinly clad” women giving “imitations of ‘du ventre’ dances”—until the godly women of the Newark WCTU protested and put a stop to it!
Indeed, there seems to have been a local moral campaign in Newark in the 1890s that reflects both the “moral reconstruction” that Gaines Foster has written of and also the persistence of adult entertainments in the city—the earliest archival document I could locate (courtesy the wonderful Newark Archives Project) are two 1894 letters from the Christian Citizenship Union demanding action from the city government “in view of recent exhibitions of obscene pictures on bill boards and in other public places in the city.”
I don’t know the nature of these purportedly obscene images, alas; there might be more detail somewhere in the city government’s files, but municipal archives are rarely organized in the same manner as academic archives, and I wasn’t sure where to pursue it. Anyway, this is just a sketch overview, and it was really mostly an excuse to take a quick stroll to the Newark City Archives!
From there, the trail goes cold for a while, though I caught a glimpse of 1920s Newark city politics while researching the background of the landmark 1957 Supreme Court obscenity case Roth v. U.S. for what became Obscenity Rules. Because Roth was written by Justice William Brennan, I read Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel’s definitive biography Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion. Brennan was from Newark, where his father, Bill Sr., was a well-connected city politician, in charge of the fire and police departments in his capacity of director of public safety. A strong supporter of labor rights, “Bill’s liberalism did not extend, though, to his attitudes toward civil liberties,” and during the post-WWI Red Scare backlash, he opposed radical speakers and protests, as well as the screening of The Naked Truth in 1926. The silent film, about a father warning his son of the dangers of VD, was barred from playing at the Capitol Theatre by “the board of censors appointed by Bill”—a body I know very little about, and certainly a topic for further research (see below)—but the ban was overturned by a state judge, who rejected Brennan’s authority.
I found this ad for The Naked Truth from late October 1926, showing at the Capitol. In Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 (one of my favorite books, period), Eric Schaefer shows how “gender segregation was the standard for hygiene films in the 1920s,” and Newark followed the pattern, with women-only matinees and some “extra special reels” for the nighttime men’s screenings.
A 1941 article from the Newark Call (included in a clippings file about neighborhoods at the Newark Public Library’s New Jersey Information Center) reflects the racialized sexual anxieties of the time in its coverage of the “Sordid Third Ward Night Life,” as police claim the “biggest problem on their hands involves out-of-town white men who cruise through the ward after the taverns have closed looking for whatever excitement they can find.” Naturally, the police “tell them in a nice way to scram”; would that they treated local black residents with any such semblance of respect. Yet the article lists prostitution, gambling, and venereal disease as the social ills of the Third Ward (later made pulp-canonical in Curtis Lucas’ 1946 novel Third Ward Newark), also making a glancing reference to “chas[ing] a lot of undesirables” out of the ward that might be read as an allusion to a queer presence (I think here it might be a stretch, but still, that was a powerfully coded term at the time). What’s absent, though, in Newark’s own purported vice district, was smut.
In the middle of writing this post, I swung back by the Newark Public Library, and when archivist George Hawley pulled a file of clippings on local theaters for me, I came across this 1944 article about the city censor board—at least it’s a start!
Turning to case law, the record of published cases (at least, based on a cursory skim of the academic database Westlaw) again suggests Newark was not a hotbed of smut cases. Hygienic Productions v. Keenan (62 A.2d 150) in 1948 directly replayed the Naked Truth case, except this time the director of public safety threatened to revoke the Broad Street Theatre’s license for showing Kroger Babb’s notorious Mom and Dad commercially. A judge rejected the city’s authority to intervene. A few years later, that same official, John B. Keenan, confiscated the documentary Latuko from the Newsreel Theatre on Broad Street. Once more, Judge Freund from the earlier case overturned Keenan, relying on classic colonial logic that bodies of color were simply naturally nude: “While it is true that the men have been photographed naked and the women naked above the waist, the exposure of their bodies is not indecent; it is simply their normal way of living” (American Museum of Natural History v. Keenan, 89 A.2d 98, 1952).
This was, of course, commensurate with the racial logic of such films themselves; as Eric Schaefer notes, “by emphasizing the primitive or ‘freakish’ aspects of these cultures, these movies invited audience to feel superior about the United States.” Brian Hoffman also exposes the perverse ironies of American nudism in his great new book Naked: even as nude bodies of color were naturalized as such, African Americans were rarely welcomed into white nudist communities—the American Sunbathing Association even tried to frame segregated nudism as fostering “the happier development of the local social unit or group.”
Still, this isn’t really pornography by any measure, though I came across an article from The Reporter in the Kinsey Institute’s clippings file on cinema censorship that mocked people who had to drive from Manhattan (where Latuko was banned by the New York state film censors) to New Jersey, “a state so lost to virtue that it is not shocked by sight of the human body.” Nor is a 1958 case (State v. Cosnat Distributing Corp., 145 A.2d 59) involving “indecent records” sold at 415 Halsey Street, though we learn from that case that someone in Newark wanted to listen to the LP Nipsey Russell Presents Borderline Records.
Actually, discovering that made me curious about Russell. Full disclosure: I LOL’d at least twice at his 7” (the jokes, they write themselves….) “Nudist Wedding,” where there’s “no question as to who the best man is.” So, thanks again, censorship in Newark!
The most prominent contestations over adult entertainment in midcentury Newark revolved around burlesque. Indeed, a dispute over the granting of licenses generated an important but overlooked case that I wrote a bit about in Obscenity Rules, Adams Newark Theatre Co. v. Keenan, which reached the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1953 while William Brennan was heading it. Adams really served as a test run for Roth, with Brennan musing that the “mere fact that sexual life is the theme . . . or that characters portray a seamy side of life and play coarse scenes or use vulgar language … does not constitute the presentation per se lewd and indecent.”
Under the aegis of Adams, which specifically declared burlesque a form of free speech subject to First Amendment protections, burlesque in Newark seems to have flourished, at least momentarily. It even made Time magazine in December 1954, with an article following a class from “Manhattan’s mercurial New School for Social Research” to Minsky’s, where prudish professor Bill Smith decided mid-show he had made “a terrible mistake” and had forgfotten “how low burlesque had sunk.” But 21-year-old performer (Time disparagingly called her “stripper,” a tellingly reductive word choice) disagreed with Smith’s claim that Newark burlesque was a “joyless corruption of the ‘10s and ‘20s,” asserting, “It’s not dead for me. I own my own house in Gardenia, California, and I have a car—all paid for . . . I’m doing all that and I’m just 21. I think I’m doing all right.” Good for her!
Yet “Newark didn’t grin when they bared it,” as a post at Newarktalk.com has it. While Tempest Storm “loved it” at Minsky’s on Brandford Place (the Minskys had fled Mayor LaGuardia’s antiburlesque crusade in New York, taking over the Adams Theatre in 1953—see Andrea Friedman’s Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy, and Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945 for a brilliant analysis of NYC antiburlesque activism), it was a shortlived Newark erotic renaissance: Valentine’s Day 1957 marked the death knell of Brick City burlesque. Despite Brennan’s earlier ruling, Newark nonetheless passed new ordinances in late 1955, against both actual nude performances and “the illusion of nudeness.” While a trial court rejected that standard as “nebulous,” the state supreme court reversed, placing more stock in Newark’s desire to “prevent moral contamination.” On the same day as Roth, but to much less acclaim, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, in a per curiam decision with Brennan sitting out because he had been involved in the other NJ Adams case.
To this point, probably the most interesting aspect of Newark’s history of adult entertainment is that the legal end of it was often more permissive than that of New York City, which was still governed by a state film censorship body and the periodic bursts of social conservatism that would mark city politics from LaGuardia to Wagner to Lindsay and on through the wretched Giuliani. But what of the underground market? There, NYC had a clear lead, what with its cohort of Samuel Roth, Edward Mishkin, and others.
Still, I’ve found glimpses of a secret Newark history, one where male physique dealers such as Angelo Iuspa and Gerard Nisivoccia corresponded with Alfred Kinsey (though not with much personal revelation—mostly they just supplied him with material). As I mentioned in a Queer Newark history piece co-authored with Tim Stewart-Winter for OutHistory.org, Nisivoccia published an undeniably erotic book, Sandow: The Mighty Monarch of Muscle, mostly composed of photos, in 1947. The important gay male physique photographer Al Urban attended St. Benedict’s in Newark in the 1930s, and later Art Modern—“a lawful and legal and tax-paying firm,” as its flyer insisted—sold physique photos from a P.O. box in Newark. Surely there’s a deeper and richer queer history here—but one that currently remains elusive.
When it comes to straight smut, the evidence strongly suggests Newark wasn’t a smoldering hotbed of activity in the early Cold War years. When Estes Kefauver pointed his congressional committee toward pornography in the mid-1950s, the body amassed a huge trove of material, housed at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The National Archives are not user-friendly, and the Kefauver Committee records are particularly difficult to navigate, but there’s amazing stuff buried there—I found a great mug shot of David Alberts (whose Los Angeles case was fused with Roth’s for the Supreme Court), and the script for the lost Citizens for Decent Literature film Target Smut, among other things!
Kefauver sent his investigators out around the nation to gather dirt, the more sensationalistic, the better. Newark city officials seemed reluctant to participate—it’s hard to read this letter from the police chief, stating that “traffic in pornography in the city of Newark is light,” as anything but a rebuff—he goes on to note that no evidence links smut in Newark to narcotics or “white slavery,” reflecting Kefauver’s eagerness to make such associations (the police also consider porn an adult problem—Kefauver would disregard this entirely, and link smut to the corruption of children in his official report, something I’ve written about fairly extensively in Perversion for Profit).
The police did send Kefauver a list of Newark obscenity arrests—a useful document, but also one that proves the trade was fairly minimal.
So what was being sold under the table in Newark? The evidence is fairly scant—here are the handwritten notes of Kefauver’s investigator George Butler, who also wrote a lackluster memorandum reflecting his inability to get any good headline-worthy scoops—
–but there are a couple of documents in the committee records that point toward the smut trade in Newark. From this, we can see that a “Metropolitan Films” operated out of 50 Branford Place in 1949—just down the block from the Adams Theatre at 28 Branford!—
–and from this we can get the titles of some stag films confiscated in the city: Naughty Darlings, Dykes, Country Boy, and Ex G.I.’s First Night at Home. I haven’t had any luck tracing these—the first three are so generic that online searching is hard, and the last one yields nothing. If anyone has further knowledge, drop a line!
So, here we are: into the 1950s, with Newark cleaned up to fit the tenor of a repressive historical moment. It wouldn’t last, of course—but in the next post, I want to shift back slightly and look at some more anti-smut activism in the city . . . and its crashing failure. Until then, a preview of what “decency” in Newark looked like, circa 1955: