Pornography in Newark, Part 2: The Failure of Decency

If part 1 of this Brick City smut saga ended with the Cold War, part 2 began here, at a talk last year by Gail Malmgreen at the New Jersey Historical Society, discussing her work on the wonderful Newark Archives Project.

 

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Well, that caught my attention. As did learning that Newark’s Legion of Decency left its files to Seton Hall University, just outside Newark city limits in neighboring South Orange. There aren’t that many things I feel qualified to speak authoritatively on, but the archival bases of porn-history is one. And one key methodological feature of doing this work is: you almost always need to approach it obliquely, because the ideal archive rarely exists. So when I was maniacally chasing after Citizens for Decent Literature (which left no accessible centralized files) in grad school, some of the best resources were their opponents, especially the national and also local ACLU branches, which carefully documented CDL’s activities, and thus provided a sort of CDL counter-archive. Collections from anti-smut groups are relatively rare, but they’re always guaranteed to document the very histories they attempted to eliminate. I think Michel Foucault had a few things to say about this irony.

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just because

What do we learn about the history of pornography in Newark by digging through the local Legion of Decency’s records? Well, here’s one provisional thesis: I noted in part 1 that local Newark officials showed little interest in assisting Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver’s national smut hearings in the mid-1950s; after looking at these clippings, it seems that may have reflected less the absence of porn in Newark than a preference for handling it locally—and less, I dare conjecture, out of any particular efficacy attributable to such means than a more localized political benefit from it. In other words, why let some random carpetbagger with presidential aspirations put Newark to use for his own political grandstanding when local smutbusters could reap the headlines for themselves?

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Mayor Russell Riley calls for anti-obscenity ordinance, 1957 (it passed, 7-1).

Busts made for fantastic photo-ops–

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Sheriff’s raid on Market Street, 1959: “some of the filthiest stuff I’ve ever seen,” said Sheriff Neil Duffy; “no wonder we have so many muggers walking the street.”

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The Legion of Decency was, of course, a Catholic organization (see Frank Walsh’s Sin and Censorship for the best historical overview of the group). But it fit snugly into local political structures; Newark in the 1950s remained dominated by white ethnic politics, with both Catholics and Jews playing lead roles (only later, after the demographic changes of the 1960s and the militant efforts of Black Power activism, would African Americans win proportional representation). So the flow of information between public officials and Legion members remained open, and generally warm. See the Legion flex its muscle here:

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When future New Jersey governor Brendan Byrne was appointed Essex County prosecutor in 1959, Rev. Paul Hayes met with him immediately, and Byrne promised his support (not incidentally mentioning that “some publicity on this would help at the proper time”). And indeed, headlines ahoy!

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A typical 1960 memorandum from Rev. Paul Hayes noted a sheriff’s raid on a local store, adding the additional information that the owner of the store “takes girls to his Harrison Street apartment for the purpose of taking obscene pictures,” while the cook there “is a homo-sexual.” Making the unnamed store (at the corner of High Street and Sussex) a perfect trifecta of sin, cab drivers also used the place “to arrange for prostitutes.” As social history, the memo isn’t detail-rich, but it’s a useful glimpse at the overlaid histories of the various forms of sexual noncomformity that often shared space (as Nan Alamilla Boyd also shows in her examination of lesbians and prostitutes in contemporaneous San Francisco). Whatever decency was, this was its opposite!

The busts kept coming –

 

Even an “elderly candy shop operator”!

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But what kinds of smut circulated in midcentury Newark? I found some lists sent to Kefauver in the first half of the 1950s in part 1, and here’s a list from the 1959 raid:

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Mostly pretty typical (and soft) magazine material, though Sting of the Lash appears to be an elusive privately-printed book, suggesting it might veer toward the more graphic. The rest of this is basically what you’d see on most banned lists, from places like the Georgia Literature Commission and its ilk.

Censorship in Newark could also take on a racial tinge, as this 1959 episode suggests—Swapping Wives may sound like a Joe Sarno grindhouse film, but the play by Black playwright Robert Earl Sawyer later became something of a perennial under the name What’s Good for the Goose (you can read some reviews of later stagings at an interesting site on Sawyer).
In Newark, though…

 

The local press kept Newarkers in a state of anxiety over smut, invoking juvenile delinquency, and even polio!

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Syndicated features also drove home the message—I remember seeing these exact articles twelve years ago on microfilm at the Cincinnati Public Library while researching Citizens for Decent Literature!—and fed into the moral panic:

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All of this effort yielded the intended results: headlines kept coming, political careers were made and advanced, and Father Hayes even received a nice letter from J. Edgar Hoover (poor Sheriff Duffy got a somewhat less impressive service plaque from the Fire Department Holy Name Society)

 

By the early 1960s, busts were routinized—some of the only interesting data here come from addresses that let us chart a geography of distribution for tawdry fare:

The Archdiocese of Newark attempted to explain why “printed filth continues to grow in our midst” in cartoon form:

They also relied on propaganda such as the Citizens for Decent Literature-distributed short film Pages of Death, which I was obsessed with finding as a grad student, to no avail. It recently popped up, in the Oregon Historical Society archives of all places, and you can now watch it on YouTube—though, warning, it is godawful dull and possessed of little of the campy fervor of CDL’s signature film, Perversion for Profit.

And yet, with the 1957 Roth v. U.S. case—written by Newark’s own William Brennan!—liberalizing obscenity law (I wrote a whole book about this, BTW!), Sheriff Duffy had to up the ante to stay ahead of the rapid social changes. By 1961, he was “revealing” how “sexual deviates use the mails and sex-oriented publications to promote disgusting rituals”—and revealing it “graphically,” at that!

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This case, involving letter exchanges that set up such things as an “abnormal sex orgy where homosexual acts would frequently be among those performed, Polaroid photos would be taken, even of the most disgusting things,” must have sounded less fun to the our sheriff than it does to me. It did get some play in the national tabloid sphere, though—

Indeed, in 1962 all the regular killjoys gathered to burn a ton of smut in Newark’s meadows—great for free speech, and the environment too!

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Throughout all of this, we can see some local pushback. A group of storekeepers wrote a letter to the editor in 1960 challenging their demonization in the press, calling themselves “immigrants, family people, honest, God-fearing and lovable.. good American citizens.”

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And when Newark police got all fired up and rampaged through town confiscating copies of Tropic of Cancer in 1961, Newark Public Library director James Bryan publicly asserted the book’s availability—for adults—at the library.

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New Jersey had a very active ACLU, with the Newark branch often leading the charge; there’s even a useful book about it. In a series of cases, New Jersey obscenity law was brought under the doctrine of the Supreme Court cases that came fast and furious after Roth. I won’t get bogged down in doctrinal detail here, but instead, some examples that reflect the changing legal landscape of the 1960s:

In part 1, I had documented some local production of gay male erotic materials; that story drops somewhat out of view in the 1960s, but there’s a fascinating court case from 1964, Newark v. Licht, 200 A.2d 508, involving a local man, Leo Licht, who had been convicted in municipal court on obscenity charges on the basis of 37 male nudes, in particular a shot of a fifteen year old boy. On appeal, he won a reversal. The Superior Court described a

front-view photograph of a nude boy of about 15 years of age, showing his body from about half-way down his thighs to the top of his head. He stands, arms akimbo, just as he might appear in a club-house shower room. His genitalia are no more concealed or accentuated than any other part of his body caught by the camera lens.

And yet, citing the recent Manual Enterprises v. Day Supreme Court opinion, the NJ court still sided with Licht. It’s a short but remarkable opinion—the city of Newark contended that in Manual Enterprises,

the private parts of the models were concealed in the material there involved but are exposed in the photograph before us here. The argument seems to be that an untouched photograph of the human male body, front view, is Per se obscene.

But the court responded,

it is common knowledge that far more erotic and suggestive effects can be achieved by the photographer or artist through the manner of concealment of some parts of the body and exposure of others than by the open, unabashed disclosure of the whole nude figure

And even declared it irrelevant what Licht’s purposes were. It’s a real queer victory in Newark—though the personal impact on Licht, who worked 30 years for the federal government, is unknown—and surely not positive. It’s a story I’d like to know more about—but certainly indicative of crumbling censorial power.

Meanwhile, 1966: Alexander Kaplan, whose magazine shop at 295 Market no longer exists (leveled for downtown redevelopment), had been facing charges since the Fifties, but beat the rap for Teenage Nudist:

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A burlesque raid failed the next year.

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Here’s a remarkable document that inadvertently cuts to the chase of it: Father Hayes was distraught about smut like Scars of Lust and Sin Hipster (my new favorite title in the history of literature) at the Parisi Newsstand downtown; at a meeting with Mayor Addonizio, the good mayor supported harassment of local dealers, and “manifested particular interest in Parisi (who was contributing to the campaign of his mayoralty opponent Judge Castellano).” A few years later Addonizio would be convicted on corruption charges—who’d’ve ever thunk!

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The raids—and photo ops—didn’t stop, but by the late Sixties they were clearly rearguard actions against a widespread cultural change that showed no signs of relenting. Newark Police Director Dominick Spina chased things like a local “torture house” in 1965—

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And here’s the very article that led me on this quest, from 1968!

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We can see the final nail in the coffin of the Legion of Decency’s waning powers in the 1970 report of the New Jersey Commission to Study Obscenity and Depravity in Public Media—the best-named of the numerous state-level commissions that proliferated around this time.

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With support from Williard Heckel, dean of the School of Law at Rutgers-Newark, and Frank Askin, professor there, the report was blunt: New Jersey obscenity law was “obsolete,” and “attempts to salvage such obsolete concepts” through revision were “futile.”

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Father Hayes and Brendan Byrne both testified, but to no avail. Liberalism carried the day, and the report mirrored the results of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, which released its report the same year calling for adult obscenity decriminalization (side note, I’ve written extensively about the federal commission, though it bothers me more than it probably should that I inexplicably call it the Presidential Commission rather than President’s Commission throughout my book; how that happened, I know not, but I rue it deeply). The stage was set for the emergence of a new social and sexual order…

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something here is not like the others…maybe?

BTW, I focused here on institutional action, through organizational activism and legal and political avenues. It’s worth mentioning, of course, that the same social changes that were sweeping the nation—which we tend to bundle as “the sexual revolution”—affected Newark as well. The social history of the sexual revolution in Newark is worth documenting in more detail, and I’m not aware of much that’s been written about it. Certainly massive demographic and political shifts were afoot—1970, the year hardcore broke, was also the year Black Power registered in the form of Kenneth Gibson’s election as Newark’s first Black mayor. I’ll try to elaborate on the meaning of that when it comes to the history of pornography in the next post—though in the meantime, there’s always the tenuous connection through A Place Called Today, which fused a thinly-obscured story of Black Power in Newark with an X rating.

So, that, and a LOT more smut ads, in the next post…

 

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