The expression “I know it when I see it” was famously used by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, as he struggled to find a definition of obscenity. The case came to the court from my own state of Ohio, where officials had banned the showing of Louis Malle’s film The Lovers in a Cleveland Heights art house cinema. Today nobody would blink at this film, but in its own day it seems to have upset people because during a long love scene, the camera did not move away from the couple at the crucial moment. Instead, it showed the sexual consummation, and then focused on Jeanne Moreau’s face as she enjoyed an orgasm.
I am pleased to report that Justice Stewart found the film not pornographic, and not obscene. He knew a good thing when he saw it.
21. I Know It When I See It
Ellen started on her research project the morning after Amber’s visit, in the guilty awareness that she had a very personal motive for wanting to know more about Hugh. The kiss she had shared with him remained vivid in her mind, and she found herself replaying that memory, instead of dutifully trying to recall everyone else’s movements during the final hour of the meetup.
She had to perform numerous searches before she turned up a site that provided a list of books designed by Hugh. The titles were eclectic, yet several seemed to reflect his interests. Robert Benchley and the Algonquin Round Table. Benny Goodman, The King of Swing. Dolls on Broadway: The Women of Damon Runyon. She found images of the book covers, all of which used Art Deco design elements or old-timey cartoon styles. Several reissues of classics from small publishing houses were on the list: Robinson Crusoe, Kidnapped, and much to her surprise, Moby Dick. These had a different look, with cover illustrations that reminded her of the adventure books she’d read as a child. The first two were in color, but the cover of Moby Dick showed a stark, black-and-white image of a huge tail fluke smashing a ship’s boat.
Lastly, there was an erotic classic, The Life Adventures of Miss Fanny Hill, which Hugh had rendered in an ornate eighteenth-century rococo style. The heroine on the cover was seated on a stool in her shift, nude to the waist and undressing as a bewigged gentleman stood nearby, watching avidly. Ellen decided she would buy this book, one she had read in college with mixed emotions of shame and pleasure. It contained an episode of attempted rape. I need to know whether he chose that scene to illustrate, she told herself.
Her searches had caused numerous pop-ups to appear on her screen, and she opened the security settings in order to purge the cookies that had accumulated on her computer. A name caught her eye: “Juicy Juggs.” A porn site! With a rush of anger, she realized that either Charlie or Jaime, or both, must have looked at porn on her computer. Checking the search history, she saw that the culprit had cleared it, but hadn’t thought to delete the cookie. She navigated to the site, but didn’t see any content that had to do with rape. It seemed to be focused on large-breasted women. Still, Tina had large breasts. Since Charlie was almost cleared of suspicion, it might be evidence pointing to Jaime. He seemed to Ellen genial and lacking in guile, with his unkempt black hair, warm brown eyes, and handsome features. Still, he was an actor, and often adopted different personas during conversations, pretending to be Cheech Marin, or David Letterman. She imagined Jaime watching the porn site, and then sneaking into Tina’s room and untying her top… Perhaps the real Jaime was completely different from the personality he displayed during the meetups.
Hugh’s Playboy cartoons were the next logical avenue of inquiry. Ellen had no experience of Playboy except for a few stolen glances at copies that her father had kept in his briefcase and occasionally brought home from his job as an insurance executive. This had seemed to her a strange contradiction, given his conservative, churchgoing lifestyle, and she wondered whether her mother had known. She remembered seeing the impossibly perfect women in the centerfolds, and feeling drab and unsexy by comparison. Once, there had been an interview with Paul McCartney that she badly wanted to read, but she didn’t have the nerve to risk discovery.
Sighing, Ellen began researching Playboy cartoon illustrators online, trying to pinpoint the issues that contained Hugh’s work. She had no luck, though she looked at a great number of cartoons, some sexy, some sexist, and still others repellently misogynist. Original art from the “golden age” of Playboy was in high demand by collectors, but there was little information about more recent artists. Finally, she called the editorial offices of Playboy and posed as a researcher writing a book. After numerous failed attempts and runarounds, she reached a female staff member in the art department who obligingly emailed her a list of issues containing work by Hugh Barry, and a couple of other artists whose names she included in order to conceal her real quarry.
One of Ellen’s favorite leisure pursuits was searching out used book stores, which were rapidly becoming an endangered species. Still, Philadelphia had plenty of interesting literary nooks and crannies, and she remembered one seedy location in particular that had a sign advertising old copies of Playboy for sale. When she arrived at the shop late the next afternoon, on Market Street near the Ben Franklin Bridge, she thought at first that it was closed. Below a tattered awning that read “Stanley’s Compleat Book Shop,” there were no lights to be seen. In the windows lay sun-faded copies of travel and gardening books, and a few racks of comics which looked as though they had been sitting untouched for years.
She tried the door, and it swung open, emitting a loud creak. She entered, threading her way through haphazard shelves of dust-covered books, trading cards and comics. Peering forward into the dim recesses of the shop, she saw a middle-aged, greasy-haired man in heavy glasses, who sat at a counter reading a dog-eared copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. She stood nearby for a minute or so, hesitating to interrupt him, but he ignored her. Finally she said, “Excuse me. I’m looking for Playboy magazine.”
Slowly, he looked up. His glasses were the far-sighted kind, and his bug-eyed stare made her feel self-conscious. “Playboy, you say? You want Playboy magazines?” He sounded skeptical, as though he hadn’t heard her correctly.
“Yes, I have a list of issues. They’re mostly from the past ten years.” She held out her list, and he grudgingly laid down his book. His eyes traveled down the column of dates, and his fishy lips formed a smirk. “December ’03. The Teles twins. A nice choice. August ’05, Tamara Witmer, she’s been in a Kid Rock video. And September ’07, Patrice Hollis, brown sugar. A classic throwback to the Seventies. Who’re these for, your boyfriend?”
Ellen was embarrassed and annoyed by his lascivious recital of the nude models. His knowledge of Playboy centerfolds appeared to be encyclopedic. “No, I’m doing some research. Do you have these issues or not?”
He perused the list a little longer, as though savoring it, and then raised his eyes to her face. “Research, eh? Sure, I’ve probably got most of these. Come on back, I’ll show you.” He got up, strode over to a curtained doorway above which was a hand-lettered sign that read “Adults Only,” and held the curtain open for her to enter first. Gritting her teeth, she marched through, and found herself in a long, narrow room piled high with carefully stacked copies of Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler. She felt slightly panicky, here in this strange, forbidden domain of male desire. If only she had thought to bring one of the other women. Kim would know exactly how to deal with Stanley, if that was in fact his name.
“It’s not often that I have a lady customer interested in these,” he was saying. “Now, here’s your Teles twins.” He held up a magazine with a bikini-clad Shannen Doherty on the cover. “If you like twins, I have the Bernaola sisters here too, from 2000.” He opened another issue to the center and unfolded it, leering as he showed her the image.
“No, thank you. Just the ones I have on the list, please.” Ellen picked up the Shannen Doherty issue and began flipping through it. She knew which cartoon was Hugh’s almost before she saw his signature. It showed a slender, turbaned woman sitting naked and cross-legged beside her husband. As he lay in bed under the covers, she played a snake-charmer’s flute directly above his crotch. Ellen smiled, and her desire to flee began to fade. Why should she feel afraid or ashamed? She wanted to see the rest of Hugh’s work. In fact, she was looking forward to it.
“What’s your name?” she suddenly asked the man. “Is it Stanley?” Surprised, he met her gaze and then nodded, looking down.
“Well, Stanley, I’ll take this one and any others you have from the list,” she told him. She allowed him to bustle about, plucking copies here and there, while she strolled the length of the room, feeling more confident now. The space was permeated by an odd, masculine scent that brought to mind aftershave, tobacco and the Tootsie-Roll smell of well-used paper money. Suddenly she spotted a 1984 issue of Playboy, the one with the Paul McCartney interview that she had missed out on at age sixteen. “I’ll take this, too,” she told the little man, tossing it lightly onto the stack of magazines in his arms.
“So I looked at all Hugh’s cartoons, but none of them touches on the subject of rape,” said Ellen. She, Emily and Kim were lunching at Sarafina’s, and comparing notes on their research. Ellen found Hugh’s work strangely endearing. It seemed very much of another time, though lacking the misogynist elements that were so common in the golden age cartoons she’d seen. He favored panels without captions. One of them depicted a pipe-smoking, palette-wielding artist carefully painting a tie onto a bare-chested model. Another panel, entitled “The leg man’s vacation blunder,” featured a disconsolate tourist nursing a drink in a Tahitian grass hut, surrounded by topless women wearing floor-length sarongs. “I’m going to the Triton tonight to take in the show and see if I can question Lily, but I’m not optimistic that she’ll talk.”
“I couldn’t find anything suspicious in Hector’s writing,” reported Emily. “Most of his poetry has to do with nostalgic family memories of Cuba, especially Cuban foods. The short stories are set in South Florida, and there’s one about the Cuban missile crisis.”
“What about the one he won the award for?” asked Kim.
“The Bridport Prize story? That was sweet. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story, also set in South Florida. A disabled girl from a family who fled the Communists falls for a Cuban boy who idolizes Castro.”
“It sounds very romantic,” said Ellen, thinking of Hector’s expert foreplay and leisurely lovemaking.
“Yes, it has a few explicit scenes with the girl’s sexual awakening, but nothing that even hints of a rape,” said Emily. “In fact, the girl is the one who initiates the sex. It drew praise from some feminist critics. But what tickled me the most is that he signs his stories using his full name. Guess what his middle name is!”
“It ought to be Juan, as in Don Juan.”
Emily chuckled. “Ignacio. Isn’t that cute? He must be named for St. Ignatius.”
“As for Jaime,” said Kim, “I bought drinks for some of his colleagues from the PRT. They say he has a porn addiction.”
“Yes!” cried Ellen. “Either he or Charlie, or both of them, were looking at porn on my computer that night. They tried to cover their tracks, but I found the cookies from the site.”
“Ewww,” said Emily in disgust. “Do you feel violated?”
“Sort of,” she replied. “That was really rude of them. But if Jaime has an addiction, maybe he couldn’t stop himself, especially if Charlie was in the bathroom for a long time and he was waiting with nothing to do.”
“What was the site?” asked Kim.
“Something to do with jugs, big boobs,” Ellen replied. “Nothing much worse than what’s in the Playboy magazines. But Kim,” she said, “do you really think that all men look at porn?”
“Yes, a vast majority. And women too.” Kim smiled when she saw their disbelieving expressions. “Oh yes. I’ve published on this. About one in three women looks at porn online, but not regularly, the way men do. Most internet searches for porn are by men, but women like explicit chatrooms, and especially erotic fiction.”
“Erotic fiction? That’s not porn,” said Emily. “I read stories online sometimes. That’s not the same as watching porno flicks full of icky closeups and money shots.”
Kim shook her head. “Porn is anything produced to be sexually arousing, where that’s the primary intent. Men just happen to be more turned on by images, whereas women like a story.”
Emily smiled dreamily. “You know what I’d like? An explicit version of Jane Eyre, where she becomes Rochester’s mistress. Then she finds about about the madwoman in the attic, and leaves Rochester, but she refuses St. John’s proposal because she knows he would never be as good a lover.”
“Yes, it would be great to have a detailed description of Rochester’s behavior in bed,” laughed Ellen. “I would definitely enjoy that.”
“He would be very masterful and bossy,” said Emily. “And if she didn’t pay heed to his commands, he might have to take stern measures.”
“No, he would be passionate but gentle and loving,” argued Ellen. “He acts arrogant on the outside, but inside he’s just a big teddy bear.”
“You two can start a website with a variorum edition,” said Kim dryly. “In the meantime, what have we got for our efforts?”
“We have a clue pointing to Jaime,” said Ellen. “He could be the one who sent me the picture on my phone, remember that.”
“Maybe. But porn viewership isn’t correlated with rape, and neither is sexting,” said Kim. “It’s not enough.”
“Then we’ll just have to arrange a sting,” said Emily. “Who wants to be the bait?”
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Ellen’s experience with Playboy reflects my own. There’s an old joke about claiming to read Playboy for the articles, but the fact is that they had some great content, which was off limits to young ladies in my day. I have always been outraged at the restriction of any form of books or literature or art to men only. For a long time, ladies were not permitted to learn ancient Greek, or to study medicine, lest their tender sensibilities be exposed to sexual references or imagery. Conveniently, this also kept women from competing with men in scholarly and professional careers.
There may never be a viable women’s counterpart to Playboy, for many reasons, but I think the most important one is that women are too diverse and nuanced in their sexual tastes for a mass market magazine to succeed. It is as though each of us needs her own, individually-tailored magazine! I never thought that Playgirl was very interesting, and indeed its readership seems always to have been as much male as female.
Hugh’s Playboy cartoons in this chapter were inspired by Golden Age cartoonists Erich Sokol and Jack Cole.