Wednesday, June 3, 2015

On tour for Penthouse: fully clothed, but overexposed

    From the Green Room inside a television station in Detroit, I could see on the monitor that the dynamic black host of a local morning talk show was doing the intro about me. An associate producer scurried in and said, "Let's go -- you're on."
    So when the interviewer said, "Let's give a warm welcome to this dedicated young writer and activist," I was ready to walk right out. The audience appeared to be entirely black, which I thought would be great. The article I was here to discuss was in part about  the mistreatment of prison inmates, most of whom were black. But my expression of compassion for these men would, to my surprise, elicit a vociferously hostile response. 
    It hadn't occurred to me that although most of the prisoners were black, so were most of their victims. These folks didn't want the bastards coddled by clueless fools like me.

I would spend lots of time in 'green rooms,' some luxurious, others dumpy.
      I had never been part of a riot, and I had certainly never instigated one, but these people were so disgusted with me that it wouldn't have surprised me if they had stormed the stage.
    At first, I was startled, completely taken aback by their heated, vocal anger. Then I just felt sad and stupid. My favorite "constituency" saw me as the enemy. Their comments educated me, but they did hurt. They called me ignorant, naive, presumptuous and condescending. Several times, when the entire audience joined in cheering someone's furious remarks about my position, the host had to intervene and ask for a more respectful dialogue.
    This wasn't the last time that I would be torn to shreds during my 12-city Penthouse Magazine media tour in late 1975. But when I was being attacked, at least I felt that a substantive dialogue was occurring. 
I was a bit of a downer for the cheery morning news programs.
    Most of the TV journalists who interviewed me -- especially the morning news people -- obviously hadn't read my article, didn't know anything about the American criminal justice system -- or care -- and just wanted to get back to something upbeat, like a feature on the latest skin-care breakthrough, or the newest town hero (who had returned a lost toddler to her mother), or the 10,000-calorie recipe of the day. These so-called reporters were glammed-up "celebrities" who wanted to keep things entertaining.
    I was lucky on both of my Penthouse media tours that real life leapt into action in a way that made each of my articles particularly newsworthy. A week before I left on the first tour, regarding my prison article, "The Wardens," I wrote a front-page investigation for the Village Voice headlined "The Jail That's About to Blow."
    It was the jail I had worked in and written about, and it did indeed "blow" -- into a widespread, rage-filled riot -- on the first day of my Penthouse tour. It made the national news, and as a result, my "bookings" for my two week tour immediately doubled.
    Two years later, the same sort of fortuitous -- albeit tragic -- timing would propel my article on Mormon polygamy into the spotlight. On the day that my article was to go to press, my protagonist, the polygamous sect's charismatic "prophet," was murdered by a rival sect. We were able to add an editor's note to that effect. Once again, my tour bookings surged.
    Several newspaper reporters were intent on covering the issue intelligently, and the Pacifica News Service -- an "alternative" and progressive outfit that I had admired for years -- conducted an excellent interview. The only television "personality" who engaged with me in a serious, substantive dialogue was Wes Bowen of KSL TV in Salt Lake City (
    But for a few days before I became disillusioned with my media experience, I found myself immersed in a whole new universe, called "First-Class Traveler." From the moment I was escorted to the luxurious first-class cabin of the jet at JFK Airport, eased into a cozy leather seat and handed an elegant flute of champagne, I sensed that the next couple of weeks were going to be a dreamworld come true. 
And now, I'd like some cognac and a Gauloises cigarette, s'il vous plait.
     Before I even had time to have that thought, my glass was being refilled, I was given a steaming washcloth to cleanse my hands, and an artistically arranged platter of shrimp, various cheeses, fruits, imported crackers and chocolate had been set before me. (The plane hadn't even taken off yet!) I guess no one had told the airline that I was a freakishly neurotic dieter (and a vegan), but I didn't count the calories in alcoholic beverages, and the fruit was divine. 
    (During my tour, though, I never got over the embarrassment -- actually, the shame -- of being curtained off from the rest of the passengers, as if we in first class were too special to have to look at them or to breathe their exhalations. I have never accepted first-class travel since. It's a matter of principle.) (although I'm glad I got to see what it's like!)
    Having lived in New York for the past four years, I had been escorted to some of the most famous restaurants in the country. I had strolled through the lobbies of venerable hotels, such as she Plaza, the Ritz-Carlton, the St. Regis and the Waldorf-Astoria -- walking with brisk confidence, as if I had a perfect right to be there -- so I could use the ladies' room when I was dashing around Manhattan with a full bladder. So I had been exposed, in some respects, to "the finer things." 
    But what I would experience as I was whisked in a well-choreographed ballet by Penthouse from one ravishing airport and city to another, greeted at each stop by a protective and chivalrous "handler," was pure magic for me, as a very frugal and not yet very well-traveled young woman.
    The hotel lobbies were so magnificent that the memories still dazzle me 45 years later. To go from a crowded, noisy city street to this is quite startling:
This Hyatt Regency lobby in Chicago was so exhilarating that I just stood there, speechless.
    The atriums in these works of art were breathtaking, filled with a golden glow (from the atrium skylight way, way up there) and splashing water and harp music. Everything sparkled, and the sounds were muted and echoed, and glass elevators zoomed up and down silently, like we were on another planet, or in another century. I hadn't known that such places existed. They made you feel both very important and totally insignificant, sort of like looking at the night sky. I was awestruck.
The Hyatt Regency in Atlanta was stunning.
    I was taken aback by how all the hotel clerks and bell boys practically fell over themselves to serve me, until I realized that my reservation characterized me as a representative of Penthouse. From then on, I made it clear at the outset that I was "just a writer," not some nudie patootie.
In Tampa, it was like being in a "bubble city" way out in the cosmos.
    It didn't take long for me to realize that this was the lifestyle I was born to have (I have since come to the opposite conclusion). My every need was anticipated and taken care of with a flourish. I handed out big tips with great abandon, which is one of the many pleasures of having an expense account.
    My suites were spacious and beautiful and filled with amenities such as a jacuzzi, steam shower, superb sound system, and magnificent views.
Each of my rooms thrilled me all over again.
    I went to hotel restaurants a few times for dinner, but I didn't feel comfortable eating alone. It wasn't yet common for women to travel by themselves, and I didn't care for the kind of attention I got. It was as if my being alone were in itself some sort of open invitation, as in: Hey! I'm available! (But everyone told me I really must eat atop San Francisco's Hyatt Regency. I had never heard of a revolving restaurant. I just sat there thinking, "This is so awesome, I must be dreaming.")
The restaurant on top of the San Francisco Hyatt had a magical succession of views.
    I learned to love room service -- not too difficult! I would snuggle up in the plush bathrobe that the hotel had so thoughtfully provided and order everything I wanted, plus a bottle of wine or bourbon. It was total heaven! And in the morning, they brought me coffee, croissants, fruit and a newspaper without my even asking! What do I have to do to keep this going on forever?
"May I bring you an omelet or some oatmeal-raspberry pancakes  as well?"
     Actually, these feelings of joy and perpetual surprise soon dissipated, and I realized that I had a job to do, and it wasn't an easy job. It was lonely. Having to make between two and five media appearances each day got old pretty fast, and so did the mad dash back to the airport and into yet-another first-class cabin. That champagne, which at first was such a luxury, soon became a necessity. Just give me the whole bottle, please. This "dream tour" had begun to feel quite like a prison sentence. How apropos, given the title of my article: "The Wardens."
    I think it would have been different if I were going from city to city to address students, or those who work in the criminal justice field. If I could have persuaded people to regard "convicts" in a new way and to see the need to administer "corrections" with a more enlightened perspective, my morale would have remained high. But the TV news programs just wanted a short, provocative soundbite, preferably about Penthouse, not prisons.
"No that is NOT me! Do you really think my butt is that big?" 
    The reporters, both male and female, seemed to be more concerned about their hair and makeup than the subject at hand. 
    There was no "dialogue" between us, just a couple of uninformed questions, and then I was whisked as quickly as possible off the set, to make room for some best-selling writer or celebrity. I very quickly figured out how to get around their silly questions and make optimal use of what little time I had to make my case.
"So how did a girl like you wind up in a big, brutal men's prison? Were you ogled?"
    These media tours, which of course still go on today, engage news outlets and various forms of "showbiz" people in a symbiotic dance. The people like me, who have something to "sell," provide a cheap (actually it's free) way for the media to fill space in between the all-important commercial breaks. The better-known guests boost ratings as well. And we who are on tour essentially obtain free advertising for whatever it is we're trying to advance. 
    Everybody involved knows it's kind of a sordid game, but we pretend to be noble professionals united in our commitment to "the public's right to know." And we get to do it in style.
I believe you've brought me the wrong vintage, young man.
    It became clear within a couple of days that I was on a "circuit," in which well-known people were flying back and forth across the country to appear on the same programs as I. One early morning, as I walked through a television newsroom, a swooning uproar erupted. Assuming, of course, that no one was getting flushed and screamy over me, I turned around and saw that Burt Reynolds was right behind me. 
Burt Reynolds in 1975. Handsome but arrogant.
    He was wearing a fisherman-knit sweater, lots of makeup and a badly designed toupee. When we reached the Green Room to await our turn on the news program, I expected that we would introduce ourselves and engage in a bit of small talk (at the very least). Instead, he ignored me completely, seeming to be lost in some venomous internal monologue.
    The TV people always wanted to send me straight to "hair and makeup." Before my very first appearance, in Los Angeles, I actually let them take me there, but I immediately realized that I didn't want anyone messing with me. I may not look all that hot, but everybody who's ever tried to make it better has just made it worse.
    "I've already got on plenty of makeup," I told the L.A. person, an older woman who wore a black turban and false eyelashes.
     "You sure do, hon, but it's not put on right," she said. She told me that she had worked for Lucille Ball during her entire career at Desilu Productions, so she knew what she was talking about. She said my blush needed to be blended more evenly and that my whole face needed to be powdered. 
    From then on, I refused to submit to the makeup artists. My face is my own little work of absurdist art. They can go find someone else to use as a canvas.
    During my tour, I acquired a passing acquaintanceship with a number of people who were out there trying to sell their latest book, movie, album or cause. We waved at each other on airplanes, rolling our eyes or shaking our heads to convey our exasperation with this rat race. 
    I appeared on programs that also featured recording artists Al Green (a great favorite of mine), Minnie Riperton ("Lovin' You" was at the top of the charts), Glen Campbell and Karen Carpenter.
Minnie Riperton was adorable. She died four years later of breast cancer.
     It was a thrill and an honor to be in such proximity to writers such as Saul Bellow, who had just released "Humboldt's Gift," Irving Stone, E.L. Doctorow, John Cheever and Theodore Sorensen.
    Paul Newman, Blake Edwards and Helen Hayes were also pounding the media pavement, shilling for their latest projects. Ms. Hayes ("First Lady of the Theater") told me she had been in Broadway productions since she was a child in 1906 -- and had characterized herself as "retired" for the past four years -- but she continued to do occasional films and to co-write books. 
    Ms. Hayes was a warm, urbane woman with a very attractive vitality. She invited me to have lunch with her the next time she was in the city (she was living in Nyack, New York, then), and I surprised her by showing up at La Grenouille with our mutual friend, Brendan Gill, who reviewed the theater for The New Yorker.
She was tiny, modest and very cultured.
    Sidney Pollack was peddling "Day of the Condor," and the hilarious Tim Curry was publicizing "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." They were both delightful, whether the cameras were rolling or not.
    I was thrilled to be seated next to Common Cause founder John Gardner during one of the longer flights. I had been in awe of this man for years, ever since he resigned as head of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. In a couple of months, he would offer me a job in D.C., working for his very admirable organization, but I had just accepted another position.
    My most interesting and friendly tour-mates were Gloria Swanson and her husband. They would have been even more interesting if I had known who the hell Gloria Swanson really was. All I knew for sure was that she was famous -- a groundbreaking choreographer, perhaps? Or a cosmetics executive, like Estee Lauder?
Why didn't she brag a little? I would have loved it.
     Many years later, I learned that Gloria had been arguably the major star and fashion icon of the silent-film era, working under director Cecil B. DeMille. She made a reasonably successful transition to "talkies," portraying Norma Desmond ("I'm ready for my closeup.") in "Sunset Boulevard," which I didn't see until about twenty years later.
Gloria's sense of style entranced millions.
    Gloria wasn't the one in the spotlight on this particular tour. Her husband, William Dufty, was out promoting his book, "Sugar Blues," which portrayed sugar as addictive and as a poison to the body. It sold 1.6 million copies and was regarded as a major success. Many of his claims, which were dismissed by the medical establishment at the time, are now widely accepted. 
    He and Gloria were "health fanatics," as was I. We all brought our own snacks onto the plane, and we soon got into a ritual of passing our treats back and forth and expressing our horror at the "junk" that everybody else was consuming. Gloria, who would die eight years later, seemed to feel a bit protective of me, out here alone on this "big city" merry-go-round, and I have never forgotten her motherly concern. They were both very sweet.
Gloria Swanson was still striking well into her later years.
    And then there was Jesse Jackson. I had loved this man for years -- not as much as I loved Dr. King, of course, but I did have great affection and respect for him.  I was sitting in a Green Room somewhere -- I didn't know what city I was in half the time -- and in walked Jesse, who was very tall, flanked by two bodyguards, who were even taller. 
    I immediately stood up, smiling, and began to walk toward him, extending my hand. He and his glaring posse strode right past me, without a glance. It made me want to cry out his famous mantra: "I AM somebody! I AM God's child!" But my Rainbow Coalition hero didn't give a damn. That was mean, Jesse, to do that to a fan. But I was still staunchly behind you, until you got kind of sleazy.
He was cute, but he wasn't very nice. Maybe he had been told that white girls meant trouble.
        The second and third times I was ripped to shreds -- after the alarming Detroit experience -- I was on nighttime talk radio. Hilly Rose was with KFI in Los Angeles, which was a 50,000-watt channel that reached most of the country. My mother and I had often enjoyed his program from Salt Lake City. We thought his piercing, withering questions were very entertaining, and even a bit sexy.
He looks so harmless now, but he was a beast back then.
     It was a lot more fun to be a listener, in the comfort of one's own home, than to be mercilessly torn asunder by a man who assailed me for wanting to "coddle criminals" and turn prisons into "first-class hotels." He had no sympathy for those whose backgrounds had brutalized them or given them few opportunities. Lots of people grow up in the ghetto, he said. They don't go around robbing, raping and killing.
    He thought that I was a foolhardy "babe in the woods," who had no business criticizing a system that was constructed by grownups who knew what they were doing. 
    My arguments in favor of reform weren't based on feminine sentimentality. The foundation of my "case" consisted of federal court orders and dozens of studies and "position papers" that revealed the brutal and counterproductive policies that prevented the system from being "correctional." My experiences working closely with prison inmates corroborated those findings.
    Hilly never gave me a chance to get out a complete sentence. He worked me over until I could hardly sit up anymore, and then he had his very attractive, younger wife escort me from the studio.
    I was surprised to learn that such a cynical, worldly man, with an estimable intellect, is now focusing his programs on paranormal events.
    The other radio host who butchered me, with none of the finesse that a real butcher possesses, was Alan Berg of KHOW in Denver. He called himself "the wild man of the airwaves," and he was notorious for his rudeness to callers as well as guests (of course, no one had warned me about this). 
Berg wore creepy-looking fake bangs to hide surgical scars.
     He, like Hilly, used me as a punching bag for the amusement of his listeners. I wish I had been ten or twenty years older, so I could have fought back with greater ferocity, but I was no match for either one. 
    Even though Alan was a total ass toward me, I was sorry to learn in 1984 that he had been killed by white supremacists. I respected his opposition to racial and sexual stereotypes and his criticism of Christian hypocrisy.
    The high point of my tour was being interviewed by Studs Terkel on WMFT in Chicago. I had been astonished, when Penthouse had given me my itinerary, that such an esteemed person had agreed to spend time with me. I had adored this man for years, having read three of his books and been awed by his depth and compassion. 
Studs was a journalistic legend and a great humanitarian. He died in 2008 at age 96.
    The night before my interview, I left the downtown Hyatt Regency and walked along the snowy streets, which were aglow with Christmas lights. Unlike New York -- which is always bustling -- Chicago's central business district was devoid of people, but it was beautiful, and I was thrilled to be there.
    The next morning, I walked to Studs' office. His secretary coldly informed me that I had been scheduled for yesterday's show, and that he would not be able to use me. I showed her my itinerary and apologized for the mix-up.
    "Can't we reschedule?" I asked.
    "No, we can't," she responded.
    "Well, can't I at least meet Mr. Terkel -- I love him!" I said.
    Before she had a chance to answer, I scurried past her desk and into the closest office, hoping to find him there.
    And there he was. My obvious affection for him and my distress at having missed our interview softened him immediately. He buzzed his secretary and told her to rearrange a couple of engagements, and then he took me downstairs to the studio.
    My time with Studs Terkel remains one of the most powerful memories of my life. The studio was dark, except that we were in a pool of light, so it was as if the rest of the world had vanished. Studs, who is probably the most renowned interviewer of all time, readily eased me into a state that was virtually hypnotic. I forgot about everything, including the fact that I was being "interviewed" for a "broadcast."
    We simply talked. We taped a full hour, and when I "woke up," I was surprised that it was over. Studs didn't want it to be over, either. He asked the producer if we could have another hour of studio time, and the gentleman said OK. 
He played me like I was a violin.
     So we plunged once again into that trance world that Studs creates, in which nothing exists except for this loving, all-embracing man, and you.
    His gentle, artful probing brought out insights and feelings in me that I didn't even know I had. He engaged my intellect, and then he glided me into a state of pure emotion. He orchestrated me with such expertise that, during the final moments of our second hour, I broke down in tears. I think he got just what he wanted.
    I had come to believe that I was an almost-great interviewer. Now I realized what a long way I had to go. 
    Studs put his arms around me, and said, "I'd say we've earned ourselves a drink or two. Let me take you out and show you my Chicago." 
    Chicago through the eyes of Studs Terkel. What a gift. 
    For the next four or five hours, after having lunch at one of the midtown hotspots, we took taxis from one neighborhood bar to another. "Neighborhood" was the essential word here, because Studs wanted me to see the grand sweep of diverse humanity in Chicago that I would never have found on my own. 
You had to know the "password" to get in the back.
     We went to hangouts for the mafioso, the rugged, bawdy stevedores,the factory men, the Puerto Ricans, the easygoing old black guys. the simmering, swaggering young black guys, and the barely-out-of-the-closet gay guys. These were working men's bars -- nothing stylish or cute about them. I realized that I was an interloper, but the men seemed content to pretend I wasn't there.
    They all appeared to embrace Studs as an honorary member of their various demographics. We didn't have to pay for one drink all afternoon. If we'd actually consumed as many drinks as were sent our way by Studs' admirers, I'm sure it would have killed us both.  
I thought Chicago was beautiful. Studs showed me the underbelly..
    Studs and I had a big hug as he dropped me off that snowy night at my hotel. I was drunk and tired but infused with the glow of great privilege. Even so, I was glad that I would be flying back to New York tomorrow.
    But there was a note waiting for me at the hotel's front desk. The tour had been getting such good feedback, Penthouse was sending me to Washington, D.C. first thing in the morning. Then I would be flown home on a private jet. I groaned and fell into bed.
    When I landed in D.C., I was greeted -- as usual -- by a representative of the magazine. I asked him what was on my agenda.
    "Penthouse has called a press conference," he said. "We'll be getting there just in time."
    A press conference? 
    "About me?" I asked. I was mortified. The Washington media had been summoned to listen to ME???
    "It will be a breeze," my handler said. "You'll just make a brief opening statement about your position, and then they'll ask questions. I think you'll enjoy the format."
    I was sick. How absurd! If anyone even showed up, they would think the whole thing was a total joke. 
    But my companion had neglected to provide me with one essential detail:  The Penthouse press release had mentioned that a brunch buffet would be provided.
    Journalists absolutely love free food.
    So when we walked into the big white tent in which our event was to occur, it was packed.
     A few polite questions were thrown my way -- the only guy who really seemed to care was from "Stars and Stripes" -- and then everyone dove into the Bloody Marys and Harvey Wallbangers and the omelets, pastries, tropical fruits and gourmet coffee. It was the First Amendment at work, and it was at work thanks to me!
     Eat it up, gentlemen. I'm going home.
How did a nice girl like me get involved with crazed porn entrepreneur Bob Guccione of Penthouse? And how did I wind up sneaking through his mind-boggling mansion, accompanied by a delightful "Pet"?
His indoor pool was so cute, we just had to jump in: