Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Betsy: You got to be kidding. This is a dirty movie.
Travis: No, no this is a movie that a lot of couples come to. All types of couples.
Betsy: You sure about that?
Travis: Yeah, I see them all the time.
Taxi Driver is full of memorable and iconic scenes but I really get a kick out of the clip where Travis takes Betsy to a Times Square porno theater on their first date. Not because it shows how out of touch and socially inept Travis was but because it shows how in the know he was — even if unknowingly. Hear me out.
Believe it or not there was a time when your Mom and Dad went to a porno movie on a date. Take Deep Throat. Barbara Walters saw it. Spiro Agnew saw it. Hell, 2020 Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper took his mother to see it. In the era of porn chic or the Golden Age of Porn from 1969 to 1984, adult movies received positive reviews from movie critics and large in-theater viewership from the general public. Not the trenchcoat and newspaper over the lap crowd, but instead the more forward-thinking contingent of upper-middle class America. Porn movies were viewed as a crucial and vanguard element of the counterculture, part and parcel of the war on censorship and the freeing of artistic and personal expression. Pornos and their directors and actors were champions of sexual liberation, not Exhibit A for exploitation and discrimination. Travis Bickle was actually a very hip guy. Poor Betsy was the square.
At the forefront of the mainstreaming of pornography was Barney Rosset of Grove Press. And our friend William Burroughs. Nowhere is this phenomenon presented more clearly and repeatedly than in the newsletters of the Evergreen Club News. You have all heard of Evergreen Review, the primary periodical outlet of Grove Press, which brought the literature and art of the margins into Middle America, but you may not know that in conjunction with Grove’s extremely popular literary magazine, they also had a successful book and film club. A club that reached hundreds of thousands of subscribers. A club that distributed Victorian erotica, transgressive novels, portfolios of erotic drawing, sexual treatises, legal tomes on censorship and obscenity, foreign art films, New American cinema, silent movie classics, stag films, and gay porns.
The Evergreen Club began in 1966 and as an introductory offer potential subscribers could receive a free copy of three titles: Eros Denied by Wayland Young, Games People Play by Eric Berne, and Naked Lunch. Burroughs’ novel was big news at the time as it had just beaten an obscenity rap in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. The book was also a big seller reaching number one on the New York Post bestseller list in November of that year with the hardcover selling more than 50,000 copies. Selections from Burroughs novels, like The Ticket That Exploded, appeared in the early Evergreen Club News brochures but the book club increasingly became a film club especially once Rosset hit pay dirt with the distribution of I Am Curious (Yellow), the Swedish art-porn film that had obscenity issues of its own, which Grove covered in the pages of Evergreen Review. That movie would eventually make Grove $14 million dollars, which encouraged Rosset to dive head-first into the porn pool. Rosset eventually got all wet, losing money hand over fist, in an attempt to replicate the success of I Am Curious (Yellow). No other film distributed by Grove made a profit. By embracing hardcore pornos, Rosset also alienated some of his supporters, particularly female employees and supporters of women’s rights, who revolted against profiting on the exploitation and degradation of women as well as the pervasive sexism and misogyny at Grove. Female radicals, led by Grove employee Robin Morgan, occupied Rosset’s office and attempted to take over the press. As Loren Glass argues in Counter-Culture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review and the Incorporation of the Avant Garde, porn films ultimately played a decisive role in the downfall of Grove and Rosset.
But for a brief moment, Rosset was the Porn King, if not on top of the media mountain, at least at the vanguard of the future of technology. Albert Goldman’s Life feature, “The Old Smut Peddler,” on Rosset from August 1969 (which featured Norman Mailer on the cover and coverage of Woodstock and the murder of Sharon Tate), opens with Rosset’s vision of video cassettes and porn on demand in the bedrooms of America. By the 1980s this world came to be, which happened to destroy the Golden Age of Porn that Rosset helped usher into existence. For in the heady days of the late 1960s, Rosset aggressively acquired libraries, film archives, bookstores, and movie theaters and partnered with Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen, noted collectors of erotica, all in the quest for porn content to feed his empire. Goldman’s article is provided here in full to provide a portrait of Rosset on top just before the collapse in a mere two years. Sidenote: The Old Smut Peddler was only 46 years old at the time of the article. I am older than that now. I guess that makes me an Old Smut Collector.
The Evergreen Club News documents the early days of the Golden Age before Deep Throat changed the game in 1972, by taking porn films into the spotlight and the mainstream. The success of Deep Throat made Rosset’s porn empire of vintage stag films, art-house erotica, New America Cinema, and other 8mm odds and ends obsolete and even worse quaint by comparison. Evergreen Club News is not well-documented. There is no checklist or bibliography and the brochures have no publication dates on them, which results in confusion. For example one prominent seller of Evergreen Club News dates them at 1960, which is clearly wrong. From what I can tell there were seven volumes of the News as well as several out-of-series pamphlets centered around a particular movie or topic, like The Aviator, a stag film from the 1920s, or The New Venus Library of Erotica, a collection of porn exploitation novels. Volume One of the News was published in 1966, when the Evergreen Book Club was initiated. That would place the rest of the volumes as follows:
- Volume Two – 1967
- Volume Three – 1968
- Volume Four – 1969
- Volume Five – 1970
- Volume Six – 1971
- Volume Seven – 1972
By 1972 Rosset’s reckless investment in film as well as internal struggles stemming from the decision to take Grove public basically bankrupted the company and stopped the flood of Grove titles to a mere trickle. As mentioned above, it is also telling that 1972 was the year porn broke, leaving Rosset behind like a starlet’s no longer needed boyfriend.
In the Counter-Culture Colophon, Glass makes good use of the News, particularly in his chapters on obscenity and feminism. Ephemera relating to old porn is crucial to documenting the history of media, advertising, and sexuality as well as gender studies and I suspect will be increasingly collected by institutions and private collectors as such. They are also of course interesting on a visual and design level. I have acquired about 50 Evergreen Club News brochures and I hope this archive will be of interest to academic and general readers alike. As promotional materials they are somewhat repetitive so I have scanned all the cover pages and just a small sample of complete pamphlets to provide a sense of the contents. That said, if anyone has an interest in seeing the complete contents of a particular number I will be happy to scan it and get it posted in the archive. Also if anyone has any News that I am missing please send in scans and we will add them as well. Enjoy!
“The Old Smut Peddler”
29 August, 1969
Evergreen Club News
Vol 5, No 10
Evergreen Club News
Anatomy of a Delivery Boy
Evergreen Club News
Her Daughter’s Boyfriend