X-Rated: George Plimpton At Large In The Playpen Of The Damned

 Mark Peterson / Getty Images

This story originally appeared in the November 1998 issue of Men’s Journal.

The Las Vegas convention hall was packed with lines of men moving slowly toward the booths in which the porn stars were waiting: Tiffany Mynx, Kristi Myst, Misty Rain, Candy Apples, Sindee Coxx, Shyla Foxx, the X’s a salute to the X-rated industry in which they serve. The women were heavily made-up with scarlet lips, mascaraed eyelashes, hair carefully coifed and piled high, tight-fitting pants of black leather, some girls with tattoos (a butterfly, a black rose on a bare shoulder), and the shoes, of course, with the spikelike stiletto heels — hardly the girl-next-door look. Odd, because it seemed to perpetuate the concept that the porn star is only a notch or two up the social scale from the street prostitute. The stars came out of their booths and had pictures taken with their fans — the men’s faces quite solemn, as if they were about to be handed a certificate for good citizenship. What they got was a poster. The girls rolled the posters into tight cylinders and then slid a rubber band up their length between thumb and forefinger — “like they’re putting a condom on a guy,” as someone in line pointed out.

I paid a visit to the booth of AVN (Adult Video News, the industry magazine that was sponsoring the 1997 porn-awards gala that would take place that evening), where I was introduced to a young woman who reviews porn movies for the publication (her nom de plume is Lily White). In addition, she has the gargantuan job of helping the staff select 300 nominees — from the staggering total of 7,200 porn films made over the year — for the silver statuettes that would be awarded later on. She was wearing a stud in her tongue and a ring in her nose. Sometimes, she said, she wears a silver spike through the septum of her nose. Her husband does her better — a big ring in the septum, a labret on either side of the lower lip, a ring in his right nipple, and the upper part of his body covered in tattoos. “In the supermarkets we kind of freak people out,” she said.

“A certain amount of clashing when you kiss,” I suggested.

“We feel quite uncomfortable without all that stuff on,” she said. “It’s like you lose your ballast.”

We began talking about the night’s awards ceremony. One hundred and one statuettes were to be given out. There were categories satisfying almost every imaginable delectation. She described the “Specialty” videos for those who like big-breasted women: Big Boob Bikini Bash, The Duke of Knockers. There was bondage, naturally: The Punishment of Little Red Riding Hood. Spanking: Sweet Cheerleaders Spanked. Bizarre Videos, which produced the spanking film, was also responsible for a nominee in what Lily referred to as the “Other Genre” category — Waterworld: The Enema Movie.

I remarked how numbing it must have been for her to plow through all this. Since the number of sexual positions and combinations is limited, wasn’t pornography doomed to ultimate monotony? Lily agreed that the fast-forward button on the VCR is the essential piece of equipment in judging pornography . . . and that judicious use of it actually allowed her to get through 100 or more films a day, since the sex acts themselves (often called “commercials”) were invariably filmed at close range and unremittingly, as if the cameraman had set his camera onto a small tripod at the foot of the bed and gone off to have himself a beer. Fast-forward time.

“The formula is two minutes between commercials,” Lily was saying.

I mentioned that I’d learned of a nice sixteenth-century word for “commercial”: a “flourish.”

“A what?”

“A ‘flourish,’ as in, ‘Let’s have a flourish on the tilting green.’ ”

Lily laughed and said that whether it was a “commercial” or a “flourish,” it was still fast-forward time.

I was surprised to learn later that an AVN compatriot of hers named Jim Holliday (who’s famous around the magazine’s offices for outfitting himself entirely in white, including his moccasins, and who bears the title “senior historian”) would have been horrified at Lily’s use of the fast-forward button. A porn-film anthologist as well as a director, he writes in an introduction to his Adult Video Almanac and Trivia Treasury that he never fast-forwarded once during his viewing of almost 2,000 films while researching material for his book. He claims that “[a]ll sex scenes are not the same, and fast forwarding can cause you to miss a milestone of erotica found in an otherwise dreadful film. I will put up with the dreary agony just to find those gems.”

When I met Holliday, he mentioned a number of times that he had the mind-set of an Ohio farm boy, which was his upbringing: “Quite normal,” he said. His insistence was that the intent of pornography, whether written or pictorial, was to arouse sexual feelings — not to entertain. He makes up for a lack of plot by populating his films with large numbers of stars — ergo, more couplings. He specializes in 18-to-30-girl epics with such titles as Sorority Sex Kittens and Car Wash Angels. He makes a lot of what he calls “double-vocational-adjective” movies — as in Cheerleader Nurses, Sorority Nurses, etc. The success of these has led predictably to “return” films . . . The Return of the Cheerleader Nurses. He mentioned a possible ne plus ultra in this field: The Return of the Black Anal Sorority Cheerleader Nurses. His Car Wash Angels would be in contention that night.

He took me over to another booth and presented me to a slight, middle-aged man, Alex de Renzy, considered one of the titan filmmakers of the porn industry. I knew something about him. In 1969 he had gone to Denmark with a two-man crew and filmed Copenhagen’s sex fair, where there was considerable flaunting in public of what hadn’t been seen anywhere before. De Renzy spent eight days making a documentary about the Danish porn industry, which eventually showed in mainstream movie theaters in the U.S. We had met before. In fact, jokingly, I had asked him at the time if he could slip me into one of his films, an interesting participatory exercise. He seemed so agreeable that I stammered about and told him that if he -happened to be filming in Egypt, I’d be glad to oblige.

“Do you remember that?” I asked. “I specified it had to be Egypt.”

“I never understood that.”

“I don’t either,” I said.

Shouts rose from down the aisle; porn stars were tossing condom packages to the men waiting in line. I wandered over to look at some of the booths featuring bondage and S&M devices — leather whips, paddles, ankle restraints, studded halters, love cuffs, stiletto-heeled boots that looked more like weapons than footwear, women’s edible undies (retail price: $1.75), biker caps, bitch-goddess bras, chokers, leashes, harnesses. The most alarming device was on display in the Paradise Electro Stimulations booth — the Auto Erotic Chair, a grim, skeletal black-leather structure that at first glance suggested an offshoot of an electric chair. A flier I was handed announced that it was “a new apex in bondage gear . . . four top-quality leather restraints, which with the fully adjustable arm and leg horns will get you or your other ‘spread eagle’ in no time.” Two “electro stimulative devices” come with the chair — the Vaginal Plug (which can be “aimed for a perfect fit”) and the Micro Acrylic Anal Plug (no mention of whether this could be “aimed” or not).

As I was walking away, a gentleman leaned out of a booth and called out my name. He introduced himself as Bill Margold and quickly announced himself as a Detroit Lions fan. His calling card, which he pressed on me, was trimmed in blue and silver, the Lions’ colors. It read “William Margold created Himself.” We talked about the Lions. He’s worried about their defense. We could have been chatting in the Silverdome in Pontiac. Margold is such a fan that he has incorporated mention of the Detroit Lions into most of the 300 porn films he told me he has made to date. “Is there anything better than sex?” a girl asks him as the two lie exhausted on a bed in one of his early films. “Yes,” he replies. “Watching the Detroit Lions play.” In one film, Margold used the stage name Lem Lary, derived from Lem Barney and Yale Lary, two of Detroit’s stars in the ’60s and ’70s. “Do the Lions know this?” I asked, wondering how William Ford, the team’s owner, a mild-mannered family man, would take to this symbiotic relationship.

“Oh, yes,” Margold said. “I get fine seats for the games. Hey, you know what?”

“What?”

“You’re responsible for my getting into the porn industry.” 

I looked at him, dumbfounded.

“That’s right. You were my inspiration.” He went on to say that in 1968 he had reviewed my book Paper Lion for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. He looked at me and laughed. He said, “I knew you weren’t going to get into the business.” (I was tempted to interrupt and tell him about Alex de Renzy and Egypt but refrained.) “So I said to myself, Why not try it? If I failed, it would be a comic tragedy and I’d have a great story. If I succeeded . . . if I could pull off the three G’s . . .”

“The three G’s?”

“Get up, get in, get off . . . and do this on cue. I succeeded. My first film was The Goddaughter. Others followed. Weekend Fantasy. Lust Inferno. I went into the playpen of the damned. That’s right. Once you do this, you’re damned forever. But I didn’t want to get out. I knew I could become the leading authority. I didn’t come into it for the sexual activity. That’s mechanical. I came into it for the glory.”

I was to learn that Margold is not only committed but also a substantial figure in the porn industry — known as “Papa Bear” for his efforts to help his “kids” work out their personal problems, especially concerns of self-esteem. His apartment in West Hollywood is overrun with stuffed teddy bears sent to him in gratitude. He has been in all aspects of the industry. As an agent, he discovered one of the most famous of porn stars: Seka. “I told her, ‘I’m starting you off as hamburger. You’ll end up filet mignon.’ ” He is fond of aphorisms. His most famous is probably “No one ever died of an overdose of pornography.”

That evening, the ballroom of the Riviera Hotel filled with people. The men in the orchestra onstage wore dinner jackets. The master of ceremonies was Bobby Slayton, a stand-up comedian, who after each joke would turn to the orchestra and motion to the drummer for a rim-shot — ker-boom. Slayton shared the stage with a number of “co-hostesses,” including a tall, graceful porn star in a white sheath dress named Nici Sterling, who is from England, where the pornography industry is a shadowy presence — no adult stores; clerks in dingy Soho alleys keep unmarked videos under the counter. She warmed up the crowd by remarking that there was more to the English than a stiff upper lip. Slayton later countered this with the comment “Englishwomen don’t come; they arrive.” Ker-boom.

The awards procedure involved as many as seven porn stars, almost always women, walking out in single file from the wings to a microphone at center stage. Each in turn would read out a nominee’s name from a list. After the envelope was opened, the seven girls would lean toward the mike and attempt to call out the winner in unison — very rarely successfully. It was not easy for them to sing out as one “And the winner is . . . Buttslammer 2!”

Unlike at the Oscars, no film clips of the award-winners were shown on a giant screen — predictable enough, I suppose, since no matter how jaundiced, or how supportive of the X-rated industry, it is hard to imagine that the audience members viewing, say, the Best Spanking scene would not have erupted into a bedlam of hooting and catcalling.

The award, held high in triumph by the winners, was a “Winged Victory” statuette of a woman holding aloft a wreath — a trophy that could just as well have been bestowed upon the champions of the local girls’ softball league. The female winners, perched on their stiletto heels, moved for the podium in staccato strides. Once there, they found that they had very little to say . . . a “gosh,” often followed by a fit of giggling. Out front we were spared what Oscar audiences are forced to suffer — the list of people “I would like to thank,” on and on. It occurred to me that because of the vast number of films in which each winner had performed over the course of a year, much less the number of lovers, it was hopeless to sort out a few names for special mention.

A male star named T.T. Boy received an award for his performance in a video called Shock. Often called simply “the Boy,” he is a legend in the business, not only for being able to maintain an erection indefinitely (which in the industry is known as “sustaining wood”) but also for producing an ejaculation (referred to as a “money shot,” a “cum shot,” a “money pop,” etc.) on cue — and, amazingly, for being able to do a number of them in succession. In Sorority Sex Kittens, he produced five money pops in one scene. T.T. Boy does not look at all glamorous — he’s a small, tough-guy, assistant-mobster type; sometimes he chews gum during his lovemaking scenes. He pounds his partners. From the podium he said he hadn’t seen Shock (he plays a gargoyle) but heard it was interesting. Once memorably described as “nothing more than a life-support system for his penis,” he got the kind of admiring, solid applause reserved for a large artillery piece going by in a parade.

My friend Holliday didn’t think much of T.T. Boy’s gargoyle footage. “I’m a Midwestern farm boy from Ohio,” he told me again. “Gargoyles? They’re to jump down and slit someone’s throat, not make love. Gargoyles belong in horror films.”

“What about T.T. Boy himself?”

“One of a kind. In the whole business there are only about 16 or 20 men who can perform — the paladins of Charlemagne!” he said grandly.

The big winner of the night was a cute young star named Missy, sometimes referred to as the Shirley Temple of the industry. She won both the Best New Starlet and the Female Performer of the Year awards — a “historic event,” as it was reported later in AVN. Missy, who seemed to me more a healthy-cheerleader type than a Shirley Temple, thanked her husband, Mickey, for his support during her “sexual adventure.” I wondered if Mickey didn’t deserve an award for Most Open-minded. At our table we worked it out that, in the 40 films she had made in her first year in the business (given that she had performed in, say, four commercials, or flourishes, in each), Missy had been unfaithful to Mickey 160 times. Someone at the table pointed out that Mickey was a porn star himself. Out came a pad and pencil. If Mickey had made as many films as his wife, averaging two partners per, the total number of acts of infidelity would amount to 240, a figure surely of Guinness Book of World Records proportions.

Missy stayed onstage and was joined by all the evening’s winners and performers. A comedian arrived and, quite off-key, sang, “Thank heaven for grown-up girls.” This was followed by the porn stars’ doing a lively macarena (announced as a “cockeranal”), in which the hand movements included a move from the crotch to the mouth. The dancing became disorganized, a lot of kissing and mock lovemaking. Many of the principals were not wearing anything under their dresses. Then everybody clustered together and, arranging themselves like a family portrait, sang “We’re a lovely horny porno family.” The lights went up and it was over.

I left for the Hotel Rio, where I was told there was going to be a cyber-orgy. I had no idea what that was, but I went anyway. The party was held in a duplex suite on the twentieth floor. The place was crowded with men. I didn’t see any women. But they were expected. From the second floor of the suite, I could look down over a balcony at the crowd milling below. Not far away was Paul Thomas, the porn star and director, sitting alone. One of Charlemagne’s paladins!

It was my chance. I thought I’d ask him why the female stars invariably wear high-heeled shoes during the flourishes in X-rated movies. In the early days of pornographic films, the men often wore calf-length black stockings and the women wore high-heeled shoes, as if both partners felt they had to maintain at least some shred of dignity. But in present-day films, only the high heels remain; the stilettos, pitch-black, wave above the male performer’s back like a set of antennae. The insistence on heels leads to rather improbable scenes — the female star tottering on spike heels as she heads for a liaison in a forest glade, or a poolside cabana, or a barn, or a garage (a favorite venue) to perform with a guy against the flank of a motor-cycle. The shoes never come off.

I went over and introduced myself. We sat and chatted. He told me something about himself. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, he had gone to New York seeking a career in acting. Blessed with movie-star good looks, he had appeared onstage in both Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. He said he had been attracted to the porn world because he liked the exhibitionist factor. He liked being watched.

“So I got a chance to be in the Mitchell Brothers’ X-rated Autobiography of a Flea. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was a drugged-out hippie. I wanted to show my penis to everybody, and it was a perfect opportunity. I was a swinger. My generation had a much larger range of sexual experience — swapping partners, tripping on acid, watching your girlfriend with a bunch of people in the balcony, and partying all night in Polk Street in San Francisco and everybody having sex . . . that was what was going on.”

I said I didn’t remember that part about the guys up in the balcony . . .

“Oh, yes.”

He got up and looked down at the crowd, and then turned back and shrugged.

“No sign of the cyber-orgy?”

“Nope.”

He sat down and continued. “I’m telling you that in all likelihood I might have made it in the mainstream as an actor or a director. But doing X-rated films will ruin your chances in the mainstream. You’ll never enter big-time corporate America. You’ll probably never run for president.”

Playpen of the damned, I thought. I asked if he was recognized on the street.

“Every day. I like it.”

Thomas made hundreds of films. Now he works as a director for Vivid Video, which since 1987 has had a subsidiary contract with Playboy Enterprises. He is able to make $150,000-budget X-rated films because of the edited versions — removal of any sight of male genitalia or penetration — which appear on pay-cable networks and on hotel-bedroom TV screens.

Thomas is one of the few people who still shoots on film rather than with video. “I tell a story,” he explained. “I try to involve the audience in the characters of the story so that when it comes time for them to have sex, it means a bit more to the audience. They have some emotion invested in what’s going on. I’m also wary of porn conventions,” he said. “Big hair, big breasts. We don’t have a makeup person on the set. We hire girls with natural breasts.”

“What’s your take on having girls wear high-heeled shoes in bed?”

To my surprise, he liked the convention.

“They extend the leg,” he said simply.

“I talked to a guy, a porn star named Nick East, who said he got gouged.”

“His problem.”

We gazed on the men milling about below, many of them facing the door through which the stars were expected to appear.

I stirred and said, “Paul, did you know that back in the sixteenth century having sex was sometimes called having a flourish?”

“Is that right?” he replied. “A flourish.”

“It turns up in the diaries of the time. ‘We had a flourish on the settee.’ ”

“I like it. I’m going to use it.”

Think of that, I said to myself . . . I had made two contributions to the porn industry — Bill Margold and now “flourish.”

It was getting late. It didn’t look as though the cyber-orgy was going to take place, certainly not in our suite, or even that any of the porn stars would show up for a drink.

I thanked Thomas for taking time to chat with me. Out in the hotel corridor I spotted T.T. Boy walking by, moving swiftly, a small entourage crowding around him . . . like a prizefighter on the way to the ring. On his way to the cyber-orgy? I didn’t hasten after him.

In my hotel room, the TV set was on. I could watch an adult film for $9.95. It would have been appropriate enough, I suppose. But I didn’t. The next day I heard that a girl at the party had performed with a beer bottle and danced naked on a table. At the time I was sound asleep.