How the Realist popped America's cherry.

| 11 Nov 2014 | 11:49

    I was supposed to have everything ready for the printer the next morning. I was exhausted, but there were two final pieces to write. My bare buttocks stuck to the leather chair as I created an imaginary dialogue about clean and dirty bombs. Then I borrowed a form from Mad and composed "A Child’s Primer on Telethons." Our office was on the same floor as Mad, in what became known as the Mad building—225 Lafayette St. I had sold a few freelance articles to them, but other submissions were turned down because they were "too adult." Since Mad’s circulation had already reached incredible heights, publisher Bill Gaines intended to keep aiming it at teenagers.

    "I guess you don’t wanna change horses in midstream," I said.

    "Not when the horse has a rocket up its ass," Gaines replied.

    Mad’s art director, John Francis Putnam, designed the Realist logo and also became my first columnist. Although Mad staffers weren’t allowed to have any outside projects, Putnam was willing to risk his job to write for me. Gaines appreciated that and made an exception for him. Putnam’s column was titled "Modest Proposals."

    My second columnist was Robert Anton Wilson. I had already published his first article, "The Semantics of God," in which he wrote, "The Believer had better face himself and ask squarely: Do I literally believe ‘God’ has a penis? If the answer is no, then it seems only logical to drop the ridiculous practice of referring to ‘God’ as ‘He.’" Wilson’s column was titled "Negative Thinking."

    This was before National Lampoon or Spy magazine, before Doonesbury or Saturday Night Live. I had no role models and no competition, just an open field mined with taboos waiting to be exploded. Artists began to send me cartoons that had been rejected by such magazines as The New Yorker and Playboy for reasons of taste or controversy.

    In New York, the son of the owner of a newsstand in front of Carnegie Hall became my distributor. In Chicago, the Realist was distributed by the manager of an ice cream company. Steve Allen became the first subscriber, and he gave several gift subscriptions, including one to Lenny Bruce, who in turn gave gift subs to several others, as well as becoming an occasional contributor. I was publishing what was considered to be the hippest magazine in America, but I was still living with my parents, and I was still a virgin.

    Because I had no place to take a girl, Bill Gaines gave me permission to use the convertible sofa in his office. There were original paintings of his famous horror characters hung around the wall—the Old Witch, the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper—and a framed portrait of Alfred E. Neuman himself, watching over me while I lost my sexual innocence, just as he had been watching over a whole generation as they lost their cultural innocence.

    My girlfriend and I were rolling around on the carpet, kissing and groping and undressing each other, but to open up the sofa would interfere with our compulsive spontaneity. I was being deflowered, yet I needed to get the condom which had been residing in my wallet (beyond any possible estimated shelf life), so I stopped moving and broke the silence with a strained yet noble whisper: "I better put something on."

    "Oh, that’s okay," she said. "You can fuck me without worrying."

    I had never heard a girl say the word "fuck" before, and I was a little shocked to hear it now, even though we were in the middle of fucking. As our spasms of pleasure mounted and began to overwhelm us, her reply remained in my awareness—You can fuck me without worrying—until my verbal ejaculation became as inevitable as my physical ejaculation. I simultaneously surrendered to both, blurting out in a voice not quite my own: "What—me worry?"

    I never knew where I would find new contributors. One time I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning. My radio was still on, and a man was talking about how you would try to explain the function of an amusement park to visitors from Venus. It was Jean Shepherd. He was on WOR from midnight to 5:30 every night, mixing childhood reminiscence with contemporary critiques, peppered with such characters as the man who could taste an ice cube and tell you the brand name of the refrigerator it came from and the year of manufacture. Shepherd would orchestrate his colorful tales with music ranging from "The Stars and Stripes Forever" to Bessie Smith singing "Empty Bed Blues." He edited several of his stream-of-consciousness ramblings into an article for the Realist under the title "Radio Free America."

    At first, the entire office staff consisted of me. I took no salary, but I had to figure out how to continue publishing without accepting ads, so naturally I got involved with a couple of guys who had a system for betting on the horses. Although I lost all my savings, there was one blessing in disguise. At the racetrack, I bought a handicap newsletter, the Armstrong Daily, which included a clever column by Marvin Kitman. I invited him to write, and he became our consumer advocate with "An Independent Research Laboratory."

    His first report, "I tried the Rapid-Shave Sandpaper Test," called the bluff of an advertising campaign when he described his personal attempt to shave sandpaper with a particular shaving cream. He also wrote sardonic pieces such as "How I Fortified My Family Fallout Shelter," on the morality of arming yourself against neighbors who didn’t have a fallout shelter.

    Meanwhile, I was becoming bad company. Campus bookstores were banning the magazine, and students whose parents had burned their issues often wrote in for replacement copies. But I was publishing material that was bound to offend. For example, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a militant atheist who had challenged the constitutionality of compulsory Bible reading in public schools, and she concluded her first article, "I feel that Jesus Christ is at most a myth—and if he wasn’t, the least he was, was a bastard—and that the Virgin Mary obviously played around as much as I did, and certainly I feel she would be capable of orgasm."

    I published a cartoon that became a poster, "One Nation Under God," depicting Uncle Sam being sodomized by an anthropomorphic deity. And, celebrating the burgeoning cold war, another poster declaring in red-white-and-blue, star-spangled letters, "Fuck Communism!"

    After Walt Disney died, I somehow expected Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the rest of the gang to attend his funeral, with Goofy delivering the eulogy and the Seven Dwarves serving as pallbearers. Disney’s death occurred a few months after Time magazine’s famous "Is God Dead?" cover, and I realized that Disney had served as god to that whole stable of imaginary beings who were now mourning in a state of suspended animation.

    Disney had been their creator, and had repressed their baser instincts, but now with his departure, they could finally shed their cumulative inhibitions and participate together in an unspeakable Roman binge, to signify the crumbling of an empire. I contacted Wally Wood, who had illustrated my first article for Mad, and he (anonymously) unleashed their collective libido, demystifying an entire genre in the process. The "Disneyland Memorial Orgy" was a Realist center spread that became our most infamous poster.

    I seemed to be following a pattern of participatory journalism. In 1962, when abortion was still illegal, I published an anonymous interview with Dr. Robert Spencer, a humane abortionist who was known as "The Saint." Patients came to his office in Ashland, PA, from around the country. He had been performing abortions for 40 years, started out charging $5, and never charged more than $100. Ashland was a small town, and Dr. Spencer’s work was not merely tolerated—the community depended on it. The hotel, the restaurant, the dress shop all thrived on the extra business that came from his out-of-town patients. He built facilities at his clinic for Negro patients who weren’t allowed to obtain overnight lodgings elsewhere in Ashland.

    After the interview was published, I received phone calls from scared female voices—from teenagers to matrons. They were all in desperate search of a safe abortionist. Even a nurse couldn’t find one. It was preposterous that they should have to seek out the editor of a satirical magazine, but their quest so far had been futile, and they simply didn’t know where to turn. With Dr. Spencer’s permission, I referred them to him. I had never intended to become an underground abortion referral service, but it wasn’t going to stop just because in the next Realist there would be an interview with someone else.

    A few years later, state police raided Dr. Spencer’s clinic and arrested him. He remained out of jail only by the grace of political pressure from those he’d helped. He was finally forced to retire from his practice, but I continued mine, referring callers to other physicians he had recommended. Eventually, I was subpoenaed by district attorneys in two cities to appear before grand juries investigating criminal charges against abortionists. On both occasions, I refused to testify, and each time the D.A. tried to frighten me into cooperating with the threat of arrest.

    Bronx D.A. (later Judge) Burton Roberts told me that his staff had found an abortionist’s financial records, which showed all the money that I had received, but he would grant me immunity from prosecution if I cooperated with the grand jury. He extended his hand as a gesture of trust.

    "That’s not true," I said, refusing to shake hands. If I had ever accepted any money, I’d have no way of knowing that he was bluffing.

    At this point, attorney Gerald Lefcourt filed a suit on my behalf, challenging the constitutionality of the abortion law. He pointed out that the D.A. had no power to investigate the violation of an unconstitutional law, and therefore he could not force me to testify. In 1970, I became the only plaintiff in the first lawsuit to declare the abortion laws unconstitutional in New York State. Later, various women’s groups joined the suit, and ultimately the New York legislature repealed the criminal sanctions against abortion, prior to the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade.

    In 1964, I assigned Robert Anton Wilson to write a feature article, which he called "Timothy Leary and His Psychological H-Bomb." A few months later, Leary invited me to his research headquarters in Millbrook, where I took my first acid trip. When I told my mother about LSD, she was quite concerned. "It could lead to marijuana," she said. Mom was right.

    Later, with money from the sale of "Fuck Communism!" posters, I was able to send reporter Robert Scheer to Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, I covered the anti-Vietnam-War movement in the U.S., and ended up cofounding the Yippies (Youth International Party) with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. After what was officially described as "a police riot" at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, I became an unindicted coconspirator. I testified at the trial after ingesting 300 micrograms of acid. This was during my psychedelic macho stage. I even tripped when I was a guest on the Tonight show, and also while riding the subway during rush hour.

    I had been supporting myself by writing film criticism for Cavalier magazine, and with college speaking engagements. Cavalier declined to publish a particular column—my review of *M*A*S*H* as though it were a Busby Berkeley musical called *Gook Killers of 1970*—ostensibly on the grounds of bad taste, but I learned that three wholesalers had told the publisher they were pressured by the FBI and would refuse to distribute Cavalier if my column appeared in it.

    My name was on a list of 65 "radical" campus speakers, compiled by the House Internal Security Committee. Their blacklist was published in the New York Times and picked up by newspapers across the country. My college bookings suddenly stopped.

    Four months after the assassination of John Kennedy, William Manchester was authorized by the family to write a book, The Death of a President. Jackie Kennedy submitted to 10 hours of intimacy with his tape recorder. Two years later, she insisted on cutting material that was too personal for publication. Bobby Kennedy sent a telegram to Evan Thomas, their editor at Harper & Row, suggesting that the book "should neither be published nor serialized." Thomas wrote to Kennedy advisers, asking for help in revising the manuscript, which he felt was "gratuitously and tastelessly insulting" to Lyndon Johnson.

    Bennett Cerf of Random House read an unedited manuscript and said it contained "unbelievable things that happened after the assassination." Jackie filed a lawsuit, and in 1967 the case was settled out of court. Harper & Row made the requested deletions. So did Look magazine, which had purchased serialization rights for more than half a million dollars. I tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of the original manuscript, so I was forced to write "The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book" myself, imitating Manchester’s style.

    It began with a true news item. During the Democratic primaries, LBJ attacked his opponent on the grounds that his father, Joseph Kennedy, was a Nazi sympathizer when he was U.S. ambassador to England, from 1938-1940. Then I segued into stories such as JFK’s affair with Marilyn Monroe and LBJ’s incredibly crude behavior, stories that media folks knew about but not the general public. Next came made-up anecdotes that reeked of verisimilitude, all leading up to a few paragraphs that plunged the Realist into the depths of its notoriety:

    "During that tense flight from Dallas to Washington after the assassination, Jackie inadvertently walked in on Johnson as he was standing over the casket of his predecessor and chuckling…

    "Of course, President Johnson is often given to inappropriate response—witness the puzzled timing of his smiles when he speaks of grave matters—but we must also assume that Mrs. Kennedy had been traumatized that day and her perception was likely to have been colored by the tragedy. This state of shock must have underlain an incident on Air Force One which this writer conceives to be delirium, but which Mrs. Kennedy insists she actually saw.

    "‘I’m telling you this for the historical record,’ she said, ‘so that people a hundred years from now will know what I had to go through... That man was crouching over the corpse, no longer chuckling but breathing hard and moving his body rhythmically. At first I thought he must be performing some mysterious symbolic rite he’d learned from Mexicans or Indians as a boy. And then I realized—there is only one way to say this—he was literally fucking my husband in the throat. In the bullet wound in the front of his throat. He reached a climax and dismounted. I froze. The next thing I remember, he was being sworn in as the new president.’

    "[Handwritten marginal notes: *1. Check with [Warren Commission head] Rankin—did secret autopsy show semen in throat wound? 2. Is this simply necrophilia, or was LBJ trying to change entry wound from grassy knoll into exit wound from Book Depository by enlarging it?]"

    My printer refused to print that issue, and I spent a couple of months trying to find a new printer. I never labeled an article as satire, so as not to deprive readers of the pleasure of discerning for themselves whether something was the truth or a satirical extension of the truth. The most significant thing about "The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book" was its widespread acceptance as truth—if only for a fleeting moment—by intelligent, literate people, from an ACLU official to a Peabody Award-winning journalist to members of the intelligence community.

    Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, said, "Maybe it was because I wanted to believe it so badly." My favorite response came from Merriman Smith, the UPI correspondent who always ended White House press conferences with the traditional "Thank you, Mr. President." He wrote that I had published "filth attributed to someone of national stature supposedly describing something Johnson allegedly did. The incident, of course, never took place..."

    That issue reached a circulation of 100,000, with an estimated pass-on readership of a few million. In 1974, however, I ran out of money and had to suspend publication, only to reincarnate it in 1985 as a newsletter. "The taboos may have changed," I wrote, "but irreverence is still our only sacred cow."

    Irreverence is now an industry. the Realist served its purpose, though—to communicate without compromise—and today other voices, in print, on cable tv and especially on the internet, are following in that same tradition. The last words of my final issue, published in 2001, came from Kurt Vonnegut: "Your planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of you."

    My own swan-song editorial concluded: "And so this little publication comes to an end, neither with a bang nor with a whimper. Just a deep sigh of satisfaction. the Realist has been a way of life for me, but, of course, old editors never die, they just run out of space."

    Paul Krassner’s new biweekly column, "Zen Bastard," debuts in next week’s New York Press.