Erotica imprints such as Olympia Press gave many authors, including Fran Lebowitz, Diane di Prima and Roald Dahl early career boosts: writing pornography under pseudonyms that could make even the most uptight librarian blush

 One could say that smut began with Jack Kahane, who founded Obelisk Press in 1929 in Paris. A native of Manchester, England, Kahane had been a writer of “db’s” (“dirty books”) under the pseudonym Cecil Barr. Committed to free speech and unrestricted subject matter—and allowed greater leeway to publish English-language books without censorship in France—Kahane and Obelisk Press published such notable works as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Anaïs Nin’s Winter of Artifice. The first two titles launched landmark obscenity trials in the United States.

Jack Kahane

Kahane’s wife and his teenaged son, Maurice Girodias, were tasked with creating the original book cover designs for these classics. Not bad for a first job.After Kahane’s death in 1939, Girodias took over the imprint. Consumed by the dirty and radically innovative books he was raised with, he decided to stay in the family business. Eventually, he relinquished control of Obelisk Press to Hachette and began his own imprint in 1953, Olympia Press, best known for publishing erotica and radical avant-garde works of fiction, particularly with controversial subject matter.

Girodias aimed to publish works that would otherwise be banned in other countries, and his “Traveller’s Companion” series had 94 titles—ranging from obscene smut to now canonized works of fiction. Authors in this series included William S. Burroughs, J. P. Donleavy, Henry Miller, Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, and Vladimir Nabokov. Readers could purchase these nondescript sage-green books in Paris and read them on the trip from Paris to London. The small scale of the books coupled with muted pastel green covers and stark text-based designs were unassuming. This kept onlookers unsuspecting of what filth the stranger next to them might be reading.

Every rare book collector froths at the mouth at the thought of owning a first edition first printing of Nabokov’s Lolita in “fine” condition. It’s the book freak equivalent of finding the Holy Grail. Girodias published Lolita in two volumes, as part of the Traveller’s Companion series in 1955. Nabokov had shopped the manuscript around and, after it was refused by all other publishers, he took it to Olympia Press.

The prickly Nabokov wasn’t happy with the way Girodias handled the publishing of Lolita, and Olympia Press gained a reputation for pissing off established authors. In the fallout, Girodias moved the Olympia offices from Paris to 36 Gramercy Park in New York City, and opening a sister imprint called Ophelia Press. Ophelia Press mainly featured trashy pornography novels and were recognizable by the hot pink cover designs. It was good timing on Girodias’s part. The American publishing world in the 1960s faced a mass backlash against censorship, fostering the rise of radical imprints such as Grove Press and Grove’s magazine, The Evergreen Review. Young readers took an interest in openly sexual Beat literature and nonconventional works of fiction.

Once ensconced in New York, Girodias was on the prowl for “hip” American authors to write blurbs promoting his smut novels. In 1968, he wrote to Hunter S. Thompson offering $500 for a ten-word plug promoting George Kimball’s new erotica novel, Only Skin Deep.

Here is Thompson’s scathing personal response to Girodias:

“Dear Maurice,

I was shocked, at first, to think you’d address me on a first-name basis, and especially in the context of a rude solicitation for an endorsement of that hideous drug-nightmare by George Kimball. On the other hand, I was favorably impressed by your offer of $500 for a ten-word plug…people have said you were generous, but I didn’t believe them until I got your fine and friendly letter.

Unfortunately, I can’t under any circumstances endorse that heap of deranged offal that Kimball has coughed up in the shameful guise of art. I’m sure you’re aware of Mr. Kimball’s background: he has dealt, as it were, with Agents. These people, as you know, are the Enemies of Art…I doubt very seriously that he wrote that stinking book by himself; it strikes me as the work of a pre-teen visionary of some kind…In any case, I’m coming to NY in December to beat the living shit out of Kimball. Only Skin Deep is a vicious and intolerable mockery of the whole filth industry; it reminds me of a photograph I recently bought for $50 in the Denver airport…it showed a local high-school cheerleader sucking on a garden hose while roaches crawled out of her anus. I think you and Kimball and Daley have gone too far this time: pornography is one thing, but raw obscenity is quite another. Somebody is going to have to answer for this book; if I were you, I’d get the hell out of town.

Sincerely, Hunter S. Thompson”

With the laws on dirty books becoming more lax, there became less of a need for banned book imprints like Olympia. Second Wave feminist critique coupled with an overabundance of visual pornography available to the general public contributed to Olympia’s demise. Publishing smut was no longer seen as a career-ending risk. Everyone was doing it. In 1968, Olympia Press published Valerie Solanas’s radical feminist classic, the SCUM Manifesto. Solanas had lent Andy Warhol a copy of her unpublished play, Up Your Ass, and he had lost the original script. That led Valerie to the paranoid belief that “The Mob” (comprised of Maurice Girodias and Andy Warhol) was out to steal her writing. When she entered The Factory on June 3, 1968, she intended to shoot Maurice Girodias. Andy Warhol just happened to be there.

Girodias attempted to open another Olympia Press office in London in the 1970s, but that quickly failed. He went bankrupt and the final book he published was in 1974—an erotic fictionalized biography critiquing Henry Kissinger titled, President Kissinger: A Political Fiction, by Monroe Rosenthal and Donald Munson. He published this under his small Freeway Press imprint, and later faced deportation from the U.S. for printing it. The prosecutor against Girodias famously stated, “I don’t think you can take someone who is not fiction and build a fictionalized situation around him.” Obviously he had never fantasized about a Playboy centerfold before…

Girodias returned to Paris and died at the age of 71 from a heart attack on July 3, 1990. A patron saint of perverts, his role in providing visibility to otherwise censored authors has since been unmatched.

Maurice Girodias-1990

From reasons ranging from an extra source of income to winning a bet, many famous authors wrote smut in their early careers. Fran Lebowitz wrote for Midway Press in the 1970s under the name Robert Paine Cook. She wrote raunchy BDSM novels such as House of Leather and The Headmaster’s Mistress before she wrote her 1978 debut comedic masterpiece, Metropolitan Life. She discussed this sordid history in a 2012 interview excerpt with rare book dealer Kurt Thometz:

“I have a pornography collection. It’s not a huge one. The really good stuff is too expensive for me. I wrote some for a company called Midway Press. They would give these stapled pages that told you how to write one and what had to be in each book. They paid you five hundred dollars for a book and that’s it. The first one I wrote myself and it was called House of Leather. I published it under the name of the headmaster who threw me out of prep school, Robert Paine Cook. Then I wrote two or three others with about five people. We would get stoned, we would talk, and somebody would type. There were so many people involved you’d end up getting like seventy-five dollars. It was really boring and it was really bad. My copies of these books are gone and I’m not looking for them. I have a finicky aversion to buying second hand pornography because I know where it’s been.”

Roald Dahl-Switch Bitch

Continuing on a theme of writing BDSM literature for kicks, Roald Dahl wrote a series of adult short stories for Playboy throughout the 1960s. He eventually compiled them into the 1974 book, Switch Bitch. Subjects ranged from his hedonistic recurring character Uncle Oswald to erotic manipulation of women. An excerpt from Switch Bitch, “Some three years ago I drove down to Provence to spend a summer weekend with a lady who was interesting to me simply because she possessed an extraordinarily powerful muscle in a region where other women have no muscles at all.” Criticized for their misogynistic tendencies, perhaps it is best that Dahl moved on to write children’s fiction.

Before its demise, Olympia Press’s stable of smut writers included some well-known names. Diane di Prima wrote two titles (Love on a Trampoline and Banned in Hollywood) under the byline Sybah Darrich. Her erotic literature was so successful that Girodias excitedly published her 1969 fictionalized autobiography—Memoirs of a Beatnik—under her real name. This novel sensationalized the Beat Generation’s bohemian antics. Orgies and lurid affairs create the framework of the novel. Di Prima writes, “There are as many kinds of kisses as there are people on earth, as there are permutations and combinations of those people. No two people kiss alike—no two people fuck alike—but somehow the kiss is more personal, more individualized than the fuck.”

Diane DiPrima

The Story of O was published by Olympia Press in 1954. The author Anne Desclos wrote under the pseudonyms Dominique Aury and Pauline Réage. The novel was originally written as personal letters to her lover, Jean Paulhan, a noted French publisher with a penchant for sadomasochism. He had previously expressed fondness for the writing of Marquis de Sade. This was her attempt at proving her erotic capabilities, despite the common belief at the time that women were demure.

The Story of O

Baird Bryant was the cinematographer for the Maysles brothers’ film, Gimme Shelter (1970). He was the man who filmed the stabbing of Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angel at Altamont on December 6, 1969. Bryant saw a fight happen and simply turned his camera towards the commotion during the Rolling Stones performance of, “Under My Thumb.” After reviewing the footage, the Maysles then realized that he had recorded the actual stabbing. Bryant also filmed the New Orleans graveyard acid trip scene in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). This should not be overshadowed by the smut novel he wrote for Olympia in 1955 titled, Play This Love With Me. The novel features a sculptor that fucks his way through the Parisian aristocracy, ending in devil worship.

Other Olympia honorable mentions include Screen by the science fiction writer Barry Malzberg, in which, “Barry N. Malzberg draws his readers over the precipice of rationality into a realm where dreams are real a realm in which the hero, a humble investigator for the New York City Welfare Department, finds himself married to Sophia Loren, seducing Elizabeth Taylor, and seduced by Brigitte Bardot all in one tortured weekend.” His other notable title for Olympia was, Confessions of Westchester County which featured the tagline, “Follow the Suave Rapist.”

Novelist George Bataille’s wife, Diane Bataille, had a fight with her husband whom claimed that she was incapable of writing erotica as well as him. Her rebuttal was publishing the BDSM novel, The Whip Angels, under the pseudonyms “XXX” and “Selena Warfield.” This novel features a young girl learning submission at the hands of her “incestuous guardians.” This became one of Olympia’s best sellers.

Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg was written under the pseudonym Maxwell Kenton and published by Olympia Press in 1958. Girodias instantly recognized Candy’s worth and urged both authors to publish under their real names. Terry Southern was simultaneously working on children’s books that year, and didn’t think that market would appreciate Candy’s literary value.

I’m still not sure what the issue would have been. I first read Candy when I was a horny fifteen year old and I thought it was a great read (for a myriad of reasons). A play on Voltaire’s Candide, Candy follows the bizarre sexual journey of a beautiful young blonde girl named Candy Christian. She seems unable to deny pleasure to the strange array of men she encounters. She has a talent for “finding beauty in mean places” (this could also describe my entire dating history) and the novel ends climactically with an unconventional—and steamy—reunion with her father. The Electra complex personified. I think an advance copy of Candy could have convinced Sigmund Freud to stick around awhile longer. Beyond its stroke-worthy merit, Candy poignantly satirized American culture in the late 1950s. No topic was safe, from the budding trend in mysticism to the abuse of power by men in high academic roles. Girodias faced harsh censorship and banning issues when Candy was published, so he re-published it under the very inconspicuous title, Lollipop. Could have fooled me.

Jack Kahane family

The beauty of Olympia Press was that Girodias did not create a hard distinction between high and low art. Groundbreaking literary works that reset the parameters of fiction were given as much weight as raunchy BDSM novels. There is importance to this, for Girodias recognized that his readers’ tastes were dynamic. I may want to read Samuel Beckett, but I may also want to read a novel simply called, Thrust. The pervert was not singled out nor assumed to be a moron. Coupled with this need to publish what most deemed unpalatable, Girodias funded the early careers of many authors. Many who wrote smut, like Fran Liebowitz, claimed to just do it for the money, but I see writing it in that era as a very large, “fuck you” to the straight culture of the time. Along with greatly impacting the free speech movement, Olympia influenced a generation of writers, deviants, sluts, and everything in-between.

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