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Death of a Playmate

It is shortly past four in the afternoon and Hugh Hefner glides wordlessly into the library of his Playboy Mansion West. He is wearing pajamas and looking somber in green silk. The incongruous spectacle of a sybarite in mourning. To date, his public profession of grief has been contained in a press release: “The death of Dorothy Stratten comes as a shock to us all.… As Playboy’s Playmate of the Year with a film and a television career of increasing importance, her professional future was a bright one. But equally sad to us is the fact that her loss takes from us all a very special member of the Playboy family.”

That’s all. A dispassionate eulogy from which one might conclude that Miss Stratten died in her sleep of pneumonia. One, certainly, which masked the turmoil her death created within the Organization. During the morning hours after Stratten was found nude in a West Los Angeles apartment, her face blasted away by 12-gauge buckshot, editors scrambled to pull her photos from the upcoming October issue. It could not be done. The issues were already run. So they pulled her ethereal blond image from the cover of the 1981 Playmate Calendar and promptly scrapped a Christmas promotion featuring her posed in the buff with Hefner. Other playmates, of course, have expired violently. Wilhelmina Rietveld took a massive overdose of barbiturates in 1973. Claudia Jennings known as “Queen of the B-Movies,” was crushed to death last fall in her Volkswagen convertible. Both caused grief and chagrin to the self-serious “family” of playmates whose aura does not admit the possibility of shaving nicks and bladder infections, let alone death.

But the loss of Dorothy Stratten sent Hefner and his family into seclusion, at least from the press. For one thing, Playboy has been earnestly trying to avoid any bad national publicity that might threaten its application for a casino license in Atlantic City. But beyond that, Dorothy Stratten was a corporate treasure. She was not just any playmate but the “Eighties’ First Playmate of the Year” who, as Playboy trumpeted in June, was on her way to becoming “one of the few emerging goddesses of the new decade.”

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She gave rise to extravagant comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, although unlike Monroe, she was no cripple. She was delighted with her success and wanted more of it. Far from being brutalized by Hollywood, she was coddled by it. Her screen roles were all minor ones. A fleeting walk-on as a bunny in Americathon. A small running part as a roller nymph in Skatetown U.S.A. She played the most perfect woman in the universe in an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. She was surely more successful in a shorter period of time than any other playmate in the history of the empire. “Playboy has not really had a star,” says Stratten’s erstwhile agent David Wilder. “They thought she was going to be the biggest thing they ever had.”

No wonder Hefner grieves.

“The major reason that I’m… that we’re both sittin’ here,” says Hefner, “that I wanted to talk about it, is because there is still a great tendency… for this thing to fall into the classic cliché of ‘smalltown girl comes to Playboy, comes to Hollywood, life in the fast lane,’ and that was somehow related to her death. And that is not what really happened. A very sick guy saw his meal ticket and his connection to power, whatever, slipping away. And it was that that made him kill her.”

The “very sick guy” is Paul Snider, Dorothy Stratten’s husband, the man who became her mentor. He is the one who plucked her from a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, British Columbia, and pushed her into the path of Playboy during the Great Playmate Hunt in 1978. Later, as she moved out of his class, he became a millstone, and Stratten’s prickliest problem was not coping with celebrity but discarding a husband she had outgrown. When Paul Snider balked at being discarded, he became her nemesis. And on August 14 of this year he apparently took her life and his own with a 12-gauge shotgun.

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The Pimp

It is not so difficult to see why Snider became an embarrassment. Since the murder he has been excoriated by Hefner and others as a cheap hustler, but such moral indignation always rings a little false in Hollywood. Snider’s main sin was that he lacked scope.

Snider grew up in Vancouver’s East End, a tough area of the city steeped in machismo. His parents split up when he was a boy and he had to fend for himself from the time he quit school in the seventh grade. Embarrassed by being skinny, he took up body building in his late teens and within a year had fleshed out his upper torso. His dark hair and mustache were groomed impeccably and women on the nightclub circuit found him attractive. The two things it seemed he could never get enough of were women and money. For a time he was the successful promoter of automobile and cycle shows at the Pacific National Exhibition. But legitimate enterprises didn’t bring him enough to support his expensive tastes and he took to procuring. He wore mink, drove a black Corvette, and flaunted a bejeweled Star of David around his neck. About town he was known as the Jewish Pimp.

Among the heavy gang types in Vancouver, the Rounder Crowd, Paul Snider was regarded with scorn. A punk who always seemed to be missing the big score. “He never touched [the drug trade],” said one Rounder who knew him then. “Nobody trusted him that much and he was scared to death of drugs. He finally lost a lot of money to loan sharks and the Rounder Crowd hung him by his ankles from the 30th floor of a hotel. He had to leave town.”

Snider split for Los Angeles where he acquired a gold limousine and worked his girls on the fringes of Beverly Hills. He was enamored of Hollywood’s dated appeal and styled his girls to conform with a 1950s notion of glamour. At various times he toyed with the idea of becoming a star, or perhaps even a director or a producer. He tried to pry his way into powerful circles, but without much success. At length he gave up pimping because the girls weren’t bringing him enough income — one had stolen some items and had in fact cost him money — and when he returned to Vancouver some time in 1977 Snider resolved to keep straight. For one thing, he was terrified of going to jail. He would kill himself, he once told a girl, before he would go to jail.

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But Snider never lost the appraising eye of a pimp. One night early in 1978 he and a friend dropped into an East Vancouver Dairy Queen and there he first took notice of Dorothy Ruth Hoogstraten filling orders behind the counter. She was very tall with the sweet natural looks of a girl, but she moved like a mature woman. Snider turned to his friend and observed, “That girl could make me a lot of money.” He got Dorothy’s number from another waitress and called her at home. She was 18.

Later when she recalled their meeting Dorothy would feign amused exasperation at Paul’s overtures. He was brash, lacking altogether in finesse. But he appealed to her, probably because he was older by nine years and streetwise. He offered to take charge of her and that was nice. Her father, a Dutch immigrant, had left the family when she was very young. Dorothy had floated along like a particle in a solution. There had never been enough money to buy nice things. And now Paul bought her clothes. He gave her a topaz ring set in diamonds. She could escape to his place, a posh apartment with skylights, plants, and deep burgundy furniture. He would buy wine and cook dinner. Afterwards he’d fix hot toddies and play the guitar for her. In public he was an obnoxious braggart; in private he could be a vulnerable, cuddly Jewish boy.

Paul Snider knew that gaping vulnerability of a young girl. Before he came along Dorothy had had only one boyfriend. She had thought of herself as “plain with big hands.” At 16, her breasts swelled into glorious lobes, but she never really knew what to do about them. She was a shy, comely, undistinguished teenager who wrote sophomoric poetry and had no aspirations other than landing a secretarial job. When Paul told her she was beautiful, she unfolded in the glow of his compliments and was infected by his ambitions for her.

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Snider probably never worked Dorothy as a prostitute. He recognized that she was, as one observer put it, “class merchandise” that could be groomed to better advantage. He had tried to promote other girls as playmates, notably a stripper in 1974, but without success. He had often secured recycled playmates or bunnies to work his auto shows and had seen some get burnt out on sex and cocaine, languishing because of poor management. Snider dealt gingerly with Dorothy’s inexperience and broke her in gradually. After escorting her to her graduation dance — he bought her a ruffled white gown for the occasion — he took her to a German photographer named Uwe Meyer for her first professional portrait. She looked like a flirtatious virgin.

About a month later, Snider called Meyer again, this time to do a nude shooting at Snider’s apartment. Meyer arrived with a hairdresser to find Dorothy a little nervous. She clung, as she later recalled, to a scarf or a blouse as a towline to modesty, but she fell quickly into playful postures. She was perfectly pliant.

“She was eager to please,” recalls Meyer. “I hesitated to rearrange her breasts thinking it might upset her, but she said, ‘Do whatever you like.’ ”

Meyer hoped to get the $1,000 finder’s fee that Playboy routinely pays photographers who discover playmates along the byways and backwaters of the continent. But Snider, covering all bets, took Dorothy to another photographer named Ken Honey who had an established track-record with Playboy. Honey had at first declined to shoot Dorothy because she was underage and needed a parent’s signature on the release. Dorothy, who was reluctant to tell anyone at home about the nude posing, finally broke the news to her mother and persuaded her to sign. Honey sent this set of shots to Los Angeles and was sent a finder’s fee. In August 1978, Dorothy flew to Los Angeles for a test shot. It was the first time she had ever been on a plane.

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***

Even to the most cynical sensibilities there is something miraculous about the way Hollywood took to Dorothy Hoogstraten. In a city overpopulated with beautiful women — most of them soured and disillusioned by 25 — Dorothy caught some current of fortune and floated steadily upward through the spheres of that indifferent paradise. Her test shots were superb, placing her among the 16 top contenders for the 25th Anniversary Playmate. And although she lost out to Candy Loving, she was named Playmate of the Month for August 1979. As soon as he learned of her selection, Paul Snider, by Hefner’s account at least, flew to Los Angeles and proposed. They did not marry right away but set up housekeeping in a modest apartment in West Los Angeles. It was part of Snider’s grand plan that Dorothy should support them both. She was, however, an alien and had no green card. Later, when it appeared her fortunes were on the rise during the fall of 1979, Hefner would personally intervene to secure her a temporary work permit. In the meantime, she was given a job as a bunny at the Century City Playboy Club. The Organization took care of her. It recognized a good thing. While other playmates required cosmetic surgery on breasts or scars, Stratten was nearly perfect. There was a patch of adolescent acne on her forehead and a round birthmark on her hip, but nothing serious. Her most troublesome flaw was a tendency to get plump, but that was controlled through passionate exercise. The only initial change Playboy deemed necessary was trimming her shoulder-length blond hair. And the cumbersome “Hoogstraten” became “Stratten.”

Playboy photographers had been so impressed by the way Dorothy photographed that a company executive called agent David Wilder of Barr-Wilder Associates. Wilder, who handled the film careers of other playmates, agreed to meet Dorothy for coffee.

“A quality like Dorothy Stratten’s comes by once in a lifetime,” says Wilder with the solemn exaggeration that comes naturally after a tragedy. “She was exactly what this town likes, a beautiful girl who could act.”

More to the point she had at least one trait to meet any need. When Lorimar Productions wanted a “playmate type” for a bit role in Americathon, Wilder sent Dorothy. When Columbia wanted a beauty who could skate for Skatetown, Wilder sent Dorothy, who could skate like an ace. When the producers of Buck Rogers and later Galaxina asked simply for a woman who was so beautiful that no one could deny it, Wilder sent Dorothy. And once Dorothy got in the door, it seemed that no one could resist her.

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During the spring of 1979, Dorothy was busy modeling or filming. One photographer recalls, “She was green, but took instruction well.” From time to time, however, she would have difficulty composing herself on the set. She asked a doctor for a prescription of Valium. It was the adjustments, she explained, and the growing hassles with Paul.

Since coming to L.A., Snider had been into some deals of his own, most of them legal but sleazy. He had promoted exotic male dancers at a local disco, a wet underwear contest near Santa Monica, and wet T-shirt contests in the San Fernando Valley. But his chief hopes rested with Dorothy. He reminded her constantly that the two of them had what he called “a lifetime bargain” and he pressed her to marry him. Dorothy was torn by indecision. Friends tried to dissuade her from marrying, saying it could hold back her career, but she replied, “He cares for me so much. He’s always there when I need him. I can’t ever imagine myself being with any other man but Paul.”

They were married in Las Vegas on June 1, 1979, and the following month Dorothy returned to Canada for a promotional tour of the provinces. Paul did not go with her because Playboy wanted the marriage kept secret. In Vancouver, Dorothy was greeted like a minor celebrity. The local press, a little caustic but mainly cowed, questioned her obliquely about exploitation. “I see the pictures as nudes, like nude paintings,” she said. “They are not made for people to fantasize about.” Her family and Paul’s family visited her hotel, highly pleased with her success. Her first film was about to be released. The August issue was already on the stands featuring her as a pouting nymph who wrote poetry. (A few plodding iambs were even reprinted.)

And she was going to star in a new Canadian film by North American Pictures called Autumn Born.

Since the murder, not much has been made of this film, probably because it contained unpleasant overtones of bondage. Dorothy played the lead, a 17-year-old rich orphan who is kidnapped and abused by her uncle. Dorothy was excited about the role, although she conceded to a Canadian reporter, “a lot [of it] is watching this girl get beat up.”

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A Goddess for the ’80s

While Dorothy was being pummeled on the set of Autumn Born, Snider busied himself apartment hunting. They were due for a rent raise and were looking to share a place with a doctor friend, a young internist who patronized the Century City Playboy Club. Paul found a two-story Spanish style stucco house near the Santa Monica Freeway in West L.A. There was a living room upstairs as well as a bedroom which the doctor claimed. Paul and Dorothy moved into the second bedroom downstairs at the back of the house. Since the doctor spent many nights with his girlfriend, the Sniders had the house much to themselves.

Paul had a growing obsession with Dorothy’s destiny. It was, of course, his own. He furnished the house with photographs, and got plates reading “Star-80” for his new Mercedes. He talked about her as the next Playmate of the Year, the next Marilyn Monroe. When he had had a couple of glasses of wine, he would croon, “We’re on a rocket ship to the moon.” When they hit it big, he said, the would move to Bel-Air Estates where the big producers live.

Dorothy was made uncomfortable by his grandiosity. He was putting her, she confided to friends, in a position where she could not fail without failing them both. But she did not complain to him. They had, after all, a lifetime bargain, and he had brought her a long way.

As her manager he provided the kind of cautionary coaching that starlets rarely receive. He wouldn’t let her smoke. He monitored her drinking, which was moderate at any rate. He would have allowed her a little marijuana and cocaine under his supervision, but she showed no interest in drugs, save Valium. Mainly he warned her to be wary of the men she met at the Mansion, men who would promise her things, then use her up. Snider taught her how to finesse a come-on. How to turn a guy down without putting him off. Most important, he discussed with her who she might actually have to sleep with. Hefner, of course, was at the top of the list.

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Did Hefner sleep with Dorothy Stratten? Mansion gossips who have provided graphic narratives of Hefner’s encounters with other playmates cannot similarly document a tryst with Dorothy. According to the bizarre code of the Life — sexual society at the Mansion — fucking Hefner is a strictly voluntary thing. It never hurts a career, but Hefner, with so much sex at his disposal, would consider it unseemly to apply pressure.

Of Stratten, Hefner says, “There was a friendship between us. It wasn’t romantic.… This was not a very loose lady.”

Hefner likes to think of himself as a “father figure” to Stratten who, when she decided to marry, came to tell him about it personally. “She knew I had serious reservations about [Snider],” says Hefner. “I had sufficient reservations… that I had him checked out in terms of a possible police record in Canada.… I used the word — and I realized the [risk] I was taking — I said to her that he had a ‘pimp-like quality’ about him.”

Like most playmate husbands, Snider was held at arm’s length by the Playboy family. He was only rarely invited to the Mansion, which bothered him, as he would have liked more of an opportunity to cultivate Hefner. And Stratten, who was at the Mansion more frequently to party and roller skate, was never actively into the Life. Indeed, she spoke disdainfully of the “whores” who serviced Hefner’s stellar guests. Yet she moved into the circle of Hefner’s distinguished favorites when it became apparent that she might have a real future in film.

Playboy, contrary to the perception of aspiring starlets, is not a natural conduit to stardom. Most playmates who go into movies peak with walk-ons and fade away. Those whom Hefner has tried most earnestly to promote in recent years have been abysmal flops. Barbi Benton disintegrated into a jiggling loon and, according to Playboy sources, Hefner’s one time favorite Sondra Theodore went wooden once the camera started to roll.

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“Dorothy was important,” says one Playboy employee, “because Hefner is regarded by Hollywood as an interloper. They’ll come to his parties and play his games. But the won’t give him respect. One of the ways he can gain legitimacy is to be a star maker.”

There is something poignant about Hefner, master of an empire built on inanimate nudes, but unable to coax these lustrous forms to life on film. His chief preoccupation nowadays is managing the playmates. Yet with all of those beautiful women at his disposal, he has not one Marion Davies to call his own. Dorothy exposed that yearning, that ego weakness, as surely as she revealed the most pathetic side of her husband’s nature — his itch for the big score. Hefner simply had more class.

Dorothy’s possibilities were made manifest to him during The Playboy Roller Disco and Pajama Party taped at the Mansion late in October 1979. Dorothy had a running part and was tremendously appealing.

“Some people have the quality,” says Hefner. “I mean… there is something that comes from inside… The camera comes so close that it almost looks beneath the surface and… that magic is there somehow in the eyes.… That magic she had. That was a curious combination of sensual appeal and vulnerability.”

After the special was aired on television in November, Dorothy’s career accelerated rapidly. There was a rush of appearances that left the accumulating impression of stardom. Around the first of December her Fantasy Island episode appeared. Later that month, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. But the big news was that Hefner had chosen Dorothy Playmate of the Year for 1980. Although her selection was not announced to the public until April, she began photo sessions with Playboy photographer Mario Casilli before the year was out.

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Her look was altered markedly from that of sultry minx in the August issue. As Playmate of the Year her image was more defined. No more pouting, soft focus shots. Stratten was given a burnished high glamour. Her hair fell in the crimped undulating waves of a ’50s starlet. Her translucent body was posed against scarlet velour reminiscent of the Monroe classic. One shot of Stratten displaying some of her $200,000 in gifts — a brass bed and a lavender Lore negligee — clearly evoked the platinum ideal of Jean Harlow. Dorothy’s apotheosis reached, it seemed, for extremes of innocence and eroticism. In one shot she was draped in black lace and nestled into a couch, buttocks raised in an impish invitation to sodomy. Yet the cover displayed her clad in a chaste little peasant gown, seated in a meadow, head tilted angelically to one side. The dichotomy was an affirmation of her supposed sexual range. She was styled, apparently, as the Compleat Goddess for the ’80s.

By January 1980 — the dawning of her designated decade — Dorothy Stratten was attended by a thickening phalanx of photographers, promoters, duennas, coaches, and managers. Snider, sensing uneasily that she might be moving beyond his reach, became more demanding. He wanted absolute control over her financial affairs and the movie offers she accepted. She argued that he was being unreasonable; that she had an agent and a business manager whose job it was to advise her in those matters. Snider then pressed her to take the $200,000 from Playboy and buy a house. It would be a good investment, he said. He spent a lot of time looking at homes that might suit her, but she always found fault with them. She did not want to commit herself. She suspected, perhaps rightly, that he only wanted to attach another lien on her life.

This domestic squabbling was suspended temporarily in January when it appeared that Dorothy was poised for her big break, a featured role in a comedy called They All Laughed starring Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara. It was to be directed by Peter Bogdanovich, whom Dorothy had first met at the roller disco bash in October. According to David Wilder, he and Bogdanovich were partying at the Mansion in January when the director first considered Stratten for the part.

“Jesus Christ,” the 41-year-old Bogdanovich is supposed to have said. “She’s perfect for the girl.… I don’t want her for her tits and ass. I want someone who can act.”

Wilder says he took Dorothy to Bogdanovich’s house in Bel-Air Estates to read for the role. She went back two or three more times and the director decided she was exactly what he wanted.

Filming was scheduled to begin in late March in New York City. Paul wanted to come along but Dorothy said no. He would get in the way and, at any rate, the set was closed to outsiders. Determined that she should depart Hollywood as a queen, he borrowed their housemate’s Rolls Royce and drove her to the airport. He put her on the plane in brash good spirits, then went home to sulk at being left behind.

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They All Laughed

The affair between Dorothy Stratten and Peter Bogdanovich was conducted in amazing secrecy. In that regard it bore little resemblance to the director’s affair with Cybill Shepherd, an escapade which advertised his puerile preference for ingenues. Bogdanovich, doubtless, did not fancy the publicity that might result from a liaison with a 20-year-old woman married to a hustler. A couple of days before the murder-suicide, he spoke of this to his close friend Hugh Hefner.

“It was the first time I’d seen him in a number of months because he’d been in New York,” says Hefner. “He was very very up. Very excited about her and the film.… I don’t think that he was playing with this at all. I think it was important to him. I’m talking about the relationship.… He was concerned at that point because of what had happened to him and [Cybill]. He was concerned about the publicity related to the relationship because of that. He felt in retrospect, as a matter of fact, that he… that they had kind of caused some of it. And it played havoc with both of their careers for a while.”

Stratten, as usual, did not advertise the fact that she was married. When she arrived in New York, she checked quietly into the Wyndham Hotel. The crew knew very little about her except that she showed up on time and seemed very earnest about her small role. She was cordial but kept her distance, spending her time off-camera in a director’s chair reading. One day it would be Dickens’s Great Expectations; the next day a book on dieting. With the help of makeup and hair consultants her looks were rendered chaste and ethereal to defuse her playmate image. “She was a darling little girl,” says makeup artist Fern Buckner. “Very beautiful, of course. Whatever you did to her it was all right.”

Dorothy had headaches. She was eating very little to keep her weight down and working 12-hour days because Bogdanovich was pushing the project along at rapid pace. While most of the crew found him a selfish, mean-spirited megalomaniac, the cast by and large found him charming. He was particularly solicitous of Dorothy Stratten. And just as quietly as she had checked into the Wyndham, she moved into his suite at the Plaza. Word spread around the set that Bogdanovich and Stratten were involved but, because they were discreet, they avoided unpleasant gossip. “They weren’t hanging all over one another,” says one crew member. “It wasn’t until the last few weeks when everyone relaxed a bit that they would show up together holding hands.” One day Bogdanovich walked over to a couch where Dorothy sat chewing gum. “You shouldn’t chew gum,” he admonished. “It has sugar in it.” She playfully removed the wad from her mouth an deposited it in his palm.

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Bogdanovich is less than eager to discuss the affair. His secretary says he will not give interviews until They All Laughed is released in April. The director needs a hit badly and who can tell how Stratten’s death might affect box office. Laughed is, unfortunately, a comedy over which her posthumous performance might throw a pall. Although the plot is being guarded as closely as a national security secret, it goes something like this:

Ben Gazzara is a private detective hired by a wealthy, older man who suspects his spouse, Audrey Hepburn, has a lover. In following her, Gazzara falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Gazzara’s sidekick, John Ritter, is hired by another wealthy older man to follow his young bride, Dorothy Stratten. Ritter watches Stratten from afar — through a window as she argues with her husband, as she roller skates at the Roxy. After a few perfunctory conversations, he asks her to marry him. Hepburn and Gazzara make a brief abortive stab at mature love. And Gazzara reverts to dating and mating with teenyboppers.

Within this intricate web of shallow relationships Dorothy, by all accounts, emerges as a shimmering seraph, a vision of perfection clad perennially in white. In one scene she is found sitting in the Algonquin Hotel bathed in a diaphanous light. “It was one of those scene that could make a career,” recalls a member of the crew. “People in the screening room rustled when they saw her. She didn’t have many lines. She just looked so good.” Bogdanovich was so enthusiastic about her that he called Hefner on the West Coast to say he was expanding Dorothy’s role — not many more lines, but more exposure.

Paul Snider, meanwhile, was calling the East Coast where he detected a chill in Dorothy’s voice. She would be too tired to talk. He would say, “I love you,” and she wouldn’t answer back. Finally, she began to have her calls screened. Late in April, during a shooting break, she flew to Los Angeles for a flurry of appearances which included a Playmate of the Year Luncheon and an appearance on The Johnny Carson Show. Shortly thereafter, Dorothy left for a grand tour of Canada. She agreed, however, to meet Paul in Vancouver during the second week of May. Her mother was remarrying and she planned to attend the wedding.

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The proposed rendezvous worried Dorothy’s Playboy traveling companion, Liz Norris. Paul was becoming irascible. He called Dorothy in Toronto and flew into a rage when she suggested that he allow her more freedom. Norris offered to provide her charge with a bodyguard once they arrived in Vancouver, but Dorothy declined. She met Paul and over her objections he checked them into the same hotel. Later, each gave essentially the same account of that encounter. She asked him to loosen his grip. “Let the bird fly,” she said. They argued violently, they both sank back into tears. According to Snider, they reconciled and made love. Dorothy never acknowledged that. She later told a friend, however, that she had offered to leave Hollywood and go back to live with him in Vancouver, but he didn’t want that. In the end she cut her trip short to get back to shooting.

Snider, by now, realized that his empire was illusory. As her husband he technically had claim to half of her assets, but many of her assets were going into a corporation called Dorothy Stratten Enterprises. He was not one of the officers. When she spoke of financial settlements, she sounded like she was reading a strange script. She was being advised, he suspected, by Bogdanovich’s lawyers. (Dorothy’s attorney, Wayne Alexander, reportedly represents Bogdanovich too, but Alexander cannot be reached for comment.) Late in June, Snider received a letter declaring that he and Dorothy were separated physically and financially. She closed out their joint bank accounts and began advancing him money through her business manager.

Buffeted by forces beyond his control, Snider tried to cut his losses. He could have maintained himself as a promoter or as the manager of a health club. He was an expert craftsman and turned out exercise benches which he sold for $200 a piece. On at least one occasion he had subverted those skills to more dubious ends by building a wooden bondage rack for his private pleasure. But Snider didn’t want to be a nobody. His rocket ship had come too close to the moon to leave him content with hang-gliding.

He tried, a little pathetically, to groom another Dorothy Stratten, a 17-year-old check-out girl from Riverside who modeled on the side. He had discovered her at an auto show. Patty was of the same statuesque Stratten ilk, and Snider taught her to walk like Dorothy, to dress like Dorothy, and to wear her hair like Dorothy. Eventually she moved into the house that he and Dorothy shared. But she was not another Stratten, and when Snider tried to promote her as a playmate, Playboy wanted nothing to do with him.

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Paul’s last hope for a big score was a project begun a month or so before he and Dorothy were married. He had worked out a deal with a couple of photographer friends, Bill and Susan Lachasse, to photograph Dorothy on skates wearing a French-cut skating outfit. From that they would print a poster that they hoped would sell a million copies and net $300,000. After Dorothy’s appearance on the Carson show, Snider thought the timing was right. But Dorothy had changed her mind. The Lachasses flew to New York the day after she finished shooting to persuade her to reconsider. They were told by the production office that Dorothy could be found at Bogdanovich’s suite at the Plaza.

“It was three or four in the afternoon,” says Lachasse. “There had been a cast party the night before. Dorothy answered the door in pajamas and said, ‘Oh my God! What are you doing here?’ She shut the door and when she came out again she explained ‘I can’t invite you in. There are people here.’ She looked at the photos in the hallway and we could tell by her eyes that she liked them. She took them inside, then came out and said, ‘Look how my tits are hanging down.’ Somebody in there was telling her what to do. She said, ‘Look, I’m confused, have you shown these to Paul?’ I said, ‘Dorothy, you’re divorcing Paul.’ And she said, ‘I don’t know, I just don’t know.’ “

When Lachasse called the Plaza suite the following week a woman replied, “We don’t know Dorothy Stratten. Stop harassing us.”

“Paul felt axed as in every other area,” says Lachasse. “That was his last bit of income.”

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They All Cried

During the anxious spring and early summer, Snider suspected, but could not prove, that Dorothy was having an affair. So as the filming of They All Laughed drew to a close in mid-July, he did what, in the comic world of Peter Bogdanovich, many jealous husbands do. He hired a private eye, a 26-year-old freelance detective named Marc Goldstein. The elfish Goldstein, who later claimed to be a friend of both Dorothy and Paul, in fact knew neither of them well. He was retained upon the recommendation of an unidentified third party. He will not say what exactly his mission was, but a Canadian lawyer named Ted Ewachniuk who represented both Paul and Dorothy in Vancouver claims that Snider was seeking to document the affair with Bogdanovich in order to sue him for “enticement to breach management contract” — an agreement Snider believed inherent within their marriage contract. That suit was to be filed in British Columbia, thought to be a suitable venue since both Snider and Stratten were still Canadians and, it could be argued, had only gone to Los Angeles for business.

Goldstein began showing up regularly at Snider’s apartment. Snider produced poems and love letters from Bogdanovich that he had found among Dorothy’s things. He instructed Goldstein to do an asset search on Dorothy and to determine whether or not Bogdanovich was plying her with cocaine.

Even as he squared off for a legal fight, Snider was increasingly despairing. He knew, underneath it all, that he did not have the power or resources to fight Bogdanovich. “Maybe this thing is too big for me,” he confided to a friend, and he talked about going back to Vancouver. But the prospect of returning in defeat was too humiliating. He felt Dorothy was now so completely sequestered by attorneys that he would never see her again. Late in July his old machismo gave way to grief. He called Bill Lachasse one night crying because he could not touch Dorothy or even get near her. About the same time, his roommate the doctor returned home one night to find him despondent in the living room. “This is really hard,” Paul said, and broke into tears. He wrote fragments of notes to Dorothy that were never sent. One written in red felt-tip marker and later found stuffed into one of his drawers was a rambling plaint on how he couldn’t get it together without her. With Ewachniuk’s help, he drafted a letter to Bogdanovich telling him to quit influencing Dorothy and that he [Snider] would “forgive” him. But Ewachniuk does not know if the letter was ever posted.

Dorothy, Paul knew, had gone for a holiday in London with Bogdanovich and would be returning to Los Angeles soon. He tortured himself with the scenario of the successful director and his queen showing up at Hefner’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Party on August 1. He couldn’t bear it and blamed Hefner for fostering the affair. He called the Mansion trying to get an invitation to the party and was told he would be welcome only if he came with Dorothy.

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But Dorothy did not show up at the party. She was keeping a low profile. She had moved ostensibly into a modest little apartment in Beverly Hills, the address appeared on her death certificate. The apartment, however, was occupied by an actress who was Bogdanovich’s personal assistant. Dorothy had actually moved into Bogdanovich’s home in Bel-Air Estates. Where the big producers live.

Several days after her return to Los Angeles, she left for a playmate promotion in Dallas and Houston. There she appeared radiant, apparently reveling in her own success. She had been approached about playing Marilyn Monroe in Larry Schiller’s made-for-TV movie, but she had been too busy with the Bogdanovich film. She had been discussed as a candidate for Charlie’s Angels although Wilder thought she could do better. She was scheduled to meet with independent producer Martin Krofft who was considering her for his new film, The Last Desperado. It all seemed wonderful to her. But Stratten was not so cynical that she could enjoy her good fortune without pangs of regret. She cried in private. Until the end she retained a lingering tenderness for Paul Snider and felt bound to see him taken care of after the divorce. From Houston she gave him a call and agreed to meet him on Friday, August 8, for lunch.

After hearing from her, Snider was as giddy as a con whose sentence has been commuted, for he believed somehow that everything would be all right between them again. The night before their appointed meeting he went out for sandwiches with friends and was his blustering, confident old self. It would be different, he said. He would let her know that he had changed. “I’ve really got to vacuum the rug,” he crowed. “The queen is coming back.”

The lunch date, however, was a disaster. The two of them ended up back in the apartment squared off sullenly on the couch. Dorothy confessed at last that she was in love with Bogdanovich and wanted to proceed with some kind of financial settlement. Before leaving she went through her closet and took the clothes she wanted. The rest, she said, he should give to Patty.

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Having his hopes raised so high and then dashed again gave Snider a perverse energy. Those who saw him during the five days prior to the murder caught only glimpses of odd behavior. In retrospect they appear to form a pattern of intent. He was preoccupied with guns. Much earlier in the year Snider had borrowed a revolver from a friend named Chip, the consort of one of Dorothy’s playmates. Paul never felt easy, he said, without a gun, a holdover from his days on the East End. But Paul had to give the revolver back that Friday afternoon because Chip was leaving town. He looked around for another gun. On Sunday he held a barbecue at his place for a few friends and invited Goldstein. During the afternoon he pulled Goldstein aside and asked the detective to buy a machine gun for him. He needed it, he said, for “home protection.” Goldstein talked him out of it.

In the classifieds, Snider found someone in the San Fernando Valley who wanted to sell a 12-gauge Mossberg pump shotgun. He circled the ad and called the owner. On Monday he drove into the Valley to pick up the gun but got lost in the dark. The owner obligingly brought it to a construction site where he showed Snider how to load and fire it.

Dorothy, meanwhile, had promised to call Paul on Sunday but did not ring until Monday, an omission that piqued him. They agreed to meet on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. to discuss the financial settlement. She had been instructed by her advisers to offer him a specified sum. During previous conversations, Paul thought he had heard Dorothy say, “I’ll always take care of you,” but he could not remember the exact words. Goldstein thought it might be a good idea to wire Snider’s body for sound so that they could get a taped account if Dorothy repeated her promise to provide for him. They could not come up with the proper equipment, however, and abandoned the plan.

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On Wednesday, the day he picked up the gun, Snider seemed in an excellent mood. He told his roommate that Dorothy would be coming over and that she had agreed to look at a new house that he thought might be a good investment for her. He left the impression that they were on amiable terms. That evening he dropped by Bill Lachasse’s studio to look at promotional shots of Patty. There, too, he was relaxed and jovial. In an offhanded way, he told Lachasse that he had bought a gun for protection. He also talked of strange and unrelated things that did not seem menacing in the context of his good spirits. He talked of Claudia Jennings, who had died with a movie in progress. Some playmates get killed, he observed. And when that happens, it causes a lot of chaos.

Bogdanovich had somehow discovered that Dorothy was being trailed by a private eye. He was furious, but Dorothy was apparently not alarmed. She was convinced that she and Paul were on the verge of working out an amicable agreement and she went to meet him as planned. According to the West Los Angeles police, she parked and locked her 1967 Mercury around 11:45 a.m., but the county coroner reports that she arrived later, followed by Goldstein who clocked her into the house at 12:30 p.m. Shortly thereafter, Goldstein called Snider to find out how things were going. Snider replied, in code, that everything was fine. Periodically throughout the afternoon, Goldstein rang Snider with no response. No one entered the house until five when Patty and another of Paul’s little girlfriends returned home, noticed Dorothy’s car and saw the doors to Snider’s room closed. Since they heard no sounds, they assumed he wanted privacy. The two girls left to go skating and returned at 7 p.m. By then the doctor had arrived home and noticed the closed door. He also heard the unanswered ringing on Snider’s downstairs phone. Shortly before midnight Goldstein called Patty and asked her to knock at Paul’s door. She demurred, so he asked to speak to the doctor. The latter agreed to check but even as he walked downstairs he felt some foreboding. The endless ringing had put him on edge and his German shepherd had been pacing and whining in the yard behind Paul’s bedroom. The doctor knocked and when there was no response, he pushed the door open. The scene burnt his senses and he yanked the door shut.

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***

It is impolitic to suggest that Paul Snider loved Dorothy Stratten. Around Hollywood, at least, he is currently limned as brutal and utterly insensitive. If he loved her, it was in the selfish way of one who cannot separate a lover’s best interests from one’s own. And if he did what he is claimed to have done, he was, as Hugh Hefner would put it, “a very sick guy.”

Even now, however, no one can say with certainty that Paul Snider committed either murder or suicide. One of his old confederates claims he bought the gun to “scare” Bogdanovich. The coroner was sufficiently equivocal to deem his death a “questionable suicide/possible homicide.” One Los Angeles psychic reportedly attributes the deaths to an unemployed actor involved with Snider in a drug deal. Goldstein, who holds to a theory that both were murdered, is badgering police for results of fingerprintings and paraffin tests, but the police consider Goldstein a meddler and have rebuffed his requests. The West LAPD, which has not yet closed the case, says it cannot determine if it was Snider who fired the shotgun because his hands were coated with too much blood and tissue for tests to be conclusive.

And yet Snider appears to have been following a script of his own choosing. One which would thwart the designs of Playboy and Hollywood. Perhaps he had only meant to frighten Dorothy, to demonstrate to Bogdanovich that he could hold her in thrall at gunpoint. Perhaps he just got carried away with the scene. No one knows exactly how events unfolded after Dorothy entered the house that afternoon. She had apparently spent some time upstairs because her purse was found lying in the middle of the living room floor. In it was a note in Paul’s handwriting explaining his financial distress. He had no green card, it said, and he required support. Dorothy’s offer, however, fell far short of support. It was a flat settlement of only $7500 which, she claimed, represented half of her total assets after taxes. “Not enough,” said one friend, “to put a nice little sports car in his garage.” Perhaps she had brought the first installment to mollify Paul’s inevitable disappointment; police found $1100 in cash among her belongings, another $400 among his. One can only guess at the motives of those two doomed players who, at some point in the afternoon, apparently left the front room and went downstairs.

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It is curious that, given the power of the blasts, the little bedroom was not soaked in blood. There was only spattering on the walls, curtains, and television. Perhaps because the room lacked a charnel aspect, the bodies themselves appeared all the more grim. They were nude. Dorothy lay crouched across the bottom corner of a low bed. Both knees were on the carpet and her right shoulder was drooping. Her blond hair hung naturally, oddly unaffected by the violence to her countenance. The shell had entered above her left eye leaving the bones of that seraphic face shattered and displaced in a welter of pulp. Her body, mocking the soft languid poses of her pictorials, was in full rigor.

No one, least of all Hugh Hefner, could have foreseen such a desecration. It was unthinkable that an icon of eroticism presumed by millions of credulous readers to be impervious to the pangs of mortality could be reduced by a pull of a trigger to a corpse, mortally stiff, mortally livid and crawling with small black ants. For Hefner, in fact, that grotesque alteration must have been particularly bewildering. Within the limits of his understanding, he had done everything right. He had played it clean with Stratten, handling her paternally, providing her with gifts and opportunities and, of course, the affection of the Playboy family. Despite his best efforts, however, she was destroyed. The irony that Hefner does not perceive or at least fails to acknowledge is that Stratten was destroyed not by random particulars, but by a germ breeding within the ethic. One of the tacit tenets of Playboy philosophy — that women can be possessed — had found a fervent adherent in Paul Snider. He had bought the dream without qualification, and he thought of himself as perhaps one of Playboy’s most honest apostles. He acted out of dark fantasies never intended to be realized. Instead of fondling himself in private, instead of wreaking abstract violence upon a centerfold, he ravaged a playmate in the flesh.

Dorothy had, apparently, been sodomized, though whether this occurred before or after her death is not clear. After the blast, her body was moved and there were what appeared to be bloody handprints on her buttocks and left leg. Near her head was Paul’s handmade bondage rack set for rear-entry intercourse. Loops of tape, used and unused, were lying about and strands of long blond hair were discovered clutched in Snider’s right hand. He was found face-down lying parallel to the foot of the bed. The muzzle of the Mossberg burnt his right cheek as the shell tore upward through his brain. The blast, instead of driving him backwards, whipped him forward over the length of the gun. He had always said he would rather die than go to jail.

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***

Goldstein arrived before the police and called the Mansion. Hefner, thinking the call a prank, would not come to the phone at first. When he did he asked for the badge number of the officer at the scene. Satisfied that this was no bad joke, Hefner, told his guests in the game house. There were wails of sorrow and disbelief. He then called Bogdanovich. “There was no conversation,” Hefner says. “I was afraid that he had gone into shock or something. [When he didn’t respond] I called the house under another number. A male friend was there to make sure he was [all right]. He was overcome.”

Bogdanovich arranged for Stratten’s cremation five days later. Her ashes were placed in an urn and buried in a casket so that he could visit them. Later he would issue his own statement:

DOROTHY STRATTEN WAS AS GIFTED AND INTELLIGENT AN ACTRESS AS SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, AND SHE WAS VERY BEAUTIFUL INDEED—IN EVERY WAY IMAGINABLE—MOST PARTICULARLY IN HER HEART. SHE AND I FELL IN LOVE DURING OUR PICTURE AND HAD PLANNED TO BE MARRIED AS SOON AS HER DIVORCE WAS FINAL. THE LOSS TO HER MOTHER AND FATHER, HER SISTER AND BROTHER, TO MY CHILDREN, TO HER FRIENDS AND TO ME IS LARGER THAN WE CAN CALCULATE. BUT THERE IS NO LIFE DOROTHY’S TOUCHED THAT HAS NOT BEEN CHANGED FOR THE BETTER THROUGH KNOWING HER, HOWEVER BRIEFLY. DOROTHY LOOKED AT THE WORLD WITH LOVE, AND BELIEVED THAT ALL PEOPLE WERE GOOD DOWN DEEP. SHE WAS MISTAKEN, BUT IT IS AMONG THE MOST GENEROUS AND NOBLE ERRORS WE CAN MAKE.

PETER BOGDANOVICH

Bogdanovich took the family Hoogstraten in tow. They were stunned, but not apparently embittered by Dorothy’s death. “They knew who cared for her,” Hefner says. Mother, fathers — both natural and stepfather — sister, and brother flew to Los Angeles for the service and burial at Westwood Memorial Park, the same cemetery, devotees of irony point out, where Marilyn Monroe is buried. Hefner and Bogdanovich were there and after the service the family repaired to Bogdanovich’s house for rest and refreshments. It was all quiet and discreet. Dorothy’s mother says that she will not talk to the press until the movie comes out. Not until April when Stratten’s glimmering ghost will appear on movie screens across the country, bathed in white light and roller skating through a maze of hilarious infidelities.

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Playboy, whose corporate cool was shaken by her untimely death, has regained its composure. The December issue features Stratten as one of the “Sex Stars of 1980.” At the end of 12 pages of the biggest draws in show business — Bo Derek, Brooke Shields, etc. — she appears topless, one breast draped with a gossamer scarf. A caption laments her death which “cut short what seasoned star-watchers predicted was sure to be an outstanding film career.”

Hype, of course, often passes for prophecy. Whether or not Dorothy Stratten would have fulfilled her extravagant promise can’t be known. Her legacy will not be examined critically because it is really of no consequence. In the end Dorothy Stratten was less memorable for herself than for the yearnings she evoked: in Snider a lust for the score; in Hefner a longing for a star; in Bogdanovich a desire for the eternal ingenue. She was a catalyst for a cycle of ambitions which revealed its players less wicked, perhaps, than pathetic.

As for Paul Snider, his body was returned to Vancouver in permanent exile from Hollywood. It was all too big for him. In that Elysium of dreams and deals, he had reached the limits of his class. His sin, his unforgivable sin, was being small-time. ❖

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From The Archives Media NYC ARCHIVES

There were Three Ambitious Men in Dorothy Stratten’s Life — One of Them Killed Her.

In the wake of Hugh Hefner’s death on Wednesday at the age of 91, critics and readers alike are grappling with the complicated legacy of the man who launched Playboy magazine and, at least in part, the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

In this Village Voice cover story from November 1980 — which won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing — Teresa Carpenter, a former senior editor at the paper, dives into the tragic story of Dorothy Stratten. A Playboy playmate originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, Stratten came to Hollywood at the urging of her boyfriend and, later, husband, Paul Snider; on August 14, 1980, she and Snider were found dead on his bedroom floor. The police determined that Snider shot Stratton in the head before turning the gun on himself.

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Carpenter’s story is an illuminating look at how Playboy managed the relationship between Stratten, its newest and brightest star, and her domineering husband. Stratten was particularly important to Hef’s empire because she was seen not just as another buxom centerfold, but as a potential movie star. “The irony that Hefner does not perceive or at least fails to acknowledge is that Stratten was destroyed not by random particulars, but by a germ breeding within the ethic,” Carpenter writes. “One of the tacit tenets of Playboy philosophy — that women can be possessed — had found a fervent adherent in Paul Snider.”

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Media NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Coming of Age

We Have to Deal With It: Punk England Report

By Robert Christgau
see full text

January 9, 1978

It’s only natural for so much of the paranoid backbiting that afflicts English punk to be aimed at the Sex Pistols, who began the movement and who symbolize it not only to the outside world but to the punks themselves. Notorious antistars, dole-queue kids awash in record-biz money, nihilists who have made something of themselves, the Pistols are everything punks are supposed to be, and more—they live out the contradictions most punk musicians have barely begun to dream about. No wonder they’re resented: If we are to believe that punk’s future is up to the Pistols—and that is definitely the conventional wisdom—then their fall could well precipitate everyone else’s. But at least the Pistols, unlike almost everyone else, have someplace to fall from. What will be left for the others? Their picture in the papers, a self-produced record or two, perhaps a brief contract with a treacherous major, and the chance to watch a few posers make a career out of a defunct fad that once promised life.

What makes this scenario more bitter is that it proceeds from the star system punk challenges so belligerently. The English punks, with their proud, vitalizing concentration on the surface of things, rebel against rock royalty on the obvious ground that a pop elite cannot represent the populace. But they miss a subtler paradox: the apparent inability of most rebels to do without heroic images. When an idea turns into a movement as fast as punk did, chances are that some leadership figure is out there symbolizing away, and that if the symbol should fade or crumble the movement will find itself at a loss.

The loss would be a big one. Only 10 of the 20 bands I managed to catch in my nine days played genuine punk—vocals shouted over raw, high-speed guitar chords and an inflexible beat. But within that tiny sample, three or four bands—the Clash, X-Ray Spex, the Killjoys, and perhaps the Cortinas—put on hotter shows than any I’ve seen from the year’s newcomers at CBGB, where the infusions of energy have been provided by born-again old-timers like John Cale and Alex Chilton or improved vintage-1975 stars like Blondie and Richard Hell. . . .

But if punk were to do a quick fizzle because of the Pistols, it would be more than unfortunate. It would be unfair. Johnny Rotten is an inspiration and a media focus out of a flair for self-dramatization that is coextensive with his extremism. He is typical of nothing. No matter how much he is imitated (and he was imitated by a fast-moving cult well before Glen Matlock said fuck on television and started the avalanche), he will never be a punk prototype—not because he is monumentally talented, which is beside the point, but because he comes a lot closer to genuine nihilism than often happens in the world. If he should fail, his nihilism will be at the root of his failure. It will have turned people off the Sex Pistols, and hence (in our paranoid backbiters’ scenario) off punk in general. Yet no matter what you’ve seen on Weekend, most punks are not nihilists. Bored, cynical, destructive? Well, perhaps, at least in part. But all that’s been blown out of proportion, as well, and nihilism is a lot further on down the road.

In fact, one thing that has made English punk so attractive—both to well-wishers like me and to fulltime recruits—has been its idealism.

Despite all the anti-hippie feeling, it really is Haight ’67 that it most recalls—not in content, but in form. It’s a new counter-culture; the sense of ferment and burgeoning group identity more than compensates for the confused sectarian squabbling, although maybe I’d be harder to please if I’d been around when hopes were highest. And in a way, it is the tragic end of hippie—not the disintegration of a generation the punks were never part of in the first place, but the way longhaired guitar assholes have continued to preach their hypocritical go-with-the-flow—that has imbued punk idealism with its saving skepticism.
. . . read more



photo: Fred W. McDarrah

Guess Who’s Paying for Dinner: Rupert Murdoch Buys the Voice

January 10, 1977

And just when everything seemed to be going so nicely, too. You may have noticed the headline on the front of last week’s Village Voice: “Burt Reynolds Slain by Killer Bees.” That was the old Voice, quiet, sensitive to the needs of a local audience. Should much-heralded changes of management occur, you may expect sensationalism: “Burt Eaten Alive by Killer Bees,” or something of that sort.

[

Should you have but recently returned from a trip to Siberia, let me explain the reference to “much-heralded changes of management.” By this is meant the possibility that the newspaper that you are holding in your hands may be owned by Rupert Murdoch, the well-known Australian newspaper proprietor. You will also be excited to hear that The Voice, relict of the great days of alternative press and the nonconforming conscience, has recently been sought along with New York and New West
magazines, by the Washington Post Company. All week long people have been saying, in a challenging sort of way, “Well, so who would you like to see own The Voice?”

I would reply to these interrogators by referring to the way in which the Turks used to dispose of undesirable sultans. They would kill the poor fellow by slowly crushing his testicles between silken pillows. This is, more or less, my view of prospective ownership by the Washington Post Company. In New Guinea, on the other hand, they would take the unwanted chieftain out to the mountainside, stretch him out, and smash his testicles flat with a rock. This is roughly what could happen with the man Murdoch.

Suffice it to say that neither rock nor silken pillows (sexist images, I know) seems tremendously alluring. But that’s life—or rather, capitalism.


The Great Hollywood Con: Machismo

By Molly Haskell

September 18, 1978

We’ve been hearing a lot about the “new man”—he cries, he weeps, he admits to vulnerability and isn’t ashamed of his feelings. No longer obliged to tough it out in the style of a Hemingway hero, he plunges his arms into the muddy dishwaters of women’s concerns, so to speak—but without surrendering the qualities of strength and fortitude for which his sex is noted. He sounds like an ideal consort, a Ken cloned from the rib of the feminist Barbie Doll, but with sex appeal. I have yet to observe this fellow in the flesh, but he has been sighted in movies and if Hollywood has discovered him, can real life be far behind?

In a recent issue of the Times Arts & Leisure Section, a Harvard sociologist hailed three movie heroes as prototypes of the new ideal: Kris Kristofferson in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Alan Bates in An Unmarried Woman, Jon Voight in Coming Home. . . .

A shrewd blend of new packaging and reassuringly old-fashioned values, these fellows know that nothing turns a woman off faster than a male feminist. Like all converts, they’re embarrassing with the breast-beating, blubbering mea culpas, the eagerness to make reparation, not to mention the constant spotlight-stealing one-upsmanship gambit in the “We’ve got more to gain than you do” line. The male convert is a bore. Worse, he’s icky. A turn-off.

The new movie hero is smart enough to appear supportive (we’ll get to that in a minute) without abasing himself on the altar of feminism. No stage door Johnnies, they all have status as independent, successful males—Bates, the widely exhibited painter; Voight, the paraplegic veteran turned war protester; Kristofferson, the rich owner of a cattle ranch; and Beatty, the affluent athlete [in Heaven Can Wait].

A point made in the Times article was that in each case the heroine leaves an emotional miser of a husband for a more responsive man, as if that were the only thing that mattered. What the writer neglected to mention is that the gain is by no means only spiritual. Each woman takes one or two giant steps forward, socially, economically, or aesthetically.



Bottle service: Dancing at Xenon (June 1978)
photo: Fred W. McDarrah

The White Noise Supremacists

By Lester Bangs

April 30, 1979

“I don’t discriminate,” I used to laugh, “I’m prejudiced against everybody!” I thought it made for a nicely charismatic mix of Lenny Bruce freespleen and W.C. Fields misanthropy, conveniently ignoring Lenny’s delirious, nigh-psychopathic inability to resolve the contradictions between his idealism and his infantile, scatological exhibitionism, as well as the fact that W.C. Fields’s racism was as real and vile as—or more real and vile than—anybody else’s. But when I got to New York in 1976 I discovered that some kind of bridge had been crossed by a lot of the people I thought were my peers in this emergent Cretins’ Lib generation.

This was stuff even I had to recognize as utterly repellent. I first noticed it the first time I threw a party. The staff of Punk magazine came, as well as members of several of the hottest CBGB’s bands, and when I did what we always used to do at parties in Detroit—put on soul records so everybody could dance—I began to hear this: “What’re you playing all that nigger disco shit for, Lester?”

[

“That’s not nigger disco shit,” I snarled, “that’s Otis Redding, you assholes!” But they didn’t want to hear about it, and now I wonder if in any way I hadn’t dug my own grave, or at least helped contribute to their ugliness and the new schism between us. The music editor of this paper has theorized that one of the most important things about New Wave is how much of it is almost purely white music, and what a massive departure that represents from the almost universally blues-derived rock of the past. I don’t necessarily agree with that, it ignores the reggae influence running through music as diverse as that of the Clash, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd., and the Police, not to mention the Chuck Berry licks at the core of Steve Jones’s attack. But there is at least a grain of truth there—the Contortions’ James Brown/Albert Ayler spasms aside, most of the SoHo bands are as white as John Cage, and there’s an evolution of sound, rhythm, and stance running from the Velvets through the Stooges to the Ramones and their children that takes us farther and farther from the black-stud postures of Mick Jagger that Lou Reed and Iggy partake in but that Joey Ramone certainly doesn’t. I respect Joey for that, for having the courage to be himself, especially at the sacrifice of a whole passel of macho defenses. Joey is a white American kid from Forest Hills, and as such his cultural inputs have been white, from “The Jetsons” through Alice Cooper. But none of this cancels out the fact that most of the greatest, deepest music America has produced has been, when not entirely black, the product of miscegenation.


The Dialectic of Disco



Gay Music Goes Straight
By Andrew Kopkind

February 12, 1979

Disco is the word. It is more than music, beyond a beat, deeper than the dancers and their dance. Disco names the sensibility of a generation, as jazz and rock—and silence—announced the sum of styles, attitudes, and intent of other ages. The mindless material of the new disco culture—its songs, steps, ballrooms, movies, drugs, and drag—are denounced and adored with equal exaggeration. But the consciousness that lies beneath the trendy tastes is a serious subject and can hardly be ignored: for it points precisely where popular culture is headed at the end of the American ’70s.

Disco is phenomenal—unpredicted and unpredictable, contradictory and controversial. It has spawned a $4 billion music industry, new genres in film and theatre, new radio stations, a new elite of promoters and producers, and a new attitude about the possibilities of party going. It has also sparked major conflicts. “Death to Disco” is written on SoHo walls and “Disco Sucks!” rises from the throats of beleaguered partisans of rock, punk, or jazz who find their cultural identity threatened by disco’s enormous commercial power.

Scenes from the disco wars erupt across the landscape. Gangs of rockers and hustlers (the dancing kind) fight furiously in the streets outside disco clubs in provincial cities. When Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart “goes disco” (with “Miss You” and “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” respectively), their cultural conversion is debated in hip salons as well as The New York Times. The rock critical establishment still treats disco music as an adolescent aberration, at best; many cultural commentators look on the whole sensibility as a metaphor for the end of humanism and the decline of the West. . . .

History hardly stops. Disco in the ’70s is in revolt against rock in the ’60s. It is the anti-thesis of the “natural” look, the real feelings, the seriousness, the confessions, the struggles, the sincerity, pretensions, and pain of the last generation. Disco is “unreal,” artificial, and exaggerated. It affirms the fantasies, fashions, gossip, frivolity, and fun of an evasive era. The ’60s were braless, lumpy, heavy, rough, and romantic; disco is stylish, sleek, smooth, contrived, and controlled. Disco places surface over substance, mood over meaning, action over thought. The ’60s were a mind trip (marijuana, acid): Disco is a body trip (Quaaludes, cocaine). The ’60s were cheap; disco is expensive. On a ’60s trip, you saw God in a grain of sand; on a disco trip, you see Jackie O. at Studio 54.


Notes on the Nuyoricans

By Soledad Santiago

February 19, 1979

It’s 15 minutes to airtime at NewsCenter 4 on a Saturday night. Felipe Luciano, Emmy-award-winning journalist and former head of the Young Lord’s Party, is weekend co-anchor. Around him at least six clocks tick simultaneously, making tangible the rush of time as news pours in from around the world.

[

“Ten seconds . . . 10 seconds to the real thing,” says the stage manager, starting the countdown. Then Luciano begins. Twenty-seven monitors and two cameras are going at once.

Luciano is projected into living rooms around New York City every weekend. He is among the most visible of young Latinos who herald the arrival of a new breed—the Nuyorican. Technically Nuyoricans are second generation Puerto Ricans who have made New York their home. But to me, Nuyoricans cannot be defined by age or date of arrival. Nuyorican is a state of mind.

Many Latinos remember with pride the splash the Young Lords made across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers in the late ’60s. They remember Luciano as a brilliant public speaker who exhorted the young to rise up against the system. He once told a graduating class at East Harlem’s Ben Franklin High School: “You are not going to get it by getting people elected to Congress, by a good education, or by praying. The only way you are going to get it is by ripping it up. Seize the schools, seize the courts, seize the prisons where three quarters of our people are.” . . .

The successful Nuyorican is often cut off from his roots by the very nature of success, suspended in the time warp of a culture in transition, a culture of synthesis which is defining and asserting its values, attempting to allow tradition to survive assimilation. The dilemma of Nuyorican identity is not a racial but a class one. In the uncomfortable limbo between black and white, rich and poor, the Nuyorican pioneers a new identity.

The Nuyoricans walk a tightrope between yesterday and tomorrow, cherishing the positive in Puerto Rican culture while wrestling with its ingrained restraints that have no place in their new life; attracted by the personal freedom of an anonymous urban society yet repulsed by its indifference; aspiring to middle-class accoutrements yet shackled by the code of machismo which presupposes that the male in the family be the only wage earner.

Not all New York Puerto Ricans are Nuyoricans. Many stay in enclaves, never learning English and never touching the mainstream of New York life. The Nuyorican identity has emerged as the result of a series of choices, an individuality born of historical necessity.


Does My Answer Match Your Question?

Dance
Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane

By Deborah Jowitt

see full text

March 10, 1980

One of the many vital things about the dance upheaval of the ’60s was that choreographers began to think about perception and to goad (often with alarming literalness) audiences into seeing dance differently. I doubt if—pre-Judson—we would have known what to make of a piece like Blauvelt Mountain, made and performed by Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. Now when we sit in the open, dimly lit space of ATL, looking at an uneven wall of cinder blocks and the figures of two men in black huddled in front of it, we are prepared for—well, perhaps, anything. . . . The theatre becomes an urban clearing in which some rite inexplicably vital to us all is taking place. We do not demand to understand the “meaning” of what they’re doing at every second or strain to hear a sotto voce conversation the way we might in a large proscenium theatre; we do not sigh over repetition or wonder if carrying bricks is dancing. We do delight in noticing that we can never see the “same” movement twice, that it is always changing either because of context or because of humanness. And we see the performers at close range—close to eyes, minds, hearts.

There is something immaculate about the rhythm of Jones and Zane together. In move-stop, move-stop sequence of beautifully chosen simple poses on the floor, they make their changes with such economy that you see no extra little preparations or adjustments. Suddenly they have moved. But not with shrillness or mechanical precision—with the power and control of big cats. Jones, with his long limbs and lithe body, is a master of flashing through space and yet seeming to caress the place he lands, as if he can invisibly grade down and refocus his own impetus.

One of the things that the two appear to be most interested in is the changing appearances of things that are superficially the same. Jones’s move-pose sequence is one thing when he performs it while Zane is running through another phrase, another thing when he performs it with Zane’s complementary floor sequence, another thing when the two separate in space, another when he is faster and tireder. And with each alteration, the movement becomes more interesting; by the end of the evening it could be famous.
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Death of a Playmate

By Teresa Carpenter

[

November 5, 1980.

This article won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired the Bob Fosse film Star 80.

It is shortly past four in the afternoon and Hugh Hefner glides wordlessly into the library of his Playboy Mansion West. He is wearing pajamas and looking somber in green silk. The incongruous spectacle of a sybarite in mourning. To date, his public profession of grief has been contained in a press release: “The death of Dorothy Stratten comes as a shock to us all. . . . As Playboy’s Playmate of the Year with a film and television career of increasing importance, her professional future was a bright one. But equally sad to us is the fact that her loss takes from us all a very special member of the Playboy family.”

That’s all. A dispassionate eulogy from which one might conclude that Miss Stratten died in her sleep of pneumonia. One, certainly, which masked the turmoil her death created within the Organization. During the morning hours after Stratten was found nude in a West Los Angeles apartment, her face blasted away by 12-gauge buckshot, editors scrambled to pull her photos from the upcoming October issue. It could not be done. The issues were already run. So they pulled her ethereal blond image from the cover of the 1981 Playmate Calendar and promptly scrapped a Christmas promotion featuring her posed in the buff with Hefner. Other playmates, of course, have expired violently. Wilhelmina Rietveld took a massive overdose of barbiturates in 1973. Claudia Jennings, known as “Queen of the B-Movies,” was crushed to death last fall in her Volkswagen convertible. Both caused grief and chagrin to the self-serious “family” of playmates whose aura does not admit the possibility of shaving nicks and bladder infections, let alone death.

But the loss of Dorothy Stratten sent Hefner and his family into seclusion, at least from the press. For one thing, Playboy has been earnestly trying to avoid any bad national publicity that might threaten its application for a casino license in Atlantic City. But beyond that, Dorothy Stratten was a corporate treasure. She was not just any playmate but the “Eighties’ first Playmate of the Year” who, as Playboy trumpeted in June, was on her way to becoming “one of the few emerging film goddesses of the new decade.”

She gave rise to extravagant comparisons with Marilyn Monroe, although unlike Monroe, she was no cripple. She was delighted with her success and wanted more of it. Far from being brutalized by Hollywood, she was coddled by it. . . . “ Playboy has not really had a star,” says Stratten’s erstwhile agent David Wilder. “They thought she was going to be the biggest thing they ever had.”

No wonder Hefner grieves.

“The major reason that I’m . . . that we’re both sittin’ here,” says Hefner, “that I wanted to talk about it, is because there is still a great tendency . . . for this thing to fall into the classic cliche of ‘small-town girl comes to Playboy, comes to Hollywood, life in the fast lane, and that somehow was related to her death. And that is not what really happened. A very sick guy saw his meal ticket and his connection to power, whatever, etc. slipping away. And it was that that made him kill her.”

The “very sick guy” is Paul Snider, Dorothy Stratten’s husband, the man who became her mentor. He is the one who plucked her from a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, British Columbia, and pushed her into the path of Playboy during the Great Playmate Hunt in 1978. Later, as she moved out of his class, he became a millstone, and Stratten’s prickliest problem was not coping with celebrity but discarding a husband she had outgrown. When Paul Snider balked at being discarded, he became her nemesis.



Burned out in the South Bronx, 1978
photo: Sylvia Plachy

Arson for Hire

The Men Who Are Burning New York
By Joe Conason & Jack Newfield

see full text

June 2, 1980

Arson breaks up families, frightens away investment and jobs, and deprives the poor of housing. Every arsonist is potentially a mass murderer. Those subversives who hire others to torch occupied buildings—like those who move the envelopes of fine white powder—are the first vultures of late capitalism.

It was more than two years ago that we first stumbled upon this city’s biggest arson ring of landlords, lawyers, brokers, and insurance adjusters.

[

In the winter of 1978, the South Bronx was already a moonscape with abandoned, charcoaled shards. The cops who worked in the 41st Precinct no longer called their station “Fort Apache.” They called it “The Little House on the Prairie,” because there were so few surviving buildings or families in the area.

In the winter of 1978 the burning of the Bronx had moved north into neighborhoods called Morris Heights, Morrisania, Tremont, Highbridge, Kingsbridge, and Fordham. Whenever there was a suspicious fire and the homeless tenants were Hispanic or black, the media would call the area the South Bronx. But it was really other communities, and other police precincts.

For several days that winter we walked around these dying blocks with a cop named Joe Dean, who was then assigned to the Bronx arson task force in the 48th Precinct. We met not only the most recent victims of arson, but those who feared they would become tomorrow’s refugees.

We saw tenants and small shopkeepers plead for protection, saying the building next to them had burned the night before, and that their house would be next. But because of budget cuts, neither the police or the fire marshals or the district attorney’s office had the manpower to watch a building through the night.

Each day Joe Dean had to explain this to poor people who sensed they would soon be burned out for the second or third time in their lives. And Joe Dean felt powerless to do anything about it.

Within a week we saw the tenants of 201 Marcy Place, 1126 Kelly Street, and 1403 Grand Concourse turned into urban boat people by arson. And soon Dean was so frustrated by the suffering he saw—and could not stop—that he asked to be transferred to more risky plain-clothes work in Times Square.

Eventually, we discovered a pattern to the burning of the Bronx, and later of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Over the last five years, 250 buildings, all owned by one interlocking network of landlords—and all insured for large amounts—have had fires.
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‘Dead End Kids’: Signaling Through the Flames

Mabou Mines Plays Out Nuclear War

By Erika Munk

see full text

November 12, 1980

A conversation between two colleagues, overheard the day after the election: A—”Depressed?” B—”Very. Abortion, welfare, energy, business running everything . . . what’s going to happen?” A—”I mostly worry about war.” B—”Jesus. I don’t let myself think about it. I have kids.”

Joanne Akalaitis let herself think about it, and has made Dead End Kids, a play with Mabou Mines on nuclear development, nuclear power, and nuclear death. The piece is poetic, sensuous, bitterly funny, a collage of surprises. It is also filled with agitation and what I supposed Edward Teller would consider propaganda. A brave, astonishing event.

What’s brave is that it takes on our worst fears about the future—the ones barely faced in private, rarely in art, abstractly in social science, never in theatre. And what’s astonishing is that Mabou Mines—a group praised and damned for many things, but never yet for its politics—has merged uncompromising experimental theatricality with outfront didactic intent.

It’s about time. Theatre no longer addresses our inner lives with any intensity, and ignores that outside world which, finally, controls us. Reagan seemed to take over mainstream showbiz before he won the election; probably producers didn’t vote for him—they just anticipated his taste while too afflicted with Zeitgeist to challenge his message. And those few remnants of the avant-garde which haven’t died of artistic or financial exhaustion seem to perform less and less about less and less. (Chaikin’s Exiles and Refugees was a moving, though gentle, exception.)

As for political theatre, Bread and Puppet preaches Christian pacifism in the hills, defends the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in the city, and ignores the contradiction, while lesser groups use old techniques—agitprop skits, allegorical pageants, naturalistic problems plays (a dwindling genre except among minority groups), Brechtish derivations—to deal with subjects which may not always be simple, but which are bearable to contemplate. Nuclear war is not bearable.

I asked Joanne Akalaitis how the play came about. . . . She mentioned a Theatre Communications Group Conference, set up specifically to get theatre workers in touch with thinkers from the sciences. “I heard Richard Falk and Sheldon Wolin and other guys say that the probability is there’ll be some sort of ‘small’ nuclear war within five years, and a wider one within ten, and then all the theatre people kept talking away about next season’s Shakespeare.”
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Yale’s Fab Four: Deep in the Heart of Texts

By Walter Kendrick

see full text

[

October 21, 1981

A local wit once told me that New Haven was the American capital of two isms; literary criticism and transvestism. As a Yale grad student, I saw daily proof of the first, but the second was a puzzle. America’s top transvestites, I was told, flocked to New Haven to stay at a certain motor inn and eat at a certain diner. Why, then, hadn’t I ever seen any?

“That’s easy,” my witty friend replied. “If you’re a really successful transvestite, of course you don’t look like one.”

The same might be said of literary critics: the better they are, the less they look like themselves. The finest critics of the past—Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot—demand to be read as artists; their commentary comes detached from, and sometimes even overwhelms, the “creative” work it comments on. No one complains: those great men wrote plays and poems as well as criticism, and besides they’re dead. But how do you respond to a crew of hard-core academics who flaunt their criticism as if it were creation?

If you’re a run-of-the-mill lit. professor, teaching remedial English in a one-horse burg like Oshkosh or New York City, you mutter something nasty about New Haven. Not since the early ’50s has the mention of that unprepossessing town (or its principal university) evoked such knee-jerk outrage from academic critics who have the good fortune to be employed elsewhere. Thirty years ago the tsk-tsks went to Cleanth Brooks, W.K. Wimsatt, and the other avatars of New Criticism. They wrote unconventional, unsettling books; they wrote them with, for, and about each other; and they revolutionized the reading and teaching of literature all over America.

Now in the hinterlands it’s fashionable to deplore a new gang of Yalies who are shaking up academe with an even more profound revolution than their precursors’. Next time you meet a provincial lit. professor, try dropping the name of Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul De Man, or Harold Bloom. Chances are his eyebrows will rise, the corners of his mouth will turn down, and he’ll ask something judicious about the “value” of what they do.
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Ty Fly flipping as Ken Swift and friends look on (May 1981)
photo: © Martha Cooper

Breaking Is Hard to Do: To the Beat, Y’All

By Sally Banes

April 22, 1981

“Spy, he’s called the man with the thousand moves, he had a girl and he taught her how to break. She did it good. She looked like a guy.”

“Spy, man, in ’78—he was breaking at Mom and Pop’s on Katona Avenue in the Bronx; he did his footwork so fast you could hardly see his feet.”

“I saw Spy doing something wild in a garage where all the old-timers used to break. They had a priest judging a contest, and Spy was doing some kind of Indian dance. All of a sudden, he threw himself in the air, his hat flew up, he spun on his back, and the hat landed right on his chest. And everyone said, ‘That was luck.’ So he did it once more for the priest, and the hat landed right on his chest. If I didn’t see it, I would never have believed it.”

The heroes of these legends are the Break Kids, the B Boys, the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and endlessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial spectacle. Like other forms of ghetto street culture—graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping—breaking is a public arena for the flamboyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill. In short, of style. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favorite modes of street rhetoric, the taunt and the boast. It is a celebration of the flexibility and budding sexuality of the gaudy male adolescent body. It is a subjunctive expression of bodily states, testing things that might be or are not, contrasting masculine vitality with its range of opposites: women, babies, animals; illness and death. It is a way of claiming territory and status, for yourself and for your group, your crew. But most of all, breaking is a competitive display of physical and imaginative virtuosity, a codified dance form cum warfare that cracks open to flaunt personal inventiveness.

For the current generation of B Boys, it doesn’t really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a competitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist’s improvised bridge between melodies. For the B Boys, the history of breaking started six or seven years ago, maybe in the Bronx, maybe in Harlem. It started with the Zulus. Or with Charlie Rock. Or with Joe, from the Casanovas, from the Bronx, who taught it to Charlie Rock. “Breaking means going crazy on the floor. It means making a style for yourself.” In Manhattan, kids call it rocking. A dancer in the center of a ring of onlookers drops to the floor, circles around his own axis with a flurry of slashing steps, then spins, flips, gesticulates, and poses in a flood of rhythmic motion and fleeting imagery that prompts the next guy to top him. To burn him, as the B Boys put it.


Mass Productions

Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Contemporary Art Scene

By Roberta Smith

[

see full text

March 23, 1982

OPEC isn’t the only world community with an oil glut these days. To anyone walking through Soho this week, the sense of overproduction is overwhelming. Maybe artists with waiting lists should have their paintbrushes taken away for a while. David Salle, certainly one of the best artists of his generation, is distracting us from this fact with an endless three-ring show at Castelli South and Mary Boones East and West. Surprisingly short on really good paintings, it seems more a statement of territoriality than anything else. I don’t even mind the lapses in quality—it’s interesting to see an artist as good as Salle push at his ideas and not be afraid to flounder. But I do mind the scale of presentation, which verges on the corporate. Discretion isn’t only the better part of valor.

Of course, where production figures in, shows which don’t make any mistakes can be even more boring. Jean-Michel Basquiat first made his name as the graffiti artist-poet Samo, whose observations about the state of the world have amused and provoked New Yorkers, at least downtown ones, for the last few years. I always thought Samo was some frustrated older artist who hadn’t made it in the system and was taking his revenge with his exceptional graphic and verbal skill. Wrong, or at least partly wrong.

Basquiat is only 22 years old and, having turned from masonry to canvas surfaces, he seems to be having little trouble joining the system. But in a way I was right: Basquiat has absorbed every trick in contemporary painting’s book at an astoundingly early age. He’s so precocious he’s practically old before his time and his sensibility seems very European, also in an old vein. In a word, it turns out that graffiti art can have the hell domesticated out of it. This art seems made for a museum—it has the same imitative primitiveness that I associate with Art Brut, the same roughed-up perfection that comes from savvy imitation.
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Defenseless

Learning to Live With AID

By Stephen Harvey

December 21, 1982

During the summer of last year, I started having a weird siege of immobilizing complaints, which would recede as suddenly and mysteriously as they arrived—agonizing stomach viruses, flus and fevers, an eye infection that made me look and feel like Quasimodo. Then sometime in October, I noticed a lump about the size of a kidney bean in my left shoulder, next to my neck. “It’s only a cyst,” murmured one friend. “You’re just a hypochondriac,” exclaimed another. But I realized somehow that it was a gland, and Bad News, so I repaired to my doctor, who scrutinized it with the weary care of one who’d seen a bit too much of this kind of trouble recently. Twenty tubes of blood, a few X-rays, and much poking and prodding later, the results proved inconclusive. I undoubtedly had been exposed to something called toxoplasmosis, a virus you usually get from eating raw meat or petting infected kittens. (Just ask Martina Navratilova.) My mother’s response to this news was typically temperate. “Kill the cat!” she screamed, referring to my life’s companion of the last seven years. But my doctor demurred. Keep on the lookout for other swollen glands, he said, and get back in touch should you notice anything amiss.

By January, I had indeed found more lumps—in the groin, armpits, the back of my head, a new array in my neck and shoulders. So it was back to my doctor, who frowned and then arranged for me to see a lymph specialist at a major medical center. This physician (who has been an invaluable help in preparing this piece but would prefer not to be mentioned by name) commenced by blandly asking some blunt questions about my sex life. So I told him. (I’m not going to tell you, not in detail anyway, except to say that by the somewhat skewed yardstick of gay life in this city, I thought I fell somewhere in the middle between reclusive and rambunctious.) He was trying to determine whether I constituted another statistic in his ever-more-voluminous files—the healthy, youngish gay man mysteriously stricken with what has recently been labeled Acquired Immune Deficiency.

[

The manifestations of this syndrome ranged from minor malaise to lethal pulmonary infections, to a rampant cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, he informed me, and profligate sex seemed to have something to do with it. For Kaposi’s sufferers in particular, the pattern seemed to be an average of about 100 sexual contacts per year, with some clocking in at three times that. This information came as a curious relief at the time, since in the face of such athleticism I felt like the Belle of Amherst; Emily Dickinson certainly never had to worry about KS, so maybe I’d be immune—you should pardon the expression—too. Nevertheless, it was time for more poking, more blood extracted.



Gay Pride march on Christopher Street, site of the Stonewall uprising (June 1982)
photo: Fred W. McDarrah

The Rose and the Thorn

Nodding Out in the East Village

By Guy Trebay

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June 22, 1982

The brands of heroin most actively hawked Wednesday afternoon, June 9, 1982, on 3rd Street east of Avenue C were Red Tape and Yellow Tape and Buddha: open-faced boys on street corners approached cars, solicitous merchants selling glassine packets containing a “trip for your dollar that will make you holler.” For a certain extra sum, the sellers might direct a shopper to any of several derelict buildings where one could, in relative safety, mix with water, cook and strain and administer one’s drugs. Two of these shooting galleries, very heavily trafficked, are in the block of 3rd Street between avenues C and D—or were that week. Walking their slow, gravity-defying walk, the 3rd Street dope fiends stopped mid-block last Wednesday, slightly confused, possibly transfixed by an unexpected vision.

Tranquil between two tenements, on land that was long ago an orchard, grows Mrs. Olean For’s garden, a proper, formal, gated refuge, at its entrance a bower of tea roses, full-headed, fresh pink, trained in an old-fashioned arch. The junkies stood outside the gate, staring in and nodding. Drowsily in the summer breeze, the blossoms nodded back.

Walking in this neighborhood with a friend some weeks ago, I found many gardens. The East Village, on 9th Street at Avenue D, on 8th Street farther west, in lots tucked up between tenements and fenced off from the debris, is alive with produce: lettuce leaves, collared from the sun and rats, grow in one plot beneath a stuffed sock-monkey effigy. On a stake in another patch, a plastic hobby horse is impaled: he snorts mid-air over a plot of beans. A sign nearby warns, “People Who Bother The Dogs—They Are Watching You.” Giant vegetables, ripe as dreams, recede in formal perspective toward a sunny horizon in a mural painted on the building wall.
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Tubs Perdu: Notes on the Baths

By Jeff Weinstein

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June 24, 1984

It’s a plague, he told me, it’s my worst nightmare come true (he forgot about war). Do you still have sex, I asked him, are you still looking for a lover? I couldn’t tell his answer by his eyes, and hoped he’d be careful.

How can you be “careful” with a disease that’s diffused its communication so cunningly that sexual behavior and identity themselves become the germs? And look what we do, personifying a disease by calling it cunning: that’s medieval, pathetic.

I walk by the St. Mark’s Baths twice a day, to and from work. For years I played an engaging game, trying to predict who on the street would turn abruptly toward those metal doors. The clues? A gym bag; a too rapid, too determined gait; a homing pigeon smile. I never went in; my longish steady relationship made me a door-voyeur. But last year I gave up the guessing game. And last month I noticed something I now consider a great danger. In spite of my rational knowledge that virulent humors and mal-arias don’t exist, my body veers automatically away from those doors.

Have I become a prude? Do my mental lips curl when “promiscuous” passes through them? Yes, they do, just a little. I have no idea whether or not this is new. I’m not going to enter the debate over whether the San Francisco Department of Health should have pressured the baths to close. I know the arguments pro and con, but I’m not sure readers who have never seen the baths, never used the baths, could know how to make up their minds.
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[

By Cynthia Heimel
September 14, 1982

Dear Problem Lady,

Could you say a few words about thrift-store etiquette? I have a very close friend with whom I often go to second-hand shops and yard sales, and relations between us are becoming strained. She has taken to jumping out of the car at yard sales before I can turn the engine off. Do you think it’s fair for her to claim a lace hanky we both have our hands on just because she discovered the shop? (She already has enough to blow two noses on and I let her have a silk camisole I saw first last week just because she was depressed.) Don’t tell me to shop by myself. I need someone with me to keep me from buying any more bed jackets.

Jane


Dear Jane:

Hah!

And what, pray tell, about the time you actually stuck out your foot and tripped this friend of yours simply because you caught sight of a large stack of fiestaware? What about the time when she let you have that utterly stunning green gabardine jacket simply because she is such a nice person, even though it looked much better on her? (She is, after all, taller than you are, and can carry padded shoulders much more gracefully.) And what about the time in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, when you pointed out the window and said, “My God! There goes your ex-husband!” while you clandestinely pocketed that teal cashmere sweater? If that isn’t subterfuge, what is?

Not that I know you, of course, I am only speculating hypothetically.

As it is in love and war, anything goes in the thrift store. After all, half the fun is in constructing elaborate maneuvers to outwit each other.



Dworkin at an anti-porn demo (Oct. 1982)
photo: Bettye Lane

Strange Bedfellows in the Anti-Porn Movement

Censorship in the Name of Feminism

By Lisa Duggan

October 16, 1984

[Andrea] Dworkin and [Catharine] MacKinnon didn’t plan to write a new municipal law against pornography. In the fall of 1983, they were teaching a class at the University of Minnesota, presenting and developing their analysis of the role of pornography in the oppression of women. Each woman is known for her advocacy of one of the more extreme forms of anti-pornography feminism—the belief that sexually explicit images that subordinate or degrade women are singularly dangerous, more dangerous than nonsexual images of gross violence against women, more dangerous than advertising images of housewives as dingbats obsessed with getting men’s shirt collars clean. In fact, Dworkin and MacKinnon argue that pornography is at the root of virtually every form of exploitation and discrimination known to woman. Given these views, it’s not surprising that they would turn eventually to censorship—not censorship of violent and misogynistic images generally, but only of the sexually explicit images that cultural reactionaries have tried to outlaw for more than a century.

Dworkin and MacKinnon were invited to testify at a public hearing on a new zoning law (Minneapolis’s “adult business” zoning law had been stricken in the courts also). When they appeared, they testified against the zoning strategy and offered a surprising new idea instead. Dworkin railed at the City Council, calling its members “cats and dogs” for tolerating pornography; MacKinnon suggested a civil rights approach to eliminate, rather than merely regulate, pornography. City officials must have enjoyed the verbal abuse—they hired the women to write a new law and to conduct public hearings on its merits.

In Minneapolis, Dworkin/MacKinnon were an effective duo. Dworkin, a remarkably effective public speaker, whipped up emotion with sensational rhetoric. At one rally, she encouraged her followers to “swallow the vomit you feel at the thought of dealing with the city council and get this law in place. See that the silence of women is over, that we’re not down on our backs with our legs spread anymore.” In contrast, MacKinnon, a professor of law, offered legalistic, seemingly rational, solutions to the sense of panic and doom evoked by Dworkin. In such a charged atmosphere, amid public demonstrations by anti-porn feminists—one young woman later set herself on fire to protest pornography—the law passed. It was vetoed by the mayor on constitutional grounds.

Indianapolis, though, is not Minneapolis. When Mayor Hudnut heard of the Dworkin/MacKinnon bill at a Republican conference, he didn’t think of it as a measure to promote feminism, but as a weapon in the war on smut. He recruited City Councilmember Beulah Coughenour—an activist in the Stop ERA movement—to introduce the law locally. . . . Coughenour had been considered a minor figure in Indianapolis politics, but she displayed unexpected skill in overseeing the passage of the anti-porn bill. How else could she have gotten radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon and right-wing preacher Greg Dixon to work together, to pass legislation she sponsored, without ever running into one another?


Nicaragua: Waiting for Uncle Sam

[

By Marc Cooper

November 27, 1984

MANAGUA—A few days after Ronald Reagan was reelected President of the United States, I was sitting at breakfast with a group of Nicaraguan and Argentine cultural workers in a small hotel kitchen a few blocks from the Juventud Sandinista headquarters. The discussion this morning was the same as every morning that week: Would there be an invasion? I was arguing that direct American military intervention would be “politically difficult, illogical.” Others at the table rebutted that rationality had little to do with U.S. policy.

And then at exactly 9:25 a.m., somewhere between the eggs and plantains, and the pros and cons, the sky bellowed, the windows rattled, and our table shook as a supersonic boom reverberated off the lush hills of the Nicaraguan countryside. For the third morning in a row, and for the fifth time in 10 days, at precisely the same hour, a U.S. SR-71 Blackbird spy plane had broken the sound barrier over Nicaraguan national air space. Our conversations stopped cold. You could almost touch the tension and the indignation in the kitchen. The morning newspaper reports of State Department denials of invasion plans had been abruptly and rudely contradicted by the Pentagon’s booming overflight.

Twenty-five-year old Maria Estér, her olive green militia uniform clashing with her sleek, black-faced Seiko watch, was visibly shaken. “I wish Reagan would just get it over with and send in the Marines. We are ready to fight them,” she pronounced in near-perfect English, a product, like her watch, of an adolescence spent in San Francisco. “This is the worst it has ever been. Worse even than last year after Grenada. Last night in my neighborhood we were making plans on where to hide our children.” . . .

The Nicaraguans were taking the threats seriously. Seriously enough to significantly endanger the already faltering national economy. Two days after Reagan’s election, agriculture minister Jaime Wheelock recalled 12,000 student volunteers who were ready to go to the northern part of the country to pick the coffee crop that is worth a full third of the country’s meager $400 million import income. After a reportedly anguished marathon meeting of the Sandinista leadership, a haggard, red-eyed Wheelock announced to the students, “It’s better that the coffee falls instead of our country.” The students, he said, would be asked to cancel their harvesting plans and instead would be organized to defend Managua.



Simmons with Run-D.M.C. (April 1985)
photo: James Hamilton

Rappin’ With Russell

Eddie-Murphying the Flak Catchers

By Nelson George

April 30, 1985

The offices of Rush Productions are two cramped little rooms on Broadway in the 20s, which on any given afternoon are filled by the loud voices of black men and women. They are mostly young, real street and real anxious. On this day in January a graffiti artist sits in one corner of the outer room with hopes of painting an album cover. Over on a beat-up couch is a girl in striped pants and Run-D.M.C. T-shirt waiting for her old man, one of the 22 street-oriented acts managed by Russell Simmons’s Rush Productions, to find out when his next gig is. Three young dudes dressed in the B-boy style—untied Adidas sneakers, jeans, sheepskin coats, and Gazelles—are leaning against a wall looking and eyeing the girl waiting on the rapper. The token white is Bill Adler, a former Daily News reporter who is the company’s full-time PR man. Behind him, shifting through papers and cradling a phone on her shoulder, is Heidi Smith, once Russell’s lone overworked office staffer and now one of several overworked office staffers.

I stick my head in the other room, seeking Russell. Instead, sitting behind Russell’s desk and in front of the bright orange-and-red mural that says “RUSH” the size of a subway car graffiti, I find the king of rap himself, Kurtis Blow. . . . I’m supposed to be accompanying Russell and Kurtis Blow’s producer, Robert “Rocky” Ford, to a meeting with Cannon Films about a rap movie. After urging me again to consider writing his life story, Kurtis tells me they are over at this putrid Chinese restaurant that Russell loves because they make screwdrivers strong, the way he likes them. I run into them in the street. “Yo home piss,” says Russell. “You ready to serve these Israelis or what?” Rocky and I laugh and just look at him. This is the man The Wall Street Journal calls “the mogul of rap”?

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At 27, an age when most of his black business contemporaries have designer suit tags branded into their breastbones, Russell promotes street music and makes no apologies. The staccato, crashing drums, the gritty, uncompromised words about life in Kochtown, and the downplaying of melody that mark the music of Blow, Whodini, Run-D.M.C., LL Kool J, and the other acts he manages are his lifeblood. He loves all this loud, obnoxious aural graffiti. As far as I can tell—and I’ve known Russell about six years worth of headaches, triumphs, and late-night phone calls—he never intends to do anything else but make street records, chain smoke, talk fast, and uninhibit the inhibited. . . .

You could call Russell a “mogul.” It is to some degree an apt description, since he certainly has a deep economic stake in rap’s present and future. But “mogul” also suggests someone who dominates an industry, and Russell, for all his influence, is at the mercy of many elements he does not control. Unlike the big tickets of pop culture—your George Lucas, Michael Jackson, Grant Tinker level mogul—Russell doesn’t have the financial clout or emotional distance to manipulate. You see, Russell really is his audience. He lives the B-boy life, and the values are found in his records. Unlike Afrika Bambaataa or Russell’s brother Joey, a/k/a Run of Run-D.M.C., who are part of a vanguard of rap innovators, Russell is one of the few products of the rap generation to become an important businessman. He doesn’t battle other rappers or spinners for record sales. Instead he engages wily, older businessmen in treacherous battles for survival.


Farrakhan Brings It All Back Home

Nationalism of Fools

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By Stanley Crouch

October 29, 1985

There again were the black suits and red ties, the bodyguards in blue uniforms, the women in white, the aloof cast of the eyes and the earthly manner: the Nation of Islam. Twenty-five years ago it was Malcolm X’s show, though he could never have filled Madison Square Garden. On October 7, 25,000 people turned out to hear Louis Farrakhan.

They queued up outside—the poor and the young, the unemployed and the gang members, the middle-class Negroes. They were anxious to get in and hear someone attack the people they felt were responsible for their positions in the burgeoning illiterate mass; or they were there out of curiosity, intent on hearing for themselves what Farrakhan was about. Many came because they were happy to support a black man the “white-controlled” media unanimously hated. Or because Mayor Koch had called Farrakhan “the devil,” usurping the Muslims’ term for the white enemy—if Koch hated him, he might be lovable, an understandable reaction given the long-standing antipathy between the mayor and New York’s black community. I also think many were there, especially the young, because they had never been to a mass black rally to hear a speaker who didn’t appear to care what white people thought of him, a man who seemed to think their ears were more important than those of Caucasians.

The atmosphere at Madison Square Garden was unusual. Though the speeches started two and a half hours late, the audience was patient, partly out of respect and partly out of awareness that the Fruit of Islam doesn’t play. A fool and his seat would soon have parted. I overheard one young black man saying that he would look at the Muslims with their neatness and their discipline, their sense of confidence and their disdain for white privilege, and understand their appeal: “They look like the last thing they ever think about is kissing some white boody.” After repeatedly telling a blond female photographer that she couldn’t sit in the aisle, one of the FOI said, to the joy of the black people listening, “Miss, I asked you three times to please not sit in the aisle. Now you will either get your behind over or you will get your behind out.” And there was something else. As one woman put it, “Well, what can you say? Nobody looks better than a black man in a uniform. Look at all those handsome black men. I know I wouldn’t want to be in the Nation, but I wouldn’t mind if they lived on my block. I bet there wouldn’t be any mugging and dope dealing and all of that.” From the outside, at least, Farrakhan’s group projects a vision of restraint and morality. It’s about smoothing things out, upholding the family, respecting the woman, doing an honest day’s work, avoiding dissipation, and defining the difference between the path of the righteous and the way of the wicked.
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Yo! Hermeneutics!

Hiphopping Toward Poststructuralism

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By Greg Tate

VLS

June 1985

If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance then baffle them with your bullshit. —Afro-American folk wisdom

In a war against symbols which have been wrongly titled, only the letter can fight. —Ramm-El-Zee


Word, word. Word up: Thelonious X. Thrashfunk sez, yo Greg, black people need our own Roland Barthes, man. Black deconstruction in America? I’m way ahead of the brother, or so I think when I tell him about my dream magazine: I Signify—The Journal of Afro-American Semiotics. We talking a black Barthesian variation on Jet, itself the forerunner of black poststructuralist activity, given its synchronic mythification and diachronic deconstruction (“Soul singer James Brown pulled up to court in Baltimore in a limousine and wearing a full-length fur coat, but convinced a federal magistrate he is too poor to pay creditors $170,000. Brown testified that although he performs regularly, he has no money. . . . U.S. Magistrate Frederick N. Smalkin agreed. ‘It appears Mr. Brown’s financial and legal advisors have surrounded him with a network of corporations and trusts that serves as a moat to defend him from the incursion of creditors,’ Smalkin said”), not to mention its contribution to the black tradition of the encyclopedic narrative (cf. Ellison, Reed, Delany, Clinton, and Ramm-El-Zee).

Merely conceiving a poststructuralist version of this deuteronomic tribal scroll is enough to make me feel like a one-man Harlem Renaissance—at least until Thelonious asks if I’m hip to Henry Louis Gates Jr., blood up at Yale (Cornell by the time you read this) who guest-edited two issues of Black American Literature Forum on the subject of semiotics and the signifyin’ monkey. Turns out I vaguely recall hearing about an appearance the brother made at a Howard University Third World Writers’ Conference a few years back. Rumor has it Gates shook up the joint talking about the relationship of structuralism to Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery: folk wanted to know what all this formalism had to do with the struggle.