As a pornographer, Al Goldstein was straight out of Central Casting. Out of an R. Crumb cartoon. Out of your worst nightmare. He was fat. He was hairy. He was covered in cigar ash, eczema flakes, and flop sweat. He was the founder and publisher of Screw, a magazine that wasn’t just dirty, it was gross, intended not for the ascot-wearing playboy who invited sophisticated young foxes to discuss Henry Miller, Miles Davis, and mutual masturbation in a penthouse suite, but for the ass-crack-brandishing prole who paid the motherly looking woman with the run in her fishnets to get down to it, nothing fancy in a room rented by the hour. He was sued by Pillsbury for $50 million for depicting the Poppin’ Fresh doughboy in flagrante with the not-so-poppin’-fresh doughgirl. (She had a yeast infection.) He was the host of the popular public-access show, Midnight Blue, conducting interviews with starlets specializing in acts of depravity, both standard and not-so, asking them to share their thoughts on Aristotle and Spinoza, before moving on to topics of a less metaphysical nature and ending each episode with the “Fuck You” segment, in which he would give the phallic salute to the dry cleaner who had failed to properly starch his shirt, the airline baggage-handler who had dared to misplace his luggage, the chef at the Italian restaurant who had had the gall to skimp on the garlic in his Bolognese sauce. He was sentenced to 60 days in Rikers for harassing a former secretary, listing her phone number in Screw, along with various indecorous suggestions; he then received three years probation for putting Gena, his third ex-wife, a school teacher and the mother of his only child, Jordan, through a more or less identical ringer. He was disinvited to Jordan’s graduation from Harvard Law School and in retaliation published doctored photos of Jordan engaging in acts with Gena that would make Oedipus go pale. He was born without a sense of shame the way some men are born without a sense of smell. He was not just a scumbag. He was not just the scumbag. He was the scumbag’s scumbag.
I met Al five years ago. He made an appointment with the dermatology clinic at the Manhattan VA hospital and was assigned my husband, then a resident. When my husband laughed at Al’s penis joke—“Doc, you gotta help me, it’s too big”—Al pulled from his wallet a carefully folded Xeroxed copy of a 2004 article about him from The Villager. He said his life was now “a travesty” but that he still loved Chinese food. My husband can take a hint, or at least could that day, and invited Al out to dinner.
Al wasn’t kidding about the travesty thing. By the time the three of us were sloshing egg rolls around in the dishes of neon-pink sweet and sour sauce that Al couldn’t get enough of, he was already in a seriously bad way. He’d lost every penny of his personal fortune, valued, he claimed, in excess of $10 million. Gone was his six-story townhouse on East 61st Street and his mansion in Pompano Beach with the 11-foot statue of an extended middle finger. He’d been forced to take a series of jobs that made up in humiliation what they lacked in pay: greeter at the Second Avenue Deli, cold-caller on behalf of New York City Bagel, blogger for Booble.com. His fifth wife had long since flown the coop. His son refused to give him the time of day. (After ranting about the money he’d blown sending Jordan to magic camp, the lengths he’d gone to so that Jordan could perform the tricks learned to an audience of Playboy Bunnies, he said to me, “Be smart. Don’t have kids.”) Barnes & Noble had busted him for shoplifting. He suffered from diabetes, depression, heart disease, and the many indignities and discomforts that go along with getting your stomach stapled. He’d briefly been homeless. He couldn’t even scrape together the cash to pay for the cable channel that aired his favorite show, In Treatment.
Still, Al was good company that night, and every other night we took him out, which we continued to do once a month until he suffered from a stroke in late 2010. Sure, he’d say filthy things—and when I say filthy, I mean really filthy, maniacally filthy, diabolically filthy, so filthy your eyes would bug out of your head like a Looney Tunes character—but then he’d want to talk about his blood thinning medication or a William Styron novel or a documentary he’d watched on PBS. Once, after leaving me a voicemail that was a lot even for him, he asked worriedly if I was upset. I told him I wasn’t. Patting my hand, he said, “Oh good. I’m a pornographer. You understand.” And I did understand. Or at least I think I understood. Al, from what I saw, was more imp than satyr, more clown than creep, more Harpo Marx than Marquis de Sade. Above all, he was a showoff, had to have your attention or else. He knew this about himself, too. When ex-Screw writer Gil Reavill published a book, Smut: A Sex-Industry Insider (and Concerned Father) Says Enough Is Enough, in which he called Al “a massive, squalling, undiapered infant,” Al, in his own book, I, Goldstein, admitted his former employee had a point. Another nice thing about Al, he was never maudlin, sounding oddly buoyant even when he described himself to me as “an old condom somebody popped a load into, then threw away.” Maybe because he was going for a laugh, which he got.
Al died on December 19, 2013, at a nursing home in Brooklyn. If the old condom was thrown away, though, it wouldn’t be without ceremony. A memorial was held for him last week, on Wednesday (Hump Day as the invitation helpfully pointed out) at the Museum of Sex. The event was kicked off by an honor guard procession on Fifth Avenue led by the 69’ers Motorcycle Club. The proceedings then moved inside, through the museum’s store, naughty tchotchkes galore—nonslip nipple clamps, anal beads in different shades of pastel, dog masks with adjustable leather straps—up to a large room on the second floor. In it was a makeshift bar, a station heaped high with cheeseburgers and fries and onion rings from White Castle, one of Al’s all-time favorite pig-out places, a table packed with Al memorabilia: old issues of Screw, a pair of the gold Air Jordans that Al used to strut his stuff in, an ad Al took out in the personals in which he closed with the stern warning “No photo, no response.” For sale was a version of the shirt I almost always saw him wearing: black, with the slogan DEATH BEFORE MARRIAGE above a heart with a knife plunged through the center, blood dripping down. I bought two. Well, Father’s Day is just around the corner.
I was surprised at how equally divided the crowd was between genders, though I guess I shouldn’t have been. If Al exploited women at Screw, and he undoubtedly did, he hired them, too. (Screw’s first three managing editors were female.) Nor did the crowd look particularly raunchy. Rough-trade artsy is how I would describe it. Fun is how I would also describe it. Although Al was tight with porn studs Jamie Gillis and Harry Reems, and even tighter with porn peddlers Bob Guccione and Larry Flynt, he could hang with the egghead set, too. Gay Talese interviewed Al for a full three months when researching his opus on coitus, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. According to Al in I, Goldstein, Talese coveted—and then some—Al’s wife at the time, a sexy blond free-loving stewardess named Mary, which Al didn’t mind, possessiveness not being one of his hang-ups, man. And Philip Roth studied Al like Al was an insect—a cockroach, if you want to get specific—under a microscope, hanging out at the Screw offices for several days and then accompanying Al to Plato’s Retreat, the famed swingers club, at which Roth took notes rather than his pants off. (Al would turn up in The Anatomy Lesson as Nathan Zuckerman’s alter ego, the loud-mouthed editor of a skin rag called Lickety Split.) I scanned the crowd for the dapper Talese, the scowling Roth, but saw neither.
Not that the crowd was without its luminaries. Editor Judith Regan was there. Regan’s imprint, ReganBooks, was responsible not only for Jenna Jameson’s blockbuster How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, but Toni Bentley’s best-selling panegyric to sodomy, The Surrender, as well. ReganBooks has since bit the dust. I overheard Regan telling a man who asked what she’d been up to lately that she’d done a guest spot on Bravo’s The Millionaire Matchmaker. Writer and frequent Howard Stern collaborator, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, hiply turned out in a Mephistopheles beard and a shirt with the words BAD SEED written across the front, was also there. So was Herald Price Fahringer, the celebrated First Amendment lawyer, looking as fancy as his name sounds, in a wheelchair and dark suit, a freshly laundered handkerchief peeping out of his breast pocket, a full head of snowy white hair. (Al himself was a passionate defender of the right to free speech and expression. Between 1968 and 1970, he was arrested 19 times on obscenity charges.) So was photographer, Terry Richardson, and sexpert, Veronica Vera. So was magician, Penn Jillette, Al’s fairy godmensch, shelling out for Al’s rent until the stroke forced Al to transition to a nursing home. At least Jillette was there virtually. He sent a video from the West Coast, as did Ron Jeremy. Even the long-suffering Gena showed up. Jordan, too: trim, neatly dressed, hair worn close to his scalp, wire-rim glasses, mouth clenched and serious, and yet with a face so eerily like Al’s—the son an anal-retentive version of the oral-compulsive father.
People took turns standing at the front of the room to speak about Al, a painting of a pig giving it to a goose—or was it a duck?—doggy style serving as the backdrop. The most common note struck was somewhere between exasperation and affection. Many of the speeches were moving, nearly all were funny. Wistful, too. There was a sense that it wasn’t just a man being said goodbye to, but an era: the good old bad old days of down and dirty ’70s New York, when Times Square was the stomping ground of furtive types in trench coats with sallow complexions and itches in forever need of scratching, not herds of robustly smiling families from foreign countries with American Girl Place shopping bags and tickets to The Lion King.
It was the tribute given by comedian Gilbert Gottfried, however, that best captured the je ne sais quoi of the deceased. None of it can be quoted here, unfortunately, Slate being a family-friendly magazine. All I’ll say is that Midnight Blue may have disappeared from the airwaves 11 years ago, but the final “Fuck You” segment wasn’t delivered until last week. It was worth the wait.
TODAY IN SLATE
Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS
But the next president might.
The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices
Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.
The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything
It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.
How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?
Here are the facts.
The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender
What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?