These included Tina Russell’s autobiography ‘Porno Star’ (1973), and ‘Ladies of the Night’ (1973) which described the lives of call girls in New York.
Another book we endorsed was ‘Gentleman of Leisure’ (1972) which documented a year in the life of a New York pimp called Silky and his group of prostitutes, Lois, Linda, Kitty, Tracey, and Sandy. It is a striking collection of fly-on-the-wall black and white photographs and interviews, offering one of the first pictorial glimpses into this world. The candid pictures range from touching Christmas portraits to trips to the tailor.
After seeing the premiere of the pilot of ‘The Deuce’, we were pleased to see many of the street fashions of the pimps and their girls faithfully reproduced in the show in all their gaudy excellence.
The original photographs were taken by Bob Adelman, who photographed cover stories for countless magazines, including Esquire, Time, People, Life, New York, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and Paris Match. In the 1960s, he had documented notable civil rights events, and his photographs have been exhibited at the Smithsonian, the American Federation of Arts, and are included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Bob passed away in 2016. Shortly before his passing, The Rialto Report interviewed him about his memories of ‘Gentleman of Leisure’.
‘Gentleman of Leisure’ can be purchased from Prometheus Book.
“The term is pimp, but I don’t use it. I’m a professional gentleman of leisure. I have absolutely nothing to do. I stay in bed and take showers. I am a connoisseur of resting and a television freak. If I were in another way of life, I’d have to hustle more. As a black man I’ve never had alternatives anyway. I could have played first base, run the mile, or become an entertainer, but I was a natural pimp, so I just pursued my talents… And I make more money than the President.”
What got you interested in documenting the life of a pimp?
I had the luxury to pick and choose the projects I wanted to do, and was attracted to dark subjects. I got interested in prostitution because I thought that the human body was the ultimate commodity. You’re literally selling yourself, and I wondered what that was like in a commercial society. There’s a good reason the client is called a ‘trick’… he may be having sex with a prostitute but she isn’t giving away any of her love. He’s being tricked.”
How did you come to execute the project that became ‘Gentleman of Leisure’?
It was simple really. I had my camera and Susan Hall who did the interviews had a tape recorder. The big thing we had was this incredible access. No one else had been allowed into this secret world before. So it was difficult to mess it up.
“White society looks down on pimps. They make life hard for us, but they’ve been doing this to black people for four hundred and thirty-five years, and we’ve witnessed this prejudice, so we must be pretty strong. I’ve survived and I’m successful, but nobody’s helped me. Society doesn’t like success in any black person.”
What struck you most when you started to document this world?
Well, the fashion hit you straight away. You couldn’t avoid that. These mink coats, ornate chucky jewelry, over-size hats, diamond-encrusted watches. I photographed a tailor who specialized in this fashion. It was an over-the-top fetishization of clothing. Clothes were a preening animalistic expression of power.
He had a car, a gold Eldorado Cadillac, custom-built with an alligator skin roof and a Rolls Royce grille.
Then there was the ‘code’. A complex system of rules that imposed discipline on the girls, but which gave them the feeling that they were living a glamorous existence. I learned how a square girl is ‘turned out’ to be a ho and a pimp’s ‘wife.’ It’s an elaborate process.
And it worked. Silky kept his circle together through thick and thin.
“You can’t force a girl into this situation. The girls are not slaves. My girls decide to share my life themselves. It’s their decision. A girl might leave and I might go get her. But usually I’m real, show her my charming self, and she chooses to stay.”
How much control did Silky have over his group of women when you were there?
Oh, it was complete. This was no act. He was their everything. But it wasn’t a one way manipulation or exploitation. There was a real bond between them, and that’s what we tried to show. It’s easy to dismiss that part of their relationship today, because we’re ‘enlightened’ and politically correct. But there was a loyalty and tenderness that existed too.
At the heart of all this was a love story. Maybe not one you’re used to seeing, but a love story nonetheless.
“A girl who is a prostitute becomes good at manipulating men. Because I am aware, I don’t allow her to manipulate me. With me, she has the one relationship that isn’t a ‘use’ relationship. She needs a pimp for her private life. He’s the only one who can understand, appreciate and handle her.”
How manipulative was Silky?
He was a smart guy, no doubt. He had an astute understanding of human nature and especially that of his ladies. He would know instinctively when to calm them, sooth them, or when to arouse their jealousy and anger. He knew their pressure points, and he pressed them. And then he was there to pick up the pieces afterwards.
Did you see things that made you uncomfortable?
Sure. The girls worked very long hours on the streets. There were beatings. Not many but certainly a few.
“If a girl is interested in building a life with me, then I can make an investment in her and give her a foundation. She gets an apartment and presents on her birthday, Christmas, and out anniversary. The relationship builds.
The only way she can be with me is my way. When I feel she’s swept, I make my points. Women are drawn to me sexually, but I purposely try to underplay sex. If the relationship begins with me personally, then I can keep her with my charming personality. We begin to like each other. If she likes me well enough, she’ll do anything.”
What was it like to be in middle of all this?
It was a real-life soap opera, so you couldn’t help be drawn in. The challenge was trying to stay on the outside and remain at a distant. Not to lose your journalistic principles. The golden rule is never to become part of the story you’re covering.
What did Silky think of the book?
He liked it of course. It was about him! But he was more visible after it came out and that caused him problems.
What kind of problems?
Problems with the law. He became a target because of the book. I’ll just leave it at that.
“Every girl gives me all the money she makes. In turn, I give her a place to stay – her own apartment if she’s been with me for a while, I pay her bail, and she has ten dollars a day expense money.
Pimping is mentally hard. Everything you’re doing is with yourself and for yourself. You have no one to answer to except yourself. I running my own business. I’m the president and the whole corporation.
A girl makes a sacrifice for me. The only greater sacrifice would be for her to jump out of a window. A girl gives up her home, her relationship with her family. I become her whole life. That means our relationship is more passionate and romantic than most.
Is Silky still alive?
Yes, I’m still in touch with him. He’s no longer in New York but he’s still out there. He’s still hustlin’. He’s still looking for an angle, and doesn’t give up anything for free.
What if I asked him for an interview?
You should only do that if you’re willing to be hustled. He’d want to know how it would benefit him. He’d control you in the process. Can you handle that?
I like him though. He’s a unique character. He just does what he does.
“The game is deep. In being a mack, you’re supposedly the supreme being of man. Man rules woman. In being a mack, you acknowledge this fact.”
Silky and Linda