Ashley West remembers Jamie Gillis and Constance Money, the two stars of Radley Metzger’s ‘The Opening of Misty Beethoven’, and an attempt to engineer a reunion for the two of them over 30 years after the film.
The Zen of Jamie Gillis.
It was late in the evening, and a smile appeared across his tired features. Father Time was catching up with Mother Nature, but the handsome charm of Seymour Love was never far away.
It was 2005 and we were quietly hunched over an afterhours table in the back of the midtown Mexican restaurant that his girlfriend owned. Every so often I’d throw a question his way. I’d pretend I was being casual. Eager to appear uneager. After a 35 year itinerant career in adult films, I wondered was he was ever sentimental about any of them? Had he ever retained anything from any of them? Any keepsakes perhaps, whose mere existence could bring back a few forgotten memories?
He drifted off into his own thoughts, and an eloquent silence suggested that to ask the question was to misunderstand the man. He surely had no need for physical items, I figured. The sights, smells, and treasures of a lifetime of women and pleasure were curated lovingly in his head.
I knew his sister had kept scrapbooks about him. Fans had sent him copies of his films and magazine articles which over-intellectualized or under-estimated the industry he had inhabited. These artifacts all remained in boxes in storage, seldom referred to. Porn detritus from a life on the edge.
But then he smiled. He’d remembered something, he admitted. Sure it was beat up, and its luster long faded, but there was something. For some reason he said, it had always followed him around.
He’d started out in the early days of adult film in Gotham in the era of the dirty mattress and the 8mm camera. He’d moved to Frisco amidst the industry’s forlorn dreams of a cross-over hit. And finally he’d worked in the City of Angels, when the bastard grandchild of hardcore was dominated by cheap video and dashed dreams. And wherever he went, somehow this memento ended up going with him. In fact he was proud of it.
It was the statuette for best actor in the film ‘The Opening of Misty Beethoven‘.
Sure he’d won a bunch of other acting awards, he admitted. And they woulda meant something if the standard for second place had been higher. He still remembered one occasion when the runner-up prize had been given to a dog. But this prize was different. This one stayed with him. A bauble from a happy time and a happy place, he said. He told me fond stories about the film’s star, Constance Money, and its director, Radley Metzger. He took me back to his place, where he showed me the trophy that he kept on the mantelpiece in his bedroom.
As I said goodbye that night, he asked if I knew where he could get an original poster of ‘The Opening of Misty Beethoven’. A few weeks later I found one and took it back the restaurant, slipping it to him under the table so as not to draw attention to it in the crowded restaurant. He stood up and unfurled it with pride. He said he would frame it and put it somewhere he would see every night.
Happy times, happy place, he said.
A few facts for the uninitiated.
The ‘Opening of Misty Beethoven’ is the third of five adult films made by Radley Metzger using the ‘Henry Paris’ pseudonym.
It premiered in 1976 boasting a script, cinematography, music, and acting of a caliber never seen before or since in the industry.
And by any yardstick – it is the greatest adult film ever made.
Sure, skeptical naysayers will argue that we’re guilty of celebrating the tallest dwarf in Smallville. And usually they’d be right. But not with ‘Misty Beethoven’.
Shot in Paris, Rome, and the ground zero of golden age pornography, New York, it is the perfect intersection of sparkling 1960s sex comedies and the 1970s wave of hard core porno chic. The film’s release was noted in the mainstream press and the premiere party was held at the Four Seasons, attended by noted New York film critics and intelligentsia. Awards were plentiful and box office receipts bountiful.
But how good is ‘Misty Beethoven’ and what is the sign of true success?
Perhaps it is when art penetrates popular consciousness and appears in the unlikeliest of places. Mark Jacobson, writer, journalist and esteemed chronicler of New York life, recalls attending a Purim party with Jamie somewhere in deep Brooklyn. They’d heard it was going to cool, at least as cool as Purim parties get, but it turned out to be way wilder than any Hebrew school grad might have imagined. The whole place was filled with completely blotto rabbis and there wasn’t a single hamantaschen in sight. Rabbis were stumbling around with empty Jack Daniels bottles, their beards sopped with vodka. Several fights broke out. Jamie was a little amazed by this. “Jews! Drunk and fighting!” he kept saying, like a New York Post headline. As they stood there, one of these orthodox types hurtled himself in their direction, his thick, Torah-studying glasses flying off his face and landing right at Jamie’s feet. Jamie picked the glasses up and handed them back to the man, who looked to be in his middle 40s – but who can tell about the age of rabbis, especially plastered ones? The rabbi adjusted his glasses, taking care to flop his paises in the proper position. Now able to see again, he took one look at Jamie and said, “You! You I know! Misty Beethoven!” Then he stumbled happily toward the door.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Deuce. This is the measure of a good film.
Central to the success of ‘Misty Beethoven’ is Constance Money’s portrayal of Misty Beethoven. An innocent and pouty presence, information about the actress has been sketchy over the years due in part to an ephemeral career in adult films followed by an effective disappearing act.
Jensen was born into an upper-middleclass family in Kenmore, Washington in the mid-1950s. A straight-A student and a cheerleader at Inglemoor high school, she was bright and free-spirited. Susan’s flair for the dramatic came first emerged in a high school production of ‘Guys and Dolls’, in which she played the part of a Lady of the Night.
After high school, Susan moved to Oakland to attend Mills College, where she studied psychology and sociology. It was while she was attending Mills that she appeared in her first explicit film—a short stag loop referred to as “Panty Raid” —and she also had brief parts in two full-scale West-Coast productions, ‘Confessions of a Teenage Peanut Butter Freak’ and ‘The Joy of Letting Go’.
The decision to appear in early adult films was motivated by a rebellious streak and the desire to earn a little extra money to help pay her tuition. Metzger identified her as being the perfect foil for Jamie Gillis in ‘The Opening of Misty Beethoven’ and so she flew to New York in 1975 and assumed the titular role. No one was more surprised at the success of the film and that Constance Money was suddenly an overnight sensation, than Susan herself.
This was accentuated when she returned home; an acquaintance of hers remembers “Sue came back to town often but everyone would stare and talk behind her back, which she was not expecting and which hurt her. She just couldn’t understand all the fuss… Sue had no idea how people would respond to the fact that she had made porn. After the films came out, people never saw her as anything other than a porn star.”
Despite the difficulties resulting from the scandalous view that many now had of her, Susan did her best to embrace the wild ride. In the mid-to-late ‘70s she plunged into an adventurous lifestyle, frequently staying at the Playboy mansion. On one occasion, she found herself seated between Warren Beatty and James Caan for a screening of ‘Misty Beethoven’ (about 200 other notables were present). Despite this kind of glamour, much of Susan’s life remained quite ordinary. She worked for a time as a waitress in various bars in Berkeley, and she spent some time working in a high-class women’s clothing store. She continued to take college classes on an intermittent basis.
According to Susan, the experience of filming ‘Misty Beethoven’ had not been a happy one, and this was compounded by the fact that unused footage of her from the ‘The Opening of Misty Beethoven’ shoot appeared in Metzger’s next two hit films, ‘Barbara Broadcast’ and ‘Maraschino Cherry’. Susan took legal advice and eventually reached an out of court settlement with Metzger.
A 1978 Playboy pictorial titled ‘Call of the Wild’ featured a semi- fictionalized account of the “double life” of Constance Money, who simultaneously made internationally known porn films and ran a bar / lodge in the Alaskan wilderness.
In the meantime Susan also appeared in cult adult film ‘Mary! Mary!’ and the porn-noir ‘Anna Obsessed’, but her goal was to transition into mainstream film. Spurred on by Hugh Hefner’s encouragement that she could be the first cross-over actress, she managed to land a small role as a house guest of Dudley Moore’s degenerate neighbor in the Blake Edwards film ’10’. According to Susan she got along famously on set with Mrs. Blake Edwards, Julie Andrews. She hoped to land the part of Frances Farmer, with whom she was obsessed, in the 1982 film ‘Frances.’ She made it as far as a meeting with the director, but producers told her that her background in adult films disqualified her from the role.
During the early 1980s, Susan gave birth to a son and lived for a time with her close friend and adult film legend John Leslie, a costar in several of her films. According to Susan, John was her guardian angel and influential in helping her transition to a new phase in her life. After her farewell film, ‘A Taste of Money’, Susan exited the industry and never returned, living privately and anonymously in the Pacific Northwest.
(The Rialto Report tracked Constance Money and interviewed her for our podcast series here).
I got a call from Jamie Gillis in the fall of 2009. He asked if I’d meet him for dinner. When I arrived I was surprised at his appearance. He was moving slowly and in obvious discomfort. His features were grey, severe, lined with shadows. He told me he had cancer. He had a few months left to live.
He’d chosen to spend his last days quietly and refused to tell many of his condition. This was not unsurprising; despite a friendly, even garrulous, exterior, he was a private man. He always contradicted anyone who said that he could have had a successful career in mainstream films. What, and be recognized everywhere when he conducted his private business? He had no interest in that. Besides he’d just finished a biography in case there were those who wanted to know the truth.
He spoke with measured happiness about his life. He had no regrets. No unfulfilled wishes. He only had reasons to be grateful. We spoke at length of weighty, important concerns and of inconsequential trivialities, and found no distinction between the two.
He was full of dignity. I left wanting to do something that would help brighten his final days. Maybe it was a futile and shallow gesture. Trying to bring meaning to a situation where there was none. Who knows? I wondered how he would like to being in touch with Constance Money one more time. He’d always spoke fondly of her.
Earlier that previous year, I’d engineered a reunion of sorts with Radley Metzger. Radley seemed to have a soft spot for Jamie. Though they hadn’t seen each other in years, they lived in the same city and would often ask after each other. They seemed content to conduct an invisible dance around each other, like two old Jewish compadres not wanting to break the magic spell of their separation.
Once I’d emailed Radley to tell him that it was Jamie’s birthday, and that Jamie always pointed out that it was also Hitler’s birthday on the same day. Radley emailed straight back to recount a little-known story of when Hitler had been celebrating his final birthday many years previously, deep in a Berlin bunker.
As Hitler was being toasted one last time by his cronies, a clairvoyant sat in the corner spoke up. In the years to come, the mystic said, a man will be born on this same day and he will become the greatest actor in all pornography. A man of unrivalled sexual attraction and physical prowess. A man the world will admire for his great portrayal of a sexual mastermind.
Hitler looked over at the clairvoyant, and muttered: “I bet he will be a Jew”.
I passed the story to Jamie. It made him happy on his birthday.
Connecting Jamie to Constance Money was a tougher proposition. She’d been out of the adult industry for 30 years and no longer lived in New York. Jamie told me of a fling that he’d had with her off-set at the time of Misty Beethoven (and later with her sister too), but he’d had no contact with her since making ‘A Taste of Money’ with her in the early 1980s. He knew she had a son and thought she’d settled in the Pacific North West.
I eventually contacted her and found her to be as smart and bright as I had heard. I asked about her memories of ‘Misty Beethoven and learned that sometimes time is not a great healer. Clearly 30 years had not dulled a sense of bitterness. Frustration at being forever Constance Money. Annoyance at the secrecy she has to endure to this day. And frankly, irritation at the way that no financial benefits have come her way as a result of her misadventure all those years before. She talked about writing a book to set the record straight, but was concerned about the impact it could have on her private life. She talked about returning to New York for the first time in decades, but was afflicted by a number of health issues that limited her independence.
I asked about her memories of Jamie. More anger. But this time tempered by sadness. They’d had a short relationship and she clearly still had affectionate memories of him. But as they’d become closer, the physical side of the relationship had become rougher, and in the end she’d broken away from him in self-preservation mode.
I told her about Jamie’s illness and passed on his contact details to her. A few days later Jamie called me. Susan had been in touch. They’d had a long talk. They’d been honest and candid, and had exorcised a few ghosts. And they’d spoke about the film they’d made 34 years before.
Misty Beethoven and Dr. Seymour Love. Talking in the age of the internet.
Susan was initially suspicious of Jamie’s affection for the film, but over the course of their conversation she relaxed and mellowed. They swapped stories and even joked about the inanity of being sexual partners in the greatest adult film of all.
In the weeks that followed, I visited Jamie at his home. He was bed-ridden by now and in constant pain. As I climbed the stairs to see him, I saw the framed ‘Misty Beethoven’ poster hung at the top of the stairs he climbed to go to bed each night. He said the last thing he did each night before turning in was to reach up and kiss it.
Happy times, happy place, he repeated.