Have you ever had that experience when you’re watching a film – and you become fascinated with one particular actor?
You’re seeing them play a part in the movie, and you know it’s just a performance. It’s fiction. Acting is just acting, right? But then you wonder how much of their real self might be coming through the screen.
A few years ago, I saw an unusual piece of film that featured an actor called Mary Stuart. Mary was a reasonably well-known X-rated performer in 1970s New York. She featured in a number of successful adult films, like like The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), Naked Came the Stranger (1975), Wet Rainbow (1974), Memories Within Miss Aggie (1974). She was a sweet-looking and spontaneous presence, always engaging and interesting. But outside of her films, hardly anything was known about her. And when she eventually disappeared from the screen around 1977, she seemed to disappear from the world too.
Now this film I watched was actually an old sex loop. It was a silent and primitive thing that I doubt anyone else has ever even seen. It was similar to hundreds of others that were made around that time: it was a plotless, pretty pointless exercise. And it had bad camerawork too.
But then something in the loop happened that surprised me. And that one moment captured on film made me wonder what I was seeing. Was this an intentional part of the movie, or was this a real moment and something else was actually going on?
That moment sent me on a journey that lasted for several years, as I set out to piece together Mary Stuart’s eventful life – in and out of film – and see if she could be found to tell her story, and answer my question: Whatever happened to Mary Stuart?
This episode is 37 minutes long.
The music playlist for this episode can be found on Spotify.
I carefully pick the reel of 8mm film out of the tin in which it has sat for decades. Inside the metal container, there’s also a piece of paper on which a handwritten note has been scribbled: “Mary and Levi and other – 9/23/1973.” I wonder if anyone has seen this film since it was first made.
I spool the film reel onto a projector, and switch it on. Images from the fragile strip start to flicker across a white-washed wall that acts as a makeshift screen. There’s no title card or credits or clue as to what’s about to unfold.
Two figures materialize in primary colors, sitting on an unpleasantly brown couch. They seem to be talking to each other, though there’s no sound except for the flicker of the projector. The film zooms in, clumsily and without warning, on the face of the male. He is recognizable as adult film performer Levi Richards. He smirks gently at his female companion, flirting shyly with her.
The camera jerks sideways to study his partner, clumsily re-focusing so we can linger on her features. She has a lean ballet-dancer body, cropped dark hair, and wears round Billie Jean King glasses that are comically large on her puckish, boyish features. Her mouth pouts in an asymmetrical and asexual way and, when she smiles, her teeth protrude unevenly like a white zipper. She’s not conventionally attractive, but her face invites attention. She projects a vulnerability that makes you feel you’re intruding on a private moment.
But this is a porn loop, and there are conventions that must be obeyed, so within minutes our players disrobe, their modesties are abandoned, and a sexual encounter – with its multiple mutations – begins. Surprisingly it is the coy female who takes the lead, dictating the positional variations.
Their interaction continues obliviously – even when a third person, a light-skinned black man, enters the room. Without being invited, he too undresses and quickly enters the fray.
And that would be that – except for one brief detail, a disturbing moment towards the end of the single-scene movie. The camera is framing the female’s expression, a perspiring and wide-eyed gaze. Out of nowhere, she is slapped in the face by Johnny-come-lately. It’s a shock. It’s a hard slap. Nothing leading up to this moment had suggested this outcome. She appears surprised, and bewildered too, that it has happened in this scenario. And for a brief moment she turns her head and casts a confused look towards you, the viewer, that implicate you in what’s just happened.
And then, just as quickly, the picture flicks to black, as the single disconnected reel of film flails noisily announcing the end of the show.
I turn the projector off, and the room returns to darkness.
I saw the loop years ago, and it left an impression on me.
Firstly, there was the actress with the quirky, androgynous features. I recognized her as a New York adult film performer who went by the name Mary Stuart. While never rising to the level of Times Square box office porno queen in the vein of Linda Lovelace, Georgina Spelvin, or Jennifer Welles, her happy-go-lucky – and often just plain goofy – presence had brightened twenty or so features over a three-year period in the mid-1970s.
And then there was the startling end to the short film. X-rated loops in the 1970s often showcased content considered taboo for sexplicit feature films, but those themes were always an integral part of the storyline. They weren’t introduced spuriously, without context or explanation: they were the film’s raison d’être. But the slap in this loop appeared random and gratuitous enough that it seemed unplanned and spontaneous. It transformed the loop from a contrived sex vignette into a fleeting documentary.
Thousands of loops were produced in the early 1970s. They were usually made cheaply by hacks, and sold expensively by the mob. They were distributed via mail order or in adult bookstores – often furtively, under the counter, especially in areas lacking the community standards required by law to sell them legally. Nearly all were forgettable and forgotten – both by those who made them and by those who watched them. But they make up a critical missing link in the development of adult film, a nexus often neglected by the higher-profile success of porno chic among the intelligentsia and chattering classes.
But what was the story behind this 8mm film? How did it come about, and who made it? Did anyone see it? Did Mary Stuart know she was going to be slapped and, if so, how did she react to the idea?
A few days later, I met up with Levi Richards, the first actor in the loop, and brought along a copy of the film to see if he had any memories of it.
Levi watched the film clip in silence, before sitting back and shaking his head. He had no recollection of this one. He said he’d made far too many loops, far too long ago, for any to leave an impression. But he did remember Mary Stuart.
She’d been around from the early days of adult films, and he’d first noticed her when she showed up in several cheap and grim one-day-wonder films. Levi hadn’t found her attractive at first, thinking that she resembled a teenage boy in body and demeanor. They appeared in a few films together, but weren’t particularly close.
Mary Stuart and Levi Richards, in Pen Pals (1974)
Then Radley Metzger cast them both in his sexually explicit adaptation of the literary hoax, Naked Came the Stranger (1974) – Levi played a successful radio show host who is more interested in his affair with his lover, played by Mary Stuart – so they wound up spending more time together. At first, they just rehearsed lines, then they dated a few times. Levi changed his mind about Mary: he’d mistaken her zany ways for immaturity, but once her got to know her better, he liked her a whole lot more. She was smart – she told him she had two degrees from a college in Rhode Island – and was good company and fun.
But before their relationship could develop further, Mary broke it off unexpectedly. She’d become more serious about another boyfriend – he was possessive, she said – so she wanted to be exclusive to him.
“Story of my life,” smiled Levi. “I don’t know if I ever saw her after that. It was no big deal. We weren’t serious or anything. I think the truth was that I was too square for her. But it didn’t stop me from wondering what happened to her – especially after I heard the rumors.”
What rumors, I asked?
Levi insisted that it was probably nothing, but he’d heard that she’d got involved in a heavy, rough sex scene, and was then swallowed up by drugs.
Levi remembered one other detail.
“Mary’s boyfriend, the one that was possessive? I think that’s him in the loop. He’s the guy who shows up halfway through, and slaps her.”
Mary, in Chamber Maids (1974)
I brought up Mary’s name with a couple of the more notable directors she worked for, Gerard Damiano and Radley Metzger. Both remembered her instantly, and spoke of her unusual but photogenic features, as well as her professionalism on set. Neither of them knew anything about her private life.
I called up Harry Reems, veteran of the industry trailblazing film Deep Throat (1972), at the time living out a well-deserved retirement in Utah. He’d appeared in several films with Mary such as Wet Rainbow (1973) and Memories Within Miss Aggie (1974). He’d also mentioned her in his 1975 autobiography Here Comes Harry Reems, commenting on swinger parties that took place at her apartment.
Harry’s memory was hazy on the best of days, and he didn’t remember her name, so I sent him a picture. He responded immediately in his usual exuberant way. Mary was a doll, he exclaimed. One of the sweetest people you could meet. No hang-ups, pretenses, or airs and graces. She didn’t just act in the films, she helped the other actors with their lines, assisted with scenery and props, and fluffed any soft and needy male performers too.
I asked Harry about the swinger parties at Mary’s apartment that he had referred to in his book.
Harry said that he’d only been to two, maybe three, and they’d been as good, clean fun as a sweaty New York orgy could be. But then the atmosphere at the gatherings changed. Harder drugs were introduced, and there was a sharper edge to the evenings. Harry couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something strange about Mary’s new boyfriend, a mixed race guy named Bob, a sleazy character who treated partygoers as pawns to be manipulated for his sexual entertainment. Harry stayed away from Mary and Bob after that – besides, he was more occupied by his legal problems stemming from the prosecution of ‘Deep Throat’, and the potential jail sentence that he faced. Harry suggested I speak one of Mary’s friends – and an old flame of his – one-time porn queen cum disco queen Andrea True.
Andrea, and fellow porn performer Valerie Marron, were two of Mary’s girlfriends from the early days. The three of them were an unusual combination: Andrea was the materialistic older bird intent on getting her monetary just deserts from the exploiters of her carnal talent, Valerie was the under-aged, troubled kid who was as directionless as she was clueless, and Mary was the intelligent, fun-loving, well-balanced member of the threesome. When I spoke to Andrea, she’d recently moved back in with Valerie, decades after they first became friends.
Andrea said that Mary was a dancer, and had made half-hearted attempts to pursue a theatrical career, but lacked the discipline to gain a foothold. They all shared an apartment for a brief moment, before Mary moved in with Bob.
Andrea and Valerie remembered the good times with Mary: the parties, the friendship, the brief snatches of notoriety from the porn films. They also recalled how their contact with Mary disappeared overnight after she moved out. Occasionally they bumped into Mary after that, but were disturbed by her physical deterioration. She had large bags beneath bloodshot eyes, and lacked the same happy spark.
Mary and Andrea True, in Sexual Freedom in the Ozarks (1973)
Anyone making adult films in the mid 1970s came across Sandi Foxx: if you were an actor, you’d probably shared a sex scene with her, and if you were a filmmaker you might have gone to her one-woman talent agency looking for performers to hire.
Sandi knew most of the X-rated talent well. She knew what they were like on camera, and just as importantly, knew what they were like away from the set. Knowing them personally was important to her: if someone was going to flake on a director, Sandi wanted to know in advance. Being unreliable was a cardinal sin for anyone appearing in a low budget movie.
It was Mary who’d first introduced Sandi to the adult film industry: “It’s a long time ago now, and my memory is even foggier due to all the pot smoking, so the exact sequence of events is hazy at best. I remember going to a swinger’s party, and meeting Mary there with Don Allen. Don was an ex-army guy with a huge tattoo of a crying Jesus on his back. He and Mary had done sex loops for a couple of TV documentarians, Peter and Iris. At the time, I was struggling to pay bills, feed myself and my cat, and get around by subway or cab, so Mary and Don introduced me to the world of porn films.”
Sandi remembers two separate stages to her friendship with Mary: “At first she was a sweetheart, happy and friendly to everyone, just a nice girl. But then she met Robert Hollis…”
Bob Hollis, in Lady on the Couch (1974)
Sandi’s voice trails off.
Sandi remembers that Bob Hollis was an intelligent, charismatic, mixed-race man who dressed fancy, and looked like he’d just walked off the set of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Though he’d appeared in several adult films – usually in dominant S&M roles – using the name Marc Anthony or Mel White, the porn scene only held occasional excitement for him. What ignited his lusty fuse was exerting control over people in real life. He had parties at his apartment, where he orchestrated manipulative scenarios using drugs, sex, and occasional threats of violence, and preyed on people’s weaknesses.
Sandi continues: “Mary and Bob started dating, and when she fell under his spell, he started taking hold over her life. They moved in together, and their sexual behavior became more transgressive and riskier. They were heavily into extreme S&M play.
“I remember seeing Mary wearing a necklace. I asked her about it. She said it referenced ‘The Ultimate Orgasm’, and that Bob had told her never to take it off.
Mary and Bob Hollis, in Honeypie (1976)
“But I don’t want to paint the picture that Mary was being used either. She seemed just as into the S&M scene as Bob was, and even though he had a controlling personality, she seemed to enjoy the ride off the far end of erotica.”
I pushed Sandi on the question of Mary’s free will.
Sandi replied: “I partied with Mary and Bob both alone and in groups, and Mary didn’t seem coerced to me. For sure, there were a variety of mind-altering drugs that were passed around, but she seemed a willing participant, even though she’d clearly become a more withdrawn and druggy person since I first met her.
“Bob handed out LSD and cocaine at their gatherings. And this wasn’t the type of crowd that just wanted to relax and pass out like I was used to. They wanted to be up – wired, feeling good, and partying.
“Pretty quickly, I realized it wasn’t my scene. It became scary, so I got out.”
I ask Sandi if she knows what happened to Mary after that, but she doesn’t. Sandi, like several others, thought about Mary often over the ensuing years, and worried about her fate.
Bob Hollis, in Sensuous Flygirls (1976)
If Bob Hollis remained an enigma, there are clues to him in some of the adult films he made. He was often hired by directors wanting to enact a realistic S&M scene for the camera – scenes that sometimes featured Bob and Mary in front of the camera as well.
Veteran pornographer Howard Ziehm remembers a scene he shot for Honey Pie (1976) with Bob, Mary, and the actress Bree Anthony: “Bob was a tall, articulate African American, and Mary was an attractive but intense brunette in her mid to late 20s. Bob wrote and directed a scene for me based on the sexual rituals routinely performed in his private life. Bob directed it, and all I had to do was film the action. We shot it at Bob and Mary’s apartment in a small, windowless room painted black, where hooks, chains, and other bondage paraphernalia were securely attached to the walls.”
The scene left a lasting impression on Ziehm, and he wrote about the dynamic between Bob and Mary over several pages in his autobiography, Take Your Job and Shove It (2012).
“(Bob) promises her that if she endures the pain, it will take her to a sexual nirvana. Once there is no doubt that she wants to go forward, her wrists and ankles are bound with leather cuffs attached to the chains connected to the hooks on the wall. She is left with her arms incapacitated and her legs pulled back over her head.
“(Bob) directs Bree Anthony to begin using a small leather whip to lightly lash Mary’s buttocks. When he sees that her skin is only turning pink, he takes the whip away, and lashes her more intensely, repeatedly demanding that Mary beg him to continue.
“Her flesh has now turned red, just short of bleeding, and she begins to sweat and writhe in anguish. Bob offers her a chance to stop. She refuses.
“Bob returned to an even harsher orgy of pain – one that I could not have imagined on my own. From a nearby table, he grabbed a chain about two feet long with a pair of nipple clamps attached to each end.
“Mary’s face, drenched in sweat from a combination of the additional pressure that is being applied to Mary’s nipples and the thought of the excruciating pain that she is enduring is not contrived.
“Mary’s eyes had rolled back in her head. Only the whites were showing as she made a last concerted effort to pull the clamps free. She reminded me of a zombie in ‘Nights of the Living Dead.’
“A smile appears on Mary’s soaking wet face. Her ordeal is over and she shows no sign to indicate that she did not enjoy every minute of it. Hard to believe it was their normal sex routine.”
This wasn’t an isolated incident. One of the first New York sex film performers, Jason Russell, also remembers a scene involving Bob that appeared in the film Dominatrix Without Mercy (1976). Russell’s memories are of a similarly intense scenario playing out for the camera – one which disturbed even his own jaded perspective.
This time however the female submissive in the scene with Bob was C.J. Laing.
C.J. Laing still remembers Mary Stuart – which is understandable, given they were once close friends. And she still remembers Bob Hollis too – which is also understandable given the effect he had on her life.
C.J., usually voluble and enthusiastic, imparts thoughts of Bob curtly and economically. Many years have passed since the events she describes, but some memories linger for the wrong reasons.
She recalls Mary instantly: “She was lovely, a beautiful girl, and graceful too, always moving effortlessly… She had clear white skin which contrasted with her dark hair. Most of all, she was a kind and gentle person, and non-judgmental – which was important to me.”
C.J. believes she first met Mary and Bob through Don Allen, the tattooed ex-army porn star who introduced Sandi Fox to the adult film business: “Bob was good friends with Don and his girlfriend Barbara. We all used to hang out together, going out dancing at the Loft, or staying in and having sex and doing drugs.”
C.J. moved into the apartment Bob and Mary shared, a small ground-floor one bedroom in the West Village at 71 West 12th St. It was there that C.J. saw Bob’s controlling ways first hand.
“Bob used drugs to control people – and he did it all the time. It was Bob who introduced me to shooting cocaine. He was dealing out of our apartment, and Mary and I were enlisted to help him, whether we liked it or not. It wasn’t a casual operation. I mean, we went to Columbia once to bring back drugs for him…
“He was at his most manipulative when it came to sex. He also introduced me to S&M. Basically he was a pimp, and tricked Mary out. He made me do pay-for-play too.
“Once he got a hold on you, it was difficult to break away. Mary managed to leave at one stage, but I stayed. Then I left, and Mary returned to Bob. Then I went back too.” It was a revolving door of abuse.
Mary, in Rollerbabies (1976)
Eventually Mary did get away – and didn’t return. C.J. said Mary started a new life in Arizona.
I ask C.J. what happened to Bob after that: “He hung himself.”
“Mary came back to New York for the funeral, but after that, we lost touch.”
Over the years, I tried looking for Mary.
Part of the reason was mere curiosity. I wondered how someone lives a normal life after such an intense chapter in their youth.
But the other reason was a misplaced investment in her life. Seeing her in an early loop, lithe, wide-eyed, and expectant, and then hearing about her and the way she lived engendered many questions. What had become of her? How did her story continue after she left New York?
I once read of a son’s search for his mountaineer father, a man who’d gone missing many years before on an expedition to a wintry peak. When the son found his father’s remains, perfectly preserved by ice and frozen in time, he was confronted with a man much younger than he was. In an instant, the son had become the older man, now taking care of his younger father.
In the case of Mary Stuart, she is forever trapped on screen in her films, a perpetually young elf, incapable of growing old. But Mary may still be alive, and would now be in her mid-sixties. Had I overlaid a victim narrative to her life that she’d find amusing or offensive today? Or conversely, had the events years earlier damaged her core, irretrievably and cumbrously? Looking for answers felt like caring for a young person who no longer existed.
After several false starts, a series of coincidences led me to Mary several years ago. She was living by herself in a coastal city on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. I debated whether to contact her, but in the end took the plunge and phoned her one evening.
A professional voice answered the phone. After listening to my preamble, Mary responded. Her tone was purposeful and frosty. She said that she was doing well, but that her time in New York in the 1970s was not a period of her life that she wished to re-visit. She thanked me for my interest, but made clear that she discouraged further dialogue. And then hung up.
On the face of it, I was reassured that a person I’d wondered about for years was still around. I was relieved that she was alive after the stories I’d heard. And I couldn’t begrudge anyone who was reluctant to open themselves up to prying, intimate questions from a complete stranger. I was fine to quietly close the chapter.
A few weeks later, I received an unexpected return call. It was Mary. She said that she’d taken time to think about our brief chat. It had sparked an uneasy feeling inside her, which had surprised her. She thought she’d emotionally dealt with this part of her life, but her inner reaction suggested otherwise. She didn’t want to continue carrying around any unresolved feelings, preferring to confront them head-on. As a result, she was open to talking about her life – up to a certain point. She would set boundaries. There were people and events that she had no intention of addressing: she would indicate who and what those were when they arose, and I should not push her.
Over the course of a series of calls, I gingerly spoke to Mary about aspects of her life. She was assiduously thoughtful with her answers. Sometimes she was amused by my interest, other times there were signs of a quick temper flashing.
She was born north of New York City in 1949. She’d had a happy childhood, and as a kid dreamed of performing on stage one day. But instead of pursuing a career treading the boards, she attended Rhode Island School of Design, graduating with two degrees, one in landscape architecture.
When she moved to New York in 1972 her life drifted. She said she couldn’t settle down fully because she had too many, often contradictory, ideas in her head. For example, she was committed to working in the countryside, yet was drawn to the excitement of the city. She was naïve and inexperienced when it came to sex and drugs, yet fearless in subjecting herself to new experiences. She was shy and self-conscious in company, but readily appeared in front of pornographers’ cameras. She was gentle and kind, but drawn to pain and mind-games. And she believed in women’s rights, but had been attracted to men – and a business – that exerted undue control over her.
I asked about Bob Hollis, and the role he played in her life. It was one of the boundaries she preferred not to breach – at least not in detail. She spoke about him being a tortured, difficult soul, who had his own variety of demons to fight. It had been exciting to be together for a time, but when life soured, it became very nasty, very quickly.
She was more at ease speaking about the films she made, and the people with whom she worked: Radley Metzger (“a handsome, distant aristocrat who we all looked up to, and were secretly a little afraid of”), Gerry Damiano (“a funny little guy who had his own vision and ideas, and was convinced that his porno films would one day merge into mainstream cinema where he would be recognized as a genius..”), Marc Stevens (“a lovable ego-maniac who was happiest when he was the center of attention entertaining everyone”), C.J. Laing (“a crazy, wild girl who I was close to for a bit – and who I’ve worried about since I left New York”), and Harry Reems and Levi Richards (“two sweet and gentle men that made me comfortable with who I thought I was”).
Mary’s mood changed when she named a director with whom she’d worked several times – someone she knew and trusted. She heard from a fellow female performer that he filmed her when she was experiencing emotional and physical pain during a simulated rape scene. The actress had pleaded with him to stop, but the director continued regardless. Mary spits out her contempt for the man. She stopped working with him after she found out, and wishes she’d found out sooner. She still regrets not confronting him, but insists this was an unique and isolated incident in the business.
I asked if Mary was interested in getting back in touch with anyone from this period. She thought for a while, and then said no. That was a different time, and she was a different person. She tells me she chose her adult film name from Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Mary Stuart. “I’m not Mary Stuart anymore,” she says.
We spoke about Mary’s life after she left New York, and escaped Bob’s clutches. She built a career as a passionate and leading figure in environmental conservation, working with farmers, land-owners, and advocacy groups, developing policy and delivering public education programs. She was employed, first in government then as an independent consultant, on a variety of issues – such as preventing city encroachments on rural areas, enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act, and preserving farmland. She saw her overriding mission as raising awareness of environmental issues by showing how they affect people’s lives.
Many of her personal interests were off-shoots of her love for nature – whether it was horses, trekking, fishing or gardening – but she also loved making jewelry which she sold privately. She didn’t miss city life any more, but sometimes wondered how New York had changed.
After a few months, our conversations began to peter out. She’d shared most of what she wanted to, and I didn’t want to be a perpetual intrusion from the past. Sensing that our talks may be coming to an end, I said I had one more question: I asked if she remembered a specific loop she made. It featured Levi Richards and Bob. It was shot back in 1973.
Mary dismissed the question before it had been formed. Her temper flared briefly, disdainful at the idea that her memory would have preserved an event so trivial, so meaningless. A loop was just a forgettable two-hour transaction in exchange for $40. Why would this one have been any different?
I stretched my luck. I told her that this particular loop was unique in that it ends in an unusual way, and has disturbed me since I first saw it. It concludes with her being slapped. The slap, and the effect, is unexpected and jarring.
Mary was silent for a long moment. When she spoke again, it was hesitatingly.
“I don’t remember it specifically. But I do recall a turning point. Or perhaps it was an awakening. I remember when I first experienced someone’s sexual power. Someone, probably Bob, hit me. To a relatively sheltered girl like I was, I’m embarrassed to say I had mixed feelings about it. I was repulsed and angered, but also fascinated by what it meant in that context.
“I don’t know… if it was that moment on film, but when I was slapped, I changed. My life followed a different path. It consumed me. It was irreversible. I never went back to the person I had been.”
In one of our last calls, Mary said she had cancer. It was an aggressive form of the illness, and her fight was short. She died in 2013 at the age of 63.
After her passing, life seemed quieter. I hadn’t been in contact with any of her family or friends, so there was no one with whom to share her memory or legacy.
A few days after she passed, I opened the tin with the 8mm reel of film. I held it up to the light to catch a few glimpses of the flickering young woman sitting on a couch wearing Billie Jean King glasses.
It seemed strange to grieve someone who I’d first got to know on screen one day long ago, when she was briefly younger than me.