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New York. Mid-1970s. A new counter-cultural scene emerged. Punk was marked by attitude, antagonism, and angry, anarchic music. It attracted a new breed of musician and fan. Non-conforming, anti-authoritarian. It expressed itself visually in provocative new ways. Ripped T-shirts, leather jackets, Dr. Martens boots, and spiked mohawks. Overnight, punk caused a jagged splash across mainstream America.
The media couldn’t get enough of the phenomenon. Snarling, monochromatic photos of the new bands and their followers were splashed across magazines. They looked like stills from a post-apocalyptic film noir. Pouting damaged subjects, a transgressive sexuality, and a seething resentment against the world. The Ramones resembled a feral wolf-pack. Patti Smith, a sullen, androgenous misfit. Richard Hell, a vacant, haunted ghost.
But my favorite photograph from the time didn’t feature anyone famous. It wasn’t even of a band. Just a couple of punk groupies sat on a staircase. The girl in the foreground stares at us. She’s wearing a ripped mini-skirt, fishnets, and a wife-beater with the writing: “Beat Me, Bite Me, Whip Me, Fuck Me.”
But it’s the girl behind her that always caught my attention: silver, skin-tight, spandex pants. Cropped blonde hair, and a leather jacket opened to show a bare chest. She expresses no interest in the camera, but looks at the other girl with a combination of arousal and sadness.
For years, I wondered about this girl: who was she? What was her story? I found more pictures of her, and learned that her name lived up to expectations: she was Debbie Revenge. Part of a gang called the Revenge Girls. They ran a legendary punk clothing shop called Revenge in the East Village. They claimed to be the first punks to have colored and shaved hair, they turned up to every punk show, and kept pet tarantulas in a fish tank.
I learned that Debbie was also an adult film performer. In fact, she had two separate adult film careers. The first, as a punk in New York, the second fifteen years later in Los Angeles. When I came across pictures from her west coast films, I noticed a big difference. Gone was the young, pouting girl in the photograph. Debbie looked much older, ill, and strung out. It was striking and disturbing. What had happened to the girl in the photograph?
I tracked Debbie down – and heard her story. A remarkable journey from being a heroin-addicted underage prostitute in Times Square to her role in New York’s punk music scene, and what happened after that.
This is the story of Debbie Revenge.
This episode running time is 91 minutes.
Debbie Revenge: Photos
photos by Rich Verdi
Listening to Stiv Bator, photo by Eileen Polk
with Dee Dee Ramone
photos by Rich Verdi
with Richard Hell, photo by Eileen Polk
Revenge clothing store featured in Carter Steven’s film Punk Rock! (1977)
The Fifth Season
In our exclusive interview podcast with Debbie Revenge, she talks about working at ‘The Fifth Season’, a legendary gentleman’s club / brothel operating in New York in the 1960s and 70s. Here is a bonus article about the venue, first published in the July 9, 1973 issue of New York Magazine.
An Evening in the Nude With Gay Talese
By Aaron Latham
Gay Talese and his party crowded into an old Ford and headed across town. The car bounced and rattled like the one in which Gay had first discovered sex long ago in high school. But this car was different in one crucial respect. His back seat was missing. No matter. Gay had long since outgrown back-seat grappling as well as many other small-town sexual practices. He now knew fancier places to undress in. We were on our way to one of them.
Love in this car would have been torture—just riding in back was bad enough. Three of us squatted side by side on the car floor, like the monkeys who were blind, deaf, and dumb to evil. I felt a high-school-dance nervousness. I wondered how I would look. I was not at all sure that I would know the right steps. When we reached The Fifth Season at 315 West 57th Street, we all staggered out of the car. As we walked toward the nudist health spa, my knees, which had been cramped during the ride, felt weak.
We squeezed into an elevator and rode it down to the basement, where we filed down a long Freudian corridor. There were six of us in all: Gay was there with a girl named Janet whom he had met at George Plimpton’s Paris Review party four days earlier. I was with Sally Keil, who has been my girlfriend for the past two years. Gay had also invited a massage parlor manager named Stephan Weisenberger and a masseuse named Amy. At the end of the hall, Gay used his membership key to open a door behind which lay a brave nude world.
We all marched into a coed locker room. Amy, whose profession was taking off her clothes, was the first one to get undressed. Talese was almost as fast. The son of a tailor, Gay loves clothes, but he also loves to take them off. He slipped out of his cut-in tweed jacket, his turtleneck, his tweed trousers, and his jockey shorts. His 41-year-old body was in good shape. The rest of us watched Gay and Amy closely, as if to learn how to disrobe; then we haltingly followed their example.
We all wrapped towels around our waists and Gay led the way to the swimming pool. Amy shed her towel almost immediately and—wearing only a cigarette—walked up to a huddle of toweled men and asked them for a light. They looked as startled as Humphrey Bogart did in To Have and Have Not when Lauren Bacall appeared in the doorway of his hotel room with a similar request. Bogie had called Bacall “Slim.” None of the men staring at Amy’s chest called her “Slim.”
After glasses of wine, we all dropped our towels and dived into the heated pool. We played a beach-ball game while overhead a giant mirror ball rotated, reflecting light in every direction, reminding me of my high school’s senior prom. When we got out of the pool, we did not put our towels back on.
Gay led the way into the weight room showing it off proudly to his visitors. I picked up a barbell and found that my knees still felt weak. Amy, not interested in weights, picked up a long phallic cue and joined a game of eightball. Stephan showed Janet, the girl who had come with Gay, how to stand on her head. She toppled over several times but eventually managed to stand erect, her breasts seemingly confused by the reversal of gravity’s demands.
Gay surveyed his upside-down “date” and decided to teach her something more useful than a headstand. When she had removed her clothes, he had discovered that she was getting fat. Gay put her down on a mat and started her doing sit-ups. Hard work had made him famous and hard work could make her thin. Gay Talese still believes in that much of the American Dream. He could shed his clothes and many old practices but he is no more likely to shed his habit of work and self-improvement than the nuns who had once taught him were likely to shed their habits.
Gay, who is genuinely generous, always wants to help people, wants them to better themselves, wants them to succeed. If he is not playing girls’ gym teacher, then he is coaching less polished writers on their craft. His advice to other journalists is similar to the advice he gave Janet: strain for leanness.
When Amy finished her pool game, I wanted to play her, but there was one problem. The game cost a quarter and I did not have any pockets.
Gay, pursuing a cheaper entertainment, took Amy in his arms and they started to two-step, their dance floor bordered by barbells. The puffing fat girl paused in her sit-ups to watch them. Gay pulled Amy very close as the mirror ball spun on its axis.
Gay said, “This is the way we used to do it in high school.”
Amy stopped dancing. She wanted to ask Gay something. The question went back to last summer when he had managed the massage parlor in which she was employed.
“All the time you worked at The Middle Earth, you never came on to me. Why not?” Amy demanded.
Gay said, “It would have been bad for business.”
Amy reached out and took hold of Gay’s penis as calmly as if it had been a pool cue. She was ready to play a new game.
“I’m going to tear it off,” she said.
“I love it. I love it,” he said. “Do it. I have dreams about it. I have fantasies about it.”
Amy continued to tug gently at Gay as if his appendage were thee knob of some reluctant bureau drawer.
Gay kidded, “Next time I work there you can chain me and then whip me.”
Amy said, “I’d hit you with a chair.”
Gay said, “I love chairs, especially Chippendale.”
Amy gave another pull and repeated her threat: “I’m going to tear it off.”
A less specific tug had drawn Gay into massage parlor culture a little over two years before. The initial discovery had come one night when he was walking home from P.J. Clarke’s with his wife, Nan. She had been the first to see the second-floor sign which advertised LIVE NUDE MODELS, and she had known her husband well enough to know that he would see it too and want to go up. She already half-suspected that he might someday write a book about the world he found at the top of the stairs.
Gay not only wanted to go up, he wanted his wife to accompany him. Nan demurred. Gay gave here the keys to their 61st Street brownstone. While she walked home alone, he mounted the steps. Talese came back time and again, and he began thinking more and more bout massage parlors and other embodiments of sexual ferment in the country. The idea of a book about an American Sexual Revolution gripped him and would not let go. It would be an ambitious book, but all Gay Talese’s writing life his ambitions had grown with each project. He had started out doing sports pieces and later features as a reporter for The New York Times. Then he had moved on to become a contributing editor at Esquire, where his profiles of people like Floyd Patterson (“The Loser”), George Plimpton (“Looking for Mr. Hemingway”), Alden Whitman (“Mr. Bad News”, Joe Louis (“The King as a Middle-Aged Man”), and Frank Sinatra (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”) may have changed American journalism more than any other work done by any other writer in the past decade. Tom Wolfe and Normal Mailer were more brilliant, more dazzling, more !!!!!!, but for that very reason they could not really be copied. Their techniques without their intelligence became ludicrous. But Talese was different. Other writers could read his Esquire pieces and actually learn from them. He taught hem to shadow their subjects for days or weeks (the way he did), so that in the end it read like a nonfiction short story rather than a newspaper story.
After writing a long series of nonfiction Esquire articles which read like fiction, Talese was ready, by the late sixties, to attempt a nonfiction “novel.” He chose as his subject The New York Times, where he had worked for a decade. The result was The Kingdom and the Power, which sold for 85,000 in hardcover and 250,000 in paperback. Then, searching for a topic even bigger than The Times, he settled on the Mafia. The result was Honor Thy Father—an ironic title since his father did not want him to write about Italians who broke the law—which sold 200,000 in hardcover, 736,000 in Literary Guild and bargain editions, and 2.2-million copies in paperback. Ever since Gay had finished Honor Thy Father, he had been looking for a subject even bigger than organized crime. There could be only one: sex.
Talese discussed the idea with Doubleday. He eventually signed a two-book contract with the company. The first book was to be about sex in America, both in and out of massage parlors; the second was to be about Frank Sinatra. The total price agreed upon for two books was $1.2 million. Talese was paid $200,000 on signing. Doubleday then sold the paperback rights to the sex book to Dell for $700,000. Talese has not yet written one word. (Talese does not know what the new Supreme Court obscenity ruling might do to his plans.)
To research his book on America’s sex change, Gay went to work managing not one but two massage parlors. He served as the day manager at one and as the night manager at the other. Gay defends massage parlors by saying, “It is obviously better to be masturbated by massage girls than to masturbate yourself.”
His day would start about noon, when he would walk over to The Middle Earth, at 51st Street and Third Avenue, and open up. The Middle Earth stands around the corner from the Random House building where Nan Talese works as an editor. While Nan sat her desk on the eleventh floor of a glass-and-steel skyscraper, Gay would sit at this desk on the second floor of a brownstone. While up above Nan flipped through the pages of manuscripts, down below Gay would flip through the pages of a photograph album displaying pictures of the girls he had available. When the customer selected a photo he liked, Gay would call the girl’s name and then ask for $18. The girl chosen would appear and lead the customer into a massage room. Half an hour later, she would say goodbye to the customer, stuff the sheet in a garbage can that served a laundry hamper, and go to the bathroom to wash her hands.
At 7 p.m., Gay would leave The Middle Earth and proceed to his second job at The Secret Life, at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue, where he not only took the customers’ money ($15), but frisked them before he let them have a girl. He twice removed guns from men who had come for massages (one was a policeman). Gay held the guns at the desk until the men were finished with the girls. He did not want his book to turn into an In Cold Blood.
Amy relaxed her grip on Gay. She had been only kidding about wanting to injure him. He had hurt her pride by not making a pass at her at The Middle Earth, but she still considered him a good manager.
Amy said, “I doubt I would have stayed there if it hadn’t been for you.”
Gay, flattered, told her, “I always said you were the star—an Everyman’s Myrna Loy.”
Stephan, the massage parlor manager, said, “Gay, of all the managers, you are the only one who was sincere.”
Gay said, “There is nothing wrong with being a massage parlor manager if you do it well.”
And he had tried to do it well, applying his belief in hard work to his job as massage parlor manager just as he had always applied it to his writing. He had wanted The Middle Earth to be a success the way he had wanted The Kingdom and the Power and Honor Thy Father to be best sellers. If a customer came in and found his favorite girl occupied, Gay would charm him into waiting. If a neophyte crept in but lost his nerve and was on the verge of bolting, Gay would try to put him at his ease. Since Gay had worked so hard at the business, he had expected the girls to work hard, too. He had once fired a girl who didn’t, who sent customers away early.
Stephan said, “The girls were in competition with Gay. He dressed nice. They had to look nice, too.”
Amy reminded Gay that he had told her to go to an orthodontist. He had reasoned that with better teeth she would make a better masseuse. Gay had wanted to straighten Amy’s teeth the way he wanted to straighten out his friend David Halberstam’s prose. Halberstam listens to Talese and says he has learned a lot. Amy didn’t listen. Gay could not understand people who did not make an effort to be better.
Gay, a fight fan, told Amy, “I wanted you to go for the record. The record was eight sessions. I wanted you to do nine. You coulda been a contender.”
Talese and the people with whom he had once worked reminisced at pool side about the business:
Gay said, “Remember the minor tycoon from the garment district who would come in and give you girls panties as a tip? He brought them in a paper bag.”
Amy said, “He always wore see-through red underwear. At the end of a session, he would show me pictures of his wife and children.”
Gay said, “One guy we had at The Secret Life would have fit right into the Nixon Administration. Gray suit, gray tie, white shirt, tall. He walked the way I have seen men walk at the U.N. He came into The Secret Life, took me and aside and told me, ‘I want your most lovely girl.’ It so happened that that same day I had had a high fashion model come in with her portfolio. She had done television commercials. I hired her. When this man asked for my best girl, I nodded with great pride at her. The man said, ‘I want a massage but I need time to set up my equipment.’ He opened a beautiful attaché case. He had a camera. He also had lovely, lovely handcuffs, like from Tiffany’s. There were jewels. He had a small whip made by a fine saddle-maker. Also a dildo, but not a mail order dildo, a lovely dildo, beautifully done. He wanted the fashion model and he offered a $75 tip. She said sure but she wanted the money first. He was her first customer. I put them in the room nearest the desk. But what would I have done if there had been trouble, big macho massage parlor manager? After half an hour, the man came out just as natty as ever. He came back many times.”
Gay suggested that we adjourn to the steam room. Inside, the vapor in the air gave everything an unearthly quality like a movie vision of the afterlife: we might have been on a Hollywood set for Don Juan in Hell. Amy, who was given to excesses, turned the steam up higher and higher until it was so hot that we could not stand it any more. We retired to the showers.
Gay shared a spigot with Sally and washed her back. He seemed to have practiced hands. He had been to Esalen and had studied their massage book. (Once a woman had come into one of the massage parlors where he worked and asked for a session. Gay had taken her into one of the massage rooms and given her a rubdown.) I wondered what I would do if Gay’s hands moved beyond Sally’s back. They didn’t.
We left the showers and returned to poolside, where were met by a girl named Carol. She wore a gold cross which swung to and fro between the Gothic arches of her bare breasts. Carol sat down beside Gay. He playfully pulled her over on top of him, her crucifix bouncing against his chest.
As a boy growing up in Ocean City, New Jersey, Gay had watched the gold crosses hung on the chests of nuns. Their breasts, like their ideas of right and wrong, never moved. Ocean City was a small town on a small island in the Atlantic Ocean. It was a Methodist town. The catholic minority, most of whom were Irish, composed a small island within the larger island. The Italian Catholics formed an even smaller island within the Catholic community itself. Born in 1932, Gaetano (Gay) Talese grew up an Italian Catholic in an Irish Catholic school in a Methodist town, an island within an island within an island. From the very beginning, Gay was an outsider with a vengeance.
Since Gay was the son of Joseph Talese, a flamboyant tailor, he was even more of an outsider than he need necessarily have been. Gay says: “My father dressed elegantly in a town that did not appreciate elegance. He wore white suits. He had a mustache in a town where there were no mustaches. For a long time, I was embarrassed by him. He was different and he demanded that I be different at a time when I didn’t want to be different.”
When Gay tried to fit in, however, he was usually disappointed. He became an altar boy in the church, but the Irish priests gave him the worst Mass, 6 a.m., leaving him feeling betrayed. Gay says, “The Catholic Church was foreign to me because it was Irish.” Still, the son was embarrassed when his father would stalk out of Mass because he did not like something an Irish priest said. It would also embarrass Gay when he would discover his father down on his knees in the hallway at home. Gay says, “Other children caught their parents screwing. I caught my father praying.”
Joe Talese often made Gay uncomfortable, but the father was also his son’s greatest strength and perhaps the single largest influence on his life. Gay did poorly in parochial school, but the father did not blame his son, he blamed the school. As the owner of a dry-cleaning business, Gay’s father and the fathers of the church had an understanding: so long as Joe Talese’s son was passed from grade to grade, there would be no charge for cleaning the priests’ dirty linen. The church was willing to be bribed but it was not willing to enjoy it. Six out of eight years, Gay was promoted to the next “on trial.”
The message that came through to Gay as he was growing up in Ocean City was, as he says, “The rules weren’t for me.” The town’s blue laws were made by the Methodists and therefore were not for him; the Catholic Church’s commandments were enforced by dictatorial Irish priests and nuns and so were not for him; later on, the rules of fidelity would not be for him, nor the New York laws which rapped the knuckles of massage parlor managers.
After he finished parochial school, Gay entered the public high school, where he continued to do poorly. The summer before his senior year, Gay met a girl from Penn State University who had come to Ocean City to spend her vacation working as a waitress in one of the resort town’s restaurants. She was much like the girls he would later know who would come to New York to spend their college vacations working in massage parlors. The year was 1948. Gay borrowed a 1946 Ford and drove the Penn State girl to the beach. The decade was the fumbling forties and Gay did fumble, but by the time he got home he was no longer a virgin.
The high school principal tried to convince Joe Talese that his son was not college material, but the father would not listen. When Gay was turned down by Rutgers and many other nearby schools, the Talese family doctor, who had attended the University of Alabama, helped the uncertain student get into his alma mater. In the fall of 1949, Gay Talese entered Alabama, where he was once again an outsider—a Northerner in a Southern school.
Gay liked Alabama. He majored in journalism and his grades improved. He also fell in love for the first time. Gay had a Chrysler which was big enough for him and his girl to make love in the front seat. Later they registered under pseudonyms in motels.
In the spring of 1950, Gay made love for the first time to an absolute stranger. He was in St. Petersburg, where had gone to watch the Yankees in spring training. A pretty girl came up to him on the street and said, “Jerry—Jerry Coleman—I saw you play yesterday.” Gay decided to be the Yankee star for the girl. That night they slept together. (Years later, when Gary told Jerry Coleman the story, the player was furious.)
After blue-law Ocean City, Gay found the South both sensuous and liberating. In the Confederacy, he enjoyed the beginnings of a sexual emancipation. And he stopped going to Mass forever.
When Gay graduated from the University of Alabama, he reluctantly left his girlfriend and came to New York hoping to land a job on The New York Herald Tribune. He had to settle for a job as a copy boy at The Times. His girlfriend in Alabama though that he was a reporter. One night, when Gay came in carrying a stack of newspapers which he was supposed to distribute around the city room, he saw his Alabama girlfriend sitting on a couch waiting for him. He dropped his papers. The love affair ended with a thud.
Gay Talese’s interest in the girl whom he had brought to The Fifth Season seemed to end with the dropping of a towel. It was shed by a tall girl who had just appeared at poolside. She made a graceful nude dive. She was the only one in the water. I watched her solitary figure moving back and forth from one of the pool to the other. I looked away and when I looked back there were two figures swimming side by side, the girl and Gay.
Sitting by the pool, I noticed a scene that looked like a version of Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. A fully clothed man stood chatting with a gaggle of nude men and women. I learned that his name was Craig Nolan and that he operated The Middle Earth and The Victorian massage parlors and produced pornographic movies. Fifth Season regulars said that he never took his clothes off when he came there. This shy pornographer stood in the tropical heat of the health spa—wearing his turtleneck, his gray trousers, and his matching gray shoes—sweating.
After a few laps, Gay and the girl climbed out of the pool together. She turned out to be taller than he was. The girl’s name was Kathe.
Gay told the story of a girl from Bogotá, Colombia, who had worked at The Secret Life. One day a man came in, put down his money, and then looked at the girls available. Expressions of mutual horror passed over his face and the face of the girl from Bogotá. The man was her brother-in-law. He picked up his money and ran out. She cried hysterically. Still the girl from Bogotá continued to work at The Secret Life, although her secret had been found out.
Gay said, “She was breaking out of her Catholic upbringing.”
Talese, who was breaking out of his, went on to boast that some of his massage parlor customers were priests.
While Gay Talese chatted with nude girls at poolside, Nan Talese was at home with the couple’s daughters. She was reading manuscripts, paying bills, and helping the girls, Pamela, nine, and Catherine, six, with their homework. Gay says, “I revel in the fact that the children are not doing well in school.” Nan does not revel in that fact. She insists that she prefers an evening at home with her children to an evening skinny-dipping in a health spa.
Nan is always having to explain to people why she does not go where Gay goes, do what he does, and act the way he acts. One evening, Nan & Gay had dinner with Shirley MacLaine & Pete Hamill & Joni Mitchell & Warren Beatty, who all asked as many questions as children who had just heard about sex. What they wanted to know was how Nan was reacting to her husband’s liberation.
Shirley MacLaine took an equal-rights position: she seemed to imply that every infidelity on the part of the husband deserved an equivalent infidelity on the part of the wife.
Nan tired to explain that if she adopted Gay’s life-style, that would not be liberation but a new kind of subjugation. It would amount to her trying to be him. She did not want to take a lover for every lover Gay had, because to her sex “terribly private.” The discussion went on until the restaurant closed. That dinner has been re-enacted countless times since with a different cast but with more or less the same dialogue.
One evening during a dinner in the Talese apartment, Gay said, “I want to get into my subject and I did. Getting head from an N.Y.U student is not going to threaten a marriage of fourteen years.”
Nan said softly, “It was disturbing.”
The massage parlors disturbed Nan. The whole sex book has disturbed her. She has been especially disturbed by the threat it poses to her own privacy, for Gay’s project has made people embarrassingly curious about her.
One evening at a dinner party, which Nan gave for playwright Robert Anderson, the conversation was almost exclusively about Gay’s book. Gay told of interviewing the New York Knicks’ Walt Frazier; he had asked the player if he made love before games. Frazier had said yes, explaining that if he were tired at game time, he passed the ball more often. Gay went on to tell about asking Masters and Johnson how often they made love; they had refused to answer. Gay criticized the sex researchers for their lack of candor; Nan defended them. Gay said that he would have no objection to telling anyone how often he and Nan made love. Nan said that she would object to his telling or writing about her in bed. Gay argued for frankness, but Nan opposed it. He could not war her down. Nan was a velvet tank.
She told her guest, “There’s been a lot of talk about sex around here lately.”
Growing up in Rye, New York, the daughter of a banker-broker, Nan had not often heard sex discussed. When she was in her early teens, she had entered the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, hoping to become a nun. She says that what attracted her to a life in a nunnery was “the marvelous privacy, safety, and study.” She felt the opposite of an outsider.
But at Manhattanville College, she began to see philosophical contradictions in the church. By the time Nan met Gay in 1957, she had given up on the nunnery and the safety of chastity.
Gay—who says, “Sure, I would have liked to screw my mother”—thought Nan looked like his mother and the resemblance helped draw him to her. They dated for two years before deciding to marry. Gay had gone to Rome for The New York Times to cover the making of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. He asked Nan to join him there. When she arrived, Gay told her that he did not want to marry in a church. It was the impulse of a defiant outsider. He was flaunting his position as a fallen Catholic in the Catholic City, marrying outside the church in Rome. Nan went along with the idea, but when her parents found out they were horrified, blamed Gay, and never completely forgave him.
Nan and Gay both had careers. Nan’s Random House office, where she pursued her privacy and her study, took on something of the air of a cloister. Meanwhile, Gay had no office at all but simply a desk in the Times newsroom where a bedroom, opening off one of the editors’ offices, gave the shop something of the air of a brothel. Gay says that if drink were the vice of The Herald Tribune, then sex was the vice of The New York Times. When it comes to bedrooms, Gay was no longer an outsider.
Gay’s adventures even found their way into Lois Gould’s novel, Such Good Friends, which was published by Nan’s own Random House. Gay says that the character Timmy Spector was loosely based on him. Ms. Gould wrote of Timmy that he had “been sleeping around for years” but that he did not want a divorce because “he likes things this way, where he can come home when he’s through playing.” Nan says that she accepted Gay as he is years ago. Gay says that he would not mind his wife’s doing as he does, but his friends remember a near fight when someone made a pass at Nan.
In the past, Gay’s books have tended to draw him and his wife closer together. She would come home from her editing job and read whatever he had written that day aloud; then she would make suggestions. But the new book, the sex book, had been different. It has kept them apart. Gay told Nan at the beginning that, if she forced him to choose between his sex book and her, he would give up the book. But Nan says that she knew that if she precipitated such a showdown it would have broken up their marriage.
“I tried to get Nan to come to the massage parlor where I worked to have lunch,” Gay said one evening. “I thought she would enjoy the massage parlor, too.”
“It seemed indelicate for me to be there,” Nan said. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with the massage parlors, but they go against my own sense of privacy. Public sexuality is in every way antipathetic to my idea of sexuality. I can never imagine being a part of that world.”
In that world, the world of public sexuality, Gay, the outsider, is an insider, and Nan, the insider, is an outsider. She did, however, agree to accompany Gay to a nudist camp in New Jersey because she made a distinction between open sex and open nudity. Gay was proud of his wife, but he kept peering at her as if he expected her to dissolve.
“There was a point when you realized that this was not exactly my field,” Nan told Gay. “I was out of place.”
For Nan, the worst thing about the book is that it has taken Gay out of town so often. Last fall, he went to California to stay a few weeks and ended up staying almost half a year. Gay stayed on because he was seduced by a place called Sandstone, a nudist sex commune in Los Angeles’s Topanga Canyon. Sandstone had taken what Esalen had begun and carried it to its logical conclusion. Sandstone had institutionalized the orgy so that it was always there when you needed it. Sandstone stood as a monument to prostate power. Many of the openly copulating residents practiced the reverse of fidelity: they were strict about not making love to anyone to whom they had made love to before. It was like patterning your life on Oh! Calcutta! Gay moved in and stayed. Oh! Sandstone!
Gay told a reporter for Coast magazine, “I’m not that young anymore, and lately the most I’ve been doing is about once a day. But I’ve been engaged at least four times a day since I’ve been here. After a hundred times, it gets a little wearing.” But Nan could hear a kind of exhilaration in his voice when she talked to him on the telephone. When Gay returned to New York, his friends say that he was more easygoing than they had ever seen him. He had grown up in a resort town but he had had to go to California to learn to relax.
Gay says that his research on the sex book has not changed his sex life with his wife either for the better or for the worse. Nan, who tries to evade such questions, says that she is not sure and will only know later, in retrospect.
“After fourteen years, I still find her very exciting,” Gay says. “There is just no comparison.”
Gay and Nan are still very close and their marriage seems a strong gone. They are not only husband and wife, but friends. Still, Gay concedes that since he started working on his sex book, his life with Nan “has not been a honeymoon.”
Gay lounged beside The Fifth Season’s pool like some decadent John the Baptist waiting for new believers to baptize. He welled with the fervor of someone new to the faith. He seemed to want everyone to dive head first into the wet, warm sexual revolution.
Gay was preaching the advantages of life in a massage parlor to Kathe and Carol. He had left the trade months before but he was still trying to recruit new masseuses for The Middle Earth. The girls were interested.
“I’ll take you up to The Middle Earth tomorrow,” Gay promised them, “and I’ll give you a massage.”
For a year now, Gay has been inviting people to join this new world that he has discovered. Many have accepted his invitations, but they have been none of his closest friends. David Halberstam did once consent to come up The Middle Earth for a visit, but he was appalled.
“Halberstam wanted it to be like a dentist’s office,” Gay told his poolside flock. He added, “David takes himself so seriously. He sees himself as a part of history. His sense of self is second only to that of Charles de Gaulle—maybe.”
Since Gay has not been able to bring his celebrity world and his massage parlor world together, he commutes back and forth between the two. He hangs out with the social fringe at The Middle Earth to feed his outsider’s need to be among other outsiders, but he also hangs out at Elaine’s to satisfy his outsider’s need to be an insider. Actually the two places are not as unreconcilable as they might at first seem. In many ways, Elaine’s and The Middle Earth are similar, for both are characterized by middle-aged men and young girls, the one establishment massaging the body, the other massaging the ego. (Once Gay actually took a masseuse to Elaine’s, where she blended in perfectly. Later, he took her home to the folding couch next to his writing desk under the pretext of giving her copies of his books.)
Someone at poolside proposed an orgy. After all, it was almost midnight, The Fifth Season would be closing soon, and everyone needed something to do. A songwriter generously offered his nearby apartment. Gay led the way to the locker room where we were to suit up for yet another sexual outing.
I had been undressed long enough so that now putting on clothes was its own kick, but one of the orgy volunteers found getting dressed to be a trial. His name was Bernhardt Hurwood, the author of The Girls, the Massage, and Everything.
“Where is my underwear?” yelled Hurwood. “Who stole my underwear? Why should anyone want to take my wretched old underpants?”
We filed out of The Fifth Season and streamed onto 57th Street, Hurwood trying to catch up. Gay and two girls walked three abreast, one big, one middle-sized, and one small, like Papa Bear (in this case, Kathe since she was tallest), Mama Bear (Gay), and Baby Bear (Janet). I am one of those people who have never been invited to an orgy and I may have been looking forward to it. In front of Carnegie Hall, Gay took Sally and me aside. He said that the others felt that the presence of a reporter would inhibit them. Sally and I agreed to go home. While we waited for a taxi on the corner, we watched the others walk off arm in arm into the orgiastic night.
Mind blown. I’m listening to this now, and it is riveting.
We’re lucky Debbie is still with us. And we’re lucky to have Rialto Report to tell stories like hers.
THANKS TO BOTH!
Thank you so much Gerry!
You’ve done it again. Amazed at what – and who – you dig up. Every one is an absolute winner.
Thank you Debbie for telling your story.
Yours is quite a life, and your sense of humor is remarkable given everything you went through.
I wish you the best.
How clever to make this a podcast for Part 2.
Thanks for keeping us on our toes !
Awesome Article And Podcast Keep Up Good Work
Jesus Christ! You lead a harrowing life! I’m happy to hear you are in a better place and helping people with similar problems now. Thanks for sharing your story.
Such a candid and moving interview. I’m so happy Debbie has found her way…and is still alive to tell her tale.
Another great interview! April, I envy your being able to meet and talk with so many fascinating humans!
It is absolutely a perk of the job!
Great interview. I’ve been curious about Debbie for a long time. So nice to know she’s in a good place now.
btw, the Howie she mentions is almost certainly Howie Pyro from The Blessed who were known as the youngest CBGB band. Also briefly in The Blessed was Eileen Polk, who, in addition to being a photographer and one of the Revenge Girls, is the girl in the ”beat me, whip me” shirt. Interesting how it all fits together.
Thanks for the info Greg!
Thank you for giving Debbie a platform to share her story. I hung on every candid word she spoke.
Thanks for listening Dean!
The odds of her surviving this far are incredibly low. It’s a testament to the nature of this woman that she is still alive. I wish her nothing but good fortune and happiness going forward. She most certainly deserves it. Another smashing interview here on the site.
Thank you Sonny!
What a survivor! That story had it all. Thank you Debbie and great work April
I am constantly amazed at the difference between the efforts of the DVD re-issuers (slight, fawning, sophomoric, and amateurish) and the quality of the work that I find here (deeply intelligent, considered, thought-provoking)….. which is sad. Much effort is going into distributing remastering the films, but I’d rather read about them on this site, than waste any time on the commentaries or interviews on the DVD.
That said, I am grateful to everything that I find here every week!
Thank you Dave!
Thank you as always, April and Rialto Report, for this wonderful podcast. And thank you to Debbie. There’s nothing like hearing the real stories of the survivors, and Debbie is truly a survivor. She makes me appreciate life all the more, reminds me it’s never too late. Handed such a hard, grueling start and she still traveled, saw things we will never imagine ourselves, lived to tell the tale so we can try to experience those moments too, but more importantly, she helps set the atmosphere of those decades. I hope the best is still ahead of her.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment JL3!
I loved every minute of the podcast. I’m glad that Debbie is in a good place now. That you for sharing this with us, April.
We appreciate that Art!