Shame Agent – Don Bellmore (Ember Books #943, 1964)
Reading Shame Agent and knowing that it was an element behind the lankmark obscenity case Redrup v. New York, something any lawyer well-versed in censorship and the First Amendment knows, makes me amazed to think that this rather sexually tame and funny book was considered so offensive as to throw a man in jail for selling it — and had the feds known who wrote it, they may have gone after the author.
I’m not sure this is a George H. Smith Bellmore — he was the original Bellmore but I don’t know how long he kept at it or if other writers shared the name. It seems to whimsical for Bellmore and I have a feeling it could be William Knoles. It’s about Hollywood and models, which is Knoles territory.
Last July, Salon.com published an article about this case and Greenleaf/William Hamling’s role in how sexuality in books is no longer a Big Taboo No No:
In April, 1965, a New York City undercover police officer walked into a newsstand at 263 West 48th Street. The newsstand was, fittingly, located underground on a subway platform. The officer espied and requested by name two paperbacks—Lust Pool and Shame Agent. The newsstand clerk, a young man with the unlikely name of Robert Redrup, sold the officer the books for $1.65. As soon as the money changed hands, the officer arrested Redrup for selling obscene materials.
The officer, perhaps taking his job as public censor a little too personally, asked Redrup “How can you sell such garbage?”
Redrup shrugged—not easy to do in handcuffs—and replied with quintessential New Yorker blasé, “Eh, there’s worse stuff out there.”Neither the officer or Redrup knew it at the time, but they were about to make legal history.
Both Lust Pool and Shame Agent were published by Greenleaf Publications. Never heard of ‘em? I’m not surprised in a family on-line magazine like this. But Greenleaf at one time was the biggest publisher of so-called “adult books” in the United States—as many as five hundred titles a year. These were pulp fictions with sex scenes arriving at regularly scheduled intervals, like the trains at Redrup’s platform. The sex scenes themselves were tame by today’s standards; authors were forbidden from using either four-letter words or anatomically-correct terms:
Holman clenched his teeth and gripped her shoulders tight, and she cried out three times, a whimper of excitement following, and then they were thundering away together on a tornado of passion, and she dug her fingernails into the skin of his back and gasped out breathlessly, “Oh oh oh oh,” and Holman felt the explosion in his loins, and then they were lying quietly all of a sudden, limp and sweat-soaked, and he could feel the pounding of her heart when he touched her breasts, and the fireworks stopped. It was over.
Greenleaf was the brainchild of William Hamling. Hamling got his start in the Fifties publishing science fiction. But in 1959 the market for sci-fi collapsed: public tastes changed, and the genre was oversaturated. The same year Hamling came out with Nightstand Books, the first Greenleaf imprint. He had a stable of erstwhile unemployed science fiction writers banging out one-fisted tales for him under pseudonyms, including Harlan Ellison (“Paul Merchant”), Robert Silverberg (“L.T. Woodward”), and Earl Kemp (“Christine Hernandez”).
Nightstand Books, and all of Greenleaf’s subsequent imprints—Adult Books, Candid Reader, Companion Books, Corinth Regency, Corinth Suspense Library, Ember Books, Ember Library, Evening Reader, Greenleaf Classics, Idle Hour, Late Hour Library, Leisure Books, Midnight Reader, Nightstand, Nightstand Reader, Nitime Swapbook, Pillar Books, Pleasure Reader, Sundown Reader—sold well. Hamling became a millionaire. Even the writers got rich: Silverberg estimates at peak production he was banging out a novel a week at $1000 per—big money back in the Sixties.
There was just one catch: it was illegal—sort of. Publishing adult novels occupied a legal gray area, an “erroneous zone.” The boundaries of this zone shifted from month to month as court battles were won and lost. Hamling’s business model was to tiptoe right up to the edge without stepping over. He frantically reissued writers’ guidelines as words, subjects, and physical acts were ruled in and out of bounds. “Nipple,” for example, might be permissible one month, beyond the pale the next.
Hamling closely—and perhaps enviously—kept abreast of the legal battles of Grove Press and Barney Rosset. Rosset was the class of the field: he published, and defended in the courts, sexually explicit but incontrovertible literary classics like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer. Rosset’s background couldn’t have been more different from Hamling’s: the scion of a wealthy family, he took over a failing publishing house in 1951 because, like Charles Foster Cane, he thought it might be fun. But, as significant as Rosset’s legal victories were, they were merely foreplay.
Rosset established that a novel could be both sexually explicit and not obscene—provided a battery of established critics and marquee-name authors were willing to testify to its literary merit in court. Zealous District Attorneys, eager to make names for themselves as smut-fighting crusaders, continued to prosecute sexually explicit novels deemed without literary merit. Which brings us back to Lust Pool, Shame Police, and Robert Redrup.
(This is about the midway point of this piece. If this were a Greenleaf novel, it would be time for a sex scene. Do to space constraints, please insert your own fantasy here. When you’re finished, smoke a cigarette if you wish, then continue reading.)
With Hamling’s encouragement, Redrup pleaded not guilty and fought his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Redrup couldn’t afford to defend himself on his measly $75 a week salary; Greenleaf paid all of his legal expenses, eventually shelling out $300,000—an astronomical sum in those days. Hamling’s lawyers made a much broader argument than Rosset’s lawyers ever dreamed of: they proposed that “without literary merit” was an aesthetic judgment, best left up to adult individuals, not the courts. Who was to say some individuals wouldn’t find more literary merit in Lust Pool and Shame Agent than Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer?
On May 8, 1967, in Redrup v. New York, the Supreme Court agreed. The Court ruled 7-2 that written materials not sold to minors or thrust upon unwilling adults were constitutionally protected—and overturned Redrup’s conviction. Henceforth novels—good, bad, or sleazy—could not be banned for sex. It was Hamling, not Rosset, who ended censorship of the novel. Grove may have put such censorship in the coffin, but Greenleaf banged the lid shut.
Grove and Greenleaf had more in common than may be apparent at first blush. Grove published a line of Victorian novels under its Black Cat imprint—A Man With A Maid, The English Governess, The Pearl, The Lustful Turk, Diary of a Young Rakehell, etc.—to finance its legal battles. Grove called this “literary erotica”; Greenleaf, which published a similar line of Victorian novels, called this “spanking porn.” Greenleaf also published pioneering novels with homosexual themes like Song of the Loon that legitimate publishers, including Grove, were afraid to touch.
Today Redrup vs. New York is mostly forgotten except by legal scholars, for obvious reasons. Whatever their relative merits, Lust Pool and Shame Agent just aren’t in the same category as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer—although I would argue they’re more pleasurable to read. And Hamling can appear crass and commercial when compared with the patrician, quixotic Rosset; he is the skunk at the garden book club party.
But Hamling put his money and, ultimately, his liberty where his mouth was. He went to jail in 1970 for publishing The Illustrated Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography; he naively believed American citizens should be able to review the same evidence Federal commissions could and judge for themselves. And he provided gainful employment to a generation of science fiction writers who might otherwise have starved or, worse, gotten real jobs.
For better or worse, nobody cares about dirty books anymore. The battleground has shifted over the decades to evermore cutting-edge media: magazines, movies, videogames, the Internet, your iPhone. But it wouldn’t have gotten there if this early campaign had been lost. Attention must be paid. Longingly. Achingly. Deeply…It is over.
So what of the text? Let’s say you are an undercover cop in 1964 and you picked up Shame Agent, what would you think? The story is somewhat goofy and playful. There are lots of breasts. But it certainly is not as dark, sexually, as say Passion Bride or Crossroads of Lust, books from Hamling that were deemed obscene at one point.
Given that only half a century has passed since a book like this could land you behind bars and today there’s more sex on a prime time TV show where the whole family can watch is evidence of how much things have changed in this country in so little time, and gives thought on how they can change again, one way or the other.