Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Playboy

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 1

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Not long ago, I was browsing through Peter Manso’s enormous oral biography Mailer: His Life and Times, which has been one of my favorite reads for years, when I came across a passing reference to Norman Mailer’s friendship with the attorney Roy Cohn. Mailer and Cohn couldn’t have been less alike in their politics, but they found each other useful, and they were linked by the late publisher Si Newhouse, who passed away just last month. Cohn doesn’t figure prominently in any of Newhouse’s obituaries, but the two of them first met as teenagers at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx and remained lifelong friends. In the book Newhouse, Thomas Maier explains the Mailer connection:

With Cohn’s help, Norman Mailer was convinced to become a contributor to Newhouse’s Parade magazine and later to sign a lucrative book contract with Random House…Si [had] expressed a desire to sign up Mailer, hoping to add that lustrous name to his publishing house’s stable of well-known authors…Cohn relayed this version of Si’s intentions to Peter Manso, a writer who then was close with Mailer and would later write a biography about him. Si Newhouse wanted Mailer to write a magazine piece about his views on capital punishment, Cohn told Manso…”He’ll pay cash,” Cohn told Manso about the Newhouse offer. “We’ll give him seven thousand dollars for the piece.”

Maier doesn’t mention how the two men happened to know each other, but they had evidently met when Manso was assigned to interview Cohn for Playboy in 1981—which is a detail that I’ll explore further in a moment.

Cohn took obvious pride in serving as a power broker, with what Maier describes as a talent for “making things happen,” and he systematically cultivated his famous contacts. After Mailer wrote the article on capital punishment and another piece on Russia, the two men became friendly, despite what Cohn saw as Mailer’s Soviet sympathies. Maier writes:

“I think Norman was always a little embarrassed about his association with Roy—he didn’t want to be too public with it,” said Peter Fraser, Cohn’s companion during the early 1980s when Roy’s personal life became an open secret. Cohn became involved in other business matters with Mailer. He rented a small cottage for himself and Peter Fraser in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The house was owned by Mailer and was next to a larger house where Mailer’s family stayed during the summer. On some summer evenings, Cohn and Mailer would hold court at a large dinner shared by family and friends.

Manso, who was living with Mailer at the time, goes even further, recounting that Cohn wanted to join their plan to turn the house into a condo, securing an interest-free loan of $300,000 from Si Newhouse for “all of us.” When Manso told Mailer about the deal, the author responded: “It’s about time I had a patron.” This is already pretty good gossip, but it gets better. In 1985, according to Manso, the Mailers attended Cohn’s fifty-ninth birthday party, which had a guest list that included Si Newhouse, Roger Stone—yes, that Roger Stone—and Donald Trump. After Cohn died the following year, the Mailers didn’t go to the memorial service, but a number of other prominent friends did, as Manso relates: “Donald Trump sat in the audience weeping with Cohn’s lover, Peter Fraser, and the ubiquitous Si Newhouse.”

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I want to focus for now on the thread between Newhouse, Cohn, and Trump. Cohn’s mentorship of Trump has been closely scrutinized, including by Peter Manso, who wrote a reminiscence for Politico last year about a party at Cohn’s house in 1981, at which he found himself seated next to “the boyish-faced real estate mogul, habitué of Le Cirque and staple of Page Six.” (In Manso’s account, Trump inquired of him: “Roy says you live on the Cape, and that you’re writing a book about Norman Mailer. Norman’s smart but a little crazy, right?” He then asked Manso whether or not he should do an interview with Playboy, which he eventually did, kicking off what became a long association between him and the magazine.) What’s more surprising is that Newhouse’s friendship with Cohn and its obvious relevance to Trump hasn’t received more attention. Last year, a profile in The New Yorker—which Newhouse still owned at the time—highlighted the publishing magnate’s role in the writing of The Art of the Deal. As the reporter Jane Mayer relates:

The idea of Trump writing an autobiography didn’t originate with either Trump or [ghostwriter Tony Schwartz]. It began with Si Newhouse, the media magnate whose company, Advance Publications, owned Random House at the time, and continues to own Condé Nast, the parent company of this magazine. “It was very definitely, and almost uniquely, Si Newhouse’s idea,” Peter Osnos, who edited the book, recalls. GQ, which Condé Nast also owns, had published a cover story on Trump, and Newhouse noticed that newsstand sales had been unusually strong.

Cohn’s name isn’t mentioned here at all. Yet it’s hard to believe that he didn’t have anything to do with what turned out, in the end, to be a far more significant literary deal than the one that he had pulled off a few years earlier by luring Mailer to Random House.

For a connection that exists in plain sight, this angle remains strikingly unexplored. The only reference to it that I can find online is a tantalizing quote from Thomas Maier himself, who said last month in an interview with Bloomberg: “Newhouse’s fondness for Trump, the link with Roy Cohn and the way in which the Newhouse publications promoted Trump over the last twenty years really helped make him a nationally known figure and is one of the great unknown stories of the Trump rise to power.” I can’t help but agree, and while it’s tempting to suspect that Newhouse’s influence kept the story from being fully investigated during his lifetime, it’s also possible that the subsidiary players remained genuinely unaware of it. Mailer’s case provides an instructive parallel. After describing Mailer’s big contract with Random House and how his first novel with Newhouse, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, was excerpted in the resurgent Vanity Fair, Maier writes:

None of the Newhouse editors, however, were aware of Si’s guiding hand or the help of Roy Cohn in securing Norman Mailer’s services. “Upon reading the manuscript it was my idea, purely my idea, to buy it for Vanity Fair,” insisted Leo Lerman, then Vanity Fair’s editor, in describing how he decided to run excerpts of Tough Guys after talking with Mailer’s Random House editor, Jason Epstein.

Cohn was content to remain in the shadows, and he had reason to take satisfaction in the service that he had rendered to his friend and new neighbor. Mailer had suffered from money problems for decades, and the deal with Newhouse offered him an important source of stability, as his editor Jason Epstein observed: “I sensed that what Norman really wanted was to clear the decks and have nothing to worry about financially for the rest of his life.” Trump was at the beginning, not the end, of his career, and what Cohn and Newhouse had to offer him was rather different, but no less precious—and the consequences would be immense. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

The playboy and the playwright

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In 1948, the playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson spent four months teaching a legendary writing course at the University of Illinois. His lectures were published as The Human Nature of Playwriting, a book that until recently was remarkably difficult to find—I ended up photographing every page of it in the reading room of the Newberry Library. (A digital edition is now available for eight dollars on Kindle, which is a real bargain.) It’s as much about living a meaningful life as it is about becoming a good writer, and my favorite passage is Raphaelson’s praise of those who live by their wits:

I intend to gamble to my dying day on my capacity to provide bread and butter, a roof and an overcoat. That kind of gambling, where you pit yourself against the primary hazards of life, is something I believe in. Not merely for writers, but for everyone. I think security tends to make us timid. You do well at something, you know you can continue doing well at it, and you hesitate about trying anything else. Then you begin to put all your energies into protecting and reinforcing what you have. You become conservative and face all the dangers of conservatism in an age when revolutions, seen and unseen, are occurring every day.

One of the students in his class was the young Hugh Hefner, who was twenty-two years old. And the more I think about Hefner’s implausible career, which ended yesterday, the more I suspect that he listened intently to Raphaelson, even if his inner life was shaped less by the stage than by the movies. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese writes of Hefner’s teenage days working as an usher at the Rockne Theater in Chicago: “As he stood watching in the darkened theater, he often wished that the lights would never turn on, that the story on the screen would continue indefinitely.”

And Hefner’s improbable existence starts to make more sense if see him as at the star of a movie that he was furiously writing in real time. These impulses were central to his personality, as Talese notes:

Not content with merely presenting fantasy, [Hefner] wished to experience it, connect with it, to synthesize his strong visual sense with his physical drives, and to manufacture a mood, a love scene, that he could both feel and observe…He was, and had always been, visually aware of whatever he did as he did it. He was a voyeur of himself. He acted at times in order to watch. Once he allowed himself to be picked up by a homosexual in a bar, more to see than to enjoy sex with a man. During Hefner’s first extramarital affair, he made a film of himself making love to his girlfriend, a 16mm home movie that he keeps with cartons of other personal documents and mementos, photo albums, and notebooks that depict and describe his entire personal life.

Talese observes elsewhere that as Playboy grew in popularity, Hefner dressed the set with the obsessiveness of an experienced stage manager:

The reclusive Hefner was now beginning to reveal himself in his own pages…by inserting evidence of his existence in the backgrounds of nude photographs that were shot exclusively for Playboy. In a picture of a young woman taking a shower, Hefner’s shaving brush and comb appeared on the bathroom sink. His tie was hung near the mirror. Although Hefner was now presenting only the illusion of himself as the lover of the women in the pictures, he foresaw the day when, with the increasing power of his magazine, he would truly possess these women sexually and emotionally; he would be realizing his readers’ dreams, as well as his own, by touching, wooing, and finally penetrating the desirable Playmate of the Month.

“[Hefner] saw himself as a fantasy matchmaker between his male readers and the females who adorned his pages,” Talese writes, and the logical conclusion was to assume this role in reality, as a kind of Prospero composing encounters for real men and women. In The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson advises:

If you start writing and suddenly it isn’t going where you want it to go, what you expected to happen can’t happen, and you are within five pages of your second-act curtain and you’re stuck, there is a procedure which I have found invaluable. I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character, and by “major” I mean a scene in which they are in conflict and explore each other…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.

Hefner clearly conceived of the Playboy Mansion as a stage where such “thorough exploration” could take place, and its habitués included everyone from Gene Siskel to Shel Silverstein. The Playboy offices also attracted a curious number of science fiction writers, including Ray Russell and my hero, Robert Anton Wilson, who answered the letters in the Playboy Forum as an associate editor for five years. (Wilson writes in Cosmic Trigger: “You all want to know, of course, does Hef really fuck all the Playmates, and is he really homosexual…We have no real inside information—but our impression is that Hef has made love to a lot of the Playmates, though by no means all of them, and that he is not homosexual.”) On September 2, 1962, after participating in a symposium on the future, Robert A. Heinlein attended a party at the mansion, of which he recalled:

This fabulous house illustrated a couple of times in Playboy—and it really is fabulous, with a freeform swimming pool in the basement, a bar under that with a view window into the pool, and all sorts of weird and wonderful fancies…I saw my chum Shel Silverstein…I got into a long, drunken, solemn discussion with Hefner in the bar and stayed until 7:30am—much too late or early, both from health and from standpoint of proper behavior of a guest. I like Hefner very much—my kind of son of a bitch. No swank at all and enjoying his remarkable success.

But it can be dangerous when a man creates a dream, walks into it, and invites the rest of us to follow. Hefner sometimes reminds me of John Updike—another aspiring cartoonist who took the exploration of extramartial sex as his artistic territory—but he’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of another famous figure. Talese writes: “Although there were numerous men who were far wealthier than Hefner, the public was either unaware or unenvious of them since they rarely appeared on television and never called attention to the fact that they were enjoying themselves.” It’s hard to read these words now without thinking at once of Donald Trump, whose victory over Ted Cruz in the primaries Hefner hailed as “a sexual revolution in the Republican Party.” Like Trump, Hefner became a caricature of himself over time, perhaps failing to heed Raphaelson’s warning: “When you make money and are known as being a competent and well-heeled fellow, it’s natural to accept yourself at that value and to be horrified at the thought that you should ever again be broke—that is, that anyone should know of it.” And Talese’s description of Hefner in the sixties carries a new resonance today:

Hugh Hefner saw himself as the embodiment of the masculine dream, the creator of a corporate utopia, the focal point of a big-budget home movie that continuously enlarged upon its narcissistic theme month after month in his mind—a film of unfolding romance and drama in which he was simultaneously the producer, the director, the writer, the casting agent, the set designer, and the matinee idol and lover of each desirable new starlet who appeared on cue to enhance, but never upstage, his preferred position on the edge of satiation.

This sounds a lot like our current president. Trump had a long association with Playboy, and while we may never know how much of his personality was shaped in some way by Hefner, I suspect that it was just as profound as it was for countless other American males of his generation. It might seem a stretch to draw the line from Raphaelson to Hefner to Trump—but we’re all part of the play now. And the curtain hasn’t fallen yet.

The cyborg on the page

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Locutus of Borg

In an excellent anthology of his short stories, the author Joe Haldeman describes an exercise that he used to give to his students at M.I.T., where he taught a course on science fiction for many years. Reading it, I found myself wishing—for just about the first time ever—that I could have taken that class. Here’s what Haldeman says:

For this assignment, I gave each student a random number between 8 and 188, which corresponded to page numbers in the excellent sourcebook The Science in Science Fiction, by Peter Nicholls, with David Langford and Brian Stableford. They had to come up with a story using that scientific device or principle. I further restricted them by saying they had to use a story structure from one of the stories in our textbook The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg. The point of the assignment was partly to demonstrate that art thrives under restrictions. (It was also to give them a starting point; many had never written fiction before, and a blank page or screen is a terrible thing.)

Haldeman notes that he always does his own assignments, at least to demonstrate the concept for a couple of pages, and that in this case, he was given the word “cyborg” and the structure of Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon.” The result was a solid short story, “More Than the Sum of His Parts,” which was later published in Playboy.

Not surprisingly, I love this idea, for reasons that longtime readers of this blog will probably be able to guess. Constraints, as Haldeman observes, are where fiction flourishes. This partially because of the aforementioned tyranny of the blank page: any starting point, even a totally random one, is better than nothing at all, and a premise that is generated by chance can be more stimulating than one of great personal significance. (When you’re trying to write about something important to you, you’re often too intimidated by the possibilities to start, while it’s easy to get started on a premise that has been handed to you for free. As Trump might put it, what have you got to lose?) There’s also the fact that a kind of synergy results when you pair a story structure with a concept: the dialogue between form and content yields ideas that neither one could have generated in isolation. Nearly every story I’ve ever written has resulted from a pairing of two or more notions, and I’ve developed a fairly reliable intuition about which combinations will be the most fruitful. But I haven’t really experimented with structure in the same way, which is why this exercise is so useful. When I brought it up with Haldeman, he said that the assignment is designed to make students think of form as a tool—or a toy—that can be explored and enjoyed independently of plot, which is a point subtle enough that a lot of writers, including me, never get around to playing with it. But when I take my scheduled break in a couple of months to work out a new story, I’m going to give it a try.

Schema for Joyce's Ulysses

It’s revealing, too, that the story that Haldeman uses to illustrate his point is about a cyborg, since that’s what we’re really talking about here—a mixture of artificial and organic parts that theoretically forms a single viable organism. (In the actual story, it doesn’t turn out well.) Sometimes you start with a few components from off the shelf, or an assortment of discrete pieces of information, and once you start to combine them, they knit themselves together with newly grown tissue. In other cases, you begin with something more natural, like the chain of logical events that follow from a dramatic situation, and then add parts as needed. And incorporating a bit of randomness at an early stage results in solutions that never would have occurred to you otherwise. There’s a famous design exercise in which students are told to draw the human body in a state of movement, and then to construct an apparatus that will support the body in that position. At the end, the teacher points out that they’ve been designing furniture. That’s how writing works, too. Writers are frequently drawn to metaphors from carpentry, as when Gabriel García Marquez compares writing to making a table, or when José Saramago says that any chair he makes has to have four stable feet. But the result is more interesting when you don’t think in terms of making a table or a chair, but of creating a support system that will hold up the bodies you’ve set in motion. A cyborg carries his essential furniture with him at all times, stripped down to its purest functional form. And that’s also true of a story.

If every story is a cyborg, there’s also a range of approaches to how visible the parts should be. Some wear their artificial components openly, like Locutus of Borg, so that the result is a style in itself, while others keep their enhancements hidden. A book like Joyce’s Ulysses, with its endless experiments and pastiches in form, looks like a manufacturer’s catalog, or a fashion spread in which the same handful of models show off various possible outfits. I don’t recall offhand if Joyce assigned the various epic episodes, literary styles, and symbols to the chapters of Ulysses at random, but I’d like to believe that he did, simply because it’s such a pragmatic tool: “Let the bridge blow up,” Joyce once said, “provided I have got my troops across.” Sometimes the writer takes pleasure in making the joints between the pieces as invisible as possible, and sometimes it’s more fun to play up the artifice, or even to encourage the reader to spot the references—although a little of this goes a long way. It’s a matter of taste, which is another reason why the use of randomness at an early stage can be a good thing: the more detached you are from the big conceptual blocks of the plot, the more likely you are to make the right decisions when it comes to the details. If you’re the kind of writer who wants to crank out a story a week for a year, as Ray Bradbury once advised, Haldeman’s exercise is invaluable. (As Bradbury says: “I dare any young writer to write fifty-two stories that are all bad.”) I wouldn’t want to take the same approach for every story, since there comes a point at which the author himself starts to resemble a machine. But when used wisely, it’s a nice reminder that every story is more than the sum of its parts.

Written by nevalalee

August 25, 2016 at 8:56 am

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