Al Goldstein: Screw You!
On November 4, 1968, a sassy new tabloid newspaper appeared on New York newsstands. Screw cost twenty-five cents and was devoted entirely to sex and porn. Because of the growing demand for underground sex information, Screw was an instant success.
After ten issues, Screw was selling over 30,000 copies a week. Newsstand sales consistently topped those of Time, Life, and Playboy. By the early Seventies, Screw was selling 150,000 copies every week. And in 1973, when the paper ran a story called "Jackie Kennedy's Million Dollar Muff " (featuring paparazzi photos of Jackie Kennedy naked on the Onassis yacht), the issue sold over 500,000 copies.
Screw was a raunchy and often disgusting publication. It was also the essential guide to New York's fast-growing sex scene. Screw reviewed everything: sex clubs, massage parlors, peep shows and porn films, helping newcomers and seasoned pervs alike find "quality smut."
I had mixed feelings about Al Goldstein. Screw was filthy and disgusting, and Goldstein was a poster boy for "crude and obnoxious." On the other hand, Screw featured great writers, cool graphic art, and bawdy humor that cracked me up.
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When it came to freedom-of-the-press, Al Goldstein was fearless. Al even stood up to the Mafia ("I make porn respectable," he bragged). It takes guts to do that. Al was arrested dozens of times by Mayor Lindsay, and spent countless days in jail. Goldstein took everything they threw at him, and never gave an inch. I admired that.
Each week, Screw's editorial page would run a scathing, scatalogical rant by Goldstein. In the Sex Toys section, products like the Acu-Jack 600 Masturbation Sleeve would be carefully (and hilariously) reviewed. The editorial content was lively, funny, and often quite excellent. Marco Vassi extolled the joys of shit eating, and critic Michael Perkins coaxed hilarious stories from outlaw writer Terry Southern. At its best, Screw was a hip, cutting-edge voice with this loud message: Sex Is Fun!
In December, 1974, Al Goldstein and Jim Buckley were served a 12-count federal indictment charging them with mailing obscene material to Kansas. (Working with the FBI, postal officials in Wichita had ordered several copies of Screw.) The Feds were determined to destroy Goldstein after Screw ran a feature titled, "Is J. Edgar Hoover a Fag?"
Al Goldstein had great lawyers, and had won every lawsuit to date. But this federal indictment was serious. The Feds had chosen super-conservative Kansas as the best place to destroy the New York porn king. A guilty verdict could put Al Goldstein in a high- security federal prison for the rest of his life. When the Wichita trial began, the New York Times assigned me to photograph Goldstein for a feature in the Sunday Magazine. My editor said Screw's free-speech battle raised questions about freedom of the press that concerned all publishers, even the New York Times.
The Screw office had a security guard, and I saw a shotgun propped against the wall behind Goldstein's desk. Al was fat—300 pounds at least. The office smelled like cigar smoke and greasy food. Next to Al's desk stood a ten-foot Statue of Liberty—giving the world the finger. My favorite photo from the shoot was this ominous picture of Goldstein holding a hangman's noose.
Al Goldstein and his partner Jim Buckley were convicted on all charges. Miraculously, the decision was reversed after arguments from Al's crack legal team, who pointed out serious government misconduct. A retrial was held in the fall of 1977 in Kansas City, Kansas—and the second trial resulted in a deadlocked jury. Al Goldstein walked free, but the strain on his health and finances took its toll. In October, 2003, Screw ceased publication after twenty-seven years and eighteen hundred issues.
Today Goldstein, once worth over ten million dollars, is destitute and in poor health. His vigorous defense of First Amendment rights, however, gives his legacy a special meaning to free speech enthusiasts. Thank you, Al Goldstein. You were crude and obnoxious—but you were an erotic pioneer, and I salute you.