COMES NATURALLY #54
Spectator Magazine - January 10, 1997
(c) David Steinberg
Two Wonderfully Unglamorous Looks at Prostitution in Other Times; Eight Years After Marco Vassi
Photographing The Whores of Storyville
Nobody knows much about E. J. Bellocq, an unexceptional commercial photographer who lived in New Orleans shortly after the turn of the century. He took a lot of pictures of boats to pay the rent. He was an odd, indrawn, misshapen man, hydrocephalic and a dwarf. According to another photographer who knew Bellocq, "he had a terrific [French] accent, spoke in a high-pitched voice, staccato-like, and when he got excited he sounded like an angry squirrel."
The one thing that is known about Bellocq for sure is that he liked to hang out in Storyville, New Orleans's legalized red light district that thrived from 1896 (when it was set up by an anti-vice New Orleans alderman, Sidney Story, in an attempt to limit prostitution to one section of town) until it was closed down in 1917.
Bellocq, the misshapen outcast, seems to have found a home of sorts in the unpretentious and forgiving surroundings of red light counterculture. According to one woman who worked in Storyville and was interviewed about Bellocq some fifty years later, "he always behaved nice. You know, polite.... I don't know if he ever wanted to do nothing but look."
In any case, around 1912 Bellocq took a remarkable series of portraits of various prostitutes from Storyville. The glass plates were discovered after Bellocq's death and eventually purchased by photographer Lee Friedlander, who found them quite remarkable. In 1970 Friedlander curated a show of Bellocq's Storyville photos for New York's Museum of Modern Art. A book of the photos, Storyville Portraits, was also published by the Museum at that time. This fall, fifteen of the photos were shown again at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, commemorating the publication of a beautiful new, enlarged printed edition of Bellocq's images, Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans (Random House, 84 pages, $60).
There is nothing particularly glamorous or titillating about Bellocq's photographs and, indeed, nothing particularly glamorous or titillating about the women who are its subjects. This is precisely what makes the photos so extraordinary. We see the women of Storyville, not all dolled up for their clients, but simply at home, being themselves. We see a variety of women -- younger, older, heavier, thinner, clothed, unclothed, seductive, distant, joyous, troubled, relaxed in front of the camera, decidedly ill-at-ease. We see the uninflated, yet powerful, presence of a group of women who, simply enough, worked as prostitutes in New Orleans shortly before World War I. We see these women photographed honestly and respectfully, appreciated for simply being who they are, notably separate from the glamorization and vilification, the whore stigma, through which prostitutes are constantly distorted by mainstream culture.
A woman lies on an ironing board set up behind her house, dressed in a loose shirt, knickers, and dark stockings, kicking her heels while playing with her miniature dog. Two women sit on a flowered rug, sharing a bottle of wine and playing cards. A pretty woman sits in her window, nude and relaxed, smiling at the camera. A woman sits quietly in a plain wooden chair against a rumpled, makeshift backdrop, her smock off her shoulders, her hands tucked protectively under her arms, looking thoughtfully off to one side.
The surroundings in the photos are generally meager, even dismal --plain rooms with flowered wallpapers, sometimes minimally decorated with college pennants or small mementos. The quality of the photographic plates reinforces the mood. Many are scratched, peeling, stained, or broken. Some have sections that are missing entirely. In most of the nude photographs, the women's faces have been crudely, almost violently, scratched away entirely -- perhaps by Bellocq himself, perhaps to protect their identities. And yet there is a basic kind of grounded sensuality that the women in these photos convey, quite different from the affectedly mirthful conventions of the classic pinup or the coy French postcard. It is the sensuality of women at ease with themselves and with the sexuality of their bodies, an ease that was hardly typical of women of their time.
Women in 1912, after all, did not sit around, quietly nude and relaxed, before a camera, before a stranger, before anyone -- generally not even before their husbands. Except, of course, in Storyville. Except when they were sitting for Bellocq. Women did not lie in front of others, their calves covered only in dark stockings, kicking their feet in the air, playfully cuddling their pets, as purely innocent as this may seem today. Except in Storyville, for Bellocq. Only here could a woman in short dress and dark stockings display her bare thighs without embarrassment while looking straight ahead and saying with no apology, "Here I am, with my body, with my sexuality, what of it?"
However strange Bellocq may have been -- maybe precisely because he was so strange, because he was so much of a fellow outcast -- he had the sensitivity, the unequivocal acceptance, the appreciation, to allow these women to feel at home being seen through his eye and through his lens. And as a result, eighty years later, we have the opportunity to see these women, to see something about who they were, that would otherwise have disappeared with them into the grave.
Bellocq is not the first artist to be fascinated by prostitutes, by the subculture of the sex for money underworld. Toulouse-Lautrec is well known for hanging around Parisian whores, as is Henry Miller, but there are dozens of others as well. It was often only prostitutes who would pose nude and who thus came to be immortalized by painters and photographers alike. And innumerable prostitutes have become major characters in literature because they have been significant figures in a writer's life.
This is hardly surprising. Separate from affected glamour and separate from the public's horrified reaction, prostitution (like pornography) has always been an arena in which people are given permission to acknowledge and explore their sexual and sensual natures free of the tight constraints of cultural propriety. Throughout Western history, it is prostitution that has provided -- together with its very real and undeniable problems, difficulties, and abuses -- a relatively judgmentfree, sex-affirming alternative to a culture that continuously drives unapologetic sexual existence and expression underground.
Soiled Doves of the Western Frontier
Another unique and delightful factotum of prostitution history that happens to have crossed my path is a wonderfully folksy and unpolished little volume by a woman named Anne Seagraves, Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West (Wesanne Publications, P.O. Box 428, Hayden, Idaho 83835, 176 pages, paperback, $11.95 postpaid and autographed). My partner, Helen, discovered this unpublicized gem of a book in a store at the Reno airport (of all places) and brought it home to me as an affectionate acknowledgment of my ongoing fascination with sex-for-money issues, culture, and practice. And what an utterly unique and delightful gem Soiled Doves turns out to be.
I know as little about Anne Seagraves as the world knows about E. J. Bellocq, except that she lives somewhere in Idaho, looks like she could be anybody's very proper rural aunt or mother, and has written a number of other books about frontier women, with titles like High-Spirited Women of the West, Women Who Charmed the West, and Women of the Sierra. But if Soiled Doves is any indication, Seagraves is the kind of undogmatic, inherent feminist that has always been the real backbone of the movement for women's rights, the sort of woman's women who puts self-consciously politically correct, Feminist-with-a-capital-F sorts to shame, at least in my book.
Soiled Doves is a collage of historical fragments, anecdotes, and tidbits about prostitution on the Western frontier, which is to say, about the culture of frontier women, period, since most of the women on the frontier before it was tamed, settled, and made safe for properly genteel women were indeed prostitutes.
To Seagraves, prostitution was very much a vibrant part of frontier culture and commerce, a part of the story of the West and a part of women's history that has been rudely obliterated as a result of its supposedly "unseemly" nature. "The 'soiled doves' and red light districts," she proclaims proudly, "were as much a part of the early West as the piles of mine tailings, canvas shacks and garish saloons that dotted the landscape.... These colorful, if not socially acceptable, 'ladies', dressed in black silk stockings with scanty costumes [or] in elaborate gowns with jewels... brightened the drab frontier with their female chatter and drove the male population wild."
Frontier prostitutes, Seagraves notes, came West for the very same reasons that men did: in search of adventure and riches, or to escape the claustrophobic rules of the East. AS far as Seagraves is concerned, these are brave, spirited women who deserve to have their stories told as richly and flamboyantly as the stories of their better known male counterparts.
And tell their stories she does, in excited and dramatic tones, whether the stories are triumphant or, more typically, tragic. Some of Seagraves's celebrated doves are shrewd businesswomen who built financial empires providing services to men in elegant surroundings, and who often went on to make generous contributions to their communities, establishing schools, churches, and hospitals with their garnished wealth. Others are flamboyantly rebellious and often self-destructive characters who lived wild and loved wild, took advantage of some while being taken advantage of by others, and who, more often than not, died penniless. Yet others are the legions of pathetically broken souls whose uncertain lives funneled steadily downward from early moments of high adventure through declining years of alcohol and physical abuse, to destitution or suicide. There are even the young girls bought from their parents in China and then sold to the highest bidder in California, condemned to brutal abuse for their entire lives.
Seagraves does not paint a pretty picture of frontier prostitution. She is certainly no romantic. But she does convey a sense of heroic appreciation for all these women, wise and foolish, exiled from even the bastard proprieties of the frontier, making their way while "caught in a situation over which they had no control." Women on the frontier, she notes sympathetically, "were offered only the most menial and lowest paid work. For a young woman who was all alone, over-worked and desperate, prostitution was the logical solution."
Although this book is neither sophisticated nor polished nor overtly ideological, it consistently puts its attention where socially conscious attention is due, pointing out the gender bias and cultural hypocrisy that prostitute rights advocates are constantly decrying. Seagraves notes, for example, that
"although the madams were among the early entrepreneurs, historians often fail to recognize their significant contributions to the Western economy. These enterprising women, who played an important role within their communities, were never invited to join or attend a commercial club. They were not accepted by society, and, in most case, denied the protection of the law, due to their profession. [Yet] collectively their businesses employed the largest group of women on the frontier. They supplied a home for thousands of females who would otherwise have been forced to live on the streets."
And further that
"from the parlor house at the top of the profession, to the moral and physical decay of the streetwalker, the western prostitute always walked a lonely path. Although these women were considered immoral, it must be remembered that it was acceptable for a man to visit a prostitute, but the woman was condemned for being one."
No academic tome, Soiled Doves reads more like a collection of old family tales told on a winter night around a warm fire. Here is the story of Molly b'Dam, the fiercely independent and universally adored madam of Murray, Idaho, who was known to nurse sick miners when they were ill, who was the one person with the courage to deal with the scourge of smallpox when it came to the town.
Here is the explanation of why houses of prostitution identify themselves red lights. (When men went to brothels, "they would leave their red lanterns outside so they could be located in case of an emergency. The madams soon realized that a red light was an excellent way to advertise, and the custom spread.")
Here is the story of how the Episcopal Church in Tombstone, Arizona, was built with money contributed by the towns madams, as was the church in Amarillo, Texas, that thereafter welcomed both the madam and her "modestly dressed" prostitutes to pray in the house of the Lord each and every Sunday.
Famous names of the West play their parts in Seagraves's stories -- ranging from Calamity Jane to Wild Bill Hickock to Bat Masterson to Wyatt Earp. But the real heroes are the women who have never made it into Western historical lore: Mammy Pleasant, San Francisco's "lady of mystery"; Lottie John, the fallen woman of Bodie, California, crowned queen of the town masquerade ball until she removed her mask and revealed her true identity; Mattie Silks, the elegant queen of Denver's Holladay Street, "the wickedest thoroughfare in the West"; Julia Bulette, the beloved prostitute of Virginia City, Nevada, whose murderer was so hated that he had to be escorted to the gallows by "forty deputies and the National Guard;" Mary Katherine Horony ("Big Nose Kate"), mistress of Doc Holliday and the only witness to the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
Soiled Doves successfully mixes these tales of exceptional women with more mundane descriptions of the lives and conditions of the thousands of women who worked in the fancy brothels and elegant parlor houses, the volume brothels and the saloons, the lowly "cribs" and "hog ranches" throughout the West. What emerges is a sympathetic, unglorified picture of women struggling uphill against gender and sexual bias, a piece of women's history and sexual history happily rescued from the silence of obscurity.
Avatar of Eros
January 14th is the eighth anniversary of the death of Marco Vassi -- Marco Ferdinand William Vasquez-d'Acugno Vassi, to be exact -- one of the great sexual explorers, pioneers, writers, and philosophers of what some are now calling the Golden Age of the Sexual Revolution, meaning the late 60's, the 70's, and the early 80's.
Marco, who with a characteristic lack of humility dubbed himself the Avatar of Eros, devoted his life to the Blakean principle of wisdom through excess. By the time he died, Marco claimed to have had sex with 1000 women and 2000 men. But that was the least of Marco's story. Marco, who was at once brilliant and idiotic, profound and trite, loving and abusive, was the ultimate lover of irony and contradiction, the ultimate coyote trickster, and thus the ultimate embodiment of the unfathomably complex life force we conveniently reduce to the word "sex."
Vassi's writing included 13 novels, hundreds of articles and short stories, as well as assorted plays and poems. Al Pacino got what I believe was his acting debut in one of Marco's plays, "Why Is a Crooked Letter," in 1967. Marco's novels, long out of print, are now available again, as a complete set from The Permanent Press. Several are more conveniently available from Masquerade Books. His memoir, The Stoned Apocalypse, now also back in print, is a wonderful excursion through the erotic and psychedelic wonders of that window in time after the universal availability birth control and before the advent of AIDS.
Sometime after Marco learned that he had AIDS, while he was still in good physical health, he effectively committed suicide by walking around wintry New York in nothing more than shorts, catching pneumonia, and then secluding himself and refusing to answer his phone for several weeks. By the time friends discovered where he was, he was pretty far gone. He was taken to a hospital but it was clear pretty quickly that he was going to die.
Andrea Ossip, an important woman in Marco's life, grappled with the question of whether to sign a DNR ("do not resuscitate") form, meaning that if Marco went into respiratory arrest, no extraordinary measures would be taken to keep him alive. She held a paper from Marco asking that "no heroic measures" be taken to prolong his life, but she wanted the doctors to ask Marco directly what he wanted. Oddly, it was a first year resident who was sent to assess Marco's mental ability to decide for himself.
When the resident asked Marco if he wanted to live, Marco answered no. When the resident then asked Marco if he wanted to die, Marco again answered no. Undoubtedly he had a twinkle in his eye, since the resident had unwittingly identified Marco's quintessential dilemma. Prior to the pneumonia episode Marco had twice tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide directly, only to discover the obvious: that although he wanted to be dead, dying meant that he would have to kill his body, something he realized he was incapable of doing in so straightforward a manner.
The resident, entirely missing the irony, simply concluded that Marco was unable to understand the questions being put to him and was therefore incompetent to decide his fate. If it were one of Marco's novels, he would have written it exactly so. While Ossip tried unsuccessfully to get hospital administrators to understand what the resident had not, Marco coded and was put on a respirator. He stayed connected to the machine for a week. On January 14, 1989, he died.
If he were alive today he would be 59.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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