This saga of an upwardly-mobile American family, starting with a couple from Russia who immigrate to New York in the time of the last Czar, resembles a history of the Kennedys or the Rockefellers. By the end of the story, the “Shore” family consists of a glamorous middle-aged couple, Art and Vita, who visit the overseas branch plants of the family business, and their three privileged children, two of whom want to learn the business from the ground up.
So how do they make their money? In the illegal business of porn, later defined as “adult films.” This story is as fascinating as the true Hollywood history of United Artists (originally formed by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks). The story of Gold Studios, the business of the Shore family, includes tragedy in the form of unexpected deaths and a mysterious mental illness. Aside from this, however, the history of the business and the family, covering almost a century, looks clean, uplifting and sanitized. The Shore family is shown living the American Dream; their methods seem only slightly more broadminded and creative than those of fellow-millionaires who made good by setting up widget factories.
Art Shore, the key figure in the story, eventually turns a small underground operation that churns out black-and-white plotless films of people having sex on mats into a legally registered company that produces “Sex for Lovers” in settings as elaborate as those in other movies. He finds his way into the “porn” business through an introduction to Howie, owner of Gold Films in 1961, by Betty, a very nice woman who has called herself a “sex therapist” ever since she became too old to star in “dirty movies.” Art comes into Manhattan from the family home in Far Rockaway to spend weekends with Betty. He pays her well and takes her to nightclubs.
Art, whose family had already acquired a comfortable nest egg by working for a bank, was introduced to Betty at age 18, by his older brother Vic, who had enjoyed her services for years. Considering the illegal and disreputable status of all forms of sex work in the early 1960s, the entry of the handsome, upscale Art Shore into that world looks unbelievably smooth. Howie, who inherited a rundown building from his father, a carpet seller, has to pay off the police to avoid arrest, and there is a reference to the Mafia somewhere on the sidelines. (Apparently that family was into bigger operations than Gold Films.)
According to the descriptions of the sex biz in the Bad Old Days, it didn’t include violence, drug addiction, extortion or betrayal in any form. When Art becomes an enthusiastic performer as well as a shareholder, he learns the story of “Chickie,” a small, bisexual man with a large dick and a Turkish name that Americans find hard to pronounce. As it turns out, “Chickie” (who dies gruesomely of syphilis after a long and reckless sex life) is a kind of pipeline for a British fortune that is eventually used to transform the bootleg porn film business in New York.
The subplot involving “Chickie” is a fascinating look at the convergence of underground sex services with an underground gay-male community before Kinsey brought the actual sex practices of Americans to the attention of the cultural mainstream. As the child of poor Turkish immigrants, “Chickie” is seduced by Jeff, a male counsellor at summer camp whose English parents are killed in a bombing raid in London in 1942, leaving him the owner of their property on both sides of the Atlantic. “Chickie” becomes Jeff’s long-term lover, and they turn an inherited brownstone into Rose House, a kind of community centre for gay men. Having no direct descendants, Jeff leaves his whole estate to “Chickie,” who becomes a shareholder in Gold Films. “Chickie” finds that he enjoys sex with women as well as men, and he is not offended when Howie chooses to film his impressive cock without showing any of the rest of him.
From time to time, the chronological narrative is interrupted with sex scenes, all heterosexual. The shifting viewpoint is disorienting. (Is this a slightly-fictionalized third-person account of actual events? In that case, who would know how many times Art came, or how satisfying it was?) In addition, the dialogue sounds as stilted as the speech of people who learned English as adults and want to be grammatically correct.
The central romance in the book is between Art and Vita, a beautiful young blonde who performs for Gold Films to support herself and her widowed, ailing, Swedish father. When Art first confesses that he has refused to perform (have sex with) Vita because he has “personal feelings” for her, she is understandably sceptical. Here he rushes up to her and tries to explain himself:
“Look, I am sorry. I am not playing with you as you think I am. I do not know how to explain what I feel about you, but I do. Do you believe me? I do not want to hurt you.”
Is this how Art’s Russian grandparents (who raised him after the sudden death of his parents) taught him to speak? As a native-born New Yorker, wouldn’t he have learned to use a few contractions on his weekends in Manhattan?Despite the awkwardness of style and the unlikely goodness and generosity of a large cast of marginalized characters, this book is persuasive enough to seem like a peek at a largely-unknown history of New York, which includes an underground economy. This book could use a ruthless editing job, but it tells a story that needed to be told. If the Gold Company actually exists under any name, someone there should consider turning this epic into a major motion picture.