Porn Star Jamie Gillis Remembered by Non-Porn-Star Friends

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Gillis. Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

Jamie Gillis, the seventies porn legend who died last month at the age of 66, liked to tell a story about the time Scorsese’s people came calling. They were filming Raging Bull, and they wanted him for a small — well, actually rather substantial — part: a body double for De Niro’s privates. Disappointed — he always wanted to be an actor — Gillis asked how much they’d pay. $500 was the answer. “Well, for that,” he said, “you’ll have to take all of me."

Actually, Gillis was much more than a porn star, as could be seen at a memorial held at Zarela’s, owned by his longtime partner Zarela Martinez, on Sunday afternoon. Among the 70 or so people in the upstairs room were New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin; Barney Rosset, the former owner of Grove Press who won legal battles to publish the uncensored version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and later brought to market, after a historic ruling from the Supreme Court, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; and Veronica Vera, a former porn actress turned educator in the art of cross-dressing. Gillis counted among his friends James Watson, the discoverer of DNA (Watson's wife Liz was on hand), as well as the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.

“Now it’s all about the big paycheck,” Vera told the crowd. “But in the early years many of us got into porn for fun; there was a lot of idealism involved. To many of us, Jamie really represented that idealism.” Gillis was a stage name. His real name was Jamey Gurman; he was a native New Yorker and “renaissance Jew” who graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University and, in the spirit of countercultural exploration and open-mindedness, ended up in porn. He loved the work, and was loved in return — “As you can see, we like to include all of the women Jamie loved,” Zarela said. (“Not all!” a voice from the exes table called out, to laughter and applause.)

Gillis met Zarela at a birthday party of his longtime paramour, the writer Gael Greene. “He went home with her and never left,” Greene said. Early on in their romance a friend had told her, "You can’t date him! He’s a user." To which Zarela replied, “Well, he can use me anytime.” Zarela, an Elaine Kaufman–esque saloniste with an eclectic taste in friends, broadened Gillis’s circle still further. He was a gifted dinner-table raconteur, recalled the comedian Gilbert Gottfried. “He told me girls in porn were mainly Catholic,” Gottfried recalled. “And that there was a higher content of Jews on the male side. He had a whole theory!” Others had different memories. “He was kind of like Beckett in a way,” the publisher Barney Rosset told me. “We’d gone over the same material so many times, there wasn’t a need to say a lot.”

Gurman finished his memoirs shortly before he died, and wrote his own tribute to the character he created. “Jamie Gillis will always be the bad boy of porn, the lover of life — eager to taste everything, in a way, even immortally so,” he wrote. “I salute him because I honestly feel he represents something wonderfully outrageous and exuberant. Hats off to you, sir.”