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Dirty Joke

If the lesson of Rudy's hero Fiorello La Guardia is any guide, the disappearance of smut will prove illusory. Today, porn shops are beginning to peddle trinkets; how long before trinket shops start pushing porn to serve a hankering market?

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Pornography makes a wonderful target for politicians. Though millions consume it privately, few this side of Al Goldstein will defend it publicly. The only respectable pro-porn line, of course, is of the free-speech variety, and while these arguments have some merit, they often land strangely on the ear: Anal Lesbians is not Lolita, after all, and to equate them is to evince a loose grasp indeed of both the law and art. Furthermore, who will argue that Queens homeowners who don't want strip joints in their residential neighborhoods are being unreasonable? It defies common sense to assert that the Constitution and its many judicial interpreters ever had in mind that people should have to look out their front windows and see two-foot-high neon flashing breasts.

As a consequence, few serious objections have been raised against Rudy Giuliani's campaign against the sex shops. In June, some gallant porn stars in California took their case to Sacramento to fight an anti-smut law there. But the porn-loving masses of New York are more likely to retreat to the Internet than to hold a rally in City Hall Park. Giuliani will win this fight, and most New Yorkers will think the city better off for it. But are we?

Commercial uses of property can be regulated. Urges, however, cannot. And neither can cultural trends. Here we are, thanks to the work of a well-known Washington prosecutor, talking blow jobs and semen stains on the nightly news. Tired of the nightly news? Flip to Showtime, where just the other night I happened across Sherilyn Fenn's breasts. Bored with television? Rolling Stone this month dispensed with the usual perfunctory teddies and showed model Laetitia Casta starkers -- although her nipples seem to have been oddly erased. Vanity Fair, on the other hand, has Gretchen Mol's (who's she, again?) nipples protruding like cherrystones. Elsewhere: The acclaimed Broadway revival of Cabaret -- the one you couldn't get a ticket for even before the Condé Nast building fell on top of it -- simulates assorted acts of sexual depravity in the interest of re-creating the sleaze in Weimar Germany.

This is all, loosely defined, soft-core pornography, at least as suggestive and often as explicit as any strip-club routine. More so, now that strippers must cover their bottoms and their tops "below a point immediately above the top of the areola," as the new law efficiently puts it. We can assume -- can't we? -- that Giuliani will not move against these targets. But with all this out there, what exactly is he protecting us from?

Morals campaigns have been known to fail in producing their intended effect. Smutbusters from Robespierre on have found that things went their way for a time, but soon enough, people tired of their rules and found ways around them. That will happen this time, too. Pornography has already gone mainstream; if Giuliani's laws have any effect on this trend, they will only make it more mainstream -- bringing more XXX flicks to your local video store, for example, or daring legitimate entertainments to take more risks. And that may only make Giuliani angrier; not a notion many of us want to contemplate.

To see how vice campaigns don't work, we need look no farther than the mayor's hero. Fiorello La Guardia's decade-long campaign against smut was prosecuted in his usual pyrotechnic style and with the assistance of something called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. It commenced against steep odds; campaigns promoting public virtue had not, needless to say, been a weapon in the arsenal of Jimmy Walker, the mayor from 1926 to 1932, whose interest in things prurient manifested itself in the form not of regulation but of consumption. When La Guardia came into office in 1934, he and his licensing commissioner, Paul Moss, quickly set a new course.

The targets of La Guardia's wrath were burlesque houses, where strippers had alternated turns with stand-up comics and other acts since at least the turn of the century. New York City had about eleven "class" houses back then, and a handful of lower-echelon places. La Guardia wanted them out of Times Square. "It was sort of okay as long as they were down on 14th Street, you know, where the Jews were," says Rachel Shteir, who's writing a book on the history of striptease for Oxford University Press, "but once they moved up around the theater district, then it was a different matter."

The burlesque houses' odds were not helped by the fact that Moss's brother was a Broadway producer, which gave the commissioner a more than passing interest in Times Square property values. La Guardia did not enjoy tremendous public support, Shteir says, and the great columnists of the day -- Damon Runyon, A. J. Leibling, even Brooks Atkinson -- were against him on this issue. But by 1942, La Guardia had prevailed. The Minsky brothers, who operated four of the most famous of the burlesque houses, had by then fled Manhattan and opened two houses in New Jersey. Which thrived.

Skin, and the public taste for it, did not, of course, disappear. It simply went mainstream. After the burlesque houses were closed, Shteir says, strippers went Broadway. In 1942 Mike Todd produced Star and Garter, starring Gypsie Rose Lee; it was even billed as a "burlesque revue," and it was a tremendous hit. Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey worked this angle as well, with "Zip," the faux-strip number that hilariously satirized Lee's rise into legitimate society ("Zip -- I was reading Schopenhauer last night / Zip -- And I think that Schopenhauer was right"). The culture at large took pity on strippers and regarded them sympathetically. "The whole motif of the literary stripper, the good and even refined woman who happened to be down on her luck, sprang up," Shteir says. "Fannie Brice actually had a number like that, 'The stripper is a countess . . .' "

If yesteryear's stripper is today's porn queen, does this mean we'll be seeing Tiffany Mynx (a name I learned, rest assured, only while conducting my research) on Broadway? Admittedly unlikely. But with Times Square's transformation into just another all-American shopping mall, albeit one with superior signage, nostalgia for smut will inevitably grip the heart of a Broadway producer or two. Todd's shows were pretty racy in their day; whatever boundaries of taste that were in place back then sure don't exist now (a musical version of Boogie Nights? an "updated" revival of Oh! Calcutta!?) Now that the new, Rudyized porn palaces are offering luggage and tchotchkes and billiards in the front rooms, it can't be too long before some crackerjack entrepreneur finds a way to take advantage of technicalities in the new law to kick a little more dirt in the mayor's face. Steak and cigar and tittie bars?


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