The L Magazine was a free bi-weekly magazine in New York City from 2003-2015, co-founded by brothers Scott Stedman and Daniel Stedman.
Throughout his long and unruly career, Norman Mailer was many things: Great American Novelist, Attempted Wife-Murderer, Failed Mayoral Candidate, New Journalist, Barroom Brawler, Existential Hero, Prisoner of Sex. But Norman Mailer, Hardcore Screenwriter? There’s been a rumor floating around literary circles for years that at some point in the early 80s Mr. Mailer got mixed up in the making of a blue movie with porn star Gloria Leonard. It bears all the hallmarks of urban legend—lack of specificity regarding time and place, dearth of physical evidence, no direct sources, everything third-hand. But just because a story sounds too good to be true doesn’t mean it isn’t.
My first move was to contact the two writers working on biographies of Mr. Mailer. Both had heard the rumor but knew of no specifics, though Mike Lennon, Mr. Mailer’s authorized biographer, was aware of an acquaintanceship between his subject and Al Goldstein, founder of Screw magazine. I paid a visit to Mr. Goldstein at the Northern Manhattan Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, where he’s recovering from a stroke. He vaguely recalled that Mr. Mailer and Ms. Leonard had something in the works. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “some kind of sex thing, a porno flick.” Mostly, though, he wanted to talk about his admiration for Mr. Mailer. “He knifed one of his wives, which was really something I should have done,” the five-time-wed Mr. Goldstein reflected wistfully.
My next move was to cherchez la femme. Mr. Mailer has been dead for almost three years now, but he’s still probably easier to get in touch with than Ms. Leonard. (At present, she’s living on a remote Hawaiian island, has left her nom de porn stateside, and is between cell phones.) When I finally reached her, though, she was gracious and charming, likeable and cool, answering all my questions in one of those voices that’s both tough and delicate. (It’s easy to understand why it was her throaty purr used on the country’s first phone sex line, doing, as she so quaintly puts it, “the jerk-off routines.”)
A little background: Ms. Leonard’s breakout role was in the 1976 adult classic The Opening of Misty Beethoven. It’s Pygmalion, basically, except instead of a phonetics professor, the hero is a sexologist, and instead of teaching a Cockney flower girl elocution and poise so she can pass for a duchess, he teaches a gum-snapping young streetwalker carnal techniques so mind-blowingly, ultra-sexily effective she can turn a gay man straight. Misty Beethoven has the added distinction of being the first widely released movie to feature female-on-male pegging. It wasn’t in her incarnation as a performer, however, that Ms. Leonard first encountered Mr. Mailer.
It was 1982. Ms. Leonard was several years into her stint as publisher of High Society magazine and was hosting a bunch of cable access shows with winky-nudgy names like Stroke at Midnight and The Naked Truth. She was dining at a restaurant that’s not around anymore, a swanky affair on the Upper East Side. In walked Norman Mailer, his handsome jug-eared head instantly recognizable. Ms. Leonard watched as he and his party were escorted to a private table at the back. A few minutes later, she excused herself to go to the Ladies’. When she emerged, Mr. Mailer was standing there, waiting for her. Damp-palmed and cotton-mouthed, he said, “You’re Gloria Leonard.” Down, tiger. (Though Ms. Leonard herself is far too discreet to kiss, among other things, and tell, her friend, Bill Margold, PAW founder, AVN Hall-of-Famer and the man who gave Ron Jeremy the nickname “Hedgehog,” referred to Mr. Mailer as one of her “conquests.”)
A year or so later Ms. Leonard was approached by a group of wholesale distribution magnates. “Midwestern dudes, you know, milquetoasts,” she said when asked for a description. The Midwestern milquetoasts, it seemed, had a beautiful dream. They wanted to fund the world’s first million-dollar pornographic movie. “I told them they’d never see a dime on the project, that I could put together ten real money-makers for that kind of dough, but, no, they wanted the Gone With the Wind of fuck films,” she said, the eye-roll audible in her voice. Ever accommodating, Ms. Leonard racked her brain for the perfect gimmick, one that would get Joe Blow to the theater, not just Joe Blow Job. Then it hit her: hire a big-time writer to pen the script. And who was more big-time than Norman Mailer?
At this point in the narrative, I interrupted to tell Ms. Leonard I thought Mailer an inspired choice. I observed that with this movie she was attempting to bring together in a single composition the lily-white of mainstream Hollywood and the deep blue of skin flicks. Who better to help her do that than Mailer, a writer both grandiose and coarse, one who made his reputation in part by putting in what his colleagues had the good taste to leave out? I breathlessly inquired if these were the factors that informed her decision to give him first crack at the job. “Yeah, that,” she said, “plus I had his phone number.”
She dialed the number, invited him to lunch. As the salad plates were being cleared, she made her pitch. His reaction? He sat straight up in his chair and said, “I always knew I’d one day make a porny.” Miss Leonard asked what his fee would be. “Two-hundred fifty thousand,” he said. High, but do-able. Ms. Leonard asked if he’d be interested in adapting his novel-biography of Marilyn Monroe. “No,” he said, “I want to do an original.” Getting excited, Ms. Leonard asked when he could start. “Here’s the thing”, he began.
As it turns out, there were several things. Mailer was in the end stages of Ancient Evenings, the beginning stages of Tough Guys Don’t Dance, and committed to writing a Broadway play, as well. And, of course, Ms. Leonard didn’t exactly have a light schedule herself. She not only had her magazine and TV shows to occupy her, she was also busy pioneering phone sex. (She wasn’t just the voice behind the operation, she was the brains, too. Religious and right-wing groups went after her, and it became a free speech issue that went all the way up to the Supreme Court. That, though, is another story entirely.)
Six months passed, then another six, and still the project was no closer to a start date. Meanwhile, the Midwestern milquetoasts lost their hard-ons, as Midwestern milquetoasts are wont to do. Even worse, Mr. Mailer and Ms. Leonard had fallen out of touch. And, dear reader, your correspondent is sad to report, that was as close as the world came to the Gone With the Wind of fuck films.