HARRY ROSKOLENKO AND THE COUCH OF DESIRE: EXCERPT FROM TIMES SQUARE SMUT, THE BOOK

By Jim Linderman

Harry Roskolenko

Harry Roskolenko

In 2008, I came across a list of 72 books which were banned by the Supreme Court of the United States. As the story was under-reported, few Americans then or now know there were (and presumably still are?) 72 books you are not able to buy, read, own or sell. The few copies printed were confiscated from a handful of Times Square bookshops in 1959 and destroyed. It is likely fewer than a dozen copies of some of the titles remain today. Most were soft-core pornography and fetish books published by a minor associate of the Gambino crime family in the mid-1950s named Edward Mishkin. When his mob connections began is unclear, but even as early as the period here, it was claimed he was raking in 1,500,000 dollars a year on smut. They contain virtually no “swear words” and other than the striking illustrations found on the covers, they are mild by any standard today. Still they were censored, destroyed and you were not allowed to have them in a country which prides itself on freedom of the press. Incidentally the bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey is far more risqué, and while I have not read it, probably not much better.

Need I point out the 72 books were banned at a time when we were engaged in a cold war with a country that had the audacity to ban books? I wonder if that is one reason the story was not too well-reported.

The books, however, were among the first in the country to describe and portray then alternative lifestyles. Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, cross-dressing and sadomasochistic lifestyles. While they did it sometimes with innuendo and other times far more directly… the text was no more risqué than you might expect to hear with a laugh track during prime time television today. They were fifty years ahead of their time, but even now carry a shocking graphic punch. Still, none of the 72 books appear on the annual “Banned Books” lists and websites which advocate intellectual freedom. Rounded up quite quick by agents of social control who knew better than you what books you could purchase and read. A decision upheld by the Supreme Court fifty years ago.

I am a collector and enjoy a challenge. Needless to say, I also do not like someone telling me what I can read. So I spent seven years trying to locate and purchase each of the 72 books. The books, the story, and the many discoveries I found during the hunt will be told in the forthcoming book Times Square Smut. True stories of the producers and publishers, the pseudonym-laden writers, the fantastic illustrators and the models. Groundbreakers and social misfits who have never achieved the recognition they deserve, and all operating within a several mile radius of Times Square at the same time.

The following is an excerpt from Times Square Smut, which will be available in a 250-page book and ebook from Blurb.com this fall. It tells the story of but one of Eddie Mishkin’s authors. The website Times Square Smut contains additional finds, and readers are encouraged to follow the blog Vintage Sleaze to be notified when the book is available.

Couch Of Desire         I'll Try Anything Twice        The French Girl On The Stairs Part II

HARRY ROSKOLENKO AND THE COUCH OF DESIRE

One of Mishkin’s original and early writers was Colin Ross, also known as Harry Roskolenko. Couch of Desire was written for Mishkin under the Colin Ross pseudonym, and it was a book the mobster had the balls to price at ten dollars in 1955. That would come to over $80.00 today. If one were inclined to read about a working woman and prostitute who boffs her shrink in the 1950s, it was going to cost you dearly. Jay Gertzman reports that I’ll Try Anything Twice was also written by Roskolenko under the name Justin Thomas. They are shown here for the first time, along with other Colin Ross works including The French Girl on the Stairs (Part Two).

Couch One   Couch Three   Couch Two

Couch of Desire is not only a pretty good book, it is filled with a dozen spectacular illustrations by Eugene Bilbrew, also not seen since 1955… and then most notably by policemen, lawyers and judges. Bilbrew is better known as “ENEG” in the fetish underworld, and he did a fair share of the drawings used by Mishkin for his digests. In a refreshing change for smut of the era, his drawings actually have something to do with the plot line! Ten years later, while a heroin addict and hardly any longer a remarkable draftsman, he would overdose in the back of a bookstore in Times Square. Where it appears, by the way, his body was relocated without ceremony before being discovered.

Black Is A ManThe Harry Roskolenko papers, which are now held in the Syracuse University Library collection, almost fail to identify the Colin Ross pseudonym. They do list a Rollin Coss (!) and a Colin Ross (spelled differently) along with a dozen pen names, and not all male. They do not refer to him as a pornographer in the description of the collection. They do hold a copy of Ladies in the Rough which they refer to as “adult fare.” I prefer the term “literary smut” and there were plenty of them. Hopefully, a graduate student there, looking for a dissertation, will happen upon the story and dig around a bit. Roskolenko was an important writer and one who did not deserve censoring. He did, however, also write the story “Girl on the Beach” for Carnival, a sleazy men’s magazine which in the same issue ran a pictorial titled “The Topless Swim Suit Without a Bottom” and an expose titled “Sin Parties of the World’s Richest Beatnik.” Writing is a job.

Loose Women Throughout The WorldRoskolenko was a world traveler and a poet who had works published by Samuel Roth in his American Aphrodite volumes. Other books he wrote include Black is a Man (which seems to predate John Howard Griffin’s far more famous Black Like Me by one year) in 1960 and Loose Women throughout the WorldCouch of Desire came from Whippet Press in Wilmington, Delaware, a ruse of course. It likely came from a printshop in Queens or Brooklyn and entered Manhattan in the trunk of a car.

Let’s see what Harry thought of his own books as he is grilled about French Girl on the Stairs during one of Mishkin’s trials:

Attorney for defendant: And you find nothing of any value in the other types of books?

Roskolenko: They are not literature to me.

Justice Galloway: Mr. Rosen, French Girl on the Stairs you consider literature, I presume?

Roskolenko: That’s a serious book

Justice Galloway: That’s what I thought.

Roskolenko: Outside of the pictures.

Roskolenko must have had a memorable visit to France, as 15 years later he would write in his book The Terrorized the passage “I had met this buxom French Girl on the stairs of the billet…”  Something about those French girls.

New York After DarkIn his truly staggering book New York After Dark, Ross AKA Roskolenko published an expose of the very streets we write about here for Macfadden-Bartell books. It was a low-selling blockbuster, but one of the greatest travel books of all time. It is E. B. White’s Here is New York told in pre-gentrification days for denizens who want to live among the smut dwellers, if only in their minds. The chapter titles alone will have you searching for a used copy. The Art of the Orgy—New York Style. The Homosexual Meat Racks. Lesbos on the Loose. Celluloid for Smut. And later, a Harlem Interlude. The book pulls no punches and would have set a high bar indeed for subsequent travel books if it wasn’t so trashy. It makes Anthony Bourdain look like a Cruise ship patron from Jersey. Still a joy to behold fifty years on. LSD couples meet in the East Village. A “butch pimp lesbian” tends bar and the mob sells heroin powder. It is heaven on earth, 1966 style, and it all takes place on the island of smutty dreams.

In his ode to Times Square, Roskolenko  writes “…the mating stem for whores, queers, lesbians and tourists… it breathes other obnoxious smells, including marijuana and carbon monoxide;  but its hot breath also includes beered-up whores and perfumed homosexuals.” He also mentions “a museum of oddities” which would be Hubert’s Dime Museum & Flea Circus, mere steps from one of Mishkin’s bookstores. By the way he also discusses what the adult bookstores on 42nd Street sell without mentioning his own.

In a bizarre happenstance speculated on by author Morty Bushmaster, Hubert’s Museum was the location for filming of a now lost film titled Death in the Cheap Seats in which it is claimed “also distinguished by the appearance of erstwhile pin-up queen Bettie Page in the small but pivotal role of Sister Felicity, the nun who is the sole witness to Joseph Cotton’s murder.” Directed by the immortal Alan Smithee. But then Alan Smithee is the name directors use as a credit when they want nothing to do with a product they worked on. It HAS to be a joke, right? More mere myth for Times Square.

NOTES: Photograph of Harry Roskolenko from La Trobe Journal State Library of Victroria Anonymous photographer HERE. Jay A. Gertzman, In addition to writing on Times Square erotica has written Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920 – 1940 and Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist. Several of his writings on Times Square are HERE. The Syracuse University Library Special Collection of the Harry Roskolenko Papers is HERE. Morty Bushmaster’s Hubert’s Dime Museum & Flea Circus book is HERE. The forthcoming book Times Square Smut is HERE.

Jim Linderman is a Grammy-nominated collector, popular culture historian and author. His network of blogs is approaching 4 million page views, and his VINTAGE SLEAZE BLOG which tells a true story from the golden age of smut every day has over 500,000 Facebook followers. For several years he has been working on TIMES SQUARE SMUT which will tell the story of several long forgotten writers, illustrators and mob-connected publishers from the 1950s who ultimately influenced contemporary culture. 

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