Porn Studies > Porn in the News
New York Times, 4/29/06 - Allan MacDonell does not sweat or fidget. His skin is not pasty. Though he wears tinted glasses, he is able to meet your eyes with his own, eyes that by his own reckoning used to study some 1,000 raunchy photographs a day and might also watch 20 pornographic videos a week.
Until he was fired three years ago, Mr. MacDonell, now 50, worked for almost 20 years at Larry Flynt Publications, an empire of what is known in the magazine business, with no apparent irony, as "men's sophisticates." He has written a book about his career, "Prisoner of X," coming out next month from Feral House, in which he explains how he rose from being an assistant copy editor at Hustler, the flagship of the Flynt empire, to the very top of the masthead as executive editor, and was also editorial director of satellite magazines like Barely Legal, Chic, Asian Fever and Busty Beauties.
Among his accomplishments were shepherding into print articles like "You're Cheating Smart: Getting Away With a Little on the Side" and a series about U.F.O. date rape, including "Alien Sex Crimes: Inside the Extraterrestrial Breeding Program."
During the period leading up to Bill Clinton's impeachment, he also spearheaded Mr. Flynt's 1998 campaign to expose hypocrisy among Republican congressmen by offering as much as $1 million to women who would testify to sexual encounters with them. This tactic eventually brought about the downfall of Robert L. Livingston, a Republican congressman from Louisiana and speaker-elect of the House of Representatives, who initially confessed to adulterous affairs and then, after trying for a couple of days to cling to his position, resigned from the House.
In fact, while in New York to promote his book on the Howard Stern radio show, Mr. MacDonell admitted recently that Hustler did not have much evidence against Mr. Livingston, beyond a few tips and rumors. "It was mostly just guile," he said.
Mr. MacDonell (who pronounces his surname the Scottish way, with the accent on the last syllable) guessed that he was the Flynt employee with the longest continuous tenure, but said that N. Morgen Hagen, who interrupted his own career with a sabbatical, had probably put in more years over all.
Mr. Hagen was Hustler's copy chief, responsible for such stylistic niceties as the decrees that as a noun and as an adjective, porn was to be preferred over porno, and that a vulgar term for fellatio should be printed as one word, not two.
As for Hustler's other employees, Mr. MacDonell said they were mostly a revolving cast of the kind familiar at any magazine: young, talented people who had no clear career path but were eager for a chance to write.
"If you can write this stuff in a way that's interesting, you can make anything interesting," he said, adding that aside from a few sleazes, like a cartoon editor who was eventually prosecuted for sexually abusing his daughter, the staff was in many ways more ordinary than one might imagine.
From the book one concludes that the Hustler office, rife with politics, jealousy and back stabbing, was an office much like any other, except that the boss, the mercurial and impetuous Mr. Flynt, happened to be fond of wearing a bejeweled platinum vagina on a chain around his neck.
"When we were hiring, we looked for people who would be comfortable with the material," Mr. MacDonell said, referring to Hustler's explicitness. "But we didn't want them to be too avid."
In the book Mr. MacDonell writes that he wound up working for Mr. Flynt more or less by accident. He was living in Los Angeles with his first wife, and thinking quickly one day after she caught him in the bathroom with a copy of Hustler, uttered an inspired version of the time-honored line about reading the articles while not looking at the pictures. He wasn't just reading them, he said; he was studying them to learn how to write for Hustler, and eventually he did just that.
His departure from Hustler was in a way similarly accidental. For a while, he said, he had grown increasingly irritated with certain aspects of his job — especially watching pornographic videos — and after 9/11 he also grew frustrated at Mr. Flynt's insistence on embedding a writer, whom Mr. MacDonell calls Features in the book, with the troops in Afghanistan.
"This wasn't just a stunt anymore," Mr. MacDonell said. "I felt the guy was really in danger."
Mr. MacDonell said he had begun to "imperil" his own job but was reluctant to quit flat out. Instead, in a scene recounted at some detail in the book, he says that at a celebrity roast for Mr. Flynt he "unconsciously tapped into a raging undercurrent of resentment" and went way too far in making fun of his boss. Mr. Flynt later forgave him, or seemed to, but the reconciliation lasted only 16 days.
In a telephone interview Mr. Flynt said he had heard about the book but had not read it and denied he had been offended by the roast. "That's ridiculous," he said. "I'm the King of Slime. How could anyone say anything that would besmirch my reputation?"
He said he fired Mr. MacDonell because, as Mr. MacDonell admits in the book, business was off, and added, "We had lost half our circulation, and at that point I felt I didn't have any choice but to revamp."
Today, Mr. MacDonell said, his feelings about his former employer are complicated, but he continues to admire Mr. Flynt as a First Amendment champion, a groundbreaker of sorts and someone who gave his staff a great deal of creative freedom.
"I don't know what Larry feels about me now," he said, "but we were buddies for a long time. Working for him I got to do things I would never have got to do. I saw the inside of a life I was curious about."
But in the three years since leaving, Mr. MacDonell said, he has experienced no "withdrawal symptoms" and has seen only one pornographic video. He and his second wife, Theresa McAllen, a clothing designer, have a "very conventional marriage," he noted.
They met roughly 12 years ago on a blind date, and when she heard where he worked, she was a little hesitant, he said, but quickly got over it because "she's incredibly secure with herself." Mr. Flynt attended the wedding, he added, and after meeting that notorious pornographer, Mr. MacDonell's mother-in-law, a devout Roman Catholic, said he was so charming he reminded her of Ted Kennedy.
Mr. MacDonell still misses being at a magazine, he said, and he wouldn't mind working at another one someday, though, with his résumé, he doesn't imagine that that's about to happen right away. Now that "Prisoner of X" is done, he is working on some screenplays and has an idea for a book-length expansion of an article he once wrote for Hustler: "Creeps: Why Women Love Us."
"I know some stuff," he said. "I look at Dr. Phil and I think, 'I know as much as he does about a relationship.' "
From the LA Weekly ...
"Some of the appeal of working there was that I’ve always liked the sense of the criminal," says Allan MacDonell, author of Prisoner of X: 20 Years in the Hole at Hustler Magazine. "But I’m not a criminal — I don’t break the law, under any circumstances, because I don’t want to go to jail. But I’ve always liked to be around that sort of not-quite-legal, somewhat illicit kind of behavior and activity. So this was perfect. Even though everything we did, we made sure was always legal, it still had a sort of illicit quality to it."
We’re outside, in public, lounging with coffee on Colbert Sunday, the day after Stephen Colbert’s bukkake-ing of President Bush at the White House Correspondents Association’s annual dinner. Three short years ago, it was MacDonell’s similarly pointed monologue at Larry Flynt’s X-Rated Roast that most likely precipitated his dismissal. No hard feelings, though. Or just a few. Or one: MacDonell thinks it would’ve been nice of Flynt to offer him something considerably more than four weeks’ severance pay for 20 years of service.
"And the people you would meet," MacDonell continues. He has a gift for speaking very quickly, in coherent paragraphs. "You’d meet guys who were on government hit lists, guys who the government wanted to take down. It was the kind of environment that had fascinated me since I was a kid.
"I love that stuff. And I loved, when I was there, being able to walk around and kind of bask in it — a little bit — and act like I’m some kind of big shot. I fuckin’ loved that shit." MacDonell admits this with equal parts resignation, fascination and disappointment. No sign of any actual big shot; just a quick-witted, introspective, youthful, friendly and surprisingly mild-mannered 50-year-old, three years deep into a search for his next career.
Prisoner of X traces MacDonell’s rise from the lost depths of American suburbia to the dizzying heights of executive editor at Hustler, America’s Magazine™. Between 1983 and 2003, MacDonell was privy to fascinating goings-on both sleazy and heroic, often at the same time. During the impeachment of President Clinton’s penis, for example, Flynt’s widely publicized bounty (up to $1 million) for tales of imprudent commingling among Republican congressional genitalia resulted in MacDonell playing a pivotal (but actually quite passive) role in Speaker-elect Bob Livingston’s pre-emptive resignation, an event that delivered a resounding kick in the balls to the faux-moralistic Clinton-entrapment machinery. (The kick didn’t stop them, but it at least made them share the front-page headlines Republicans spent so much taxpayer money and labor to create with the ones that Larry Flynt generated for roughly .032 the cost.)
While Flynt’s mission to disrobe the Republican impeachment hijinks complicated MacDonell’s life, one task became considerably easier — writing Hustler’s "Asshole of the Month" column. "It was pretty great," he says. "You’d have lots of candidates to choose from. There was always somebody, and they were easy to write about, because you didn’t have to dig to find where the hypocrisy was. And these people would really irritate me, so it would be easy to get up my . . . momentum."
One of MacDonell’s other duties of national political significance was writing — as "Christian Shapiro" at first, and then "Max Cara," "Hakim Whithers," "Kurt Blume," "Victor Battle," "Aron Cope" and "Alex Marvel" — high-speed porn-video reviews, for extra cash.
"Reviewing is primarily fast-forwarding and taking fast notes," he says, very quickly. "You’d want to finish the tape within 15 minutes, then 15 minutes to do your review. That’s half an hour, and you get 40 bucks. That means you’re making $80 an hour. That’s big money. Like you went to graduate school. You feel good. You don’t think: ‘I’m wasting my life. What an idiot I am. Who’s going to read these? There’s no lasting good in this. Jesus Christ, I’m going to have no legacy at all. What a dumbo.’ No. You’re thinking, ‘I’m a professional. I’m making 80 bucks an hour!’ "
MacDonell’s prose is tight, forthright and consistently toothsome — at times, delicious. While a front-matter disclaimer reads, "All conversations and events are presented to the author’s best recollection, often aided by the hindsight of colleagues," the tales ring true and fair. He renders neither heroes nor, with the exception of Hustler’s former cartoon editor Dwaine Tinsley (notorious creator of Chester the Molester who was eventually convicted of sexually abusing his own daughter and, more eventually, died), villains. Perhaps most significant of his many revelations is the quiet, steady undercurrent of normalcy; that, despite all the prurience implied, office life at Hustler and LFP Inc. was virtually indistinguishable from office life in general.
Prisoner of X is MacDonell’s story, but it’s Larry Flynt’s world. And while the author’s criticisms of that world are stark and many, they’re tempered by an overall sense of sympathy and even, at times, admiration. "Larry and I had a good relationship for a long time," says MacDonell. "And then it went kind of sour in the end. But it only went sour in one aspect, which is that he stiffed me on severance pay. If he hadn’t stiffed me on severance pay, there’d be no sourness whatsoever.
"But also, if he hadn’t stiffed me on severance pay, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book, because in the [formal] severance agreement, you agree that you’re not going to spill any beans. I don’t know if he did that on purpose — I don’t think so — but maybe now I should thank him."
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