Awareness Of Sex
Sex was invented on April 14, 1930, after school, on the southwest corner of Lafayette and Washington Avenues in Brooklyn, N. Y., by a girl named Ethel Dowd. Ethel and I were in fourth grade at the time and on our way home from classes at Adelphi Academy. When we got to that corner she reached out her Palmolived hand, brushed her fingers across my forehead and gently rumpled my hair. That was it. I walked down Lafayette in a daze while Ethel walked down Washington in a slink.
I knew that sex was too important to be talked about and I swore to keep the invention secret. I kept my part of the bargain but I think Ethel must have talked, because a great many people seem to have got word of it, including several who do not even speak English. I had never noticed any evidences of awareness of sex before April 14, 1930, but after that I suddenly started to see them everywhere. Movie actors seemed to be thinking about sex all the time. People in the papers and magazines, in books and on the radio began to be obsessed with it. Even the girl in the White Rock advertisement, who had never appeared to have a thought in her head, all of a sudden - and without changing her expression the least bit - started thinking about sex. I don't know how I could tell this, but I could.
I lived through the Swing Era in a state of astonishment and awe, watching the news of Ethel's invention proliferate until it occupied the whole country. Here and there someone would try to hold back the tide and there would be a valiant struggle, but it was always foredoomed. In 1933 the Los Angeles Times refused to print the words "sow bellies," which refer to the part of the hog that is made into bacon. The Times used "sow bosoms." At about that time, Walt Disney, who had been portraying cows in his films with realistic udders, decided, in view of the temper of the times, to present his cows in panties. Those were stirring days. The Iowa Farmers Union met in Des Moines to discuss one of the most brilliant bureaucratic ideas that has ever been suggested by Washington: the hunger of people during the Depression might be relieved if little pigs and pregnant sows were slaughtered to keep them off the market. The Farmers Union denounced the notion and in its resolution changed the phrase "pregnant sows" to the French "enceinte sows."
Although I could not speak French I knew what "pregnant" meant. It meant someone who didn't say much. I learned this from a sentence I read in True Confessions in a barbershop - "Raoul stared at me, and his silence was pregnant." It seemed unfair to kill a lot of sows just because they were quiet. I also knew what bosoms were.
My Aunt Gertrude had a bosom two feet wide and a foot thick, all in one solid piece, on which she used to hang sharppointed jewelry that cut my ears when she made a lunge to hug me. I think I had the impression that at night she took off this bosom, which must have been as heavy as an oak log, and that maybe she kept it on a pair of andirons beside her bed. My friend Ethel didn't have a bosom, which was one of the things I liked about her. It is true that Ethel had two small, separate bumps on her chest, but I could not see how these could be connected with anything as awful as a bosom. However, I did notice that when girls got older, they all had these lumps, even larger ones, and that they probably had something to do with sex. I noticed this because of what I saw on a billboard outside a theater.
There was a theater in Brooklyn in those days that was run by a man who must not have been very smart. First, he misspelled its name, calling it the Gayety, and second, he did not show movies. I could not figure out how he expected anybody to go to a theater where they did not show movies.
One day when I was walking past the Gayety, I realized that the man was not only not trying to keep the news of Ethel's invention quiet; he was actually advertising it. He had a huge sign that said: "20 Sexy Girls 20." There were also some photographs of some ladies who, while they were wearing clothes, were not wearing many of them. Naturally I wanted to find out how much the man or his girls knew about sex and what they were telling people, so I went up to the box-office window and inquired about the price of admission. The man did not see me, although I was standing there in plain sight. He looked to the right and then to the left and then straight over my head, but he kept failing to see me, so again I asked him how much it cost to get into his theater, and finally he looked down and saw me. "Get out of here, you dirty little kid!" he said.
Well, that is certainly no way to run a successful theater, I thought, but the man refused to let me in and so I went away. I later discovered that he would not let any of my friends into his theater, either. However, one of my friends had an older brother who could get into the Gayety any time he wanted, and this older brother told my friend what happened in the Gayety. He said that there were ladies in there, some of them at least 30 years of age, who slowly took off their clothes while walking around the stage. Not all of their clothes - they kept on their shorts and another piece of underwear called a brassiere. At the very height of the show they would also remove the brassiere, but then something would go wrong with the electrical wiring in the theater and all the lights on the stage would go out.
Neither my friend nor I could see why his brother kept going back to the Gayety. In later years, however, after I had seen a few entertainers such as Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Georgia Sothern and Gypsy Rose Lee, I came to realize that the older brother had not been totally lunatic.
In addition to the owner of the Gayety there were others, several of them publishers, who deliberately tried to spread the news about sex. Of course, there was nothing about it in Captain Marvel. The Captain never thought about sex. He was so pure-minded that, when he wanted to say something really strong, he would not say "Holy Moses!" He said "Holy Moley!" (The humorist Ring Lardner was an even better bowdlerizer than Captain Marvel. Lardner once wrote "Golly is in His Heaven:")
Esquire appeared in 1933, it contained a picture of a girl by artist George Petty that automatically made you think of sex. Every month after that, for years, Petty produced a new girl for Esquire and put goodness knows what ideas into millions of people's heads.
In 1939 the graduating class at Princeton University elected George Petty as its favorite artist. Rembrandt was second. About all that was obvious to me as a boy, however, was that there was a great difference between Aunt Gertrude's bosom and Ethers bumps, and that this man Petty had hit upon a fine compromise.
Later, when I learned a little about art, I could see what Petty's technique was. He produced his superhuman figures by making their legs and torsos longer than normal and their heads a good deal smaller. Then, using the newest art instrument, an air brush, he skillfully sprayed thin films of paint on his work to give it a three-dimensional look. Men who were forced to live without female company in colleges, barracks, jails and lighthouses used to tack Petty's girls on their walls and talk about such fine points of art.
News of sex traveled so fast and so far in those early days that it invaded even the unlikeliest areas of life. For example, crime occupies quite a few people in this country, but before the discovery of sex, I had thought that criminals stole money just because they wanted it, or shot other people only because they were sore at them.
It is by no means that simple. Sex is often involved. As early as 1931 word of Ethel's invention had spread from Brooklyn all the way to Arizona, where the ouija-board murder took place. During the Swing Era, many of us tinkered with ouija boards. "Ouija" is a combination of the French and German words for "yes," and the board is about the size of a breakfast tray, printed with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers from one to ten, and the words "yes" or "no:" With the board came a little three-legged table, called a planchette. All you had to do was place your fingertips lightly on this planchette and it would begin to move across the board, pausing at letters and spelling out messages. You move the planchette, but the theory is that a ghost or spirit guides your hand to certain letters or numbers.
In any case, it happened that in 1933 a lady named Dorothea Irene Turley was living on a ranch in Arizona with her elderly husband, who was a retired naval officer, and her 15-year-old daughter Mattie. Mrs. Turley, a restless beauty-contest winner, had befriended a handsome cowboy. As soon as I read that in the paper, I suspected there was going to be something about sex.
When Mrs. Turley was not talking to the cowboy, she frequently passed the time with a ouija board, which gave her some immoral messages, the burden of which was that someone ought to eliminate Mr. Turley. Daughter Mattie described the crucial session: "Mother asked the ouija board to decide between Father and her cowboy friend. As usual, the board moved around at first without meaning, but suddenly it spelled out that I was to kill Father. It was terrible. I shook all over. She asked if he would die outright and it said no. We asked what should be used in the shooting and it said a shotgun. We asked if we would have the ranch and it said yes. We asked about the law, but it said not to fear the law, that everything would turn out all right. We asked how much the insurance would be and it said five thousand dollars. I tried to kill Father the next day but I couldn't. I lost my nerve. A few days later, though, I followed him to the corral. I raised the gun and took careful aim between the shoulders, but then I lost my nerve again. But I thought of dear Mother and what all this would mean to her. I couldn't fail. My hand was trembling awfully but I raised the gun and fired."
Mr. Turley survived for a while and he was angry. He said the ouija board was a rotten thing, often making his wife and daughter do things they shouldn't, and that occasionally the board had even given him bad advice. At the trial the verdict went against Mrs. Turley and her daughter, but it was reversed after they had served short terms respectively in prison and reform school, and they were set free. I like to think it was because Mattie was so thoughtful of her mother.
Another thoughtful girl of the time was Helen Walsh, who was 16 when they electrocuted her friend Two-Gun Crowley. Two-Gun, whose real first name was Francis, was one of the most wanted men in the country, having committed by 1931 at least one murder, seven armed holdups and several automobile thefts while he was still in his teens. Indeed he was only 19 when the police got him, but he had already heard about sex, too. I could tell because of the place Two-Gun and Helen parked their car. The newspapers said it was a "lovers' lane" in Merrick, Long Island, near New York City. A friendly local cop, thinking it was not a good idea for teen-agers to be out so late at night in a place like that, came up to the car to speak to them. Two-Gun shot him dead.
Two-Gun and Miss Walsh then drove to Manhattan and were joined by a friend, Rudolph ("Fats") Duringer. They retired to an apartment on the top floor of a five-story building at 303 West 90th Street, where the city police soon traced them. The cops sneaked up the stairs, but Two-Gun heard them coming and suddenly flung open the apartment door to greet them. He must have been quite a sight, and I remember wondering whether he should really have been called TwoGun, Five-Gun or even Seven-Gun. Both his trouser legs were rolled up above the knee and a gun was strapped to each calf. He also had a holster on each hip, one under his shoulder and a gun in each hand. He fired a volley at the police, slammed the door and the siege began.
The papers called it the "Battle of West 90th Street." It was by far the most spectacular domestic engagement-as opposed to the overseas battles of World War II - of the Swing Era. Some 300 cops soon reached the scene, some of them carrying rifles, shotguns, tear-gas grenades and machine guns. While most of the police struggled to hold back a crowd of 15,000 spectators, the sharpshooters and the heavy-weapons men went after Crowley.
In the apartment, Two-Gun scurried from window to window, shooting at policemen on the street and on nearby rooftops. Two-Gun's friend Fats Duringer was not a great deal of help-old Fats tried to hide under a daybed. However, he couldn't get under it, not because he was so big, but because Helen Walsh was already there. The police fired more than seven hundred (700) bullets into and through the apartment, wounding Two-Gun four times. Fats and Helen were not hurt except for the tear gas, which finally caused Two-Gun to surrender.
While the 700 bullets were whistling past her ears and Fats was trying to poke her out from under the bed, Helen found time to worry about her fingernails and to write a letter. Although it gives one the impression that she, too, had heard about sex, it is otherwise the sort of innocent note one might expect from an American girl of sweet 16. It is addressed "To Whom It May Concern" and it goes: "If I die and my face you are able to see, wave my hair, make me look pretty and make my face up. Dress me in black and white in a new dress. Do my nails all over, I don't use this kind of polish, it's too dark. I use a very pale pink. I always wanted everybody to be happy and have a good time - I had some pretty good times myself. Love to all but all of my love to Sweets. Helen Walsh"
At the trial Miss Walsh testified against Two-Gun, or Sweets, and he was electrocuted. So was Fats Duringer, who admitted having committed a casual murder of his own somewhere. Miss Walsh was set free - the district attorney appreciated her testimony and the jury was favorably impressed with her, perhaps because she was so tidy about her grooming.
*Names have been changed.
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