About six months ago, the editor of Penthouse wrote to me to say that he was a big fan of my work on on Margaret Thatcher -- yes, really -- and had sent copies of my book to all of his relatives, including his daughter in Israel -- yes, really -- who's a big fan of the Iron Lady -- yes, really. He would therefore -- obviously -- like me to write for Penthouse. I am not making this up.
I suggested I write profile of Grandmaster Emin Boztepe, the founder of the Emin Boztepe Martial Arts System. I told them that I thought Sifu Emin was a serious candidate for the title, "Most lethal man in the world."
"Terrific," said the editor. "We'll put it in our upcoming 'BadAss' issue." This, I guess, was an edgy departure from their usual "GreatAss" theme.
I was really excited about my new career as a pornographer. Any moral (or aesthetic) scruple I may have had about it evaporated when they explained their pay scale. Anyway, my friends reminded me, writing for a porno mag is an important American literary rite of passage, like getting into a feud with Norman Mailer. I started reading their back-issues for style guidance. I thought the pole-dancing issue, in particular, was very probing.
They sent me the contract to sign. As luck would have it, when I went to the post office to mail it back, there was some dweeby American guy behind me in the line. His eyes positively bugged out when he looked over my shoulder and saw that I was mailing a letter to "Editor, Penthouse." I thought about trying to explain, but then I thought, why ruin it for him?
I wrote the article, along with a sidebar about Sifu Emin's top ten tips for defending yourself in hand-to-hand combat. It was a great assignment. I got to call people like Bob Wall and Chuck Norris to ask them who, in their view, was the most lethal man in the world.
Actually, to be honest, I couldn't get through to Chuck Norris. I tried, but his secretary got frosty on me when I said I was writing for Penthouse. "Chuck," she said sniffily, "is a conservative."
Now, when I heard this, I was a bit surprised. I'm not really used to the insinuation that there might be a problem with my commitment to conservatism. "Ma'am," I said finally, "I'm a conservative, too. In fact, I think my conservative credentials will impress him. Please let him know that I'm Margaret Thatcher's biographer, okay? Really, I'm on his side."
I think my tone probably put her off, though; she refused to put me through. Probably for the best. I mean, who wants to deal with Chuck Norris's socialist nonsense? But Bob Wall is an absolutely lovely guy, and he totally agreed with me that Sifu Emin was one of the most lethal men in the world. (After Bob Wall, of course.) “I’ve rolled with toughest, greatest martial artists on earth, all of the great ones -- and he’s one of them," he said.
Penthouse really liked the piece, they told me. Parenthetically, I have never experienced more rigorous fact-checking in my entire career than I have when writing for Penthouse. You can believe every word of those letters. “But our reputation,” said my editor sadly whenever he called, “is lower than whale shit.” He seemed genuinely hurt.
He wanted, for example, proof that Sifu Emin was the most lethal man in the world. "Peter," I wrote back patiently, "who would you consider appropriately qualified to issue a verdict on that question? The Chairman of the International Lethalness Measurement Task Force? I mean, for all we really know, there's a still-more lethal man living in some remote tribal village in Equatorial Guinea, thoughtfully chewing on his enemies' entrails even as I type."
He saw the wisdom in what I was saying, but he stuck to his guns: I had to say that he might be the most lethal man in the world. I thought that sounded as if I lacked courage in my convictions, but I guess I have to respect Penthouse's commitment to accuracy over sensationalism. Anyway, they gave me such a fact-checking hassle that when I finally delivered the piece, I sent it with pages of footnotes and documentation, as well as a legal addendum about the protection of my sources in the US government, who had spoken to me on Deep Background. (I'm not making that up, either.) "Okay, Claire," my editor said finally, "We're not publishing the Pentagon Papers here."
After all that, I was disappointed when the piece didn't come out as scheduled. I wrote to my editor: What happened?
Apparently, the financial crisis has hit the porn industry so badly that Penthouse has had to cut down on the number of issues they're publishing. I was shocked: What is the world coming to when Penthouse has to skip an issue? Back when I was a youngster this would have been cause for all the local male adolescents to die of grief. But back when I was a youngster, you had to get your Penthouse by means of a character-fortifying and profoundly embarrassing trip to the porno shop. We've made everything too easy for the kids these days. They're decadent, I tell you.