The Smith College Porn Panic of 1960

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WHILE I HAVE always been a very private person, in early September of 1960, I was caught in the center of a moral hurricane. While vacationing on the Cape, I read in The New York Times that my colleagues, Newton Arvin and Ned Spofford, had been arrested for possessing “pornographic” photos. I soon heard on the radio that there was a warrant out for my arrest. Thus began the episode that culminated in my being tried and fired from my teaching job at Smith College.

On hearing that radio report as I began my third year at Smith, and fearing the worst, I immediately left for Cambridge, where a friend had already arranged for an excellent lawyer to meet me. William Homans then told me about Sergeant John Regan, a ruthless and publicity-seeking officer who led the Pornography Squad. A police unit with unlimited powers, this posse had recently been established by the state legislature in response to an alert triggered by the country’s Postmaster General. Regan vowed in the media and in public speeches to cleanse the Commonwealth of what he considered its “filth.” Like other such crusaders, Regan couldn’t define “pornography,” but apparently knew it when he saw it. The post office in Springfield had somehow spotted suspicious photos in a package addressed to Newton Arvin. Very soon the spirit of old Salem was resurrected in Northampton, and the righteous were once again out to get the sinners.

Within three weeks I was tried twice before two judges in the county courthouse. At the first trial I was astonished to see my colleague Arvin testifying against me. Terrified when the police had confronted him in his apartment, Arvin had “ratted,” to use Lillian Hellman’s word, betraying several of his friends by giving their names to the Squad. He testified that not long before four colleagues had shared with him some photos of male nudes in his apartment one night. This was our dastardly deed, the unspeakable act from which all else followed. Our names had now become associated with what were for many two of the most odious words of the day: “homosexuality” and “pornography.” Thus convicted of possessing questionable photos—photos that today would seem tame indeed—I was designated a felon (akin to manslaughter) and given a fine with a suspended jail sentence. “Possession and distribution” was the charge against us. “Distribution,” according to the legal definition at the time, could mean simply one man’s sharing a photo with another.

Shortly after they had heard of our arrests, the Smith faculty, led by Helen Bacon and a few other brave liberals, voted to keep Ned and me. But their decision was flatly overruled by the Board of Trustees. Prominent on the Smith board were influential members of the “moral majority”—a term then used to describe severely moralistic conservatives. Having known Smith’s President, Tom Mendenhall, at Yale, I suspected that he too would acquiesce in the Board’s decision. Indeed my lawyer told me that when the Trustees were determining our fates, Mendenhall, to Homans’ total dismay, didn’t speak a word in our defense. Meanwhile, a tireless group of friends from both Smith and Yale, led by Robert Petersson and Martin Price, raised the funds that enabled us to pay our ever-increasing legal fees. I think that our scandal was among the lowest points in Smith’s history. I did not then know that the Smith case was one of the last spasms of the McCarthy period, in which men and women of good will were blacklisted as Communists or left-leaning citizens, almost as bad. Pornography and homosexuality were considered by some to be graver threats to the republic than Communism.

This purging of deviants in Northampton—reported with wild exaggerations from coast to coast—may now seem incredible. But as the press and TV remind us daily, America is periodically overwhelmed by waves of righteousness in which these grim puritans declare war on the rest of us. Even now, Vice President Cheney, Attorney General Ashcroft, and the rest of the Bush Administration are trying to crack down on dissent through threats of terrorism and war; they pose the greatest threat to our civil liberties in decades. When I was at Smith in the late 1950’s, civil rights for lesbians and gays were inconceivable. People were still frightened into silence by the echoing thunder of Joe McCarthy. Even some liberals at Smith didn’t think that a case like ours could possibly be won. Overwhelmed by the tabloid accounts, I too wondered at times whether our “crimes” were too outrageous to be tolerated, much less defended, by reasonable citizens.

Once labeled a felon by the courts, I felt that I was persona non grata, rejected in my profession as a teacher and declared a criminal before the law. For years following my arrest, I often felt (and possibly behaved) like an escaped convict. Only my dearest friends knew what had really happened. Everyone else only knew of the absurdly inaccurate reports in the media. “Pornographic Profs” made for a juicy story, and for a while this tale was even reported in Europe.

In December 1960, feeling dazed and disoriented, I left Smith and my apartment in a Victorian house on Crescent Street, an elegant space that the police had described as filled with “obscene art.” Actually, they were referring to several reproductions of ancient Etruscan frescoes. Afterward, I hid at the “safe houses” of friends in Cambridge and New Haven, cities in which I had lived earlier as a student and teacher for a total of sixteen years. Having a weak back since childhood, I began to stoop markedly, and I wore a large hat that didn’t quite conceal my dour face. The few former students I ran into seemed embarrassed to see me. I realized the oddity of my behavior, but it was demeaning either to explain or to apologize.

For the next few months, I worked at the Grolier Publishing Company in New York, where I found that everyone had heard my story. During this time, my personal life became yet more precarious. My partner of four years suffered several nearly fatal attacks of epilepsy, doubtless exacerbated by my own plight. Helpless before the prospect of the death of my closest friend, I collapsed. The next day, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where I endured three weeks of stern psychotherapy. One Freudian therapist told me that I had suffered “social death,” and I felt that he was right. Soon after my discharge, a poet friend offered me his apartment near the Met. Even though I was now surrounded by the art and music I had always loved, I could do nothing but wander through the city, especially Central Park, and read the Times. I had apparently lost the self that had once loved Bach and Shakespeare. My senses were deadened. As a gay man, I had long lived with guilt—inevitable for someone with my strict Mormon background. Now, after all these years of being deeply closeted, I had finally been exposed.

With the help of my Harvard mentor, Harry Levin, I was then offered a position for two years as a guest professor at the University of Hamburg, Germany. Within three months I was on a plane for Europe. It was a tremendous relief to be out of the country in which I might have gone to jail. Although they too had heard the Smith story, my German colleagues only laughed at American Puritanism.

Meanwhile, Arvin pled guilty and was sentenced to jail, but in his mental state was instead assigned to the Northampton State Mental Hospital. I was tried twice, in the lower and superior courts in Northampton. I was convicted of the “possession and distribution” of pornography, a felony. Homans decided to take my case to the SJC. I could have been sentenced to jail, except for the extraordinary number of letters attesting to my strength of character—letters written by my colleagues at both Yale and Smith. In the spring of 1961, the Trustees fired us.

In that same year, we had a stroke of good luck when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mapp v. Ohio that materials seized without a legal warrant could not be used in evidence against the person from whom it was seized. The warrant used to search my apartment and confiscate my property had been illegally vague, giving the arresting officers total discretion as to what was taken. When Homans heard about the Mapp ruling, he knew instantly that we had a real chance of winning our case. The Mapp decision thus became the foundation of our legal victory. In 1964, almost four years after my initial arrest, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) acquitted me of the charges. My release by the court was never reported in the media and never acknowledged by Smith College, which had buried the case posthaste and now offered no reparations and no apology.

While I was still teaching in Hamburg, Smith’s Elizabeth Drew wrote to Caroline Shrodes at San Francisco State University (among other schools) explaining my situation. Almost immediately, I received a call from this gallant lesbian, who hired me sight unseen. Caroline and I became lifelong friends. My position in San Francisco, where I taught for the next seventeen years, proved to be a lifesaver. And with the invigorating experience of several trips to my beloved Italy, where I could pursue my hobbies in Renaissance art and architecture, I could now forget—but never fully dispel—the cloud I’d been living under. I continued to feel that even my acquittal could not erase the blot on my reputation. For years after my arrest, I was haunted by the fallen Cassio’s speech in Othello: “I have lost my reputation! … I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial.”

IN 2001, Barry Werth wrote The Scarlet Professor, a thorough and detailed biography of Newton Arvin. A product of careful research, its author had the good fortune to have access to Arvin’s diary. Arvin was a literary biographer in the school of Van Wyck Brooks. He published a prize-winning book on Melville in 1950. He also published books on Emerson, Whitman, and Longfellow, and wrote many essays and reviews. He was especially well read in French literature. His friends included Edmund Wilson, Granville Hicks, and Daniel Lilienthal, who were among the more distinguished literati of his time. While a writer-in-residence at the artists’ colony at Yaddo, Arvin met Truman Capote, and the two embarked upon a three-year affair. After Newton’s death, Capote endowed the Newton Arvin Lifetime Achievement Award, to be given to America’s best literary critic.

I was in English literature and a follower of Harvard’s I. A. Richards, who emphasized the text and word, and therefore I had not read Arvin. Arvin and I were only casual friends at Smith, but I was present at the fatal occasion at which a group of us passed around male photos.

Werth’s book on Newton Arvin—and his subsequent plea at Smith for recognition of those fired—sparked a recent event at Smith College: a panel discussion that addressed these events of the early 1960’s. A devoted group of civil libertarians on the Smith faculty—Dan Horowitz, Marilyn Schuster, John Davis, and others—joined by the Northampton Human Rights Commission and the Daily Gazette, collaborated in an attempt to awaken the present Trustees to action. While acknowledging no responsibility for the decisions of the earlier Board, the latter did at least grant funds to the faculty for the sponsorship of this event.

Having lived in the shadow of my disgrace for decades, I can scarcely believe that my name is at last being officially “cleared.” Not long ago, I was, as a gay man, considered a member of a criminal minority, punished savagely for an event that today seems trivial. Smith’s public gesture in holding this event has had both psychological and physical ramifications for me. My mental state and the severity of my spinal infirmity were both undoubtedly worsened by my tragedy at Smith.

Let me express my gratefulness to Smith’s faculty and students for having held this superb forum at which I was able to tell my story. At 84—more than twice the age of the teacher who was publicly shamed—I salute those who had the courage to set to rights a long-buried wrong. Despite the fearsome challenges to personal liberties in the nation today, I hope that all those reading about this sad episode will live to see greater freedoms ahead.

 

Joel Dorius is finishing his memoir, soon to be posted on his Website at www.joeldorius.com.

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