July 10, 2012
Around the time 1963 was turning into 1964, I was living in a suburb of Buffalo and trying mightily to make ends meet. I’d done nothing but write for a living ever since I dropped out of college in 1959, and in the interim had acquired a wife and fathered two daughters.
I was represented by Scott Meredith, at whose agency I’d worked a few years earlier as an editor. I’d learned a lot there, but had evidently not learned certain lessons about human relations, and I managed to let things reach the point where the agency dropped me as a client. Nor had I learned that there are times when prudence makes it advisable to eat crow, and I consequently passed up an opportunity to get back in the fold.
Until then I’d been writing a book a month for my primary market, Nightstand Books. It turned out to be a closed shop for Scott Meredith clients, and that meant the immediate cessation of the greater portion of my income. I’d already demonstrated that I wasn’t terribly bright, but I proved to be resourceful, and developed enough other markets for myself to keep food on the table.
During this time, John Warren Wells was born.
I’d already dipped a toe in the murky waters of sex-oriented nonfiction. In 1961, I wrote a string of books for Monarch as Benjamin Morse, M.D. (In case you were wondering, there’s nothing illegal about adopting a medical pen name, so long as one doesn’t usurp the privileges of a bonafide physician; as I neither diagnosed nor prescribed, I was in the clear.)
“Benjamin Morse,” you’ll be pleased to know, was allegedly the pen name of a Chicago-based psychiatrist, Morton A. Benjamin by name. (Br. Benjamin did not exist.) Morse wrote books with titles like The Lesbian, The Male Homosexual, Sexual Behavior of the American College Girl, The Sexual Deviate, The Sexually Promiscuous Female, and, God help us all, A Modern Marriage Manual.
(I became another doctor, and used a different typewriter, to turn out Sexual Surrender in Women. A woman named Marie Robinson had achieved some success with a book called The Power of Sexual Surrender, and Monarch’s enterprising editor, one Charles Heckelmann, wanted to knock it off. “Brown’s okay, I guess, but he’s no Ben Morse,” was Heckelmann’s reaction to the manuscript I turned in. So we put Wally Brown out to pasture.)
I’m not sure whether Lancer Books published any of the Benjamin Morse books. It seems to me they all wound up at Monarch. But Lancer was one place I turned to when I needed to find new markets, and the editor there, Larry T. Shaw, was a fellow I knew from my days in Greenwich Village. (Larry edited Infinity Science Fiction, if I remember correctly; his then-wife, Lee Hoffman, published a fanzine in the folk music field, and there was one memorable night when she and Dave Van Ronk and I sat up drinking the night away and composing a large portion of the eventual contents of The Bosses’ Song Book (subtitle: “Songs to Stifle the Flames of Discontent”).
But that’s another story, for another time.
I called Larry, and I explained that I was the longtime ghostwriter for Benjamin Morse, and wondered if the good doctor might have a future at Lancer. The idea we came up with was for a book on different sexual practices and techniques, and Larry saw it as more journalistic than medical in nature. Perhaps I might want to leave Morse out of it, and slap a pen name of my own on the book?
That sounded fine to me.
“And maybe we could throw Morse a couple of bucks for an introduction,” he suggested. I told him I could just about guarantee Morse would go along with that.
The book I wrote was Eros and Capricorn: A Cross-cultural Survey of Sexual Techniques and Attitudes. I don’t know how I picked the title, and I’m not altogether sure what the subtitle means, but it launched John Warren Wells, and before he was done he’d produced upwards of twenty books.
Most of JWW’s output consisted of putative case histories illustrating one aspect or another of the book’s theme. As I’d started in the business writing paperback erotica, it wasn’t that great a departure to conjure up fiction in the guise of fact. Non-fiction has the great advantage of not needing to make dramatic sense, and what was more important in a Wells case history was that it seem real.
And it was always the illusion of reality that I sought. I took it for granted that readers would be in search of sexual stimulation as well as information, but I consciously chose realism over the sly tricks of the eroticist.
Over time, the damnedest thing happened. The books gradually evolved, becoming less and less fictional.
From early on, perhaps inevitably, bits and pieces of my own personal knowledge found their way into the work. The company that owned Lancer Books also published a magazine called Swank, and for a while I contributed a monthly column called “Letters to John Warren Wells.” Swank was a Playboy imitation, and my column was an oversexed version of “The Playboy Advisor.”
You won’t be surprised to learn that, for the first several issues, I made up the letters myself. But before long I didn’t have to, because no end of people began writing in, and their letters were often better than my inventions. A few of them were fairly transparent fakery, but the greater portion were not, and I corresponded at some length with some of the letter-writers, met a few face to face, and let their very real stories inform my future books.
A few very attractive and personable women wrote letters to John Warren Wells, and, well, I blush to admit that one thing led to another. There was, as you may imagine, no great need to spend a lot of time on small talk.
One day in the late 60s I walked into my agent’s office. “Henry,” I announced, “I’ve got a million –dollar idea, and all I need to do is tell you the title and the subtitle.”
“Tricks of the Trade. A Hooker’s Handbook of Sexual Technique.”
Henry thought for perhaps thirty seconds, then picked up the phone and called Nina Finkelstein at New American Library. When he put down the phone, I had a deal to write the book for the exalted sum of $7500, more than double the advances the Wells books had been commanding.
The price led me to believe that I ought to ake the project more seriously, and I went off looking for somebody to interview. My friend Dick Watson, a real life Mad Men type decades before anyone dreamed of the TV series, was a connoisseur of call girls, and recommended one as being especially articulate. So I borrowed a tape recorder and went over to her East Side apartment to interview her.
That was okay, but felt too much like work. I made up the other eight chapters.
And wouldn’t you know it? Nina and the others at NAL liked the book just fine, but felt one chapter just didn’t measure up to the rest. It was okay, it could stay, but it wasn’t as engaging and just didn’t come across as vividly real.
Yeah, right. The real one just didn’t seem as real as the fakes.
No matter. The book came out and went into three or four printings. Another publisher made a deal to bring out a hardcover edition.
If there hadn’t been an editorial change at NAL, I’m sure I’d have done a sequel. But someone else took over for Nina Finkelstein, and of course had a vested interest in not commissioning sequels to her predecessor’s successes.
Even so, JWW came out of it fine. His price was now $7500, and both Lancer and Dell were taking books from him as fast as he could think them up and get them written.
Then in 1973 the guy retired.
It was in the summer of that year that my first marriage ended. I already had a pied-a-terre in New York, and I moved into it permanently. And one of the changes I made in my life was that I gave up being John Warren Wells.
I’m not sure why. In retrospect, it seems to me that I’d played out that hand, and setting it aside was by no means premature. Two years later, when my career gave every sign of having stalled out altogether, I would have been happy to be John Warren Wells again, or even kindly old Dr. Morse. But I’d burned those bridges.
If the bridge-burning was figurative, I’d quite literally burned my tangible connection to Wells and his world. Over the years I’d filled two drawers of a file cabinet with the letters readers had written to JWW, and they were a fascinating collection of documents indeed, and one day I decided I owed it to the senders to let go of them. I fed them all into the incinerator.
One could argue that the books of John Warren Wells deserve a similar fate. But I’ve decided that, when all is said and done, they’re my work—and I did everything in my power to make them as good as I possibly could. If today’s eBook readers can find something of value in them, who am I to object?
In the course of the next month or so, I’ll be publishing John Warrens Wells’s body of work as eBooks. As always, ego and avarice are my primary motivators, but I’ve also been influenced by Jill Emerson, who’s been urging for months now that I make the Wells books available to a new generation of readers.
Of course, she and JWW have a history. They dedicated books to one another. Make of that what you will.