“There are in Oklahoma a number of valiant men engaged in productive enterprise whose success has largely resulted from the application of rare common sense in conjunction with speed of action. There are none in whom this combination is more conspicuously developed than Roy Melisander Johnson, of Ardmore, who, in a comparatively brief period of time and while still in early middle life, has reached a point of prosperity that is a fine tribute to his attainments...it is said by his fellow citizens that no man in the State stands higher in the regard of its people than he...a dominating influence”.(I)
While he was certainly so in his business and civic activities, he was, as well, certainly the dominating influence in the creation of clandestine erotica in the United States. Having commissioned nearly 2000 private erotic manuscripts(II) to be written for him, he was and remains the single most significant patron of erotic literature - and probably of all literature - in world history.
Johnson (1881-1960) began as a linotype operator, established a newspaper in Ardmore in 1907, the Ardmore Statesman, an openly Republican paper in a staunchly Democratic Party region, and thus proclaimed himself as a man willing to go against popular opinion.
But the newspaper business was not enough for Johnson, who went on to found Healdton Petroleum Co, the first company to exploit the Healdton oil field, the largest oil reserve in Oklahoma, which Johnson had co-discovered in 1913. He became fabulously wealthy. Elected to state office, a member of every civic organization imaginable, he was also deacon of the First Presbyterian Church of Ardmore.
When not in church or drilling natural resources, he was a connoisseur and avid collector of the literature of natural resources, erotica, who, according to Gershon Legman “had all the printed erotica in English, but who found - like the readers of murder-mysteries - that each story excited his imagination and his jaded virility only once.” (III) His drill bit, apparently was no longer up to the task and so “he thereafter continually needed fresh manuscripts written for him, two a week.”(IV)
To that end, Johnson had agent-booksellers in major cities all over the country engaged in commissioning private smut from struggling writers who wrote blue for the green, $200 per manuscript to the agents, who were to keep $100 and give the rest to the writer but who rarely kept their side of the bargain; the writers were lucky to see $50 for their tumescent labors.
He kept his collection of printed and manuscript erotica in olive-drab steel filing cabinets in his business office because his wife refused to allow them in their house, a home now registered as a historical landmark.(V) Given what was in his file cabinets, his office should have been registered as a historical landmark.
The agent-booksellers were located in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.(VI) In New York, the agent was a bookseller known as “Rudolph Bernays” (Legman) or “Barneybill Roster” (Bernard Wolfe); by those clues, it was likely Barnet Ruder. In Chicago, it was likely Ben Abramson of Argus Books; in Los Angeles, it was surely Stanley Rose of the Satyr Book Shop who later opened a shop nearby under his own name that had a notorious “back room” where “art studies” would be held after closing and where the “art” books were sold (VII); legendary L.A. rare book dealer Jake Zeitlin may have also been involved (VIII), and later, after Rose died, bookseller Mel Royer (IX).
Many if not most of the agent-booksellers, though they were not supposed to, kept copies of the manuscripts and sold them to other clients. For this the writers received zip.
Upon his death, Johnson’s collection of printed and manuscript erotica would be disbursed into the marketplace, at first clandestinely by booksellers to trusted clients then, post-1965 Supreme Court decisions, openly. The largest purchasers of the manuscripts at that point were pulp porn publishers who scouted rare book shops for material to reprint.
Though I hesitate to say so - oh brother, do I hesitate - I have had much of this material pass through my hands. Pulp porn publishers reprinted the stuff under the original titles or changed titles simply to distinguish their editions from competing editions; at the time there were often four to five editions of the same book in the marketplace.
Through attention to detail it’s fairly easy to identify the reprints as Johnson manuscripts. One of the writers was known for his Henry Miller and Dashiell Hammett erotic pastiches. Stumble across a paperback of similar style and if the time period checks, it’s likely one of this fellow’s contributions.
While the authors of some of the material have been firmly identified, authorship of the overwhelming majority of the material remains unknown. Many of the original manuscripts were crudely written, yet in many of the paperback reprints one is struck by craft, cleverness and/or lyricism begging to be set loose. Those are the ones written by the better writers, and we can hear in these short novels a group of Greenwich Village artists, poets, and bohemians having a good time while desperately trying to satisfy an old man’s flagging libido to earn the rent.
Though the list of writers who slathered secret sauce onto Johnson’s bedtime snacks contains names of marginal interest, it remains quite impressive for those writers of significance, small and large, and provides a brief who’s who of the literary arts scene in New York and Los Angeles during the era.
NEXT: The Perp Walk.
I. Thoburn, Joseph B. and Muriel Wright. OK, A History of the State and Its People (NY, 1929), vol. 4, p.603-04.
II..Two per week, over nearly a twenty year period.
III.Legman, G. Introduction to The Private Case (1981), p. 53.
IVIbid, p. 54.
V.United States Department of the Interior, National Register of Historic Places
VI. Ferrario, Peter (one of the numerous pseudonyms of Paul Hugo Little). The Classical Underground Erotica. Volume 2, University Circle Press, 1971, p. 88. This is a trashy book issued by a porn publisher, and Little, a rotten writer by any standard, tells all about himself and his contributions to Johnson’s hobby but in the third person, as the author’s “friend.” Legman, op cit, provides a similar list of cities involved.
VII. Author interview with Teevee Moss, who worked for Rose at his Hollywood Bvld shop.
VIII. Gertzman, Jay A. Booklegger and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940, Philadelphia, 1999, p. 61.
IX. Royer’s shop was located at 8216 Melrose Ave. The space was later occupied by William Dailey Rare Books, where I hung my hat for many years. Royer’s widow, Dorothy, now deceased,, refused to speak to me of her husband’s extra-curricular activities fearful of his name being besmirched. Royer is also the only bookseller known to have actually visited Johnson in his home in Ardmore.