Me and the Kingpin
Reprinted with permission
A lot of guys have laid claim to the title: Kingpin of Porn.There was Larry Flynt. There was Bill Hamling. There was Milt Luros. There were others.
But there was really only one man who merited the title. His name was Reuben Sturman, and I worked for him for the better part of five years.
I didn't start out with that in mind. I was just a kid, recently married, fresh out of college -- not with a degree or anything rash like that, just with a bunch of freelance sales -- and I needed a job now that I was a husband-in-fact and a father-to-be. It just so happened that there was only one job open in the entire publishing field in Chicago at that time, so I took it -- and found myself editing a couple of yellow tabloids, first The National Tattler and then The National Insider, as well as some (deservedly) short-lived men's magazines, the entire monthly budget of which couldn't buy me a new suit.
And it was while I was editing these things, circa 1966-1968, that I became aware that we weren't the only salacious publications in the field. There were tons of 'em. (Playboy was a class act, no matter how much I loathed Hugh Hefner's notion of The Good Life; so were Rogue and a couple of others. I never considered them to be salacious.) So I started selling to softcore book editors, since we didn't publish any and thus it didn't constitute a conflict of interest, and the book editors whose companies didn't have tabloids or men's magazines started selling to me.
Along the way I met Joe Sturman, younger brother of The Kingpin. Joe was a nice Jewish guy who just wanted to live in wealthy obscurity, join the local Temple, and have a membership to an upscale country club. He was publishing softcore novels when I met him, as well as some tabloids, and he hated it. He couldn't stand seeing his photo, along with his brother's, on the front page of the Cleveland papers every time there was a bust (which was maybe once a month). He hated it when his wife was queried about his business or his kids were teased because of it. His father-in-law owned a nice, respectable, incredibly dull lead foundry, and Joe couldn't wait for the day that the old gentleman retired and left it to him and he could get out of the sex field forever.
I went fulltime freelance in 1968, at which time I was selling Joe a couple of books a month for $1,000 apiece. He killed his book line three months later, which caused me considerable concern. We were friends by then, so I confided unhappily to him that I had been counting on that money for another year. The next morning he told me to call a California softcore publisher named Dick Sherwin, who knew all about me and told me he'd be happy to buy 24 books from me, at $1,000 a book, during the next year.
And when the year was out, Joe, who was extricating himself piece by piece from the field, flew me out to Cleveland where he turned over three monthly tabloids to me: Truth and The National Times, both general all-purpose pieces of totally fictitious journalism, and It's Happening, the only tabloid aimed specifically at a black audience.
All went smoothly for four or five months, and then the day Joe had been praying for arrived: his father-in-law retired, and he took over the lead biz. Within a week he'd sold out all his softcore holdings to his brother, Reuben.
So I was flown out to Cleveland again to be evaluated by the Kingpin. We hit it off from the start. He was bright -- incredibly bright. Unlike Bill Hamling, who felt the First Amendment was on his side and was happy to present his various cases to the Supreme Court, Ruby (he never liked to be called Reuben) thought he was getting away with murder, and viewed his relationship with the feds and the courts as an exciting game. He loved playing tennis, was a major gambler on any and all sports (and to the day of his death swore that Billy Riggs threw his match against Billie Jean King), and from time to time admitted that he had put together his empire by luck and by accident.
He'd been a comic book jobber, and when the local distributor got some publications he didn't want to handle -- "muscle books" and early girlie magazines -- Ruby stepped in and distributed them himself.
Thus began the notion of "secondary distributors". Just as the New York Times prints all the news that's fit to print and The National Inquirer prints the rest, major distributors like Long Island News (in New York) and Charles Levy (in Chicago) would distribute all the magazines and books fit to distribute -- and Ruby, taking a higher commission since no one else would handle them, would distribute the rest.
By the time I went to work for him, Ruby, under various corporate veils, owned 59 of the 65 secondary distribution agencies in the USA, and -- again under corporate veils -- owned more than 600 adult bookstores, the kind where (back then; I have no idea what they're like today) you paid a dollar to enter and browse, and got it refunded if you purchased something.
Ruby also owned some printing plants. What did this mean? Well, when I edited the Insider, our break-even point was something like 41%. In other words, if we sold 41% of our 300,000+ print run, we broke even. I had it up in the 70's for a couple of years (my record was 77% of a 410,000 print run one week in early 1966), but no one could sustain that without going totally legit or totally hardcore -- they wouldn't give me the budget for the former, and I refused to do the latter -- and by the time I left the Insider was back in the high 40's, pretty much where it was when I had taken it over.
But with Ruby's tabloids, it was a whole different story -- he owned the national distributorship, the local distributorship, the printing plant and the stores. Our break-even point was, so help me, 9% -- and since he <>did<> own the stores and the distributorships, no rival tabloid was even displayed before we'd sold out at least half of our print run.
(Does this sound familiar to Resnick readers? It should. I based Solomon Moody Moore, the sort-of-protagonist porn kingpin of my 1984 science fiction novel, The Branch, on Ruby.)
Anyway, I found that I was surrounded by millionaires. Ruby paid handsomely for what he wanted. We had an immediate conflict, because I wouldn't give him what he wanted. (No, it had nothing to do with hardcore...which I also wouldn't give him.)
If you worked for Ruby, you were paid far better than anyone else in the field would pay you for the same job...but there was a stipulation, mentioned once and never again, and never written down -- and that was that of all the hundreds of people in the organization, the writers, the editors, the distributors, the comptrollers, the office managers, the stock boys, everyone was expected to take the fall before Ruby went to prison. Your family would be well-taken-care-of, your job would be waiting for you when you got out, it was understood that almost no one would ever be locked away for more than 18 months with good behavior and better lawyers -- but that was the deal. If you wanted to be a young millionaire, you agreed to take the fall.
I didn't -- and I never got to be a young millionaire. He never considered firing me and hiring someone who would take the fall. That wasn't the way Ruby worked. But while others were making half a million a year or more, I was making maybe $75,000 to $100,000 -- which was great pay for a kid in his 20s who was still learning how to write and edit, but paltry compared to what I could have been making had I agreed to his terms.
Ruby had a huge Christmas party every year in Cleveland. (Why Cleveland? Well, he grew up there -- and more to the point, Ohio, at that time, didn't have extradition treaties with other states except for capital crimes...so as long as he didn't distribute his products in Ohio, he couldn't be arrested or "deported".) The party lasted two or three days. During the course of it, each employee had a meeting with Ruby. They never lasted as much as five minutes. If your division -- be it tabloids, smut movies, peep shows, bookstores, whatever -- had made as much or more than Ruby thought it should during the year, you were re-upped for another year. If not, you were fired. Simple as that.
We all feared those Christmas parties, yet I only knew two or three people who got fired in the five years I packaged tabloids for him.
When it became obvious the tabs were making money -- lots of money, once Ruby finished paying off his brother with their profits -- it came time for a raise. Ruby didn't want to give me any more money, but he wanted to reward me somehow, and finally he hit on the perfect solution: he gave me the classified ads in the backs of the papers. You know, the ones that read: "Oversexed leather-loving lady wants to meet middle-aged man for French, Greek, golden showers, s & m. No freaks." That kind of ad. The man answering the ad would write a letter, put it in an envelope, seal it, put our code on it, and send it, along with a dollar bill, to a post office box I had rented.
The next year he gave me Doc Johnson, a fictional black man in a Elijah Muhammed hat who published a 32-page book, with a 3-digit number after every name, color, city, state, whatever, that I could think of. Doc sold his book (out of a different post office box) to numbers players, and I got a free half-page ad in each issue of each tablid.
While I refused to do hardcore or play fast and loose with any laws, that didn't stop the rest of the crew -- or Ruby himself. One of the staff's favorite stories concerned the day that Ruby was coming home from Europe with a suitcase full of hardcore porn movies featuring farm animals and teenaged girls, movies that would be duplicated and sold in all his stores. The British authorities had been tipped, and as he stopped at Heathrow to transfer planes, they converged on him and asked him with he had in his bag.
"Home movies," said Ruby calmly.
They screened a couple of his home movies, threw him out of the country, and told him that neither he nor any member of his family would ever be allowed into Britain again.
Ruby's headquarters was a large, nondescript office building -- the lower floor was a warehouse -- at 2075 East 65th Street. It probably hasn't existed for years now. I would be flown to Cleveland twice a year on average, and I learned after a couple of trips never to tell the cabbies where they were taking me until we were more than halfway there and it was financially unfeasible for them to drop me at a corner without being paid. Otherwise they would refuse to let me into their cabs at the airport. Evidently -- once there I never left the building except to go home, so I am reporting this as second-hand information -- it was in one of the worst and most dangerous areas of Cleveland. Ruby chose it expressly for that reason -- not for the low rent, but because he could hire an abundance of inexpensive, cop-hating lookouts in case of a bust.
Usually he had ample warning of a raid. Once he didn't, and at the last second he dove head-first into a chute to the warehouse, slid down into an open truck, and escaped under a pile of obscene magazines.
He was also a realist. I remember one morning I had just flown in, and he told me that Greenleaf's Bill Hamling and his editor, Earl Kemp, were going to jail. I asked why, since they hadn't even been busted yet. He showed me their latest -- an illustrated edition of the President's Commission's Report on Obscenity.
"But it's legal," I said. "Anyone can publish it. The government doesn't copyright anything it prints."
"They won't get them on obscenity," said Ruby. "But they'll get them on something -- maybe a postal violation."
He was adamant -- you simply couldn't illustrate that report while Nixon was in office...and sure enough, he turned out to be right.
Ruby had a girlfriend, and when the tabloids went semi-monthly and he added a fourth title -- Swing -- she became my assistant editor, which really meant co-packager, since every photo belonged to one of Reuben's companies and every article was house-written (i.e., Resnick-written).
At that point it was raining money, and I decided that if we could keep it up for a year I could finally get the hell out of the field -- I wasn't ashamed of it, but I found it distasteful, and it took up so much of my time that I wasn't getting much serious writing done.
We came close. I think it lasted ten months. The girlfriend discovered a younger version of Ruby -- his son, who had recently entered the business, and left Ruby for him. Ruby's gentle way of retaliating was to sell the tabloids to a friend in Chicago who was so cheap that neither I nor the ex-girlfriend could afford to work for him.
In a way I was relieved. I'd have liked a month or two more of that phenomenal cash flow, but it was time -- long past time, really -- to get out of the field, and from that day in early 1976 to this, I have never written under a pseudonym again.
I totally lost touch with Ruby. I exchanged holiday cards with Joe for a few years -- he was the Sturman I always considered a friend -- and then one day I heard that the feds had finally gotten Ruby the same way they got Al Capone: for tax evasion. I never understood why. It was all a game to him. He was worth well over $100 million, had invested in a number of shopping malls, indeed had more invested in legit businesses than in pornography. How much better could he be living by not reporting a few million dollars of income? (But the feds were the opponents, and therefore the rules of the game made it mandatory that he lie to the IRS.)
Then came the most bizarre incident of all. It made all the papers, even the Wall Street Journal. Ruby, who was maybe 70 and serving so many consecutive terms that he was never going to get out, sued his lawyer.
Because, claimed Ruby, the lawyer had told him they could buy one of the jurors, Ruby gave him half a million to do it, and the lawyer pocketed the money.
You ready for the wild part? Ruby won his suit!
Oh, he didn't get released -- he was guilty as, you should pardon the expression -- sin. But his lawyer wound up just down the cell block from him.
Then I heard that he'd developed Alzheimer's, and shortly thereafter he died of a stroke.
Do I regret working for him?
Well, I'd rather have been a bestseller at 23, but thanks to Ruby I had a large, lovely house on 5 acres in my mid-20s, we took trips all over the country, we were able to breed and extensively exhibit our show collies, I was able to buy my 7-year-old daughter a horse, and the whole time I worked for him I never had to worry about paying my bills.
Or going to jail, for that matter.
Regret it? Hell, no. Here I am, three decades later, still telling stories about him.