WHEN WOMEN talk openly about sex, it’s always big news. It was, indeed, the man-bites-dog story of the past half-decade, when Sex and the City was critically praised for breaking taboos about women and sex talk: not only do Carrie and her friends like having sex, they like talking about everything from erogenous zones to how their boyfriends’ semen tastes. Then there’s stand-up comic and actress Margaret Cho, whose one-woman shows and films such as Notorious C.H.O. entertain audiences with talk about such matters as how much she (and her mother) enjoy looking at Ass Master, a gay-male-porn magazine.
But is this new? In the 1950s and early ’60s, a group of working-class New York Jewish women — Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, and Patsy Abbott — were famous (well, infamous) for talking about sex. In fact, they said things in their nightclub acts and on their comedy LPs that Sex and the City wouldn’t dream of including. They rivaled Margaret Cho’s edgy comedy with the sheer, massive bulk of their vulgarity and indelicacy. But they have been, almost entirely, lost to history.
When I first saw ads for Gerald Nachman’s recently published Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (Pantheon), I hoped he would explore the lives and work of these women. But while he gives Barth a few begrudging paragraphs and mentions Williams a meager three times, he essentially dismisses them as "burlesque refugees" whose "material had no redeeming anything except guffaws." It’s a shame, because in their own ways, Barth, Williams, and Abbott were as radical — and political — as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, who rose to prominence in the years of these women’s decline. Often, they were also a lot funnier. Here’s Pearl Williams: This broad goes to an eye doctor. He holds up a chart with letters and says, "Can you read this?" She says, "No." He holds up another chart with bigger letters. "Can you see this?" "No," she says. He holds up another chart with huge letters. "Can you see this?" "No," she says. He takes out his schlong and says, "Can you see this?" "That I can see," she says. "Oh, that’s your problem," he says. "You’re cockeyed."
Okay, it’s hardly a great joke (although it isn’t bad), but for the time it was shocking, not just for its language, but for its intimation that women’s sexual desire was equal to men’s.
WHO WERE THESE women? Where did they come from, and where did they go? As I began doing research I found that there just wasn’t much information about them out there. I discovered that Belle Barth’s birth name was Annabelle Salzman. Novelist and historian Lisa Davis told me she had heard that Pearl Williams was a lesbian, but her informants were long dead and I couldn’t confirm the claim. A close friend told me that in the ’50s, her parents would go to business conventions in Manhattan and loved to see Patsy Abbott’s nightclub act, and that her unofficial theme song was "They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore."
Most of that, of course, is anecdotal hearsay. What we do know is that these women did not play the so-called borscht-belt clubs because women comics were, with very few exceptions, not booked in the more fashionable Catskill resorts popular among upwardly mobile East Coast Jews in the postwar years. The men who worked these resorts — Buddy Hackett, say, or the truly vulgar "Tubby" Boots — were every bit as filthy-minded and ribald as Barth, Williams, and Abbott, but the women were not welcome. Instead, they played Miami Beach, New York, and Toronto night clubs — usually the "late night" slot, when the crowds were drunker, rowdier, and more open to having a good time. Patsy Abbott (born Goldie Schwartz) had her own club called Patsy’s Place. Barth and Williams played the smaller rooms at noted hotels like the Fontainebleau or New York night clubs that were a string below the Latin Quarter or El Morocco. Barth was famous enough to land a Carnegie Hall gig, but had to censor her material. Beyond this general picture, it’s nearly impossible to track down specific information about these performers.
What we do have, however, are their LPs. Barth released 11 records on various labels, including the terrific If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends. Williams released at least nine, and Abbott, the least well-known of the three, released only two, though she may have come up with the best dirty title: Drink Up, Your Behind. These records, recorded live at the nightclubs where the women performed, were promoted as "adult party records" — often sold under the counter at record stores, and, once home, usually sequestered from the "family" LPs. They were, in many ways, part of an underground culture that offered fare not unlike the more sexually explicit comics and books of the more liberated late ’60s. But it was an underground culture intended for, and consumed by, conventional bourgeois adults, not rebellious young people. As such, these LPs not only give us surprising insights into women in the ’50s, but also expose that decade’s rarely acknowledged, explicitly woman-centered sexual underside. Everyone knows that in the 1950s, mass-circulation "men’s" magazines like Playboy emerged alongside the wholesome imagery of Father Knows Best. But in those publications, women were passive objects; these comics were anything but passive.
With titles like The Customer Always Comes First, Hell’s Belles, Pearl Williams Goes All the Way, and She’s Doing What Comes Naturally, these LPs were produced and marketed as dirty sex records. And they were not hard to find. How many records were released? It’s difficult to tell — the jacket copy often claims that an individual title sold 100,000 copies, but that may be mere advertising hype. Nachman claims that Barth sold more than two million records over the course of her career. Given how easy it is to find LPs by Barth and Williams today (they are frequently on eBay and collectible-record sites), I suspect that the number is probably higher. Certainly, taken together, the three performers may have released, conservatively speaking, more than five million records. But the real question is not how these performers got lost — lots of cultural artifacts get lost every year; it is a necessary side effect of consumer culture — but how they got to be so famous and so popular in a culture that was supposedly so repressive toward women.
Part of the explanation lies in a distinct Jewish show-biz culture descended from a tradition that allowed women more leeway in talking openly about many matters. Yiddish shtetl culture had long appreciated publicly assertive women. After all, while men were expected to stay at home and study the Torah, women were in the public sphere, the marketplace, and the street. Such publicness often lent itself to outspoken candor — especially after emigration to the US. By the early 20th century, Sophie Tucker was telling sexy stories as part of her blues singing, and 1930s torch singers such as Libby Holman were known for their explicit sexuality at a time when most American women were far more prim. It’s also worth noting that these mid-century Jewish comics played to urban audiences brought up on vaudeville and burlesque who were now patronizing far-more-respectable middle-class nightclub venues.
These women also thrived on the sexual politics of World War II and its aftermath. In 1941, when millions of American men went overseas to fight, American women were allowed into the job market and found social, economic, and sexual freedoms they had not experienced before. As in all wars, sex was also in the air — from USO canteens to street pick-ups — and such openness was enjoyed by men and women alike. Of course, after the war women were expected to get married, have children, and go back to full-time domesticity, and that’s just what many women did. But the memory of those freedoms lingered. At the same time, Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and his 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female shocked the country, even as pulp paperbacks and scandal sheets were rampant. So although part of the 1950s looked like The Donna Reed Show, another part was fomenting a quiet, but often funny and rowdy, counterculture.
In this context Barth, Williams, and Abbott could draw on a deep undercurrent of sexual exuberance and frustration, gender restriction, and class tension. In record after record, each presented a distinctly female view of sex and sexual politics. For the most part their message was, women like sex and they want lots of it. But they were not going to ask for it nicely. These were not middle-class ladies with polite vocabularies. They were tough working-class cookies who used street language. Women were "broads," men were "guys," penises were schlongs or schmucks, vaginas were "knishes," and they had no problem using words like "bitch," "faggot," or "asshole." This down-and-dirty vocabulary gave them a public language in which to talk about sex, one understood by everybody. As Pearl Williams regularly chided her audience: Women come in here and sit at the tables up front, and I can hear them whispering, "Oh, she’s so dirty! She’s so dirty!" Well, if they’re so pure, how the hell do they know what I’m talking about? People want to know where I learn all these words. I went to a grammar school one day and went up to the bathroom. There they were, right on the wall.
These comediennes also placed enormous emphasis on the body: they were obsessed with the material, living reality of flesh. Barth would proudly proclaim: Hey, I’m 65, I’m fat, and I can still take five guys a night. I pay them now, but that’s okay. And of course, much of this comedy focused on genitalia. Barth offered a typical routine: A little old Jewish grandmother is walking with her grandson. The little kid has to pee. She walks him to the curb and takes his little thing out of his pants and lets him pee. He finishes and she holds his dickie and says, "What a beautiful little thing. It’s so precious. It’s going to make your wife so happy. It’s worth a million dollars." Suddenly a drunk comes over from across the street and takes out his schmuck. "Hey lady," he says, "can you give me an estimate on this?"
It’s an old joke, mixing the Jewish-pawnbroker routine with the Jewish-grandmother gag, but Barth makes it work with her timing, her casual coarseness.
What is fascinating in so much of this material is the constant commentary on the foibles of Jewish women and men. Williams: What’s the difference between the Italian wife, the French wife, and the Jewish wife? When the Italian wife is having an affair, she says, "Mamma mia." When the French wife is having an affair, she says, "Ooh-la-la" When the Jewish wife is having an affair, she says, "Jake, the ceiling needs painting." Williams and Barth constantly take digs at Jewish women who do not like sex, because to them that is unnatural — women should love sex. But they also attack men. Williams: What’s the definition of a coward? It’s a man who wakes up in his wife’s armpit and he’s scared to open his eyes. Barth: Definition of a schmuck: a guy who steps out of the shower to take a piss.
When they are not talking about sex, they always come back to issues of Jewish upward mobility, with its attendant class competition and ambivalence. Williams: Did you know there’s a new Jewish holiday? It’s October 21, the day the new Cadillacs go on sale. Barth: There was two little minks in the woods. A hunter comes by and shoots one and aims at the other. The first mink turns to his friend and says, "See you in shul." In an era when many Jews found themselves moving ahead in the world (and into a less oppressive, and less blatantly anti-Semitic, culture) these women were quick to puncture their pretensions.
Woven through all their favorite themes, however — and this is most striking — is a persistent tone of anger, even fury. Barth, Williams, and (to a lesser degree) Abbott lash out at their audiences. Their sex jokes often involve humiliation (mostly of men) and frequently involve images of castration, often where women somehow hurt their partners’ schlongs during sex. They are angry at women, angry at men, angry at Christians (who usually appear in the form of goyim or big brutish Texans). Of course, in the years after the Holocaust there wasn’t a lot to laugh about, particularly in political life. But if Jewish humor is about survival, these broads were surviving with a vengeance.
IN MANY WAYS, these mid-century Jewish comediennes were on the cultural frontlines, commenting on the rapidly shifting sexual and class mores of early–Cold War America. Like Lenny Bruce, they were able to pinpoint perfectly what made their (predominantly Jewish) audiences uncomfortable and then make them laugh about it. The obvious difference between Bruce and someone like Barth was that he clearly had a broader social agenda — national politics, race, censorship — which he addressed from the outside, while she remained on the inside, a cultural provocateur who relentlessly needled her audience from the bedroom rather than the street.
But why did Lenny Bruce last and Belle Barth fade into oblivion? Clearly the issues Bruce took up were considered more serious. Also, the role of women in American society began to evolve. Barth, Williams, and Abbott were remnants of a late-’40s sensibility whose humor and anger resonated throughout next decade. But by the end of that decade — as the ’60s approached and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was on the horizon — humor for women changed. The irony is that it didn’t become more liberated. In the "repressive" ’50s, Barth told schmuck jokes and bragged about her sexual conquests. In the more "liberated" ’60s, by contrast, the major women comics — Betty Walker, Phyllis Diller, and Joan Rivers — joked about women trapped at home and hating their husbands and kids. They weren’t exposing women’s plight à la Betty Friedan; they were just making fun of it.
Besides, the comic Zeitgeist also changed: it became less loud, less pushy, less overtly angry. And when it was angry, it was ironic, hip, and cool: comics like Jackie Mason, Shelly Berman, and Mort Sahl had taken over the comedy field — which had moved from the nightclub to the coffeehouse — and redefined stand-up humor as exclusively political and social, rather than personal. The high times for Pearl, Belle, and Pasty were over. It was unhip to be coarse, it was uncool to be vulgar, and it was no longer okay for women to talk about enjoying sex.
It would be all too easy to claim that Sex and the City and Margaret Cho are direct descendants of these bawdy women. But it is a hard line to draw, since most people have never heard of Williams, Barth, and Abbott, much less listened to their LPs. There is, however, one clear conduit between them and contemporary comedy: gay-male culture. I first heard of Belle Barth in the 1970s when Bette Midler — in her raunchy Divine Miss M persona — would evoke her name as she tossed Barth’s signature putdown line at people who talked during her show: "Shut your hole, honey. Mine’s making money." And I first heard some of Barth’s and William’s more raunchy jokes in drag-queen routines, but their targets had become gay men, not Jewish women.
In her essay "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag observed that modern cultural sensibility is made up of two strains: Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aesthetic irony. It makes perfect sense, then, that the spirit of Barth, Williams, and Abbott would end up in gay bars. For all their vulgarity, these women were angry that they couldn’t be themselves; they were in revolt against a society that increasingly told them not to be loud, not to be vocal, not to be angry, and not to be sexy. Their revolt was political, moral, and ultimately very serious. Is it any wonder that post-Stonewall gay-male culture would find its voice in the sentiments of those dames?
Little surprise, then, that the most visible spiritual legacy of these Jewish comediennes — Sex and the City — is often described as a gay-male show about straight women, and that Margaret Cho’s audience is predominantly queer. Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, and Patsy Abbott may be gone, but their sharp, overtly sexual voices continue to resonate, waiting to be rediscovered by a whole new audience.
Michael Bronski’s most recent book is Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: August 15 - August 21, 2003
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