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January 20, 2017 06:14pm
Thoughts About Bill Margold
Source: Letters to the Editor
by: John Minson

Bill Margold British writer John Minson remembers his friendship with Bill Margold, who died on 17 January 2017:

Bill Margold never liked to stray far from his apartment; a trip from West Hollywood to the Valley in his battered but beloved VW camper van seemed to mark the limits of his comfort zone, if not the boundaries of his world.

In 1988, though, he came to London, England, to help promote the book 'Porn Gold' - for which he was a key interviewee - and to debate hard-core, which was then illegal in Britain, in a late night television programme.

It was an appearance which remains in the memories of many who saw it, not least for the manner in which Margold lashed into the meek-mannered representative of a pro-censorship pressure group.

As Margold gleefully recalled years later, the more this polemic pummelling continued, the more his prim and proper victim lowered his head, until it seemed that he was trying to vanish into his own crotch.

I recall watching in awe as Margold played the part of the brash pornographer to perfection. "What an asshole," I thought; immediately followed by the realisation that, "I have to interview this guy."

It took several phone calls to track him down but eventually I got through to his hotel.

Of course Bill never ever turned down an opportunity to voice his opinions but this time there was an even more pressing matter; he was flying home the next morning and had no idea how to get to the airport.

The one time he had left the hotel, he told me, he had immediately got lost. If I promised to deliver him safely to his plane, he would talk into my cassette recorder.

Now this was not at all what I expected from the apparently self-confident figure who had verbally eviscerated a foe on national television a night or two earlier.

Intrigued, I agreed to meet him at his hotel early the next day. And so began a wonderful friendship which lasted until Bill's shockingly sudden death, last Tuesday.

Bill was a great interviewee. No wonder he was such a favourite for writers and video makers. Having been a journalist himself, he understood just what reporters required and supplied them with a stream of memorable quotes and sharp observations.

He would talk about the adult business to anyone who would to listen. He loved - indeed he lived - to spread the 'gospel of X'.

As he talked to me, almost 30 years ago, I came to realise that the portrait of the porn business which was peddled in Britain by strident moralists and vote-hungry politicians was downright dishonest.

We met again, first in Las Vegas, then in Los Angeles; and as I got to know him better a change took place. I was no longer an interviewer but... well, what was I?

Maybe I was conducting a sociological or ethnographic study... except that I didn't have any sort of methodology so it would be self-deluding to lay claim to those disciplines.

Maybe I was like Dante, guided through the circles of 'hell', with Bill as my Virgil? After all, didn't he refer to the world of porn as the 'playpen of the damned', not for religious reasons but because society damned its inhabitants? But that sounds even more pretentious.

No, the answer was much simpler. We had become friends, to the extent that, whenever the desire to escape my boring life in Britain became overwhelming, Bill would invite me to stay in his apartment and share his world for a week or two.

As I've said, Bill loved to be the centre of attention, always holding court, but during these visits he was incredibly generous in expanding my experiences and making introductions.

He would ask people he knew to let me visit their shoots. Or he would tell a porn legend, "You should talk to my friend from England." Through him I got to meet performers and film makers and came to understand what went into making a porn feature.

He even acted as matchmaker on one visit. Gruff and direct, Margold made an unlikely cupid but, as he put it, "You two looked like lost souls who needed each other."

Maybe it's not unlikely though. The idea that there was a 'family of X' was very important to Bill. It was a bond that ran deeper than flesh and blood relations. That is why I was elated the first time Bill called me 'kid'..

Thanks to Bill looking out for me, I was accepted into that 'family of X' and, even if I was that distant relative who only drops by to visit once in a blue moon, I got to spend time with many wonderful, creative, independent individuals.

Years later, when Boogie Nights was released, I couldn't help thinking that Paul Thomas Anderson had, in part, based Burt Reynolds' benevolent father figure Jack Horner on Bill.

Bill also loved the fans of porn - who he thought were all-too-frequently treated in a shabby manner by the industry - so he brought them and their favourites together for the gloriously informal Fans of X-Rated Entertainment shows.

And, at the Legends of Erotica ceremonies, at Showgirl Video in Las Vegas, the fans got to honour the greats of porn's golden and silver eras because, as Bill pithily put it, "There is no future if you fail to pay homage to the past."

Not all his events were trouble free. I was there at the notorious Las Vegas lingerie show when undercover police sat for several hours - diligently watching striptease after striptease - before arresting Bill and the performers, Nina Hartley among them.

Released from jail the next day, Bill joked that it was no worse than juvenile hall, where he had served time as a teenager and also worked as an adult.

My proudest memory, though, is of the time that I stayed with Bill when he was in the process of creating Protecting Adult Welfare.

The organisation was his response to an industry suicide. As he put it, with characteristic bluntness, he didn't want to see any more deaths because, "Death hurts".

He felt there was a need for a counselling phone line, with people inside the industry training to provide non-judgemental advice and support, based on their first hand experience, in a manner that general helplines could not match.

I was there at one of the first - I think maybe the very first - PAW meeting; and I am proud that Bill made me an associate board member.

On subsequent visits, I attended the counselling training sessions and it was an honour to be part of that group of industry people who were giving up their Sunday mornings to help their peers.

Bill had no illusions that the adult business was for everybody; his approach was to try to dissuade would-be performers until he was convinced that they belonged in the 'playpen of the damned'.

Don't do it for the money, he would say - you spend that. Don't do it for the sex - it's a performance, fucking in positions that monkeys would envy.

In Bill's eyes, the only justifiable reason to become a porn performer was a streak of rebellion, a dash of exhibitionism and a desire for the immortality that being recorded on film or video accords.

Even that immortality comes at a cost though, he warned. "How are you going to explain to your children why mummy has a candle stuck up her ass? You were playing the part of a birthday cake?"

This attitude would surely surprise the general public; and anti-porn campaigners would probably dismiss it as disingenuous; but I witnessed in practice.

One year, at a mass casting call, Bill pointed out a quiet and nervous looking newcomer to me. "Find out why she wants to get into the business," he told me. "I don't think she should be here."

He did not want anybody to enter the industry without fully understanding what they were getting into and thinking through the consequences.

Bill's business card famously read, "God created man, William Margold created himself". On the surface, it sounds ludicrously arrogant; but Bill was fully aware of the hyperbole.

I think maybe he was also acknowledging that there was an element of performance to the Bill Margold who presented himself as the voice of pornography.

In fact, I think that Bill created several versions of himself. He could be loud and crude, he could relish playing the bad boy - both in his film roles and when he took on perceived enemies within the business - but he could also be warm and generous and even sentimental.

I'm not entirely sure that I ever got to see what truly lay behind his various personae. But I think that on one occasion I came pretty close.

It was evening, in Santa Monica, as dusk fell, and we sat on the edge of the beach, listening to the Pacific as the sky turned indigo and lights twinkled on the pier, chatting before heading back to Hollywood for dinner.

Bill reminisced about his childhood and teenage years; how he had been born in Washington, son of an influential judge who had died suddenly of a heart attack; how his mother had relocated with him to the West Coast, where he had trained to be a competitive swimmer, eventually rebelling against the punishing regime; about being in juvenile hall and then teaching there...

He talked about life. And he talked about the passing of time and about death.

Bill Margold may have created himself but he didn't have any illusions that he was immortal. Indeed, I think he might have been surprised that he had lived so long.

Death - especially when it is sudden and unexpected - makes us take stock. Since I learned of Bill's passing I have thought a lot about all the incredible experiences which I had thanks to his generosity.

The more I've thought about him, the more I've realised what an incredibly complex person he was.

The Bill Margold I've tried to represent here may not even be recognisable to people who encountered other facets of his character, especially if they were the target of his wrath.

(As I was once. It was quite an experience. I still don't quite know what his beef was but I suspect that he simply wanted an argument. So he barked at me and I barked back. Then I stormed out to the Tower Records on Sunset Blvd, wondering if I'd have a place to stay that night. But when I returned, an hour or so later, it had all blown over and friendship was restored.)

Bill was my mentor and he was my friend - as good a friend as ever I've had. He had his flaws - don't we all? - and we didn't always see eye to eye, but he taught me what it means to be a mensch.

Bill Margold was a mensch and I feel blessed to have known him.

I can hear his voice - the growl of a bear but a benevolent one - as he'd ask "What's up, kid?". Or his laugh as he found humour in some absurdity or other along this crazy-paved path we call life.

But it's only a voice in my head now because he has gone. And, as one of his kids - albeit one who is older than Bill was when I first met him - I must now strive to embody those good things that I learned from him.

Thank you, Papa Bear. You gave more to me - and, I suspect, to your other kids - than you can ever know. Farewell, my dear friend.

HardArt Films

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