Parting Shot

Almost 25 years ago, graphics man Alan Berrent took Hustler "into the pink." Before he dies, he wants to make amends.

Fleeing New York, Berrent landed in Columbus, Ohio, as the production manager for the new in-house ad agency at Ross Laboratories. Negotiating with printers and buying in bulk, he saved the company a lot of money, said Beamon Pound, who worked with him. Once, to demonstrate the capabilities of a particular printer, Berrent showed up with a centerfold enlarged to monstrous proportions. Pound recalled him as "a fast-talking New York Jewish guy" -- hard-working, with a good sense of humor, and "yeah, kind of a seedy side."

Berrent married a woman he didn't love, hoping she would keep house for him. Soon, he had three more children. After four years at Ross, he went into business for himself, doing catalogs again. The work was less sexy in Ohio than in New York, but he earned a good living -- not upper-middle class, but not low class, either. Enough, at least, to have girlfriends on retainer in three cities.

He had begun getting bored with this life when, one afternoon in 1974, his son's best friend came over from across the street. "My father says I can't go in the house," the boy said. "He's taking pictures of naked ladies."

Alan Berrent felt very grateful to have such a neighbor. At the time, he was a family man, he said, though one with several families, and certainly no prude. He had in fact just watched his first porno movie. "I thought it was great," he said, "like The French Lieutenant's Woman, except you got to see everything."

In short, Berrent was not averse to naked women in the workplace, and having made inquiries of his neighbor, he was awakened late one evening and escorted into his neighbor's home. The photographer introduced him to Larry Flynt. Berrent's first impression was how unprofessional Flynt seemed, there in his Hawaiian shirt. Then Flynt threw down the first issue of Hustler magazine, and they got lost in the details. The paper was cheap. The color was poor. Worst of all, the models still had their panties on. "I don't want to sell panties," Flynt told him. "I want to sell pussy!"

Berrent began to get excited. He had always considered himself a man of large appetites and new ideas. Throughout his life, women and bosses had always told him, "You can't do that!" Now, here were women and a boss whose limits perhaps exceeded his own. "And that was freedom for me," he explained.

He worked as a consultant for Larry Flynt. At first, Berrent's duties were limited to improving production quality. But then his neighbor was found to be screwing the models, which was most unprofessional. Everyone knew Flynt liked to screw them first. Berrent replaced his neighbor as photo editor.

The headquarters of the magazine were above one of Flynt's Columbus boob bars. Berrent began spending most of his time there. The magazine had an editor, but his province was words, and no one ever bought Hustler to read. Flynt handled the marketing and distribution, and Berrent oversaw photos and production. Their offices were beside each other. Berrent thought of them as a team.

Only a few photographers then were selling nudes to skin magazines. They shot their models with panties on and legs closed, and that would not do for Hustler. "We want to go pink," Berrent told them, and when they bridled, he explained obscenity law, as Flynt had explained it to him. As long as nothing was shown going into anything, as long as Hustler continued to print one dull article an issue that could be passed off as having social, scientific or artistic value, no one would go to jail.

So photos began arriving that were brave and new, and also terribly bad. The photographers were so accustomed to face and boob shots, they left the most important part out of focus. Or they focused on the pudendum and left blurry the face. Berrent's solution was to lay the models sideways, so all flesh was in one plane of focus.

The early models were dancers in Flynt's clubs. Since their parents often didn't know the nature of their work, the dancers were wary of complete exposure in Flynt's magazine. In the fifth issue, then, it was a porno star named Serena who first offered forth her crotch. Flynt's autobiography, An Unseemly Man, describes the moment with unusual descriptive beauty: "The model's genitals were explicitly photographed -- her vagina open like a flowering rose, fragile and pink."

The photos improved, in quality and number. The magazine was Larry Flynt's vision, and Larry Flynt made all final decisions. But Berrent culled through the photos and offered the fruit of his mind and contributed greatly to the field of pornography. When nameless housewives began sending Polaroids of their crotches, it was Berrent who conceived of the "Beaver Hunt" section. It was Berrent who suggested the groundbreaking centerfold with the shaved crotch, Berrent who pushed for the first 50-year-old centerfold in the business and Berrent who plotted the pictorial of a seemingly underage girl loving an obviously old lecher.

Flynt liked to call Hustler "a one-handed book," but that seemed crass to Berrent. He became a master pornographer, and the magazine became his work of art. He arranged the photos so that each pictorial told a story -- beginning slowly with a full body portrait of a girl partially clothed, building dramatic tension until the final climax, that close-up of a naked crotch. Never mind that this plot seldom varied; at least there was a plot. Berrent saw plot as the difference between good porn and bad, or between making love and sex. Sex was for animals, he said. As a pornographer, his work was to make love -- with pictures. He never mentioned masturbation. The word trivialized the work.

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