Accidental Sexologist

When he was young, William Simon wanted to change the world. The late University of Houston sociology professor changed the way we view sex instead.

Back in 1986, when the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality gave University of Houston sociology professor William Simon its distinguished achievement award, he joked, "It's because I'm the only person who has succeeded in making sex both dull and unprofitable."

By helping this often taboo subject to seem more commonplace, Bill -- who died of cancer late last month just one day past his 70th birthday -- not only helped change how academics look at human sexuality, he also helped expand what kind of sexual expressions ordinary American citizens may view in the media. Famously persuasive, he was an early champion of gay rights and of a more tolerant view of all sexual behavior. He wrote or co-wrote books and a flood of academic papers arguing that sex was just another thing people learned how to do. He expounded his views everywhere, from a cover story he wrote in Psychology Today to analyses he co-wrote for Playboy's studies of homosexuality and of American men. By testifying as an expert witness in obscenity and pornography trials, both nationally and locally, he helped win cases that broadened the bounds of what sexually explicit depictions the law would permit consenting adults to watch.

A three-column New York Times obituary July 29 observed: "Dr. Simon ... brought a postmodernist sensibility to a field long bound by historical assumptions. His view was that there are no fixed points in the geography of sexuality, merely an ever-changing terrain that has less to do with biology than with accidents of history. "The most important truth about sexuality is that there may be no important truths about sexuality that are permanent,' he wrote in his last book, Postmodern Sexualities (Routledge, 1996)."

Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Dick Jaffe: Bill "did become a lightning rod" at the University of Houston.
Deron Neblett
Dick Jaffe: Bill "did become a lightning rod" at the University of Houston.
Standing up for civil rights: Bill speaks at a rally at Southern Illinois University.
Standing up for civil rights: Bill speaks at a rally at Southern Illinois University.

For the past six years, I counted Bill Simon among my best friends. My wife and I went with him and his wife, the painter Lynn Randolph, to movies and art openings and on other excursions. We were weekend guests in their Museum District home, and we regularly invited them to ours in Galveston. In those visits and others, Bill shared a lot about himself and his times. But until Lynn suggested that I write his obituary, I didn't know the half of it.

A handsome, olive-skinned man with a gray beard and mane of naturally jet-black hair, Bill was that rarest of breeds in Houston, a public intellectual with a passionate commitment to progressive causes. If you lived in or near Houston for any part of the past quarter century, you probably encountered him in the media. He was quoted in scores upon scores of newspaper interviews. If you read the Houston Chronicle, The Houston Post or The New York Times, you probably saw his frequent quotes and analyses about a range of urban subjects or, less often, his own political polemics on local op-ed pages. If you listened to KPFT-FM, you may have heard his deep, mellifluous, somewhat ironic voice when he co-hosted the Sunday-evening left-of-center political show, Class Notes. And if you watched local public television, you may have seen him on panel interviews or, in the late 1970s, in a prize-winning, socially conscious documentary series called The Invisible City.

Bill was as much an urban philosopher as a sociologist of sex, and reporters sought him out on any number of issues. They knew they could count on him to say something profound, unexpected, quotable or funny -- or maybe all four at once.

Once in the early 1980s, I asked him about some Houston controversy I was covering for the now defunct Dallas Times Herald. Struggling with where on the ideological spectrum to place this man whose elitist tastes seemed so at variance with his plebian politics, I finally asked how he would label himself. "You want a label?" he said. "Well, I'm a Neiman Marxist."

Back then I had no hint that Bill was an eighth-grade dropout and onetime Detroit auto assembly-line worker. Nor did I know that he'd earned a Ph.D. from the nation's top sociology department without a high school diploma, much less a bachelor's or master's degree. Or that as a young political radical struggling to support his family, he had been hounded by the FBI, losing one job after an agent visited his employer. Many were aware that he once worked for Alfred Kinsey's famed Institute for Sex Research, where Bill employed modern statistical methods to study the 1960s sexual revolution while it was happening. But few knew that he was an author of a sweeping theory of sexuality that stood the ideas of Kinsey -- and Freud as well -- on their heads.


Bill came to Houston in 1975, in the middle of the city's last energy boom. He was well grounded in municipal issues and had been hired to head the short-lived Institute for Urban Studies, then affiliated with the University of Houston, which he ran for its final couple of years. His blunt warnings about Houston's growing pollution and its neglect of the poor and powerless, as well as his criticism of what passed for city planning, earned him a permanent place in reporters' Rolodexes but few friends in the city's business-oriented political firmament. "He did become a lightning rod," said his friend Dick Jaffe, a former associate director of Chicago's National Opinion Research Corporation, who followed Bill to the Institute for Urban Studies. "The more he did it, the more he liked it, and the more difficult it was for him." Early in his tenure here, when a headline in the Chronicle described Bill as "Houston's prophet of doom," he wore the title as a badge of honor.

Nor did Bill endear himself to Houston's bluenoses. Shortly after his arrival, he enthusiastically defended the noted Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's sexually explicit film, Salò: The 120 Days of Sodom, based on a story by the Marquis de Sade. Vice squad officers had seized the film, and the Harris County district attorney's office had prosecuted the manager of the River Oaks Theatre, where it had been shown. Bill's testimony was pivotal in persuading the jury to acquit the theater manager, according to the manager's lawyer, Greg Gladden, an ACLU cooperating attorney. With that case, Gladden said, Bill helped end the pervasive practice of local police and prosecutors deciding what films consenting adults could see in Houston.

Bill had an equally laissez-faire attitude about sexual fantasy. Back in 1992, a Chronicle writer asked him about two local researchers' rather judgmental analyses of paperback romance novels. A number of these novels featured rape scenes, and in many of those scenes the women were said to experience orgasm. "These are fantasies," Bill patiently explained. "A woman may get turned on reading about a rape. It doesn't mean she wants to be raped." Fantasies, he went on, are exciting precisely because they aren't played out in real life. Then he quoted a good friend of his, the late UCLA psychoanalyst Robert Stoller, a leading scholar on sex, deviance and gender: "The kind of things ordinary people think about while having sexual intercourse are likely to make a monkey's hair stand up straight."

After he came to Houston, Bill sometimes introduced himself as "a burned-out sex researcher," saying he'd never go back to that work. And he might never have done so. But in 1977, the Texas legislature pulled the plug on the Institute for Urban Studies. By the time Bill arrived, one knowledgeable observer said, legislators were poised to defund it because they were angry over his predecessor's numerous missteps. Certainly Bill's against-the-grain critique of boomtown Houston did nothing to change their minds. But fortunately, as part of the bargain that brought him here, Bill got a tenured professorship in UH's sociology department. There he remained on the faculty for the next 23 years -- often marginalized, some said, by his less-distinguished and less-brainy departmental colleagues, but lionized by the press and, sometimes, his peers nationally.


Bill's road to academia seems like a cross between an 18th-century picaresque tale and one of those luck-and-pluck Horatio Alger yarns -- only told from a leftist perspective. Born in New York City on July 20, 1930, Bill was the middle son of Jewish immigrants from eastern Poland who later also had two daughters. His father owned a succession of failing fruit-and-vegetable stores in the Bronx. In 1940, when Bill was ten, Morris Simon moved his family to Detroit and became a produce clerk in an open-air market. According to Bill's older brother, Myron, a literature professor emeritus at the University of California at Irvine, when Bill reached the second grade, teachers summoned his parents, complaining that he challenged their authority and would not sit still. Frequently truant, he dropped out of the eighth grade and never returned to secondary school. After that, Myron said, Bill would talk their father out of a few bucks and simply run away.

But Bill always returned to Detroit, and there, when he was 15, he led a ragtag group of adolescents to a rally protesting the appearance of a leader of the isolationist America First movement. Bill then was "a raw, rough kid from the streets," said his old friend, Seymour Faber. Cops broke up the demonstration, said Faber, who was there, and Bill piloted his little group to the front of City Hall, where they protested the policemen's brutality. That action caught the eye of a Detroit organizer for the Workers Party, who arranged a meeting with him.

Before long, Bill was a rising star in the Detroit branch of the party, a faction of the Socialist Workers Party, which took its politics from Leon Trotsky, a more democratic, intellectual and internationalist adversary of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. When Bill was still 15, he used his older brother's name and birth certificate to prove he was 18 and got a job on the assembly line at the Chrysler Corporation's Dodge Main plant. He was fired, probably for trying to organize fellow workers on behalf of the party. By age 16, he was off to organize mine workers in West Virginia with Bernice Stark, a fellow socialist whom he met on a Communications Workers of America picket line. They subsequently married, and at age 20, he fathered his first son, David. (That marriage ultimately ended in divorce, and she died in 1957.)

Members of the Workers Party and an offshoot group Bill later joined, the Independent Socialist League, engaged in endless and spirited debates, requiring extensive research. For Bill, as for other onetime American Trotskyists -- including such academic and literary luminaries as Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Dwight Macdonald and Lewis Coser -- the party polished his skills in thinking, debating, analyzing and writing.

But being a radical, even a democratically inclined one, wasn't easy. By 1948, America's so-called Red Scare period had begun. In 1949, while Bill was working nights as an IBM keypunch operator, an FBI agent advised his employer of his Trotskyist politics. The company had a U.S. Navy contract and was vulnerable to such pressure. Even though the Trotskyists were not known for spying and had a deep antipathy for Stalin's Soviet Union, "Bill had a lot of problems with the FBI," said his second wife, Marlene Bragman Simon, who was a fellow socialist and close acquaintance during this time. "And he lost that job."

As the nation entered the 1950s, it became increasingly clear to many of the party faithful that the Marxist analysis did not fit American reality. "The proletarians were not doing what they were supposed to be doing," noted another of Bill's erstwhile socialist friends, William H. Friedland, now a retired professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Instead of rebelling, workers seemed to be aping the middle class and buying houses in the suburbs.

With help from a noted literature professor and critic named Austin Warren, Bill wangled his way into college despite being a junior high dropout. His brother Myron, then an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, had shown Warren some of Bill's writings, and based on those poems, short stories and a novel-in-progress, Bill was admitted provisionally to Michigan for a year; he would be allowed to stay if his grades were good enough. He worked as a university groundskeeper and "went to class when he could," Myron said, but he ran out of money and dropped out.

In 1953, Bill married Marlene Bragman, who already had a master's degree in sociology. He re-entered the University of Michigan and began taking classes. Meanwhile, they attended an American Sociological Association meeting, where Bill's astute comments caught the ear of Reuel Denney, co-author with sociologists David Riesman and Nathan Glazer of the 1950 sociological blockbuster The Lonely Crowd. That book portrays America's evolution from an "inner-directed," individualistic society to an alienated, materialistic, "other-directed" society bent on conformity.

Denney invited the couple to Chicago, where he took Bill and Marlene to Riesman's home in Hyde Park. Riesman was a superstar in the University of Chicago's sociology department, arguably the powerhouse of American sociology departments, and he was impressed with Bill. Meanwhile, Bill had discovered that he had just enough credits from his undergraduate classes in Michigan to take a test, offered that year at Chicago for the final time, that would let him waive the entrance requirement of a bachelor's degree. "He did so well on most of the test that they decided to let him in as a master's degree student, even though he'd failed the math portion," Marlene said. Then, before he took the M.A. exam, she tutored him in math and statistics, and "he passed at the Ph.D. level." While at Chicago, Bill got a job at the National Opinion Research Corporation, where Marlene also worked. Bill based his doctoral thesis on one of the so-called longitudinal studies that he managed for NORC, one that followed college students and their career choices over a long period of time.

After Chicago, in 1963, Bill taught sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale while hanging onto his job as a study director at NORC. Among his friends and fellow faculty members there were the scientist-philosopher-inventor-designer Buckminster Fuller and futurists John and Magda McHale, the latter two of whom became UH colleagues when they headed the school's Center for Integrative Studies.

The Simons' home in Carbondale was a magnet for students, who often ate and partied there and sometimes were rewarded with celebrity guests, including the comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. "Bill was great," said then-first-year graduate student Jim Elias, now a professor of sociology at the University of California at Northridge. "We all glommed onto him because he was very charismatic, and a number of women students fell in love with him." He was a brilliant teacher and generous promoter of his students' careers, Elias said.

Always the political activist, Bill was faculty sponsor for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and a firebrand champion of civil rights. He was even arrested at a sit-in protesting segregation at a local restaurant. "He was so highly skilled and adept verbally, and so very persuasive, that you knew what this man was saying came from the bottom of his heart," said Elias's wife, sociology professor Veronica Diehl Elias.

The civil rights movement was in full bloom in the spring of 1964, when Bill drove to Miami University in Ohio. There, a civil rights coordinating group, including most of the gurus of the movement, was training college students for the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a major voter-registration campaign aimed at that nearly feudal state that repeatedly used subterfuge to prevent black citizens from voting. Attending the same meeting was John Gagnon, who'd been a fellow graduate student at Chicago. "Bill was uneasy that nobody was really saying how dangerous it was going to be," Gagnon recalled. "He thought the adults were not being very responsible." The brutal murders of three Mississippi Freedom Summer foot soldiers the following June 21 grimly confirmed Bill's fears.

Gagnon then was based in Bloomington, Indiana, at Kinsey's Institute for Sex Research, where he was studying sex offenders in prison. "Would you want me to explore your getting a job at Indiana?" Gagnon asked Bill. "He said, "Sure.' I don't think he had any passionate interest in doing sex research back then, but things were winding down for him in Carbondale."

In the summer of 1965, the Simon family, which by now included three sons, David, Jonathan and Adam, arrived in Bloomington. Bill promptly wrote a grant proposal to do a probability sample focused on the sex lives of college students and won federal funding. Then he and Gagnon landed a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for a study of personal adjustment within the homosexual community.

The institute had been founded by the late Alfred Kinsey, who was to sex research what Ptolemy was to astronomy. Kinsey, who died in 1956, had been a zoologist. Before tackling human sexual behavior, he had focused on the gall wasp. Statisticians complained that in researching human beings' sexual activity, Kinsey and his colleagues skewed their data by interviewing people who knew each other and by changing how and in what order they asked their questions, depending on their assessment of the interviewee's intellectual level. Bill and Gagnon employed more rigorous sociological methods, making the institute more academically respectable to sociologists. But they also challenged one of Kinsey's most cherished tenets: that sex was chiefly biologically driven.

Partly based on Gagnon's earlier work involving sexual behavior in prison, where it seemed as much about dominance as desire, the pair began to examine homosexual sex through a different prism. "We thought the way to look at homosexuality, like most human activity, was via the career model," Gagnon said. "How do people find and select partners and become proficient at it? We said homosexuality was like getting a job -- it was something people learned how to do in a specific historical and social context."

Ultimately, Bill and Gagnon espoused the view that heterosexual behavior, too, could be put to many social purposes. "It didn't have to be about reproduction or sexual pleasure," Gagnon explained. "We made the argument that you had to make sex interesting in order for people to do it." From there, it was a short hop to saying that sex was almost entirely social and that the biological element was but a very small part.

This view essentially turned Kinsey's biological theory on its head -- and its implications turned Freud's psychology upside down as well. When Bill and Gagnon finally presented their ideas in a book, Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality (Aldine, 1973), they caused quite a stir. Professor Robert A. Scott of Princeton, writing in the social science journal Society, called it "one of the most important sociological statements on human sexuality." In the Journal of Homosexuality, Gerald C. Davison of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, called it "one of the most important books to appear in the past 50 years." Predictably, the Journal of Biological Psychology was more restrained. "Freudian devotees and biologically minded social scientists will not be happy with this latest interpretation of sexual behavior," it warned its readers.

Despite praise for its novel ideas, even some academics found the book tough sledding. It did not attract a mass audience as had Kinsey and his colleagues' Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). And maybe that was fortunate. If the book had cracked the academic consensus that human beings' sexual preferences are hardwired, those convinced that homosexual teachers, scoutmasters and adoptive couples are hell-bent on converting children to gay or lesbian lifestyles might have used the book to argue that such conversions were easy to accomplish.

In any event, Paul Gebhard, who directed the Institute for Sex Research for 26 years ending in 1982, strongly disagreed with Bill and Gagnon's view that "human beings were the tabula rasa and that everything that happened was a result of social conditioning." But academic differences weren't the only sore points. "I was in an awkward position vis-à-vis Bill," Gebhard admitted. "Unbeknownst to me, he was a leader of the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society, a mid-1960s group that bridged the divide between the old left and the new left], and the administration didn't like that at all. I was always being told to control him or fire him."

No doubt things were even more awkward when the beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg descended on the Bloomington campus with his lover, Peter Orlovsky, and Orlovsky's schizophrenic brother, whom the pair had just sprung from a booby hatch in Kansas. Also in tow, according to Gebhard, was the cult band called the Fugs, whose hits included "Slum Goddess." They had all come, Gebhard said, "to celebrate the institute and meet with a faculty member named Alfred Lindesmith, an icon for the drug people because he was a champion for more relaxed drug laws."

Ginsberg "gave some speeches about homosexuality and Timothy Leary that outraged the citizenry," Gebhard said. At the school's main auditorium, Ginsberg also gave a poetry reading that was laced with four-letter expletives. Somewhere -- perhaps from Bill -- Ginsberg had learned that the institute had a library of films illustrating various sex acts. "Ginsberg demanded to be photographed in the act of homosexual intercourse," Gebhard said, and the institute readily obliged him. Bill once told me he was at that session, officially monitoring the sound equipment, as I recall it, because only technicians were permitted to be there.

Gebhard couldn't confirm Bill's presence, but he did defend the filmings: "How can you study a phenomenon if you can't look at it?" he asked. "Even before Masters and Johnson, Kinsey realized that if you were going to study something, you needed to film it. We took films of a selected number of people. Later Masters and Johnson and others did a lot of it, but we were the pioneers." Sociologist Jim Elias (who, with his wife Veronica, followed Bill to Bloomington) recalled a wild party honoring Ginsberg at the Simons' home in Bloomington. Was it a bacchanal? I asked. "I don't remember," Elias demurred deliberately. "It was, uh, a little bit for everyone."


Finally it was a little bit too much for everyone. In 1968 Bill split for Chicago, where he spent the next seven years as a program supervisor in sociology and anthropology at the Institute for Juvenile Research. This was a state agency charged with tracking kids in the juvenile justice system and finding out what institutions were doing to deal with youths. With the move, Bill and Marlene split up, but she went to Chicago, too, allowing Bill to remain a regular presence in the lives of his three sons. At the IJR, Bill developed a new advocacy program for children, said his friend Dick Jaffe. "I can remember him arguing with everybody about what they should be doing but weren't," Jaffe said. "He took on the City of Chicago -- he wanted better programs, but he had to deal with all the frustrations and politics of a state agency."

Meanwhile, Bill continued to collaborate with Gagnon. Over the next 17 years, they produced a total of four books, many academic papers, and co-edited a 1971 Playboy Forum on homosexuality.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bill often visited Playboy's editorial offices at the invitation of a good friend, then-Playboy senior editor and later associate publisher, Nat Lehrman. Bill also sometimes attended parties at Chicago's Playboy Mansion, which the magazine's sybaritic founder, Hugh Hefner, then occupied. Lehrman and Bill had become acquainted back when Bill was still at the Kinsey Institute, the editor explained, "because Hefner was obsessed with updating the Kinsey reports." Hefner had donated something like $200,000 to the institute to update the sex research that had been reported by Kinsey and his colleagues 15 to 20 years earlier, Lehrman said. Hefner must have been nonplussed when, as Lehrman recalled, "Bill and John [Gagnon] explained that you couldn't replicate Kinsey because the [original] work was not scientific." In 1980, with his former graduate student Patricia Y. Miller, then teaching at Smith College, Bill analyzed a Playboy-commissioned survey of almost 2,000 men between age 18 and 49. In the somewhat anticlimactic Playboy Report on American Men, Bill and Pat Miller reported that men wanted a fulfilling life but ranked sex well below health, love, peace of mind and other qualities.

After he was recruited to Houston in 1975, well before the Institute for Urban Studies lost its funding, Bill began to make his presence felt on the UH campus. In spring 1976, he spoke at a university colloquium. "We had invited the president of the American Psychological Association to come and speak on the evolution of morality," recalled Ed Willems, a professor of educational psychology. "So here came Donald Campbell, a world-renowned figure, and delivered his talk. Bill got up to deliver the response and without any notes spoke for 24 minutes. He knocked Campbell dead. It was the most wide-ranging and most carefully articulated dismantling of Donald Campbell's arguments you can imagine. He based his response in history, social-political theory, art, philosophy, philosophy of science and very, very solid references to what was happening in the social sciences. It was the most articulate presentation I'd ever heard in my life. There were about 250 people there, and when he finished, the applause was deafening."

But the warm reception was not to last. Perhaps because of his politics, candor, sharp wit and inability to suffer fools gladly, Bill was by most accounts a pariah in the school of social sciences, including in his own department, sociology. "Most of the people in his department were aware of his national and international reputation," said one UH faculty member who asked not to be quoted by name. "He far outmatched them, and they were afraid of him." Even in his final year, Bill was saddled mostly with "service courses" -- introduction to sociology and big survey classes that would ordinarily be given to younger faculty -- rather than the graduate seminars one might expect.

Still, Bill taught undergraduates in the honors college and graduate students in the ed psych department, his friend Willems said, "and students worshiped him." Willems teaches only graduate courses. "In a great number of them," he said, "I'd have Bill come in and listen to what people were thinking about and comment on it. He was a magician at doing that. He was just incredible."

Bill could see merit in students' research plans before anyone else could, Willems said: "There was a woman who wanted to do a participant-observer study of lesbian bars. No one else would let her. Bill did, and she did a wonderful study. Another student did a study of minority group men who were homosexual, and it, too, got done and turned out well. There is still another woman who, with Bill's encouragement, was attending and reporting on sadomasochistic balls. A lot of these things wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Bill."

Bill's multidisciplinary talents were often better appreciated outside UH. For instance, Adèle Santos, now a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley and an architect with a private practice, would invite him to her architecture class at Rice, and he'd be witty and provocative. "He'd talk about all facets of daily life -- including masturbation -- and the need in houses for privacy to accommodate that." Noting the startled reaction of some of her naive students, she recalled, "I'd say, "Bill, this time let's not start with masturbation.' "

In 1978 Santos introduced Bill to Lynn Randolph, whose paintings meld magical realism with social and cultural criticism. The two were almost inseparable after their first date, Lynn said. "After he met Lynn, I think he became a more mature person," said Jaffe, his friend and former colleague. "He took himself more seriously."

Bill began to write about the arts and photography and to explore individual psychology, a preoccupation of Lynn's. He took off half a year to reread everything Freud had written. Between 1986 and 1996, he wrote and revised the only book he published under solely his name, Postmodern Sexualities.

Meanwhile, Bill seemed to be enjoying his status as an elder statesman of sorts. He continued to testify in court cases, including one in the early 1980s against Texas A&M University, in which Gay Students Services sued to be recognized as a campus organization. Toward the end of the trial, Texas A&M's lawyer asked Bill out of the blue, " "Professor, have you ever engaged in homosexual conduct?' " The gay students' lawyer, Larry Sauer, said Bill shot back: "Not since early adolescence," quoting research that showed a significant fraction of adolescent boys similarly have transient same-sex contact. "Most people," Sauer marveled, "wouldn't be so honest."

"You should have seen him in the courtroom," said Chicago lawyer Burton Joseph, a special counsel for Playboy. "He had a thorough, almost encyclopedic understanding of the research but discussed it in a way that was not the least bit pretentious. What I liked about Bill as an expert witness was that he recognized that judges and juries have prejudices, like all of us, about explicit sexuality, but he'd make each judge and member of the jury examine those biases. He did it in a gentle but forceful, intellectual way, and often with a twinkle. He was serious but not somber."

The last case in which Bill testified for Playboy involved a challenge to section 505 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act regulating adult cable channels. It had to do with what's known as signal bleed, specifically in Playboy's case the fleeting exposure on blocked cable channels to partially perceptible images of sexual activity. The U.S. government contended that these half-glimpsed, indistinct erotic images would have a harmful effect on children.

In that trial, testifying before a three-judge federal panel in Delaware, Bill "totally demolished the government's so-called expert witness," said attorney Joseph. In reviewing the expert's testimony, Bill concluded that she had either misinterpreted the academic literature she cited or reported very selectively from it. Bill also said there was very clear evidence that came to an opposite conclusion from hers. "After Bill testified, the court dismissed her testimony almost out of hand," said Joseph. "It was a close case, a tough case. I don't think there's any question that Bill Simon's testimony made a crucial difference."

Bill testified in May 1998, and the panel's decision came down in December 1998. Before Bill testified, said Robert Corn-Revere of Washington, D.C., another lawyer for Playboy in that case, the three judges had rejected the Playboy's motion for a preliminary injunction. After it, the same three judges granted the motion for a permanent injunction. Last spring the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the panel's decision in favor of Playboy.


In the five months or so since his cancer was diagnosed, Bill seemed especially appreciative of his biological legacy. All three of his sons, including the eldest, David, a California electrical contractor and Buddhist convert, seem to have acquired Bill's eloquence and his political perspective. "Dad picked the right fights, even though they weren't always winnable," said son Jonathan, a University of Miami law professor who recently won a George Soros's Open Society Institute grant to show how the war on crime has corrupted our system of government. Bill also delighted in the career of his youngest son, Adam, a Hollywood writer and director who cut his directorial teeth making several Roger Corman horror films, including the cult classic Braindead. More recently, Adam was responsible for the TV documentaries The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Camera about the influential B-movie director Sam Fuller, and American Nightmare, a close examination of the horror movie genre.

As his time grew short, Bill told his wife, Lynn, "I fucked up a lot of things in my life. I'm going to do this right." By "this," he meant dying. She added, "He did, too." When a crisis landed him in the hospital the third week in June and he saw that further treatment would only prolong the inevitable, Bill checked into a room at the hospice at the Texas Medical Center. As the end neared, his sons spontaneously began to sing him some of the songs he had sung to them when they were young. Then, as he died, Lynn, Jonathan and Adam held him and sang "We Shall Overcome," the famous civil rights anthem. They paused after the first verse because they didn't know the second. Then, as if out of nowhere, a hospice nurse with a rich, gospel-trained voice appeared and led them in a verse beginning, "He shall wear a crown." Recounting the scene later, Adam mused, "If this were in a movie or play, it would have seemed completely over the top. But for Bill, it was exactly right."

A memorial service for William Simon is scheduled for October 20 at the A.D. Bruce Religion Center on the main campus of the University of Houston.

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