When he answers the door, he is shirtless and unshaven, an old man with a bulldog's underbite but no front teeth. "Ah, shut up, you!" he growls at his barking dog. The dog shuts up but leaves a puddle between its legs. "Ah, now you peed on the floor!" he shouts. And the dog pees some more. There are dog and cat puddles everywhere, all of which account for the choking smell. "Don't step in that," says the old man, and I follow him into the living room.
The television is the most expensive piece of furniture in the house. Now and always, the television is on. Here, with the blinds drawn, the old man's habit is to lie on that long, stained couch, gazing at the television until he falls asleep, sleeping until the television wakes him. Sleeping with the cats that never see daylight. Sleeping with that cowering, incontinent dog.
His brain waves flow more freely at night, he says, so that is when his best ideas come to him. One of them has transformed his living room into the headquarters of what he hopes will become a great philanthropic organization. With this in mind, he dials the number for the homeless mission. Scratching his belly, he waits for an answer.
"Are you the lady in special projects? My name is Alan Berrent," he says. "I got a program that can raise about $100 million a year. I want to come down and show you what we're doing."
Thinking it might get him some pull, he also mentions that a reporter from the Houston Press would be there to document the occasion. He tells the Houston Food Bank the same thing, which prompts Jackie Pontello, the Bank's associate director, to call the Press.
"Who is he?" she wants to know. "What is he?"
Well, ma'am, I tell her, he is not nobody. Alan Berrent has a fine reputation, as a pornographer. And not just any pornographer, mind you, but one who claims to have coined the phrase "taking it pink," if you know what that means. He says he did just that as a crack member of Larry Flynt's team, back in the early days of Hustler magazine.
If not for a bit of Flynt treachery, Berrent believes he'd be a rich and possibly famous pornographer now. Instead, he went on to other glory, winding up his career in adult entertainment as the manager of a live sex show in New York. About 12 years ago, after a heart attack, he came to Houston to live with his son. Sixty-eight years old now, Berrent works as a telemarketer selling living trusts. His body is a bag of things that don't work. As lonely people do, he'll tell you all about it. There are heart problems and prostate problems, a spastic colon and diabetes. Perhaps cruelest of all, he's impotent.
Three times Berrent almost died, and when he didn't, he became convinced that Someone had work for him to do on earth. He didn't get overly religious or anything, but Berrent did resolve to perform one good deed before he died. He believed the sex business had wrecked him, and he began to feel that sex was wrecking the world. Wishing to undo the damage he believes he caused at Hustler, he conceived of an elaborate plan to salvage the lives of young unwed mothers. Lest anyone think he's just scamming to get these mamas naked, he decided to come clean about his past. Coming clean was the main thing: The more he talked, the more it seemed he was working not just for the salvation of despairing mothers but for the sudden metamorphosis of himself, the miraculous end game that would make him a respectable man. But it hadn't happened yet. To the question, who is he, the answer was still, a broken-down old pornographer.
Taking this in, Jackie Pontello was disappointed. How rare it is that someone offers large sums of money to help people who need it. She had hoped the caller was an eccentric millionaire.
In Meyerland, the lawns on his street are a uniform carpet, dappled with flowers of many colors. But there are no flowers in his yard, and the lawn is patchy. Surely, the neighbors know there's something irregular about the man in the brick house. He keeps the blinds drawn, but still he's exposed.
Inside, Alan Berrent lay on the soiled couch, with his head propped up so he could see over his belly. "There is nothing you will ever do, or even think of doing, that I haven't done," he said.
His parents owned a jewelry store, and the family split time between a Manhattan apartment and a summer home on Long Island. Berrent attended private schools and grew up believing that one must give back to the world. That was his intention, after he became rich.
About a year before graduating, in 1951, he dropped out of NYU and married his 16-year-old girlfriend. He invested his grandfather's inheritance in a silk-screening business that flopped. He took a job overseeing the production of direct-mail advertisements, which led to another job helping to create catalogs for department stores. He gathered the art, wrote the copy, did the layout and took everything to the printer. It was just like putting out a magazine. There were even models. Sex with models was not very interesting, but it was expensive: The wife he loved left him in 1959, and he lost touch with their two children.
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.
So consumed was he with the art of porn that he never participated in the sex around him. He watched Linda Lovelace crawl beneath Flynt's desk to audition for a pictorial. He was aware that many of the dancers at the club were available for love. But in his devotion to porn, Berrent was monastic. He said he kept his eyes on the pictures.
Women's groups began protesting, and the more attention they drew to Hustler, the more it sold. "I ended up looking at 2,000 pussies a week," Berrent said, with his toothless smile. When he told Flynt he needed help, Flynt offered his wife, Althea, and Berrent taught Althea everything he knew.
He received for his labor $300 a week, but there was an agreement, he said, that if Hustler ever took a profit, Berrent would get 10 percent of it. The magazine was enormously in debt when the deal was made, however, and not wishing to be held responsible for that debt, Berrent always worked as a consultant. His name was never listed in the masthead, and he never got his deal in writing.
In his book, Flynt claims Hustler was profitable within nine months. Berrent didn't know about the profit until everyone did, after Jackie Onassis became a Hustler model. In a small boat offshore a Greek island, an Italian photographer had floated for days, peering through a long lens. When Jackie O. pranced naked into the sun, the photographer must have believed this was the biggest catch of all. But fearing an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit, Playboy and Penthouse refused to buy. Four years passed, during which the Supreme Court ruled that it was no invasion of privacy for a public figure to be photographed in the public domain. Word of the photos circulated through the porn business. In 1975, Flynt consulted his lawyers and contacted the photographer. The original price of $100,000 had been dropped to $30,000, and Flynt haggled it down to $18,000.
Vendors who had been queasy about displaying Hustler clamored for the Jackie O. edition. All of them were required to sign a one-year contract. "Batabing bataboom!" said Berrent -- from about 6,000 stands, Hustler suddenly appeared on 19,000. In August 1975, Hustler published a story on Jackie O.'s marriage that never mentioned the nude photos it surrounded, and that could arguably be said to have redeeming social value. The magazine was devoured. Jackie O. sold five million copies of Hustler. Even the governor of Ohio was caught buying one.
Three months later, just before he went to the distributor to collect his first million-dollar check, Larry Flynt told Alan Berrent his services would no longer be required. They began fighting, says Berrent, each pornographer struggling to get to his desk to get his gun to end the life of the other. Then Berrent realized his gun was in his car, and he fled without revenge, or anything at all.
"I don't like my veracity questioned," said the honorable pornographer. But when pressed, Berrent offered the names of people who could vouch for his tale. The first was Larry Karaszewski, who said everything he knew about Alan Berrent he had learned from Alan Berrent.
Karaszewski was writing the screenplay for The People vs. Larry Flynt when Berrent called, hoping to influence him to show the damage Hustler has done. Karaszewski listened. He found no place in the movie for Berrent's story, but he thought it was probably true. None of it conflicted with Karaszewski's research, and anyway, "Why would he lie?" said Karaszewski, "Why would anyone lie about being a pornographer?"
Berrent's second reference was the vice president of Great Eastern Publishing in New Jersey, whose company printed the early Hustlers. He confirmed that Berrent was the fellow who brought the proofs and okayed the color. "Alan's got regrets?" he said. "Who cares! We don't have regrets. We're still in business." He didn't want his name published. No one does in the industry, he said, except Larry Flynt.
Hustler, by now, is the most reviled of all mass-circulation porn magazines. As he says himself in his book, Flynt is largely considered "a seedy, dirty old man." He has consumed vast quantities of women, alcohol and drugs. He's been imprisoned and shot. He roams a ten-story building in Beverly Hills that bears his name, wearing custom-tailored clothes and sitting in a gold-plated wheelchair.
In making his movie, Karaszewski asked Flynt about Alan Berrent. The response was only silence, and it was the same in this case. Notorious for his love of publicity, Flynt failed to return repeated calls to his office, and after his aide requested a faxed list of questions, he didn't reply to those, either.
His book doesn't mention Berrent at all, but it places the same events in the same places at roughly the same times, though in considerably less detail than Alan Berrent's version. Berrent said he always thought, "It was me and Larry against the world," but it was Larry and Althea. She took over for Berrent after he left. She's dead now, but Flynt credits her with his survival.
"When you love someone, and are loved in return," wrote the porn king, "even the worst times and circumstances cannot destroy you."
Berrent had allowed his catalog business to die on the vine, and he didn't have money to revive it. All he really wanted to do was what he had been doing. Deeply in love with porn, he went back to New York, a different man.
Not until he was well established did Berrent call for his family. Since he was rarely home anyway, his absence was little more evident than before. By then, his wife and children had few illusions about him.
Berrent had never realized how much there was to do in New York. Or perhaps he had simply never been inclined to do it. In any case, with his parents dead and not there to see him, Berrent sunk eagerly into the world of porn.
He found freelance work on the magazines Cheri and High Society. Eventually, he also began handling photos and production for three magazines in Canada. One of these was called Rustler, and more or less, they were all Hustler imitators. High Society's conceit was to be just as pink as Hustler but to do so with high-class girls. Berrent wound up on the masthead there as production and photo coordinator. He never saw a class distinction between the girls. Some of them had rashes on their asses, and at any rate, they were all naked.
More exciting, Berrent got involved with making porn movies. He tried acting in one ("a dismal failure," he said, without explaining why) but found his place behind a camera, snapping still shots of the action, which he made into books and sold.
He was on the set of Double Your Pleasure -- no, he stopped, that was the twins, so it must have been on the set of Pleasure Palace that he became captivated by the top porn queen in the country. He grew certain that, in a previous life, he and Samantha Fox were lovers in ancient Egypt. She became one of three lovely bisexuals who sometimes occupied his apartment.
A born-again aerobics teacher now, more right-wing than anyone except Linda Lovelace, Samantha Fox confirmed this. She said Alan Berrent was a man with a kind heart, and she confessed she had the same feeling about him and ancient Egypt. But she thinks it was the drugs.
Porn movies led to swinging, and swinging led to drugs. Berrent did cocaine to stay awake to have sex. He was a member of Plato's Retreat, one of the first on-site swing clubs in the country. It was for couples only, but you could take a prostitute and swap her for a charming wife. The wildest woman Berrent ever knew was someone he called Marian the Librarian.
Then there was the orgy where he tried freebasing for the first time. It became a thousand-dollar-a-day habit. He lost his mind, his jobs, his apartment. Without an income, he lost his wife. She threw out his Hustlers, threw out everything, threw him out in 1983. Alan Berrent became a homeless man.
He slept with friends and on benches. Mainly, he slept on the subway. He couldn't afford freebasing, so he got into crack, and did whatever was required to get it. All his connections in porn could only get him a winter job at Show World, the live-sex theater. It kept him warm.
He went into treatment, began to recover, lost his teeth in a mugging, got mugged some more and then began dialing the only son still interested in him, and sobbing into the phone. In 1986, he had a heart attack and lay on the street two hours without attracting attention. After that, his son opened his door to the father who never came home. Berrent left New York on a bus for Houston.
A dozen years later, sitting in JoJo's on South Braeswood, he tells the waitress he has diabetes and so can't eat the pancakes. He'll have sausage, hash browns, "and do you have the fake eggs?"
Life is not as fun as it used to be. Just to stay alive, he takes 18 pills a day, most of them for his heart. His heart makes sex an impossibility, which isn't to say he can't please a woman. He can, he says. The bisexuals taught him how. But that's another story....
"I want to do something good before I die," he says. "I'm trying to do something my kids can be proud of. I don't want my legacy to be dirty magazines and porno movies."
It took three months after he arrived to thoroughly detoxify. When his head cleared, he slowly began realizing his isolation, the fact that he had never in his life formed a lasting bond. He went to work as a telemarketer, selling vinyl siding, pest control, home security. And then, while driving a cab, he fell in with a group of strippers.
Going inside the topless bars didn't interest him, but he would park his cab outside and wait to take the strippers home. It wasn't a sexual thing, he says. To this day, he simply prefers the company of strippers. Straight people spend their lives concealing and playing games, but strippers have nothing to hide. Berrent finds them open and direct, and he says strippers see him as "a nice little old man." He was soon sharing a trailer with three of them.
The arrangement didn't last. They began bringing home gangs of young thieves, who gathered around Berrent "like I'm Fagin," he said. "I'm not Fagin!" He moved out, but not before getting to know his roommates and coming to a new understanding of women in porn. Looking dispassionately at these women for perhaps the first time, Berrent realized most of them had begun having sex at an early age, had gotten pregnant, dropped out of school and were now in the sex business, struggling to survive. The sex business promoted more sex; sex caused problems.
Knowing the trajectory of a life of sex, Berrent felt pity for his roommates, and he felt responsible. As he saw it, young girls were having sex because sex was everywhere -- on television, in magazines and newspapers. And it was everywhere because Hustler had knocked down the barriers. Berrent spoke as though Hustler had discovered sex, as though no one would have discovered their bodies if not for Hustler.
"I wasn't the only one," he confessed, gravely, "but I helped change the morals of the country."
He resolved to make amends. Not being the type to preach abstinence, he hoped to help people already affected by sex, namely unwed teenage mothers. Had he been a millionaire, he might have donated a few million to the cause, and let it go. Instead, great innovator that he was, Berrent hatched a plot that he thinks could bring a fortune every year.
Running a rental service for video cameras out of his car, Berrent recalled his days of shooting photos on porn sets. How nice it would be, he thought, for parents to have photos of their children's birthday parties, as well as video. So he bought a gizmo that could make photos from video, and one night eight years ago, began using it himself to make a poster for his son from an MTV video. The result was so impressive that he was sure children would buy such a thing, in huge quantities. He did his market research, going to playgrounds and asking if kids would buy posters with scenes from music videos. They all said, yeah, and Berrent foresaw huge sums of money. Surely, the music groups would donate their share of the royalties to a good cause. Berrent began conceiving a tremendous program for teenage mothers, one that would offer daycare, school and job-training for hundreds of thousands. The mothers could even earn a wage rolling the posters. Berrent christened his foundation "Kids Helping Kids."
All hope soon died when Berrent discovered technical problems in transferring video images to the printing press. But then several years ago, he read about a new technology and he tracked down the only printer in the area with that technology.
Performance Printing is one of the largest printers in town, and Butch Ellis is a clean-cut fellow in charge of company growth. When Berrent showed up about a year ago, Ellis just wanted him to go away. Berrent wouldn't go away: He talked and talked, and when Ellis began listening, he began to think there was something in this idea. Sure, computer-to-plate technology could print video images, and sure they could crank out posters of music videos. Maybe children would even buy them. But the real value that Ellis saw was how quickly this could be done -- why, within hours after the Super Bowl, posters could be on sale showing the game's greatest play, frame by frame. Ellis was sure people would buy that. Doing such things with presses across the country, he said $100-million-a-year revenues were "definitely attainable."
In developing with sample posters, Performance has invested $10,000 so far. The company has agreed to finance the start-up printing costs, if Berrent can establish the charity.
The stated mission of SEARCH is "to respond to the needs of the homeless by providing opportunities to change their lives and enhance their dignity and self-worth."
Berrent hobbled in on his cane, looking like he had slept on a bench. His eyes were bleary. His blue blazer was covered with dandruff. There was about him the unmistakable odor of cat urine. Sandy Kesseler, the executive director, had required him to wait two weeks for an appointment. She showed up half an hour late. They sat down across a conference table, Berrent leaning on his cane and Kesseler sitting with her hands folded, patiently smiling.
Berrent began with his life story. He even explained the derivation of his name. Kesseler didn't seem surprised that he had been a pornographer; she said she talks to 250 people a day who have lost their jobs. Berrent told her about the terrible effect of Hustler on himself and our world. He told her about the great technological strides in printing, and he showed her a poster. "Cute," she said. He said his program could be expanded across the country all the way to Vegas. She said, "We'd better keep you out of Vegas." He said he can raise $100 million a year. She smiled and said, "I'll bet you can do anything you set your mind to."
He'd like to funnel the money to her, he said, if she could develop a job-training program for teenage mothers. Kesseler said the shelter was quite busy at the moment. Perhaps she could refer him to someone? She stood and held out her hand.
"Thank you for thinking about SEARCH," she said. "I really appreciate that."
Berrent went home, glad he had run into someone so helpful. He had high hopes for whomever it was she referred him to.
He doesn't need money, he said. He needs help -- lawyers, accountants, teachers, anyone who cares about unwed mothers. He said I had used him for a lurid story about sex, and he was using me for publicity for the program. "So I hope you'll end the story with that 864-0900 number."
The television was tuned to a retrospective on the Playmates of the 1970s. How clean the women looked! After so many years, how healthy, how prosperous. But they were Playboy bunnies, and he was a Hustler man. He had always loved women too much, he said. That had been the problem.
The dog peed again when I stood up. Alan Berrent scolded her once more. She yawned, and reached up to him with her paws. He hugged her and smiled.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.