Sin, Sex & Subversion: How What Was Taboo in 1950s New York Became America’s New Normal, (Carrel Books, February 2016) ISBN-13: 978-1631440441, ISBN-10: 1631440446
He who transgresses not only breaks a rule.
He goes somewhere that the others are not;
and he knows something the others don’t know.
“New York is not a state capital or a national capital,” E. B. White famously wrote in 1949, “but it is by way of becoming the capital of the world.” In the ‘50s, as London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Tokyo recovered from a devastating war, the Big Apple became the capital of the 20th century.
And the city was jumping! The drinking age was 18 years and bars stayed open ‘til 4 am. Celebrated nightspots like the Stork Club, El Morocco and the St. Regis Roof welcomed the big-spenders, while the Village Vanguard, Birdland and Jimmy Ryan’s hosted everyone else. Beat poets, jazz musicians and folksingers were remaking the Village. Alan Freed joined Murray Kaufman, of Murray the K’s “Swingin’ Soiree,” and Douglas Henderson, of the “Jocko, The Ace from Outer Space” show, introducing rock-&-roll to radio listeners. Mixed-race rock concerts took place in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
At the same time, the Foley Square federal courthouse was the scene of some of the nation’s major battles against sin and subversion. It witnessed the espionage trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell in March 1951; they were executed in June 1953. Also in ’53, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s held hearings on the threat posed by communist writers like Howard Fast. In ’54 and ’55, Sen. Estes Kefauver held hearings on juvenile delinquency, comic books, pornography and crime.
Sin, Sex & Subversion is an unorthodox historical tale. It argues that during the tumultuous 1950s, sex was as threatening to the nation’s moral order as communism. New York was the epicenter of two “wars“ — a “cold war” waged against subversion and a “hot war” against sin. Today, the once forbidden has become the new normal.
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Sin, Sex & Subversion juxtaposes key 21st century moral concerns to episodes fought out in the ‘50s. Each chapter is anchored in the experience of a leading social “outsider,” a person who illuminates the social struggles over moral values then taking place. Among the issues and personalities — and their link to 21st century values – to be considered are the following.
- Christine Jorgensen – gender identity;
- Bill Gaines – comic books;
- Irving Klaw — obscene image;
- Samuel Roth — pornographic word.
- Polly Adler — prostitution;
- Liberace — homosexuality;
- Milton Berle — identity;
- Wilhelm Reich — sex panic;
- Margaret Sanger — birth control.
- Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — subversion;
- Paul Robeson — race relations;
- Howard Fast — free expression;
- Frank Costello – organized crime.
Each chapter is grounded in a person who can best be described as an “outsider,” someone who pushed the boundaries of moral order.
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“Rosen takes the reader on a grand and entertaining tour of New York’s underbelly in the 1950s. By turning his incisive lens on the sexy, sinful, and subversive elements of that society he provides a clearer view of our own.”
James F. Wilson
LaGuardia Community College, CUNY
author, Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance
“No one reports from the nocturnal side of American culture with quite the verve of David Rosen. Sin, Sex and Subversion is a vivid panorama of New York City’s secret underground in the 1950s, where an alternative society evolved devoted to enthusiastically breaking almost every social taboo and cultural norm. … Rosen reminds us that this is not a dead history, but a fierce ongoing struggle that continues to reverberate in our current of age of anxiety-ridden politics.”
Jeffrey St. Clair
author, Born Under a Bad Sky
“David Rosen is the heir apparent to The Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain exposing America’s political and sexual hypocrisy. Sin, Sex & Subversion reveals how private sexual behavior has been woven into political and social posturing. It is, at once, revealing and highly readable.”
host, “Any Saturday,” WBAI (New York)
author, Fortune In My Eyes
“David Rosen has written an engaging and revealing exposé of the 1950s other New York … who knew? Drawing upon a wealth of research, he weaves together wonderfully illuminating profiles of a dozen or so legendary New York ‘outsiders’ – including Paul Robeson — to tell a compelling story that has never been told. He links defining issues of the ‘50s involving sin, sex and subversion to present struggles, showing how things change and don’t. This original tale is a must read for all New Yorkers.“
editor-in-chief, Black Star News
“A fascinating and highly informative must-read for anyone interested in the history of sexual politics and First Amendment rights. … With detailed, illuminating and engaging stories of hypocritical insiders like FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, pioneering outsiders like Christine Jorgensen and Wilhelm Reich, and a few outsiders who became insiders like Margaret Sanger, Sin, Sex & Subversion paints a vivid, complex, panoramic picture of the intersection of politics and sex in the 1950s and early ‘60s, generating a “sexual revolution.”
Dr. Susan Block
author, The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace through Pleasure
“David Rosen’s wide-ranging account of the moral panics and sexually and socially repressive policies during what Henry Miller called the ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ of the postwar United States, and the unrelenting battles on several fronts to challenge and ultimately overcome them, is especially timely in a historical moment when fundamentalisms of all varieties are on the rise.”
Queens College, CUNY
“Not just about pleasure, but also a pleasure to read, David Rosen’s Sin, Sex & Subversion is voluptuously researched, vigorously written, and vigilantly insistent that the social battles of the Cold War–from sex to racial equality to radical politics–are not vestiges of an antiquated era but rather premised on the exact same inequities we’re struggling with today. Rosen expertly recovers the past, and brilliantly reminds us that we live in an illusion if we pretend the injustices of the 1950s are part of a distant history unconnected to our own present moment.”
author, Perversion for Profit:
The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right
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JeriAnn Geller, Smart Reads, February 23, 2016:
“How did we get from Liberace, whose flamboyant showmanship was hidden under an imaginary cloak of “normal,” to Neil Patrick Harris whose artistry as a performer is as celebrated as his marriage to David Burtka and their two adorable children? The seeds of change were sown in post-World War II New York City where culture, sexuality and politics collided. Author Rosen looks at the outsiders of New York in the 50s who changed popular values and forged the trail toward the new normal.” Read more.
Michelle Martinez, New York Journal of Books
“… Using New York as ground zero, author David Rosen looks at the 1950s, an era during which two battles were fought: one against the Cold War and the other against sexual freedom.
“… The method of instruction in these chapters is fantastic. For each chapter that broadly discusses an idea, a specific individual (or place) that represents the larger is closely examined. For example, a section on sin contains chapters on comic book corruption, obscene images, and more, while also examining those individuals closely associated with the sin: Bill Gaines was influential in mature-themed comics for adult audiences. …” Read more.
- ISBN-10: 0978252683, ISBN-13: 978-0978252687
The nature of sex scandals has changed since the first days of the nation’s founding four centuries ago. Barack Obama, the child of an inter-racial marriage, is president; Ronald Reagan, a divorcee, was elected president; Thomas Jefferson’s relation with Sally Hemings or John Kennedy’s affairs with Marilyn Monroe and many others are part of presidential lore; and Bill Clinton’s “sex” with Monica Lewinsky was a political and not a sex scandal. Sex and sex scandals have changed as the nation changed and Sex Scandal America considers the social function of sex scandal and how this function has changed since America’s founding.
ISBN-10: 0802131875. ISBN-13: 978-0802131874
Off-Hollywood was originally commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project (IFP) and remains the only detailed analysis based on proprietary marketing, performance and financial data.
To Purchase Off-Hollywood, go to Amazon
Sexual Politics in the Age of Obama
Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion
Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, editors.
David Rosen contributed the chapter “Sexual Politics in the Age of Obama,” to this collection assessing Obama’s first term as president.