Porn Again

Once a national sensation, Marilyn Chambers is finally ready to retire from the porn business

Running 15 minutes late, Marilyn Chambers bursts through the door of VIP with a smile that lights the store all the way to the latex section in back. "Good morning, everyone," she says, sounding like Julie the cruise director, only with a raspier voice. "How are you all doing?"

The place is tiny and filled with about a dozen men who scrunch closer together as an equal number rush in right behind Marilyn. Inside and out on the parking lot, they've been waiting to meet a pioneer who helped make porn OK for the masses, a woman who's survived nearly 30 years in the business, much to her own amazement.

She was 19 when she abandoned Marilyn Briggs to make Behindthe Green Door, appropriating the name Chambers from a high-school classmate whose looks she admired. The 1972 movie, shot in 16mm, cost $60,000 and grossed $50 million, making it one of the best moneymakers in box-office history, a porn classic on a par with Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas. It didn't matter that Chambers didn't speak a single line. It didn't matter that she was a sexual neophyte, so nervous she smoked a joint before her first scene, a lesbian seven-way. It didn't matter that the projectionist mistakenly ran the third reel before the second at the San Francisco premiere.

Marilyn Chambers: "None of my marriages worked out. I'm very honest, brutally, to a point. Most men can't handle that."
Jennifer Silverberg
Marilyn Chambers: "None of my marriages worked out. I'm very honest, brutally, to a point. Most men can't handle that."
Procter & Gamble inadvertently gave Marilyn a publicity boost in the '70s when she was featured on a box of detergent.
Jennifer Silverberg
Procter & Gamble inadvertently gave Marilyn a publicity boost in the '70s when she was featured on a box of detergent.

It did help a lot that Procter & Gamble at the same time coincidentally started selling laundry soap in a box featuring Marilyn cradling a newborn infant, the symbol of Ivory Snow -- guaranteed pure. The company, which had shot the photo two years earlier, quickly pulled the box from shelves while Johnny Carson cracked jokes. Marilyn Chambers instantly became America's nastiest girl next door. She longed for mainstream stardom but never quite made it, coming closest with a starring role in Rabid, an R-rated 1977 horror flick by legendary cult-film director David Cronenberg, whose first choice for the lead was Sissy Spacek. But Chambers, whose acting is certainly no worse than the performances in a typical TV sitcom, proved a natural-born porn queen. Ten years after Green Door, she hit it big again with Insatiable, a 1980 release that became one of the biggest sellers in the early days of video. The film helped establish anal sex as de rigueur in the modern porn production, and it remains her favorite performance. "I felt, probably, the most beautiful," she says. "I was 28. I was healthy and gorgeous and had the world at my feet, and it showed." She commanded $100,000 per picture, a fortune in an industry known for paying $1,000 per scene to actresses willing to be penetrated in all kinds of ways for all the world to see.

Nowadays, she's 49 and still working. She looks her age -- long gone is the flat-chested Marilyn who seduced a nation with her wicked innocence. She no longer receives death threats and no longer travels with the two bodyguards who accompanied her everywhere back in the '70s. Reviews of her latest two videos, part of a three-picture comeback deal, have been mixed. Some have been vicious. "Marilyn looks old and fat and tries to cover herself using the modified extended cummerbund method in all scenes but is unsuccessful in dispelling the idea that you might need a forklift to turn her over," writes online porn critic Pat Riley in a review of Still Insatiable, released in 1999.

The arrows wound. "It hurts so bad," Chambers confesses. "They're mocking you, telling you go put your clothes back on. I can't allow that to happen. It's stupid. But they're right. Enough is enough. I'm tired. I'm tired of the bullshit. I don't mean to sound so bitter. I'm getting too old. I felt like I should have never done the last movies I've done." And so Edge Play, due for release this summer, will be her last film -- she swears.

The money is still good whether the cameras roll or not. Today, Chambers will make more in appearance fees with her clothes on than most X-rated actresses make for a 12-hour shoot. Old or not, Rubenesque or not, Marilyn still packs them in. Chaos briefly threatens as fans crowd the counter where she stands, attired in baggy ivory pants, white sandals and a loose blue shirt, mostly unbuttoned so as to highlight a baby-blue-and-white bustier that threatens to burst at any second. "We have to take it from one direction," store owner Howard Richman says as he tells the crowd to form a line. "Anyone who would like a Polaroid, they're $20, and Marilyn will autograph them for you. Who was in line first? I want to be fair to everyone."

Something is wrong -- Marilyn calls Richman into a stockroom for a brief whispered conference. She insists on signing anything fans bring to her, whether they bought the item at VIP or not. Richman agrees but says his customers get to go first. And everyone gets a signed publicity photo for free. She comes back and proclaims, "I promise I will not leave until I sign anything."

First in line is Robert A. Cohn, editor and publisher of the St. Louis Jewish Light, who professes that he's never been to this place before. Cohn has been reviewing movies more than 30 years and remembers when Green Door garnered serious attention from critics at the New York Timesand Broadway produced a musical called Let My People Comethat centered on a young woman who made her porn-star ambitions known in a song titled "Linda, Georgina, Marilyn and Me." Cohn is here because he sees Chambers as part of a progression in cinematic history, along with Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Midler and Sharon Stone. "She's clearly an important figure in the social history of the United States," Cohn says. "Early in the women's movement, the sexual empowerment of women was an important issue -- not just reproductive rights but the whole idea that a woman was entitled to a healthy and exuberant sexuality. She was an important part of the sexual revolution in that she and others empowered women to have an exuberant and spontaneous and fully enjoyable sexuality. What Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Chambers contributed was, you have these characteristics, you have these longings and these feelings. It's just as much OK for you to act on it as anyone else."

Green Door wasn't the first porn flick aimed at a mainstream audience, but it stands apart from Deep Throat and other early porn classics because of who Marilyn was, her picture on the soap box and a previous foray into the mainstream when she appeared with Barbra Streisand in The Owl and the Pussycat. "That she would be in a film of this kind was a tremendous breakthrough," Cohn says. "It was unprecedented. There was this kind of sweet spot in time where films with very, very explicit sexuality might have, quote-unquote, gone mainstream. Marilyn thought it would happen." Without films such as Green Door, the mainstream today would be a different place. "There never could have been a Basic Instinct or a Fatal Attractionor American Gigolo-- which was a quality film with Richard Gere which had full frontal male nudity -- with all that explicit sexuality had it not been for those films. They were necessary in their radical departure from the restrictions of the past to empower mainstream films to deal with sexuality."

Cohn tells Marilyn what an honor it is meet her and collects her autograph. One by one, the other men thank Marilyn for all those private moments. A fan who says he bought the first VCR sold in St. Louis confesses that he wore out two copies each of Green Door and Insatiable once he upgraded to a machine with fast-forward and rewind on the remote control. Insatiable is a constant topic. "That guy on the pool table ..." a fan begins. Marilyn knows what's coming next. "It's not Tony Danza," she answers before he can finish the question. "He has the same tattoo," the fan exclaims. And he's dead, Marilyn says, not mentioning his name and not able to recall whether it was AIDS, drugs, a combination of the two or something else entirely. "It's unfortunate," she says. "A lot of people can't survive the business. They can't." She pauses. "They just can't. It's rough."

But the mood is generally light. A portable radio beside the cash register plays oldies -- "Margaritaville," "American Pie," Sam and Dave singing "Soul Man," a version Marilyn proclaims better than the Blues Brothers'. And she just loves to sing "Last Kiss" at karaoke (and she can sing, having recorded the soundtracks to at least two of her films). "Where did this song come from?" she asks as J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers croon, "Oh where oh where can my baby be?"

Chambers pontificates about the glut of porn in America, tens of thousands of videos shot every year on the cheap. "It's so amazing," she says. "It's become savoir-faire. There's so much product. The problem is, no one makes very much money." She gives her all with every Polaroid, embracing the fan with her left arm while crossing her left foot behind her right, where she touches just the tip of her sandal to the floor in a perfect glamour pose, even though the photo will only show her from the waist up. She defends her work when a fan asks why she started making X-rated pictures again after a 14-year layoff. "There's a lot of people out there who want to see someone older with some fat on her who doesn't have a lot of plastic surgery," she explains. She worries that patrons at the Diamond Cabaret later that night will be disappointed that she's only shaking hands and signing pictures. "I'm not performing," she says. "Who wants to see an old broad perform?" Nor will she ever sign autographs in another adult bookstore after this trip. "This is the last store thing in my life," she vows.


Nearly five hours later, Marilyn is still going strong when she arrives at the Lemp Mansion for a formal dinner with 15 fans, each of whom has paid $69 for the privilege. She's spent the afternoon signing autographs at two VIP stores, in between fighting ever-worsening Friday rush-hour traffic, but she's had enough time to change into a long black sequined dress with just one button fastened in front.

She looks marvelous, and the regular jacket-and-tie crowd gawks as she chats with fellow diners in the bar.

She would like a ginger ale, but none is available. Perhaps she should have a beer, but that wouldn't be ladylike, would it? Assured by everyone present that she may have anything she likes, she orders a Budweiser. "Bud Light?" the bartender asks. No, Bud, she says. She fishes out a Marlboro Medium while three men look through their pockets for lighters. She has heard all about this place, the rise and fall of the brewery that was once the largest in St. Louis and the litany of Lemps who killed themselves inside the mansion. She is, she says, a history buff and tells the group that her sister is an archaeologist.

After 15 minutes in the bar, the group moves to the dining area, where Cohn starts things off with a toast to Marilyn, whom he calls the Grace Kelly of adult films. He has to leave early for a meeting but walks away impressed. "There was a poignancy about seeing her after all these years," he says. "She was a lot like the character Amber Waves in the movie Boogie Nights, a kindly, somewhat matronly person who does sex work, basically. She was very much as I anticipated she would be: middle-class, basically conventional in all her demeanor. She's gotten on with her life. She was clearly a mature and stable person. But there was clearly something unfulfilled when she looked back. That was what I found to be somewhat poignant about seeing her. It's almost like Sunset Boulevard-- 'Ready for that close-up now, Mr. DeMille.'"

Dinner starts awkwardly. The staff has arranged two tables in a private dining room, leaving five decidedly downcast fans to sit staring across a table at each other instead of Marilyn. This won't do. After everyone has ordered -- with all choosing prime rib over chicken -- Marilyn summons the headwaiter. These tables must be rearranged so we can all sit together, she insists. The waiter protests mildly, cautioning that moving the tables together could take 30 minutes. That's bullshit, and Marilyn knows it. Do your best, she tells him, all sweet and polite. Then she invites everyone out to the porch for some air. "We're going to go get haunted," she says with a devil-in-Miss Jones smile as she heads into the late-spring evening.

With the exception of Marilyn's stunning dress and John, there's no sign that this group is anything out of the ordinary, perhaps just the hippest cousins and siblings escaping from a large family reunion to live it up for a few hours with a favorite aunt. Marilyn aside, there are three women here, one a VIP employee and the other two brought by significant others. John, who appears about 30 years old, is alone, unsmiling, keeping to himself. On the porch, he stays to one side, away from the crowd hovering around Marilyn, all the while watching from afar. He remains until the restaurant staff, after 10 minutes, announces that the room is ready. Then he sits at the foot of the table, where he can stare wordlessly at Marilyn -- no way of knowing whether Travis Bickle or just another lonely guy in love is behind those eyes. His demeanor does not escape Marilyn's attention. Midway through dinner, she asks whether he's having a good time. His "uh-huh" response is barely decipherable, more grunt than words. Please, she begs, will you smile? He flashes the briefest of grins, then switches back to inscrutable, prompting a polite laugh from the group, which quickly moves to other subjects.

Table talk drifts from porn to what-else-have-you-been-doing-lately. She rolls her eyes at the memory of John C. Holmes, on whom the character Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights is loosely based. Holmes was an awful lay, too coked out to get wood, as they say in the biz, and a test of her patience as he struggled to finish. One scene took seven hours, she recalls. "I kept telling him, 'C'mon, John, let's go, hurry up, it's time,'" she says. Holmes, who died of AIDS in 1988, is remembered today for the size of his penis, his appetite for cocaine and his acquittal on murder charges in a drug-ripoff-turned-bloodbath.

Someone asks the inevitable: How realistic was Boogie Nights? Not at all, she answers. For one thing, she never considered crew members and fellow performers her friends away from the set. "I mean, hanging out with those people all the time, who'd want to do that?" she asks. Aha, the questioner says, just another example of porn stereotypes, Hollywood making up stories about everyone being on coke all the time. Marilyn stops him. "Most of us were," she says. Marilyn, who acknowledged a drug problem more than a decade ago, today drives a Lexus with personalized license plates reading "LUV NA."

Marilyn doesn't often do this kind of thing, at least, not anymore. She last made an autograph appearance about a year ago, in Portland, Ore. This two-day trip to St. Louis is a whirlwind tour. She must be back at her house, near Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, on Sunday, Mother's Day, which is also her daughter's 10th birthday. Marilyn will give her daughter a camera. "She's interested in being on the photographer side of the lens," Marilyn says firmly. Early next week, she'll fly to New York, where she is scheduled to tape a segment for the Learning Channel on -- what else? -- sex. Then there's her radio show, which she's been doing five days a week for about a year. So far, it's in just a few markets -- Dallas, Miami, San Diego -- but she's hoping to land a drive-time slot in Chicago soon. The show features astrology, psychics and call-in listeners, who mostly have questions about sex. "It's not shock stuff," she says. "It's not trashy. We try to find different terminology for genitals. We talk about sex, but we don't say 'giving head' or 'giving blowjobs.' We don't have a lot of competition. I personally love radio. I don't have to dress up."

After more than an hour at the table, Marilyn has barely touched her prime rib. She asks a waiter to box it up. Just before dessert arrives, Richman goes to his car and retrieves a grocery bag filled with Marilyn tapes -- Green Door, Insatiable, Insatiable II, Still Insatiable, Dark Chambers -- there's plenty to go around, and at a 20 percent discount, no less. Money changes hands, and Marilyn autographs the video boxes, expertly rubbing away the protective wax with a finger to ensure that the "With Lust, Marilyn XXX" will last forever.When she finally rises to leave, everyone tags along beside and behind. She's already late for a 9 p.m. appearance at the Diamond Cabaret, across the Mississippi River, but she has one last mission here.

Out on the porch, Marilyn pulls John aside. Leaving the other diners to themselves on one end of the veranda, she and John share a moment together. They embrace passionately and kiss long, unhurriedly, as if at the end of a dream date. John adjusts his grip, pulling her closer. She leans against him. They hug, just standing there, gently swaying, kissing, looking into each other's eyes, exchanging whispers. An awkward silence falls over the group, reluctant voyeurs who've already seen it all but aren't quite ready for this. After several minutes, Marilyn and John, arm in arm, stroll to the parking lot, where they pose for a Polaroid, he standing behind and holding her with both arms wrapped around her waist, chin resting on her shoulder, prom-style.

It's time to go.

John, ever stoic, walks to his car while the group says its goodbyes. All smiles, Marilyn keeps telling everyone what a wonderful time she had. "Next time," she says, "why don't we all just get together as friends?"


It's nearly 1 a.m., and nearly 12 hours of being Marilyn Chambers has taken its toll. She's off in an hour, and she's ready.

No longer does she cross her feet for Polaroid after Polaroid with patrons at the Diamond Cabaret, which has hired Marilyn to help celebrate the opening of the topless club's members-only room. Her dress is buttoned. She's still on the clock, still a professional, still turns the world on with her smile, but the feet remain flat and the stints on an overstuffed couch grow longer and more frequent as the hours wear. She's on her second pack of Marlboros now and lamenting what awaits her when she returns to her suite at the Sheraton. She's tired, she says, but she knows she won't go to sleep. She'll just lie there.

"It's brutal," she says. But it never shows. She chats easily with whoever walks up. She spends nearly 30 minutes sitting next to an earnest stranger, talking to him about women and relationships. Only near the end of the conversation does she start digging her fingers into her palms, completely unnoticed by the man, just inches away, who never takes his eyes off her face. Stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down -- every few minutes, someone wants her for something. She never gets a chance to finish a Budweiser. I've-always-wanted-to-meet-you and could-you-sign-it-"Happy Birthday" and I'd-like-you-to-meet-a-good-friend-of-mine and how-about-if-you-sit-on-my-lap-for-a-picture? A woman in black leather boots and a tight skirt asks whether Marilyn knows so-and-so and invites her over to the house when she's done here.

She comes across as just plain folks. When someone panics over a missing bracelet, Marilyn is first to stand and look under her seat cushion. She requests a cigar but gets just a few puffs in before she's whisked away yet again. "Is it uncouth to relight a cigar?" she asks when she finally returns. No one is quite sure, and if she's dropping hints, no one jumps to buy her a new one. She gets a light, takes a few more puffs, then leaves it, forgotten, in an ashtray. A cop from a North County department waits patiently on a sofa for well over an hour -- he's willing to sip $6-a-bottle Bud Light until Marilyn has a chance to talk. Meanwhile, he saves her place on the couch and watches her purse. He's got a miniature teddy bear and chocolate-covered strawberries waiting for her out in the car.

"Coming here was very difficult for me," she confesses as the evening winds down. "I thought, 'Oh shit, I've had it with this stuff.' I know that people expect something that maybe I can't give anymore. But I will do anything for my fans." She says you can ask her anything. The mind boggles: The long-ago live performances in San Francisco, where police say Marilyn serviced 20 patrons at a time (prosecutors, however, declined to press prostitution charges); the 10 years spent with husband/manager Chuck Traynor, who wouldn't let her go to college or smoke cigarettes; the time Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel dangled a role in Goin' South, then asked her for cocaine and wanted to know whether she really got off during Green Door, angering her to the point that she stormed out midway through the interview. One query seems obvious: How did you survive when so many didn't? She pauses.

"Sometimes I don't know," she says. "I think that having a child really made my life complete. It's someone I can live for. None of my marriages worked out. I'm very honest, brutally, to a point. Most men can't handle that. I don't have a perception of a normal relationship -- I'm not sure if anyone does." Being a porn star makes relationships more difficult in at least one respect. "Telling you that you look great doesn't mean anything," she says.

After three divorces, she says, she's happy. "I love being alone," she says. "I don't have to answer to anybody. It's my house and my life. I really have to get to work every day, and I never have in my life. I really need that stability in my life. I really love going to work."

Tomorrow, Marilyn will sit in yet another adult-novelty store, signing autographs and viewing old movies with fans, reminiscing about just what was happening behind the scenes while she screwed her brains out on cue. Tonight, she thanks the cop for the strawberries and insists that everyone try one. She gets to talking about the old days, when she figured she'd be able to cross over, especially after Midnight Cowboyand Last Tango in Paris won critical acclaim despite their X ratings. Nearby fans offer comfort. She canact, they insist. "But the scripts are awful," she protests.

She's right, of course, but the way she flits her eyes, the sly smile at just the right moment, the tilt of her head -- acting is more than just a script, she's told, and she's done the best she could with the material she was given. She looks up and smiles.

"You're sweet to say so," she says. "You know what? I need another beer. I don't want you to buy it -- you've bought enough."

And Marilyn Chambers rises and walks, alone, to the bar.

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