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It’s a common complaint.

“Erotica, alas, does not pay the bills, not today,” Norman Conquest informs me. Another pseudonym? Of course. But many in the literary community recognize Conquest as the alter ego of Derek Pell, a former Coronado resident whose precise whereabouts are now mysterious. He could be in London, he could be in New York, he could be in North Carolina; then again, he may very well still reside in Coronado, communicating via computer and cell phone. It all depends on which rumor you subscribe to.

“I do not, generally, work for traditional publishers of erotica,” he says. “I recall being paid $100 per text by Libido Magazine. I was commissioned by Barney Rosset [the founder of Grove Press] to write a novel for Blue Moon Books for $1000. It was based on a screenplay I’d written. Kings Road wanted to make the film — they did that movie The Big Easy. It was called Undertow. My agent negotiated a $200,000 sale, and during negotiations, the company declared bankruptcy. The book was never written.”

“That has to hurt.”

“I do Web design, photography, and paint houses to stay afloat.”

In the 1970s, Conquest made decent money off a series of books about Doktor Bey, a Victorian eccentric much like Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg whose adventures were depicted in oversized pages using collage and little text.

“There was Doktor Bey’s Handbook of Strange Sex. It was published by Avon Books and was my most successful title in that series. It sold out its first printing. About 40,000 copies were skulking in bookshops and earning me royalty checks. It was also reprinted in the U.K. and did well. Strangely enough, Avon did not reprint it as they squandered all their money on the advance for a piece of trash called The Thorn Birds.”

In the mid- to late ’90s, Conquest himself became a bit of a porn publisher.

“Ah yes…House Organ Books, a.k.a. HOB Press, published at an undisclosed location in Coronado! The magazine had a short, tragic life of two issues. Out of that came the Pocket Erotica Series. Thirteen books, of which only four were actually produced. Most notably, Pat Sanders’s hysterical The Little Cock That Could, an absurdist classic that students at SDSU kept stashed in their backpacks. HOB also reprinted Sartre’s French Phrase Book, which had been originally published by Transient Press in Los Angeles. It’s a smutty little satire that I’m quite proud of.”

Conquest has a surer sense of the wellspring of his ideas than the unnamable Hillcrest author.

“My sexy wife,” he says. “She is my inspiration, my muse. The walls of my studio are covered with photographs of her. I am perpetually aroused.”

But Conquest’s erotica has literary roots as well.

“The first ‘doity book’ I ever read was Terry Southern’s Candy, so I associated erotica with humor early on. Then I read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. I found Durrell’s Justine highly sexy. I think my true inspiration for porn writing was Marguerite Duras. Subtle, fluid, sensual. She inspired a series of texts and one early book of mine. Under another name [Derek Pell] I published a book called X-Texts, which parodied almost every classic and contemporary porn book, so I’ve read most everything in the genre. Today I’m more interested in visual erotica…a lot of wonderful books are coming from Germany.”

“I heard you had some trouble with the Feds.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Around.”

“You shouldn’t listen to rumor and gossip.”

He eventually allows that there was, in fact, a bit of trouble with the FBI and the U.S. Treasury Department, but not over any amorous artistic ventures. “I rubber stamped and scrawled on a dollar bill and mailed it to a friend as part of a ‘mail art’ project. An agent phoned me asking to speak to Norman Conquest. He asked me if I was responsible, and I said, ‘Yes, what’s the problem?’ He said I’d committed the crime of defacing currency. He asked me how many bills I’d mailed. I told him that as a starving artist I could only afford to post one. He didn’t find that funny. He said he would investigate further and get back to me. Thankfully he never did. Meanwhile, I stole a postal service poster from Grand Central and added a huge photograph I’d taken of the defaced dollar; I altered the poster to read: ‘WE DELIVER. SOMETIMES.’

“An obsession with the almighty dollar,” he says with the proverbial sigh, “that’s my definition of pornography.”


Greenleaf Classics was the biggest, most notorious printer of lurid literature during San Diego’s pulp prime; its employees and other writers often referred to it as “The Porn Factory.” At its height, Greenleaf was releasing 50 titles per month, eventually publishing more than 4000 in all.

The story of Greenleaf Classics goes back to 1950s Chicago and the hothouse flower that was science-fiction fandom. It starts with William L. Hamling, an Irish Catholic lad born in 1921 on Chicago’s infamous South Side, a former altar boy whose faith was tested during his service in World War II. Gay Talese, in his 1980 bestselling history of the sexual revolution, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, describes Hamling’s growing disillusionment with the fixed stars of his childhood:

“In the Army, [his] perspective changed; it was there that he saw the Church, in deference to the war, becoming less celestial, more nationalistic and permissive. Sins that had been called sins for centuries were suddenly no longer condemned as such by the Church…and when tons of pinup magazines were transported by the military up to the front as substitute stimulants for the womanless warriors, the Church, once so strict and censorial, was silent.”

When Hamling got back to Chicago, the weight of his religious morality bore down on him less than it once had, and he soon began to write science-fiction. He sold his first story, “War with Jupiter,” a collaborative effort with Mark Reinsberg, to Amazing Stories in 1939. In 1940, he founded a fanzine called Stardust. He then got a job with Ziff-Davis Publications editing the pulps he had been writing for, working alongside a young Hugh Hefner who, like Hamling, had some lofty notions about branching out as an independent magazine publisher.

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