Kingsley says he and Eleanor (who of course was Jewish) complained to acquaintances, and for a while talk of a lawsuit simmered. But Kingsley says the local realtors finally backed down, partly out of fear of the publicity that would have erupted and partly in resignation to the fact that the new University of California campus would bring other Jews to the community. "That was sort of the end of organized anti-Semitism in La Jolla," Kingsley says.
Eleanor had another baby, Jonah, in 1960, and Kingsley says she also worked hard at writing, producing several children's stories and half a dozen extended essays on literary figures, including Mary McCarthy, John Dos Passos, and Malcolm Lowry. A fictionalized portrait of her father was published as the novella Mr. Jack by Random House in 1964. But none of these efforts thrust her into the limelight the way the trial of Larry McGilvery did.
McGilvery today says he probably met the Widmers at the Nexus, the paperback bookstore he and his wife Geraldine owned. "That's how we met everybody." In November of 1961, the business occupied a storefront at 7405 La Jolla Boulevard. (It later moved to the Wisteria Cottage on Prospect Street.) "We handled a lot of what would now be called countercultural material -- a lot of modern poetry and art. But a full line of books. It was a very nice store, actually," the bookseller reminisces. "People loved coming in there."
The dilemma that confronted the McGilverys that November was what to do with their stock of Henry Miller's controversial masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer. Originally published in France in 1934, the Grove Press had dared early in 1961 to produce a hardcover edition in America. But it cost $7.50, a lot of money at the time, "so there was not a peep out of any of the censorship groups that I know of until a 95-cent paperback was published," recalls McGilvery.
"Then the floodgates opened," he says. In San Diego the chief of police was quoted as saying he would arrest any bookseller who offered the work to the public. McGilvery and his wife had acquired a large number of the paperbacks but had put only a dozen or so copies on display. Those sold almost instantly ("mostly to lawyers," McGilvery recalls), and in light of the police threat, the couple decided not to restock their shelves. A few days later, McGilvery found "this nice-looking young guy on the porch waiting for us. He said he was a student at State College, and he had to have this book for a class he was taking.... We spent at least 15 or 20 minutes, maybe as much as a half hour, trying to show him other books that would be just as good for his purpose." But the fellow was adamant; only the Miller book would do. McGilvery says he finally noticed in a nearby box of books a used copy that a friend had asked him to sell, so he offered this to the young man for 50 cents. "I didn't charge him sales tax."
It was a sting; the young man was a police cadet working undercover. A day or so later, both McGilverys were arrested, and in the months that followed, the case produced big headlines in the San Diego newspapers. Kingsley Widmer had just written the first critical book about Miller's work, so McGilvery asked him to testify at the trial. Concerned that he might look like "the calculating pornographic expert," Kingsley urged McGilvery instead to consider using Eleanor. She also knew the material. She could be very funny, Kingsley pointed out. "And I thought a woman could be more effective than a man."
The trial lasted three weeks, says McGilvery. "It was a big deal." Three expert witnesses testified for the defense. "One was a lovely, matronly young woman who taught English at a religious college on Point Loma," McGilvery says. The second was Robert Kirsch, the well-known Los Angeles Times literary critic. The third, Eleanor, was the only one about whom he felt a bit nervous, McGilvery confides. "She was an archetypal New York Jewish intellectual, and she rubbed many people the wrong way.
"But she kept her cool," the bookseller says, "and she was incredibly articulate. Both she and Kingsley could talk about something impromptu for 15 to 20 minutes and keep it interesting and coherent. She handled it very well. And she produced the funniest moment in the trial," McGilvery says. The prosecutor, Martin Gutfleisch, was trying to embarrass her by having her read aloud portions of the novel, "and he was asking her things like, 'Would you let your sons read this?' " Eleanor had been on the stand for close to three hours, and she was reading a passage where Miller, the protagonist, describes meeting a woman in a dance hall, then dancing out into a passageway and trying to have sex with her. But Miller couldn't quite make the coupling work, though he tried it standing up, leaning against the wall, sitting in a phone booth. It was at this point that Eleanor deadpanned, "Just like Goldilocks and the Three Bears." The courtroom exploded in laughter. McGilvery says, "I do not know how Gutfleisch kept a straight face, because nobody else could. It was three minutes before he came back to Eleanor. She was like that. She was really fast on her feet."
The McGilverys were acquitted, the jury finding that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene under existing California law. "For several months after the trial, I received about equal shares of blame and praise for my role as defense witness," Eleanor wrote years afterward. "One woman accosted me at the beach to assure me that I would go down in history 'as the most unfeminine woman in the world.' And for as long as a year, my appearance at a concert or even at a supermarket would cause some people to whisper about me, referring to me as 'that obscenity woman.' "