By Ray Schultz
In 1954, The New York Daily News ran the headline, “Hello, Sucker! We’re all on Mail Lists. From Cradle to Grave You Can’t Get Off.” The term “junk mail” gradually came into use, and the word “junk” was applied to food, bonds and other things.
In 1962, the junk mail business attracted the notice of Congressman Clement J. Zablocki a mustachioed Democrat from Milwaukee. What led him to it was not a genuine outrage that might have required legwork to uncover, but an episode served up by a man who was looking for trouble.
Ralph J. Ginzburg didn’t start out looking for trouble. His first brush with the mail order business came at age 10 in 1939, when he ordered the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People from an ad in Boy’s Life. “I recall riding back and forth to Manhattan from my home in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn on what used to be called the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Subway line, which then cost a nickel to ride — pouring over every syllable of that book, committing it to memory. Of course, reading the book in that way I didn’t finish it until I was 19.”
Ginzburg served in the Army, then worked as a writer and photographer. In 1962, after a varied career, he started Eros, which he described as “an intellectual magazine on love and sex.” Eros was a graphically lavish periodical designed by the revered art director Herb Leballin, hard-bound in the manner of American Heritage, and not at all prurient by later standards. The Ginzburgs launched it with a $400 mailing, and published the first issue only after they had enough subscribers to support it.
Later, Ginzburg argued, that, “America, from Benjamin Franklin’s time, enjoyed a tradition of allowing publishers to solicit prepaid subscriptions for a magazine that had not ye appeared in just this very way. The word subscribe derives from the Latin for “underwrite” and Americans were allowed to underwrite, that is, to subsidize the launching of the new magazines whose editorial purposes, as described in prospectuses they supported.”
The idea of offering a magazine that had not yet been published would not be litigated at that time. What would be litigated was the idea of Eros, which in its fourth issue featured a four-color photo spread of a nude, mixed-race couple. Ginzburg believed that this is what really got him into trouble, although he was never prosecuted for the magazine itself, but for the junk mail that supported it.
Ginzburg’s mistake was mailing a brochure for the Housewife’s Handbook on Selective Promiscuity, to doctors of all people. Their sensibilities violated, several MDs complained, and postal inspectors were sent out to track down how the pornographer had found them. It wasn’t hard: he had rented the American Medical Association mailing list for $3.50 a name. Ginzburg probably should have let it alone, but he by now a cause celebre, and a skilled publicity seeker. When denied further access to the AMA list, he used the list anyway and sent ou a second mailing to physicians, proclaiming, “The AMA does not want you to open this envelope.”
In 1963, Ginzburg was indicted on federal obscenity charges. He showed up or the first of the big show trials of the 1960s wearing a straw boater and boutaneer. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The appeals went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice William Brennan wrote, the “leer of the sensualist also permeates the advertising for these publications.”
In 1971, all appeals dashed, Ginzburg reported for his prison sentence at Allensburg Federal Penitentiary, where he served eight months. His wife Shoshana would later say, “It was so much fun. We had no idea in our wildest dreams that it would cause this kind of trouble.”
And now Zablocki and several smirking legislators passed Ginzburg’s mailing piece around and used it to butress the argument that mailing list brokers should be forced to register with the post office. Zablocki was able to come up with a charge that Boy Scout’s names had been used for pandering. BuZablocki had more on his mind than pornography, complaining that “individuals and organizations who rent their lists often have no idea of how they ultimately will be used.”
So-called legitimate direct mailers had to pretend that Ginzburg, who rented hundreds of thousands of names a year from mainstream companies, was not a part of the “industry.” Red Dembner of Newsweek, who had himself bought millions of names of unknown origin from Herb Ozda, testified, “It is a trying problem to apprehend and convict smut peddlers and yet it is one about which all of us are deeply concerned.”
Zablocki asked Dembner if he would rent the Newsweek list to the likes of Ralph Ginzburg. Denmber weaseled his way out of it this way: “If I were to say, ‘I am going to use this list for sending out a solicitation,’ If they were to say that to me, Newsweek would not rent that list to this user.”
Zablocki’s committee, satisfied that great eveil was lurking, created something called “the pandering file”—a list of people who did not want to receive sexually oriented solicitations. All direct mailers had to match their lists against this file, and eliminate the names of the people who wanted out.
Ginzburg went on to publish a number of magazines, including a muckraking journal called Fact. Senator Barry Goldwater sued him for libel–and won–when Fact alleged he was mentally unfit. Later, it seemed that Ginzburg started magazines, offering lifetime subscriptions, only to generate mailing lists that he could rent out. In 1984, he made news again by running a full-page ad in The New York Times for a save-the-eagle charity, showing a dead eagle with its wings spread out. He said he paid for the ad himself as a “personal contribution.” He was unfairly demonized at times. Gizburg in his later years became a photographer for the NewYork Post. And in 1994, the legendary publisher entertained a meeting of junk mailers by showing slides of his gorgeous bird photos.