My father, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V, grew up in a log cabin in Taylorsville, Ky. The house had 12-inch-thick walls with gun ports to defend against attackers: first Indians, then soldiers during the Civil War. At 12, Dad wrote a novel of the Old West. He taught himself to type with the Columbus method — find it and land on it — using one finger on his left hand and two fingers on his right. Dad typed swiftly and with great passion. In this fashion, he eventually wrote and published more than 400 books. Two were science fiction and 24 were fantasy, written under his own name; the rest were pornography, using 17 pseudonyms.
In the mid-1960s, Dad purchased several porn novels through the mail. My mother recalls him reading them with disgust — not because of the content, but because of how poorly they were written. He hurled a book across the room and told her he could do better. Mom suggested he do so. According to her, the tipping point for Dad’s full commitment to porn, five years later, was my orthodontic needs.
When I was a kid, my teeth were a terrible mess: overlapping, crooked and protruding like fangs. Mom wanted to work part time and pay for braces. Dad suggested that if he quit his job as a salesman and she typed all his final drafts, they could finance my dental care. Over cocktails in the woods of eastern Kentucky, they formed a partnership to mass-produce porn.
Many of the early publishers used a “house name,” a pseudonym shared by several writers. It concealed identity, which writers preferred, while allowing the publisher to give the illusion of a single prolific author. This was an early attempt at branding, with proven success in other genres: westerns, romance and mystery. Dad didn’t mind. He had experimented with a literary mask at the University of Louisville, using different names for articles in the school paper, as well as in his own short fiction. A pseudonym for pornography provided literary freedom while also protecting the family’s reputation in our conservative Appalachian community.
My father’s first published novel was “Bondage Babes,” released by Greenleaf under the name Alan Marshall in 1968. His pay was $600. The plot was a clever conceit. Someone had murdered a model for a bondage shoot, and the model’s sister was investigating the crime by posing as a model herself, which allowed for soft-core descriptions of restrained women. Greenleaf published his next novel, “Sex Toy,” a book Dad referred to as “sensitive,” under the name J. X. Williams, followed by three other books under three other names.
His primary pseudonym, John Cleve, first appeared on “Slave of the Sudan,” an imitation of Victorian pornography so precisely executed that the editor suspected my father of plagiarism. Dad found this extremely flattering. He concocted his pen name from John Cleland, author of “Fanny Hill,” considered the first erotic novel published in English. Over time, John Cleve evolved into more than a mere pseudonym. Dad regarded John Cleve as his alter ego, a separate entity, the persona who wrote porn. Dad was adamant that he did not have 17 pen names. Dad had John Cleve, to whom he referred in the third person. It was John Cleve who had 16 pseudonyms, in addition to his own wardrobe, stationery and signature.
Dad soon began publishing with Orpheus, which paid him $800 a book. He invented John Denis, based on his favorite Reds players, Johnny Bench and Denis Menke, and switched to Midwood for more money. After a falling out with an editor over a title change, he returned to Orpheus. Later, Orpheus became irritated with Dad and stopped buying his work. Curious about the changing market, he read a dozen recent Orpheus books. Dad believed he’d influenced the industry to the point where his style was consistently copied, the proof being that other authors had begun writing knowledgeably of the clitoris, which he believed he pioneered. This upset him to the point that he decided to trick the editor into buying his work.
To get a different font, he bought a new ball for his Selectric typewriter. He changed his usual margins, used cheaper paper and churned out two books. He invented yet another pseudonym, Jeff Morehead, a variation of his middle name and the nearest town to our home. He asked a friend in another part of the country to submit the manuscripts to Orpheus. The editor bought both. Dad called the editor, told him that he was Jeff Morehead and suggested they get back in business. The editor concurred, and Dad stayed with Orpheus throughout the 1970s, using the name Jeff Morehead on books that he believed weren’t up to the high standards of John Cleve.
Grove Press published the Denis novel “The Palace of Venus” under its Zebra imprint in 1973. Dad sent them a new novel, “Vendetta,” which was rejected. But, the strength of the manuscript resulted in a phone call. Barney Rosset, Grove’s publisher, wanted a pornographic historical series about a single character during the Crusades. Dad was initially resistant, writing in a letter:
“I do not know if this is or could be my thing or not. I have difficulty with series. Like, I get bored and want to go back to creating. It is most difficult for me to write as if cranking the arm of a copy machine.” He continued: “Let us not bandy terms. I am an artist, whether these series books will be ‘art’ or not. ”
He was equally uncertain about visiting New York, a city he called Babylon-on-the-Hudson. Grove offered to cover all expenses, and Dad made the trip in 1973. He returned to Kentucky with a cash advance, a contract for an unwritten book and more autonomy than he’d ever had from a publisher. Dad had been buying Grove books for 15 years, and he revered Rosset’s courage in fighting the U.S. government on obscenity charges — and winning. The “Crusader” series sold well, and for the first time in his career he earned royalties.
At the time, pornography was still a taboo business. Paperbacks were sold in the back rooms of adult theaters, on hidden racks at newsstands and at adult bookstores in cities. In less populated areas, people bought them through the mail. By 1986, the “Crusader” series was in danger of going out of print. Grove wanted to raise the price of Dad’s paperbacks one dollar and asked him to cut his royalty percentage in half. If my father didn’t agree, Grove couldn’t afford to renew the printings. Dad got mad and refused, allowing his books to go out of print over the sum of roughly $130 per year, the only professional decision he ever regretted.
The commercial popularity of American erotic novels peaked during the 1970s, coinciding with my father’s most prolific and energetic period. Dad combined porn with all manner of genre fiction. He wrote pirate porn, ghost porn, science-fiction porn, vampire porn, historical porn, time-travel porn, secret-agent porn, thriller porn, zombie porn and Atlantis porn. An unpublished Old West novel opens with sex in a barn, featuring a gunslinger called Quiet Smith, without doubt Dad’s greatest character name. By the end of the decade, Dad claimed to have single-handedly raised the quality of American pornography. He believed future scholars would refer to him as the “king of 20th-century written pornography.” He considered himself the “class operator in the field.”
In the 1980s, John Cleve’s career culminated with a 19-book series for Playboy Press, the magazine’s foray into book publishing. The “Spaceways” series allowed him to blend porn with old-time “space opera,” reminiscent of the 1930s pulps, his favorite kind of science fiction. Dad’s modern twist included aliens who possessed the genitalia of both genders. Galactic crafts welcomed the species as part of their crews, because they were unencumbered with the sexual repression of humans and could service men and women alike. The books were popular, in part, because of their campiness, repeating characters and entwined stories — narrative tropes that later became standard on television. The “Spaceways” series ended in 1985, coinciding with the widespread ownership of VCRs. Men no longer needed “left-handed books” for stimulation when they could watch videotapes in their own homes. The era of written pornography was over.
John Cleve retired. Dad insisted that he himself hadn’t quit, but that John Cleve had. It was more retreat than retirement, a slipping back into the shadows, fading away like an old soldier. Cleve had done his duty — the house was paid off, the kids were grown and the bank held a little savings.
Dad was 52. As Cleve, he published more than 130 books in 18 years. He turned to self-publishing and, using an early pseudonym, Turk Winter, published 260 more titles over the next 25 years.
My father died in 2013, when I was 54. Dad was 17 when his own father died. Lacking an adult relationship with his father, he didn’t know how to proceed as his children aged. In 1984, his mother died, triggering concerns for his own mortality. He made formal arrangements with a lawyer for disposal of his estate, and he sent me a secret will with the sender’s name as Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The first paragraph began: “On you, Chris, I decided, this task and this onus must fall — and I’m telling the others this without the reason. . . . The examination of the office and disposal of its contents is totally up to you, Christopher J. Offutt, and this is oh-fficial.”
I immediately wrote to my siblings, but they had no interest, long weary of our father’s secrets and his porn. When we were young, Dad played board games with us, taught us poker, hearts, and spades. He had a vast capacity to make us laugh. We adored him and begged him to play games after supper. He made our evenings fun. But as we got older and more mature, Dad remained the same. The humor slipped away from his oft-repeated gags. His deliberate naughtiness — when a dice roll came up six, he’d call it “sex” — evolved to outright sexual comments that produced a strained silence instead of laughter. Dad missed his attentive audience, but the old ways no longer worked. One by one we did the worst thing possible: We ignored him. I believe this hurt him deeply, in a way he didn’t fully comprehend and we certainly could not fathom. In turn, he ignored us. Now that he was dead, I could give him the attention he always craved by carefully examining his papers, including 30 unpublished novels.
After his death I returned to my childhood home in the hills of Kentucky. I spent a summer clearing the house my parents lived in for 50 years. Because of ill health, he hadn’t actually worked in his office in several years. Before that it was seldom cleaned beyond an occasional vacuuming and a light dusting as high as my mother could reach, which wasn’t far. The two windows were sealed shut by paint and swollen wood. Dust pervaded the dim room. My parents added a central air-conditioning unit a few years before, but the office vent was buried between a wall of bookshelves and a large steel filing cabinet. A narrow path wound between precarious stacks of porn, an outmoded printer, the first Macintosh computer, a broken typewriter and a 20-year old copy machine that didn’t work.
My father was more hoarder than collector, and I began by discarding the obvious junk: rusted pocketknives, corroded flashlights, outdated office equipment, a hockey puck, broken swords and guns, empty bottles of expensive beer and dozens of tin boxes that once held bottles of fancy Scotch. The décor reminded me of a fraternity house, with its implied pride in drinking and manliness. His possessions consisted of gifts given by fans and all the professional mail he ever received. I learned to operate in a very specific way: examine each item, evaluate its importance, keep it or throw it away. The pressure of constant decision was relentless. I grew up banned from this room, and now I was in charge of it. I felt as if I were trespassing.
After filling 50 garbage bags, I could not see any difference other than a haze of disturbed dust hanging in the air. The room seemed more cluttered, with no space for organizing and packing. My eyes stung, and I was developing a cough. Essentially I had redistributed the contents into new piles. Emptying the bookshelves would gain space for sorting the material. Based on approximately 300 feet of shelf, I anticipated two days to pack them. The allotted time period doubled, then tripled. Every shelf held another row of books directly behind it — all pornography. I found several opened bottles of bourbon and dozens of manuscripts by Turk Winter.
For the next several days I ate little. I guzzled water and sweated through my clothes until they were stiff with salt. I moved in a somnolent daze. Twice I noticed my mother staring at me from the hall. She said she’d been startled; I looked so much like Dad, she thought I was him. I hugged her silently and went back to work. Later she began referring to me as John Cleve Jr. At night we laughed, drank bourbon and watched her favorite TV shows. Mom was 78 and had just retired from full-time work as a receptionist for a lawyer. With the proceeds from porn, she’d gone to college for a philosophy degree and a master’s in English.
Clearing Dad’s office felt like prospecting within his brain. The top layer was disorganized and heavy with porn. As I sorted, like an archaeologist backward through time, I saw a remarkable mind at work, a life lived on its own terms, the gradual shifting from phenomenal intellectual interest in literature, history and psychology to an obsession with the darker elements of sex.