Skip to main content

Exploring "The Nation's Eyesore."

Writer Robert Sullivan. His new book "The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures At the Edge of a City" (Scribner) is about his intrepid trek into the swamp land five miles outside of New York City, where decades of garbage, chemicals, and corpses have been dumped. Ian Frazier calls is "funny, interesting, surprising and bizarre." Part of the book was excerpted recently in The New York Times Magazine (Feb 15). Sullivan is contributing editor at Vogue. He also writes for The New Yorker, Conde Naste Travler, The New Republic and Rolling Stone.

21:50

Other segments from the episode on March 25, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 25, 1998: Interview with Robert Sullivan; Interview with Michael Bowen; Interview with Doris Wishman.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 25, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032501NP.217
Type: INTERVIEW
Head: The Meadowlands
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT
BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Robert Sullivan has written a book about his adventures exploring the place that was once the largest garbage dump in the world -- the place he describes as "the nation's eyesore." That place is the Meadowlands in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan's skyline. It's a 32-square-mile swamp.

Because it's a problematic site to build on, it became a dumping ground for every kind of personal and industrial waste. Since 1968, the state has been trying to clean up and develop the Meadowlands. It's now the site of a large sports and entertainment complex that includes Giant Stadium and the turnpike runs through it. But there's still plenty of swamp and plenty of garbage for Sullivan to explore.

Robert Sullivan is a travel writer and humorist. His new book is called "Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City."

I asked him why he wrote a travel book about the Meadowlands.

ROBERT SULLIVAN, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, VOGUE, AUTHOR, "THE MEADOWLANDS: WILDERNESS ADVENTURES AT THE EDGE OF A CITY": I'm one of those kind of people who always -- is always looking out the window of the train and looking at the garbage alongside the tracks and wondering about, you know, houses that are burned down or falling down, and wondering what was in there. And this is really what the Meadowlands is. It's the capital of that kind of stuff.

LAUGHTER

It's the land of "what-the-heck-could-that-be," you know. So anyway, so as I -- as I was living around there and I was a newspaper reporter -- sort of in the area, you know, I'd get sort of tantalizingly close to the center -- to the actual Meadowlands. But I'd never get into it, and I would sort of hear stories about it -- what it was. But it was, you know, I never really felt like I knew the Meadowlands. Then I moved away. I moved to the West Coast. My wife's from Portland, Oregon, so I moved to Portland, Oregon.

And you know, when you move to Portland, you -- well, what I did was I sort of immersed myself in the -- you know, Lewis and Clark literature and the Oregon Trail literature and all these travel journals about going out to Oregon.

And so when I started thinking about, you know, explorations and when I started hiking mountains in Oregon, I thought, well, you know, everybody's going up on the Olympic Peninsula. Everybody's going to look for someplace that nobody's been to. But what if you take all those, you know, your skills and your gear and you apply it someplace where, you know, nobody's ever gone. I thought: I'll go to the Meadowlands.

There won't be any competition with other travel exploration -- explorer...

GROSS: That's for sure.

SULLIVAN: And you know, I'll just be able to -- I'll go out there and I'll do a full reconnaissance. I'll do -- I'll really find out what's out there. And then I bought the maps, and that was it. Once I got the U.S., you know, Geological Survey maps, that was it, because they are -- have all these symbols that nobody -- I couldn't even figure out what they were until I went out to each symbol on the map to see what it was. So.

GROSS: Now, since you decided to do a kind of Lewis and Clark thing through the Meadowlands, you got a canoe and actually canoed your way around the wetter parts to, what, like a little island in the swamp?

SULLIVAN: Well, there was one -- we sort of had two goals for our two main expeditions. I hiked and canoed a lot with my friend Dave -- Dave Diehl (ph) for the record. And he is the great-great -- he's a relative of Meriweather Lewis, and as I say in the book, nobody's really sure what that relationship is, except for his mom. So, you'd have to talk to her.

But anyway, we had sort of two expeditions in mind, and one was to go across the Meadowlands, which as far as we know, nobody had ever done. And there were all these highways and water pipes, and we didn't know if we could do it.

The other one was -- the other goal was to go to this place on the map called "Walden Swamp," which looked to be an island or -- we didn't know what it was. So, just wanted to get there, to Walden Swamp.

GROSS: I'd like you to read an excerpt from your book that gives you a -- gives a sense of what it was like when you were in your canoe.

SULLIVAN: OK.

GROSS: Paddling around through the Meadowlands. This is Robert Sullivan reading from his new book Meadowlands.

SULLIVAN: "Using our compass and the powerlines to guide us, we canoed more, portaged again, came to a patch of land marked as "water" on our maps, and then crossed an abandoned railroad track, at which time it was close to noon. We were beginning to think that we had arrived on the eastern edge of the Carney (ph) Marsh, which meant that we had another mile to go on our trip.

"However, our maps were proving not terribly accurate with regard to navigable water routes. Around us, there were green hills of grass-covered garbage dumps. We saw more carp, more muskrats, mudflats covered with sandpipers, and the frozen-in-time remains of a snapping turtle that appeared to have been decapitated by a train just as it had crawled up out of the marsh.

"We also saw a thermos, three unopened cans of Pepsi, a beach chair sitting on another island, and a Seven Seas Red Wine Vinegar salad dressing spill. Passing over more underwater fences, we felt as if we were paddling just above Atlantis. At precisely one hour and 52 minutes into the trip, we saw our first abandoned appliance -- a refrigerator.

"The low point of the expedition came when we found ourselves in a shallow, sewer-like creek, the bottom of which was completely covered with garbage. It was disgusting to say the least. It was a hidden berm of trash; a refuse-strewn Sargasso Sea. And as we paddled, huge chunks of ripe debris rose up, as if from a field of underwater cabbage -- a foul borscht.

"The smell was unbearable and we paddled carefully."

GROSS: Boy does that sound unpleasant, but fun.

LAUGHTER

SULLIVAN: It was fun, and it was unpleasant. And shortly after -- and it was nauseous, too, I think is a word that I could use. And shortly after that berm, we came to this -- I don't know -- this little spit of land that we were able to cross over and get back into, you know, refreshingly murky water -- water that was just sort of normally polluted. And so, that was a real relief.

GROSS: You write that in the Meadowlands, there's many hills and some of them are natural hills, but most of them are garbage hills. What's in the garbage hills?

SULLIVAN: Well just about -- there's only really one or two hills that aren't garbage hills, but garbage is in the garbage hills. You know, garbage that's composting; that's packing in and you know, they have these natural streams -- I call it "garbage juice" -- that pours out of them. But the garbage industry's term is "leachate." And so there's a lot of water in the garbage hills, and the water turns into this garbage juice and so around them, you see these puddles of really gross, disgusting, warm, bluish carmel-colored, Coca-Cola-colored stuff.

GROSS: Now, is the garbage in these garbage hills legit garbage? Garbage that people are legally dumping there?

SULLIVAN: There's a lot of legitimate garbage in the Meadowlands. A lot of the hills are legitimate garbage hills, I guess you'd say. But a lot of the hills -- well, I don't know if the hills are all illegitimate garbage, but there are spots where, you know, people dumped stuff they weren't supposed to dump. In fact -- I mean, people would just toss -- just barrels of chemicals, you know, into the Meadowlands. I mean, anything and everything.

I would often interview people about -- they'd try to find out exactly what was in a particular site or in a particular dump -- and guys would say to me over and over: "anything you can think of, that's what's in there."

GROSS: Now you mention that garbage juice called leachate -- is this the -- what you mean when you say that sometimes, these areas have to be drained manually, almost like using a colostomy bag for the garbage hill?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, they -- yeah, because they -- I guess what they're trying to do to sort of solve the problem of giant garbage hills that leak garbage juice into the -- our water stream, is they build these sort of clay dikes around them and they either put it into a pipe that will go into a sewage system, that'll go into a sewage treatment plant; or they have to go up and manually take it out with a truck.

And in the book I talk about sort of a problem they had at one point where the truck came up and un -- you know, sucked out the garbage juice so it's a big like gas truck -- sized truck filled with garbage juice. And I guess the guy, as it was told to me, who was driving the truck -- the guy thought that he could pump the garbage juice into the city's sewage system faster, save a little time, if he just increased the pressure. And it sort of worked OK, except that a lot of the people in the area of the manhole cover that he was pumping into, their toilets all sort of swelled with this leachate.

GROSS: Hmm.

LAUGHTER

These are wonderful stories that you've brought back...

LAUGHTER

SULLIVAN: So yeah, so -- you might want to put a PG-Grossness rating on...

GROSS: What kind of wildlife did you find in your trips through the Meadowlands?

SULLIVAN: Well we saw a lot of the -- the standard wildlife -- egrets and herons. And I'm sure it was just me, but they looked about as nervous as I was to be out there.

LAUGHTER

But we also saw -- we also saw life that was wild. There were a lot of balloons, like party balloons out there -- like mylar balloons. And at one point, I remember we thought that maybe it was like a wild balloon sanctuary -- you know, a refuge, and all the birthday party balloons from Manhattan flew over to the Meadowlands and made a new life over there.

But we also saw, and this would tend to be at the end of a canoe trip or an exploration, we saw sort of, you know, ducks that were modeled in a way that made me nervous that they had sort of genetically, you know, hybrided from normal ducks into Meadowlands ducks. This was on a particularly toxic creek that's known for mercury and a lot of pollutants.

But then on another trip, I saw a giant muskrat/dog/bear -- I want to say bear. And it was really scary, although my friend Dave said it wasn't such a big deal and he would have gone on if I hadn't made him yank the canoe out of the creek.

GROSS: Do you know what this animal was?

SULLIVAN: No, I don't know what that animal was. I found out that the duck was -- I want to -- I think it was a muscovy duck and it was from South America. And a family there -- a Muslim family -- was raising them, I think for food. And then, I never found out what the giant muskrat/bear/dog/anything else was, but it was probably a giant muskrat.

But the sign on the creek said "danger" -- it said "danger, caution" -- there were signs all along the creek. And when I saw that animal with those signs, I got a little panicked and -- Dave wants to go back and try to finish that part of the trip, but my wife says if I do, then we can't have any more children.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Oh, 'cause she's afraid of...

SULLIVAN: Concerned for, you know, how it will affect my physiology.

GROSS: Genetics, yeah, yeah.

My guest is Robert Sullivan, author of the new book The Meadowlands. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Robert Sullivan, author of The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City.

There's a lot of mythology surrounding the Meadowlands, and perhaps the most famous part of the mythology is that Jimmy Hoffa is reputed to be buried there.

SULLIVAN: Yes, "reputed." It's one of the reasons you want to write anything at all about the mob because you get to say and type the word "reputed."

LAUGHTER

Yeah, and that was -- when I first started doing this, I would say: "oh, I'm gonna write a book about the Meadowlands, and do a project on the Meadowlands." And people would say either: "oh, you mean the Meadowlands where the Giants play? Oh, yeah -- oh what's the book..." -- you know, and I'd say: "no, no, no. I'm not going to the Giants. I'm going to do everything else about the Meadowlands, really."

But the other thing that they'd say: "oh, you mean where they buried Jimmy Hoffa?" And I'd say: "yeah, that's right." And at first, I was a little annoyed at that because there's a lot more to the Meadowlands than the myth of Jimmy Hoffa. But then it became clear that I would have to address the reputed burial of Jimmy Hoffa in the Meadowlands, and after a while, we started thinking we ought to see where he was buried, and then, well we thought we might as well give it a shot, try to dig there.

I didn't know what we would do if we found Jimmy Hoffa. That would sort of be a problem, I suppose.

GROSS: Where did you decide to dig for Jimmy Hoffa in the Meadowlands?

SULLIVAN: We -- I -- there were a couple of sites we looked at for digging for Jimmy Hoffa in the Meadowlands. And one of them was the Giants' endzone of course, because everybody says: "oh, he's buried in the Giants endzone."

Well, and I guess that's because some of the people associated with people who were associated with the building of the Meadowlands -- the word "reputed" was hanging around them. And so people thought, "oh, well, maybe the mob somehow got it into the construction site. But I tackled that. First of all, that was difficult. It would have been difficult to get permission to dig in the endzone.

But I felt that that was covered because I met a guy who videotaped -- he was like an early videotaper -- and he videotaped the construction of Giant Stadium, like frame by frame. So I always thought that I could just go to him and get the tape and review it, if need be.

But we settled on a site called the "PJP" landfill -- "Brother Muscato's" (ph) dump. And it's this dump -- that's sort of it's, you know, AKA, it's this dump that's underneath the Pulaski Skyway, which is this beautiful old bridge, black snake-like bridge that goes across the Meadowlands.

And that dump -- the FBI like watched that dump. The state police guarded that dump when they were looking for Jimmy Hoffa. And everybody seemed to think, was my reading of the papers, that he was in that dump, or at least some of his associates were. And -- but in the end, they never did dig in it and I guess one of the reasons was they feared for the safety of the state police. It was like the FBI said: "oh, you dig for it." And then the state police are like: "oh, no, you dig for it." Or at least that's how I read it.

So we decided on Brother Muscato's dump and, you know, we got some shovels and first we had to find it. It was so hard to get in, through fences and highways. But then when we got there, it was surrounded by a moat of garbage juice -- kind of leachate moat. And it looked really difficult, and so I went through the state and I signed permits and releases and they gave me a tour of the site, which I sort of just sat there and tried to -- tried to channel and see if he was there in fact. And it felt good -- it felt likely.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: There are a lot of myths about things that are buried in the Meadowlands, including Jimmy Hoffa. You found out from actually a newspaper article, that the columns from the old Penn Station in Manhattan were buried in the Meadowlands, and you figured you should go try to unearth them. How did you do?

SULLIVAN: Well, Penn Station was -- digging for Penn Station -- finding Penn Station was like a consolation prize for us. If you can't get Jimmy Hoffa, maybe you can get Penn Station. And so, I went with pictures from the '60s of the old Penn Station being dumped in the Meadowlands, and I went around to all the towns. And a lot of people didn't believe me at first, or they thought maybe I'd made up the photo.

But after a while, I found a couple of people -- the retired mayor of Secaucus and various dump owners who helped me. And we sort of pinpointed a site and triangulated with the old photos, and just dug.

GROSS: What did you find?

SULLIVAN: Well, we found tons of stuff. You dig in the Meadowlands, and you just pull up stuff. You pull up like huge wires and cables and glass, and I've got a creamer at home that we use -- must be from an old hotel in New York, because they would take all the hotel garbage in from the Plaza Hotel and -- into the Meadowlands and dump it in the Meadowlands.

But we found pieces of buildings that had dates that were sort of similar to the dates of Penn Station. But we didn't really know. And you know, when you're digging in the Meadowlands, if you ever are digging for Penn Station, you will find that everything starts to look like Penn Station. And that everything becomes -- you know, possibly Penn Station.

But after a while, I was just walking down a street or driving around and I ran into a guy who said "oh yeah, I remember where they buried Penn Station. It's over there in that lot." And so I just kind of went back into this lot in this trucking yard, and there were huge pieces of the columns -- you know, these Roman replicas just lying there and, you know, sort of partly buried, but I chipped off a piece of it and brought it home.

GROSS: Golly, that's like finding gold.

SULLIVAN: It was really like finding gold. And I just -- I stare at the rock all the time. I have it here with me today. I stare at the rock all the time and just -- and look at it and think about -- about Penn Station and about the moment in the future, many -- you know -- hundreds of years from now, when someone will be digging in the Meadowlands, hopefully an archaeologist, and they'll come upon this huge train station and they'll say: "this was the center of a great civilization. This was the great center of the city."

And then somebody will say: "oh no, it was a dump." And they'll say: "oh yeah, you're right."

GROSS: So, show me what you brought here.

SOUNDBITE OF OBJECTS BEING HANDLED

SULLIVAN: I have a piece of Penn Station here. Just -- there it is. It's a piece of Penn Station.

GROSS: OK. What I'm looking at is -- it looks to me like a piece of rock?

SULLIVAN: It's -- oh, it's not just rock. It's Penn Station. It's the -- it takes a long time to chip off these, you know, marble columns.

GROSS: So this is a big chip from one of the marble columns.

SULLIVAN: It's a big chip. I had more, but I sent it out to friends.

GROSS: Well I'm glad for the chance to have seen it. It's mighty impressive.

The Meadowlands now is something between the marshland that it was naturally and the garbage dump that it became. And now, the state is trying to clean it up and to figure out a plan for it. So, what do we have now? It's like neither one nor the other?

SULLIVAN: Right. It's -- and that's what's most intriguing for me about the Meadowlands is that it's this -- it's this third party. It's like a dialectic that's happened and there's this synthesis, this new kind of land. And so you see like a fallen down factory with reeds all around it and in it. And you say: "what is that? Is that -- is that beautiful?" And I think it is beautiful. But, do you save a fallen down factory?

I don't know, but it's -- it's -- to me, it's really beautiful.

GROSS: So, it raises a lot of new interesting questions for you.

SULLIVAN: It raises the questions, and you know, and here's an area where -- where people definitely ruined it, and so one of the big controversies in the Meadowlands is how far do we go to fix it? How much work do we put into fixing it? Or do we just let it be?

GROSS: Is the ruin itself interesting enough...

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ... to save as a kind of relic of an era...

SULLIVAN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ... the way we ruined a certain kind of land in a certain era.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, well there's one part of the Meadowlands that's -- that's -- there's very little reed and swamp left at all. And it's kind of a spit down in the bottom right near Newark Bay. And that's -- there's a lot of old factories that have fallen down there.

I'm sure they're -- remediation sites, you know, for hazardous waste. But it's not quite haunted when you drive around there. But it's like an old western mining town that'd be preserved, except that it's factories in New Jersey.

GROSS: Is there like a favorite image that you've taken away with you from the Meadowlands...

SULLIVAN: Well...

GROSS: ... like a mind picture that just kind of sums it up for you?

SULLIVAN: ... I guess crawling out of canoeing out or hiking out to one of these sites, like a fallen radio tower, or going out to the radio towers, and then realizing you're surrounded by reeds, and it seems so quiet and -- but then you look up and all of a sudden you're being attacked by a huge FedEx plane landing at Newark Airport.

So it's -- that's the kind of thing that I remember about the Meadowlands.

GROSS: Robert Sullivan, thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Robert Sullivan's new book is called The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Robert Sullivan
High: Writer Robert Sullivan. His new book "The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures At the Edge of a City" is about his intrepid trek into the swamp land five miles west of New York City, where decades of garbage, chemicals, and corpses have been dumped. Ian Frazier calls it "funny, interesting, surprising and bizarre." Part of the book was excerpted recently in The New York Times Magazine. Sullivan is contributing editor at Vogue. He also writes for The New Yorker, Conde Naste Traveler, The New Republic and Rolling Stone.
Spec: Cities; New York; Garbage; The Meadowlands
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Meadowlands
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 25, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Doris Wishman Biographer
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT
BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC

In the days before you could show nudity on screen, a legal loophole allowed you to show nude people at nudist camps. Doris Wishman is one of the filmmakers who took advantage of that by making nudist camp films like "Diary of a Nudist," "Nude on the Moon," "Blaze Starr Goes Nudist," "Behind the Nudist Curtain," and "The Prince and the Nature Girl."

To justify the nudity, the films extolled the healthy lifestyle of nudist camps.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, SCENE FROM NUDIST FILM BY DORIS WISHMAN)

ACTOR: As you know, I moved to Miami from Kansas City only a few months ago.

ACTOR: I see.

ACTOR: I've been a nudist for many years now. I really believe it has made a better and more tolerant person out of me -- certainly a healthier and happier one.

ACTRESS: I know what you mean. I've never felt as healthy and as alive as I do since I've joined this lodge. I wish I could make other people understand how beneficial, both mentally and physically, it is to be a nudist.

GROSS: Doris Wishman followed up her nudist films with sexploitation films like "Bad Girls Go To Hell," "Another Day, Another Man," "A Taste of Flesh," and "Too Much, Too Often." She was perhaps the only woman making independently produced sexploitation films in the '60s and '70s.

Now, her work is being shown at repertory cinemas and film festivals. My guest Michael Bowen is writing a biography of her and trying to revive her work. We'll meet Doris Wishman a little later.

I asked Michael Bowen to describe "nudie-cuties" or the nudist camp film genre.

MICHAEL BOWEN, BIOGRAPHER OF DORIS WISHMAN: Technically, there's a distinction between the nudie-cutie and the nudist camp film. Russ Meyer is best-known for having invented the nudie-cutie in 1959 with a film called "The Immoral Mr. Teas." And that's really sort of a celluloid version of Playboy magazine. And the nudie-cutie, I would argue is largely a West Coast phenomenon due to difference in censorship laws and structures.

On the East Coast, however, in the mid-'50s, a small-time independent producer named Walter Bebow (ph) made a film called "Garden of Eden," and it was a melodrama essentially cast in a nudist camp. He was able to produce this film with an expectation of getting it exhibited because high courts had ruled that nudism and nudist magazines -- magazines espousing the nudist lifestyle, which was sort of a phenomenon of the time -- couldn't be discriminated against; that nudism was a valid social philosophy and therefore was not obscene.

So Bebow made this picture and he took it around the country. In small venues, he did OK, but when he tried to get into big East Coast cities like New York and Boston, he was shut down almost immediately by the then-existing censor boards. He won a number of court battles, and by the late '50s, the film was playing all over the place.

Doris had worked for a distribution entity that was involved with the distribution of the film in a small part of the country, as I understand it. And after she got out of distribution, she got it into her head that she would go into production and make a nudist film, which she knew had been financially successful.

That's the version of the story she tells. I suppose we could speculate as to why it is that she was attracted to the genre herself personally, but she says she figured that it would do well commercially.

GROSS: What were you allowed to show? You were allowed to show breasts and buttocks -- was that it?

BOWEN: You were allowed to show breasts. You would allowed to show bottoms. Oftentimes, you'd probably appreciate that it's difficult to construct a shot in such a way that it covers other private areas effectively. So, Doris and other filmmakers would do things like have people walk around with a large hat or a towel or a beach ball or something held down low in front of their genital area, so that it wouldn't be exposed.

I know also Doris oftentimes, when she showed a volleyball game, would mysteriously have the side that was necessarily facing the camera wear shorts. These were the sort of manipulations that were necessary to produce at the time.

I find now that when you see some of these films, and some of them are available on video, it's an element of their charm, because it's very obvious that the producer/director had to go out of their way to orchestrate the situation so that they could show something, but not too much.

GROSS: So, there's no sex in these films.

BOWEN: No, there's no sex at all in these films, and it's probably a crucial part of their legitimacy. The films are not about sex. And from my own research into this area, and there hasn't been a lot of intelligent scholarly work written on the nudist movement, certainly, there's room to write more. But from the things I've been able to find, that's fairly consistent with the practices of nudists at the time and the nudist philosophy.

Exhibition of sexual arousal was considered sort of the cardinal sin of nudism. Within the context of the nudist camp, people were not supposed to become sexually aroused and they weren't there to be sexually aroused. They were there to sort of get back in touch with their bodies as a natural entity that wasn't, perhaps ironically in some ways, wasn't about sex.

In some ways, the movement itself had fairly conservative social values, given the kind of nascent sexual revolution that I would argue was already gaining momentum by that time. Certainly, we were in a kind of like post-Playboy magazine phase, and the swinger and the bachelor and the ladies man are becoming sort of very prevalent cultural figures at this time.

So nudism, and in some ways Doris' films along with nudism, are -- was a relatively sexually conservative ideology.

GROSS: Doris Wishman went from making nudist camp films to making sex exploitation films later in the '60s. And some of the films she made were about rough sex -- about rape and whippings and not -- not very graphic, 'cause there was a limit, I suppose, to what you could show.

BOWEN: That's right.

GROSS: But why -- why did she change to -- in this kind of sex exploitation direction?

BOWEN: Well as Doris has explained it to me, she changed in that direction because everybody did. The nudist camp film had kind of played out by, say, '63, '64. It became clear that producers weren't able to contrive new and interesting plots. The audiences were starting to dwindle. People who were going to see these films had basically seen enough.

That seems fairly clear. Doris will tell you, as she's told me, I assume that she just followed the trend and got out of the nudist camp genre, which she was not only a pioneer in, but as far as I know was probably the most prolific single producer-director in that genre. She produced eight films.

She told me one time she would have continued to make them forever, if they had stayed popular, 'cause she felt that she could contrive new story lines, but people weren't going to them anymore. So starting around '64 I think would probably be the best date, a new sort of exploitable picture that began quickly to incorporate a limited amount of nudity, but was really more about sexual situations, began to hit the exploitation circuit or the "grindhouse" circuit as it's sometimes called.

GROSS: Doris Wishman is -- is a woman making these sex exploitation movies. Do you think you can see that in the point of view of the films?

BOWEN: I would argue that you could. I think that if you look at the films made by these other producer-directors that I've mentioned, and then look at Doris' films, you'll see that there are definite differences. Women characters, until very late in Doris' work in this genre, are always central to the films. They're generally women who find themselves in difficult situations. They're seeking economic or sexual autonomy and are generally unable to find it.

It's a kind of very grim commentary on a world before feminism, so to speak; a world in which feminism doesn't sort of sit on the horizon. There's not a lot of hope in Doris' films. While the plots are usually constructed as melodramas which generally have a happy ending -- Doris' films almost always suddenly twist tragically in the very last minute.

So, while she works with many of the tropes of the genre, she obviously knew what other director-producers around Ninth Avenue in New York where these films were made, were doing at the time. She really subverts the genre, I would argue, and I think has interesting implications when you think about the fact that she was the only woman working in this genre.

GROSS: Michael Bowen, I want to thank you very much.

BOWEN: Thank you, Terry. Appreciate the opportunity to talk about Doris' work.

GROSS: Michael Bowen is writing a biography of Doris Wishman. His working title is: "Queen of Sexploitation."

We'll meet Wishman after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Michael Bowen
High: Michael Bowen is author of a forthcoming book on sexploitation pioneer filmmaker Doris Wishman. He is a writer based in Brookline, Mass.
Spec: Movie Industry; Biography; Sexploitation; Doris Wishman
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Doris Wishman Biographer
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 25, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 032503NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Bad Girls Go to Hell
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:42

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT
BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Doris Wishman started making nudist camp movies in 1960, then moved on to sexploitation films. She was recently the guest of honor at the New York Underground Film Festival. Her 1965 film "Bad Girls Go To Hell" is playing at several repertory theaters.

I asked her why she started making nudist camp movies.

DORIS WISHMAN, FILMMAKER: My husband died and I wanted to do something that would take my mind off the tragedy. He was very young, I was very young. And I was also a frustrated actress. I had gone to drama school with Shelley Winters, and always felt that I saw far better than she. But she pursued a career and I just went on to other things.

In any event, I wanted to do something that would just keep me so occupied, and I couldn't think of what had occurred. Anyway, "Garden of Eden," which was the very first nudist picture ever filmed, had been quite successful. And so, I decided to make a nudist film.

GROSS: When you were making nudist camp movies, what were the rules of the game? What were you allowed to show? What couldn't you show?

WISHMAN: Well, you shouldn't -- couldn't show any frontal shots. That was all. Other than that, you could show any other part of the body.

GROSS: You could show breasts.

WISHMAN: You could show the breasts. You could show everything but the frontal -- the penis and the vagina. You know. But in the nudist camp, of course, that was allowed. As a matter of fact, when I went to shoot my nudist film, the owner of the camp said: "you know, you have to be in the nude in order to work here."

First of all, she read the script and approved of it. And she said "you have to be in the nude." And this was in Miami, of course. And I said: oh, no, no -- forget it. We're not -- and I -- when my cameraman calls me up, I -- he would say the same as I. Forget it. When I said to him: "Ray, you know, in order to shoot, you've gotta be in the nude." He said "great."

But of course he wasn't because he had to have, you know, wear pants so that he could have things in his pockets. Anyway, I told Zelda Suplee (ph) who owned the camp that I wouldn't do it. And she said: "well then you know what? Can you just wear shorts and a top?" And I said, well naturally -- what else would I wear? I'd wear that in any event, you know.

And so that -- we were allowed to shoot there.

GROSS: But was it uncomfortable for you as a woman to be making nudist movies -- and there were virtually no other women doing this?

WISHMAN: No -- but you know what it is, Terry -- at first when I went to the nudist camp, I was very embarrassed. So embarrassed, I couldn't -- and you know what? After two or three days, suddenly it was normal. I was no longer embarrassed. Note that there was no sex in these films, just nudity.

GROSS: Were there certain things that were kind of obligatory to show in the nudist camp movies? You know, like sports, volleyball -- you have some archery scenes.

WISHMAN: No, but the point is, this is what happened. This is how they -- this is a form of their socializing. I -- this was what they did. They played volleyball. They played handball or whatever. I showed what was really happening -- swimming, you know in the pool and so on. I just filmed as they played and then I paid them, you know, most of them were just nudist camp campers. And they were paid and that was it.

GROSS: I think a particularly amusing shot from one of your movies -- one of the nudist camp movies -- there's a naked accordionist sitting down, and the accordion of course obscures his privates, and he's serenading a group of nudists who are sitting in a circle holding hands and swaying to the -- I have to say very square rhythm of his accordion.

It's a really -- it's actually a very amusing scene in a way. Tell me about that scene.

WISHMAN: This is what -- look, I just filmed what was happening. This was really happening. These were not actors. The fellow that was playing the accordion worked for Zelda -- I think they might have been partners, I'm not sure. It was just a scene.

I mean, it didn't mean -- it was just another scene that I shot when I saw what they were doing, I said I'm going to shoot. Anybody that doesn't want to be in it, please leave. Nobody left, so I got releases; paid them.

GROSS: Why did you stop making nudist camp movies?

WISHMAN: Because after I started making nudist films, about 10 other distributors or producers, whatever, started making nudist films. And suddenly they were no longer interesting or exciting. And besides, I wanted to go on to bigger and better things.

GROSS: What did you go on to?

WISHMAN: I went on to making black and white, of course, regular feature films, no more nudist films. My first film was "Sex Perils of Paulette," which was a -- and incidentally Tony Lobianco (ph), you've heard of him?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. The actor?

WISHMAN: He was in the first film, Sex Perils of Paulette.

GROSS: What did he play?

WISHMAN: One of the lovers that she had -- one of her boyfriends.

GROSS: What was the plot?

WISHMAN: Oh, God. You don't want to hear the plot. It was just a plot.

GROSS: I want to hear the plot.

LAUGHTER

WISHMAN: Do you insist?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WISHMAN: Do you think I can -- if I can remember 35 years -- 30 years back. About a girl who comes to town from a hick town, and her adventures in the city and the people she meets and so on. Very ordinary. It was good, but wasn't great. But I did what I could, you know, my best.

And then after that, I made "Too Much, Too Often," "Taste of Flesh," "Indecent Desires," "My Brother's Wife," "Another Day, Another Man."

LAUGHTER

GROSS: How did you come up with the titles?

WISHMAN: I don't know. You know what, at night when you go to bed, I would think of millions of things, and if I was lucky, I'd remember them in the morning. You know, you just think of titles.

GROSS: That Too Much, Too Often is very suggestive. What's it really about?

WISHMAN: Oh, Terry, you don't want to know. It's just a film.

LAUGHTER

I mean, no, no, no, no. Look, I want to tell you something. I never made hard-core because I was scared.

GROSS: Scared of what?

WISHMAN: Of getting in trouble. You know, I don't disapprove of it, 'cause nobody's twisting your arm. If you want to see hard-core, that's your privilege. But I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it. Some of my friends have made hard-core and are riding around in limos. And I have to take taxis or a bus.

But it just -- the fellow that made "Deep Throat" was a friend of mine. He called me one day and he said he was making Deep Throat -- a picture called Deep Throat, and I said: "you're crazy, Jerry. What kind of title is that?" And then he told me what it was about. And I said: "oh, my God. You are mad." But you know what? He wasn't mad. He knew what he was doing, but I couldn't do it. First, as a female I couldn't do it. And second...

GROSS: Let me stop you there. Why couldn't you do it as a female?

WISHMAN: It -- I can't explain it. It went against me. As I said, I don't disapprove. It's none of my business. You -- but I couldn't. I couldn't do it.

GROSS: You couldn't do it yourself. Yeah.

WISHMAN: I just couldn't do it, period.

GROSS: Did you feel like you would have been exploiting the women in the movies?

WISHMAN: Oh, no, no, no. If you -- look, first of all...

GROSS: How about -- OK -- right. Go ahead.

WISHMAN: First of all, you have their consent. Secondly, you pay them. They're -- nobody's twisting their arm. You know that girls kept coming to me, men kept coming to me, asking if they could be in my films? And some of them I was able to work with and some I couldn't; didn't need.

How can they be exploited if they're paid properly?

GROSS: As a woman, did you feel uncomfortable depicting the kind of sex -- depicting sex in the way it's often depicted in pornography, which is often with a kind of brutal edge to it?

WISHMAN: But, I never did that. I never did that. So...

GROSS: You said you had two reasons. What was the second?

WISHMAN: Why I couldn't do it?

GROSS: Yeah.

WISHMAN: First of all, I found it very hard to even shoot normal sex scenes, and I'm not talking about hard-core. And secondly, I disapproved of it, but that doesn't mean that there should be a ban against it. That's just me. I don't like hard-core. I think sex is a -- should -- even normal sex should be a private thing. So, how could I shoot hard-core?

GROSS: Although you didn't shoot hard-core, there was, you know, a lot of...

WISHMAN: Yep.

GROSS: ... sexuality in the films. For instance, in Bad Girls Go To Hell, that film is about a married woman who -- who is raped by the janitor or superintendent, and he forces her to come back to his room where she's raped again and he threatens to throw...

WISHMAN: No, no, but he doesn't rape her twice.

GROSS: Well, no actually she kills him.

WISHMAN: Yeah, that's right.

GROSS: She tries to just like knock him out the second time, and accidentally kills him.

WISHMAN: Incidentally...

GROSS: And then she feels like she can't go back to her husband and she has to flee town. And as she goes to the big city, she keeps meeting person after person who kind of involves her in sexual escapade after sexual escapade. You know, some of them...

WISHMAN: But you never see anything happening. You don't see any sex scenes.

GROSS: No, you see everything implied. You don't see anything else.

WISHMAN: Well that's -- that's the point.

GROSS: Right. But it's still playing -- well anyway. It still -- this -- there's still films that revolve around sex.

WISHMAN: You know -- well, naturally. You know that ashtray that she hits him with -- kills him with -- that has committed so many murders. I bought that in California about...

LAUGHTER

... on my word of honor, it's -- I bought that in California about 30 years ago 'cause I liked it. You know, it was attractive. And I've used it as a weapon in so many films, it's really funny.

GROSS: Is that like a common theme of yours? Is it cheaper to knock somebody out with an ashtray...

WISHMAN: No, no, no, no -- it just happened. It wasn't deliberate. You know, Terry, it wasn't deliberate. It just happened that way. The ashtray was next to her. This was not deliberate. Many of the things that were done that people are playing just happened because I had no choice -- not -- they weren't deliberate.

GROSS: Did you ever think that you brought a different point of view to your movies because you were a woman?

WISHMAN: Possibly, but I didn't think that way when I made the film. As I said before, all I thought about was making a film that was as good as -- exciting and interesting and of course commercial as I could. I never thought about the fact that being a woman, my film might be different from the man next door who made a film. Didn't occur to me.

GROSS: My guest is Doris Wishman. We'll talk more about her films after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Doris Wishman. She started her career making nudist camp films in the 1960s, then made sexploitation films in the '60s and '70s. Her work is being revived in repertory cinemas and film festivals.

What made you want to direct movies in the first place? I know first you wanted to act and all, but you turned to direction. But you did this in the very early 1960s when -- I mean, there virtually were no women film directors, you know, in any part of the industry. I mean, there were some like Ida Lupino, for instance...

WISHMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ... but there were really so few.

WISHMAN: I don't think she was directing then.

GROSS: So, what -- you know, what made you think of directing?

WISHMAN: Well, I couldn't -- I knew I wasn't going to be an actress anymore, you know. And I wanted to do something that was really a challenge, and this was a challenge.

Now, the point is, I just wanted to get involved so that's what I did. And I will say that when I started, my sister gave me $10,000, which was a great deal of money at that time. And when I shot, it was stuff that had to be thrown away. But, it was healthy for me because I went to bed at night, instead of dreaming about my dead husband, I would say: "if I give my sister back $10 a week for the rest of my life, I'll return the ten...

LAUGHTER

... you know, but it was healthy thinking, Terry. You know what I mean?

GROSS: Right, yeah, right.

WISHMAN: So then I finally had to tell my sister. I said: "Pearl, I just" -- so she gave me another $10,000. And this time, I really, really, really went to town. And then I took the film to New York, 'cause certainly didn't shoot that film -- you know, make the film for $10,000. And this company that bought the film financed me. And that's how I got started. But the first time I shot, I couldn't use the footage.

GROSS: Did you ever try to parlay your films into a more mainstream career? Or into Holly -- you know, into a Hollywood career?

WISHMAN: No, but you know, I'll tell you this. I could have gone to Hollywood. Paramount asked me to go to work for them. UA asked me to go to work for them. And you know what? I said: "oh, no. I'm not working for anybody." Oh, I could -- when I think of it I could just kick myself. I had opportunities to go to Hollywood. I just didn't want to take them because I'm not too bright, I guess.

GROSS: You thought you'd...

WISHMAN: I felt I wanted to be on my own.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WISHMAN: I was doing well. I loved what I was doing. I had nobody to tell me what to do and how to do. And it was (unintelligible). It was a mistake, but then you know, hindsight -- what am I gonna do?

GROSS: You were able to make your movies at very low budgets. What are some of the tricks to keeping movies cheap?

WISHMAN: Tricks. Well, you see, as a matter of fact, I had no tricks. That's why my movies were more costly than they should have been. I really had no tricks. Everything I did was of the best. So I really didn't cut corners, but I should have.

GROSS: One of the things that you did was you added the sound after the movie was shot, so instead of recording the dialogue as it was spoken, it was dubbed in afterwards.

WISHMAN: All right. Now, let me tell you why. Firstly, most of the people that I worked with -- like Chesty Morgan -- couldn't speak well. Chesty had an accent -- a Polish accent. She was from Poland.

The -- some of the others I was able to use sound, you know, direct sound, but most of these actors and actresses, they just didn't speak well. Whereas when I dubbed it, which was more -- another thing, dubbing is much more costly, you know. It's very costly. But at least they sounded as though they could speak.

Now that, too, was a mistake. I didn't try to cut corners, Terry, and that -- that was ridiculous, now that I look back.

GROSS: You mentioned Chesty Morgan. She was kind of infamous in her time, named -- nicknamed "Chesty" because she had an exceptionally large chest.

WISHMAN: Yeah, yes. That was the gimmick. In one film, she's a spy and she has a camera implanted in one of her breasts, so that when she has to take pictures of documents or people, you know, involved, she has to expose her breast and snap, you know -- bing! -- snap a picture.

That's as far as -- there was no sex in it.

GROSS: But you got to see her a lot because she had to take lots of pictures, probably right?

LAUGHTER

WISHMAN: Not too many. Not too many. Terry -- not too many, 'cause then it's not exciting if you overdo it.

GROSS: How did -- how did Chesty Morgan react to that?

WISHMAN: Fine. Anything she could do to make money, she didn't care. She would have done anything, anything, anything.

GROSS: You're hoping to make movies again.

WISHMAN: Oh, yes, definitely.

GROSS: You haven't made one since the -- your footage for "A Night To Dismember" was destroyed in the lab a few years ago and you lost a lot of money when that happened.

WISHMAN: Right, right.

GROSS: What kind of movies are you hoping to make now?

WISHMAN: Well, feature films, but of a better caliber. And I really shouldn't use that term, because I consider the films that I did make very, very good. It's called "Each Time I Kill" and it's -- well, it's a horror film. It's just done so -- it's different and it's great, and horror films are "in" now. It isn't a horror film. I don't -- I don't even know how to describe it.

And then I've got a film -- a script called "Tapestry of Terror" and another script called "Hell Hath No Fury," which is -- and I'm working on a sitcom, which I want to do called "Jane Blonde." It's great, really great.

GROSS: I wish you good luck with those.

WISHMAN: Well, the thing is, I've got to -- I don't -- you see, I never had investors, so it's very difficult for me to ask for money. I always felt I had to do everything...

GROSS: Right. It doesn't work anymore.

WISHMAN: ... and that's a mistake. No. Never did work.

GROSS: Yeah.

WISHMAN: I wrote the script. I directed. I cast. I took care of the makeup. I did the editing. I chose the music. That's not the way to work. You have to be able to relegate various jobs to other people, and I never was able to do that. I always felt I was the only one that could do it. And that is so ridiculous.

GROSS: Well Doris Wishman, I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

WISHMAN: You're more than welcome.

GROSS: Doris Wishman's 1965 movie Bad Girls Go To Hell is showing at several repertory cinemas around the country.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Doris Wishman
High: Filmmaker Doris Wishman. She's considered to be a pioneer of sexploitation movies, of the "nudie" and softcore sex genre films. Between 1960 and 1978 Wishman wrote, directed and produced 24 low budget films. Her films include "Bad Girls Go to Hell," "Nude on the Moon," and "Too Much, Too Often." Revivals of her films have recently been shown in Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York. In August, she will receive a lifetime achievement award at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.
Spec: Movie Industry; Sexuality; Women; Bad Girls Go to Hell
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Bad Girls Go to Hell
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Did COVID-19 Leak From A Lab? A Reporter Investigates — And Finds Roadblocks

President Biden has asked the intelligence community to investigate whether or not the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. Vanity Fair reporter Katherine Eban shares her findings.

41:50

'Forget The Alamo' Author Says We Have The Texas Origin Story All Wrong

In their new book, Forget the Alamo, Bryan Burrough and co-writers Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford challenge common misconceptions surrounding the conflict — including the notion that Davy Crockett was a martyr who fought to the death rather than surrender.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue