Bette Midler, Sex and Death – From Guest Blogger Skip Williamson

Once again, I am fortunate to be able to have a guest blog from the legendary Skip Williamson.  This time, he discusses the end of Gallery Magazine, sex, cola, Bette Midler and the rise of Larry Flynt .  Enjoy!

In 1973 when I was the art director of Gallery magazine I was getting into a slight flirtation with the receptionist there. She’d come into my office and we’d mess around a bit but we couldn’t properly pound it out because my office door wouldn’t close. So we made a fuckdate. I went to the apartment where she was staying. She was living with an attorney. She could live there rent free as long as she’d pork him. There were no commitments. She could go with whoever she wanted as long as she took care of his needs. I knocked on the apartment door but girlfriend, as usual, was fucked up on downers, She would NOT be roused. I banged and kicked loudly on the door. The attorney exited the elevator, came down the hall, unlocked the door and and barked “Your date is here!” “HEY!! WAKE THE FUCK UP!!!” After a few minutes she finally stirred.

We were ready to leave and the attorney looked at me. I was bearded, had shoulder-length hair, Fry boots with two-inch heels, a western-style snap-front shirt embroidered with roses and cacti and a cowboy hat that had been given to me by Janet Keldulka. Each of my fingernails was painted a different color in a futile attempt to stop biting my nails. I looked like a Flying Burrito Brother. Only more psychotic. The attorney says to her “He looks like he’s up to the job of taking care of you.” He smiled. We left and went to my room at the Ambassador East and fucked for a couple of hours. Then attended the Hippie wedding of one of my art directors.

During this time I was spending most nights with Janet Kedulka. We’d known each other for awhile, so we made a date to go out and catch some music. I went to her apartment. Instead of going out we had sex. From that night on we slept together often, wrapped and knotted around each other. But we’d never fuck again. She was a great physical partner. A spooner, wonderful to sleep with. As our morning routine we’d roll out and stand by the bed with our arms wrapped around each other saying good morning and kissing. Tightly squeezing chest to chest, pelvis to pelvis. And she would, without fail, whisper compliments in my ear about what a virile man I was (Probably had something to do with the insistent lump pressing against her belly). Then we would begin our day. I was beginning to understand that between couples there were many acceptable configurations.

In October Gallery wanted to do a profile of Bette Midler so I was assigned to take a photographer and follow her from soundcheck through the concert. Coincidentally Janet Kelduka was a friend of Bette’s. So I asked her to go with me.

We arrived at the theater with a photographer and I was immediately cornered by the publicist who had arranged us access. He was upset that Gallery was interested in doing a Bette Midler profile. “No, No No!” he squeaked. “We want you to profile Bette’s arranger and piano player. He’s in the process of moving off on his own and he’s going to be BIG!” The publicist yelped. He grabbed my arm and pulled me into a dressing room and introduced me to a skinny blond man with a big nose. “Say hello to Barry Manilow!” the publicist squawked. “How y’ doin?” I said as Manilow weakly pumped my hand. “Where’s Bette?” I asked the sputtering publicist as I turned and walked out the dressing room door and headed for the stage.

Janet had already located Bette on stage at the mike. Her hair was in curlers, tied up in a bandana and she was in jeans and a t-shirt. Janet and Bette were all arms around each other, jumping up and down, squealing and laughing like schoolgirls. “Remember that cab-ride across Manhattan? Singing at the top of our lungs the whole way!” chirped Bette. Janet said “This is my friend, Skip.” Bette took my hand warmly. “Welcome”, she said. “Any friend of Janet’s…” her voice trailed off. “Hello, Skip” said a gruff and rough-hewn voice from behind me. I turned and saw Aaron Russo, looking for all the world like Dr. Jeckyll’s Mr. Hyde. Hunched and pileous, he was dressed in a black Victorian frock-coat, wore a satin-lined cape and wielded a cane with a silver head shaped like a snarling Hyena

“Good to see you again” said Russo as he lurched across the stage, his silver-headed cane clacking the floorboards as he approached. I’d known Aaron Russo since he’d run the Kinetic Playground, a music venue in Chicago. Now he was Midler’s Svengali. He managed her career, controlled her life and slept in her bed.

About an hour before show time Bette was getting herself made-up and Janet had to leave because of a previous commitment. Aaron Russo cornered me backstage. “Can you get some coke? Bette needs coke.”

I told him “I’ll see what I can do.”

I called Ron Fenton and asked him if he knew where I could get some cocaine. He said his source was out and he didn’t know where to get any. This was the time just before cocaine avalanched coast-to-coast. It was pretty easy to procure in L.A. and NYC, but not so easy (yet) in Chicago. MDA, weed and angel dust were no problem but cola was scarce.

I went to Russo and told him I’d come up empty.

He morphed into a foul and bristly mountain troll, blood-stained canines bared and sulphuric smoke trailing up out of his nostrils. Malevolently he slammed his cane into the wall, throwing off sparks. His eyes turned blood-red and he shrieked “GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!”

Afraid of contracting rabies I left.

The profile of Bette Midler would never be published because Gallery (as we knew it) was in its final throes.

A month later I was at a friend’s house for a Thanksgiving dinner for orphans. My wife, Cecilia, had taken my daughter, Megan, our washer and dryer and hightailed it back to LaGrange, Missouri. I had no family with whom to share the holiday. This was a turkeyfeed for those of us without family in the area.

While at the feast I received a phone call from Bob Rudnick. “I’ve got something for you. You need to get over here now!” He gave me an address.

A half an hour later I was in a room with Rudnick, Francy and a slimy drug dealer.

Rudnick put his hand into the small of my back and whispered in my ear “She’s yours. Happy Thanksgiving.”

Francy was a lovely 24-year-old woman, a vision. That night she was wearing a smokey lavender knit dress, red tights, green glitter platform shoes and she smelled of rose oil. I was immediately taken by her beauty, smitten. I told her that I wanted her to be on the cover of the next issue of Gallery. I went home with her that Thanksgiving night and I never left.

The following weekend I was covering the World Swingers Convention for Gallery. It was at a hotel out by the airport and I had a suite of rooms and a room service tab. I asked Francy if she’d like to come along. She said “You bet!”

I hired a photographer and assigned him to spend the weekend scouring the hotel for photographs of the swingers’ activities. Francy and I spent our time naked in the hotel room. Early in the morning on Sunday cranky male swingers began setting small fires around the hotel because no women had shown up for the conclave.

By the end of the weekend Francy and I were hopelessly in love with each other so I moved in with her. We lived together for a year or so, then — after my divorce to Cecilia — had a five-year marriage. And we shared a heart-bound friendship that lasted until her death in 1988. She was a physically beautiful female. A bit like Liv Tyler.  Only prettier and with bigger tits.

Meanwhile, at Gallery magazine things churned and roiled.

Allen Culp was one of (the publisher) Ron Fenton’s best friends. Culp was a corrupt attorney and Outfit pimp who ran a stable of several high-end call girls in Chicago’s First Ward. But Culp had made a fundamental error. One an Outfit pimp should never make. He fell in love (heavily, obsessively) with one of his girls. And she jilted him for some other scumbag.

The weekend I spent with Francy at the World Swingers Convention Allen Culp, armed with a .357 Magnum, morose and lovesick, committed suicide by blowing his brains all over his bedroom. Fenton was picked up by the cops and hauled over to Allen Culp’s place in order to identify the body.

Ronnie told me the following Monday “There wasn’t much left of his head. He was a real fucked-up mess. That’s a thing a person doesn’t want to see, your friend’s brains all over the room” He thought for a minute and added “I was gonna give him the reception area furniture when Gallery shuts down.”

That’s how I found out that Gallery was over.

Fenton had tried to take on the Distributor. Ronnie had tough friends but the Distributor had been at it for decades, had bigger teeth and played the game more hardcore. Fenton had set up the Distributor’s representative with an underage girl in his hotel room and got pictures and recordings of it. But it was water off a duck’s back. In the end control was snatched away from Fenton and the magazine was moved to NYC and became a completely different animal.

I was kept on the payroll because Fenton had other plans. For the previous couple of months Fenton had established a fiduciary alliance with Larry Flynt, a Kentucky hillbilly nightclub owner from Ohio. Flynt had seven Hustler clubs in Ohio. The Hustler clubs catered to businessmen with fat expense accounts, men who could charge expensive drinks and blowjobs onto corporate plastic. Larry Flynt had garnered ample wealth selling pussy and weak drinks and was looking to get into magazine publishing.

So when Gallery was wrestled away from Ron he placed a call to his pal Larry. Flynt would be the publisher and Fenton would be the associate publisher. I immediately got to work producing a brochure to solicit advertising for a new magazine called Hustler.

Check Skip/s blog out at OpenSalon.Com


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