Ralph Ginzburg; Pushed Envelope as a Publisher

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006; B06

Ralph Ginzburg, 76, a self-promoting, self-described "brandied fruitcake of a publisher" who lost two First Amendment battles in the U.S. Supreme Court for publishing an erotic magazine and taunting Sen. Barry Goldwater as an unbalanced paranoid, died July 6 at the Mollie and Jack Zicklin Jewish Hospice Residence in the Bronx, N.Y. He had multiple myeloma.

Mr. Ginzburg published many things, including a cheeky consumer newsletter called Moneysworth, a book about black lynchings in the Deep South and a collection of his newspaper photography called "I Shot New York."

As a newspaper photographer for much of his later life, he had a habit of donning disguises -- he was most effective as a clergyman -- to enter events for which he lacked proper credentials.

What brought him his first touch of national attention, starting in the late 1950s, was the publication of two books, "An Unhurried View of Erotica" and "The Housewife's Handbook on Selective Promiscuity," as well as an erotic-art quarterly called Eros. The magazine lasted four issues in 1962 and 1963.

It was not the content of his work but rather his reputedly salacious promotional methods that were central to his conviction on federal obscenity laws in a federal court in 1963. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction three years later, ruling that an obscenity conviction is possible if "the purveyor's sole emphasis is on the sexually provocative aspects of his publications."

Mr. Ginzburg was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $42,000. He served eight months at Allenwood minimum security prison in Pennsylvania, and this became the inspiration for his book "Castrated: My Eight Months in Prison" (1973).

The conviction was not culturally isolated. At the time, Henry Miller's "Tropic of Capricorn" was being removed from public libraries, congressmen were trying to link obscenity to a larger Communist plot and anti-smut campaigns were in full-throttle.

Into this atmosphere charged Mr. Ginzburg, a man with a loud, gravelly voice who disliked subdued dress and sported a bushy moustache and black, thick-rimmed glasses. Mr. Ginzburg attracted supporters such as Arthur Miller, I.F. Stone and Melvin Belli.

Although he lost his case -- one of the last major federal obscenity cases heard by the Supreme Court -- Mr. Ginzburg continued speaking out in favor of free expression.

"Personally, I think most cigarette ads are vulgar," he told Playboy magazine. "I think photographs showing B-52s dropping napalm on Vietnamese civilians are vulgar. No, let me make that stronger. They're grotesque, they're obscene. But I wouldn't put a man in jail for publishing such pictures. Good taste is absolutely indefinable in any legal sense."

After Eros, Mr. Ginzburg started the magazine Fact, which he also used to pique authority. In 1964, he canvassed by mail 12,000 psychiatrists to review the psychological fitness of Goldwater, the Arizona Republican then running for president as a hard-line conservative. The survey was ostensibly based on Goldwater's public statements.

Goldwater sued for libel, and Mr. Ginzburg paid $1 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages. The high court upheld the verdict and did not comment on Mr. Ginzburg's contention that the article was intended to spur a vigorous national debate.

The son of a Russian immigrant housepainter, Mr. Ginzburg was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 28, 1929. He received an accounting degree from City College of New York in 1949, but editing the school paper led him to pursue journalism.

He went on to become promotions manager at Look magazine and articles editor of Esquire magazine. A few years later, he wrote for Harper's one of the last full interviews with the teenage chess master Bobby Fischer.

In his spare time, he tried to write a biography of Anthony Comstock, the 19th-century moral reformer who gave his name to laws suppressing the transit of obscene matter through mails. The research led Mr. Ginzburg to historic files on pornography and to publishing "An Unhurried View of Erotica" (1958), which sold more than 125,000 copies in hardcover and 200,000 in paperback.

On Valentine's Day 1962, he rolled out his first copy of Eros. He hired Herb Lubalin, the internationally regarded graphic designer, to handle the layout and design.

The magazine had illustrations by Degas mingling with pictures of male prostitutes in Bombay and a suggestive photo essay of an interracial couple. One article warned against rigorous lovemaking for the fainthearted.

A letter-writing campaign to the postmaster general eventually led Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to greenlight a case against the publisher.

Mr. Ginzburg later worked on other publishing ventures, including an arts and politics magazine called Avant Garde.

Tiring of the constant demands of running a business, he learned photography in the mid-1980s and sold his work to many New York newspapers and magazines. His work culminated in "I Shot New York" (1999), a chronicle of city life that earned him favorable comparisons to Weegee.

In the book, he found it hard to resist including pictures of former president Gerald R. Ford that showed him in embarrassing poses. He told the Associated Press that Ford, while a Michigan congressman, called for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to resign because Douglas had published an article about folk singing in Avant Garde.

"I got the last laugh," Mr. Ginzburg said.

Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Shoshana Brown Ginzburg of Manhattan, N.Y.; three children, Shepherd Ginzburg of Ventura, Calif., Lark Kuhta of Hewitt, N.J., and Bonnie Erbe Leckar of Falls Church, the host of the public television show "To the Contrary"; and three grandchildren.

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