NEW YORK, NOV. 25 -- The phone keeps ringing as John LaCorte sits on the couch in his Brooklyn brownstone, patiently explaining his modest proposal. The Associated Press, "Eyewitness News" and WNBC radio all want to talk to him. Television crews from Britain and Australia have already stopped by. A People magazine reporter is waiting in the anteroom.
"This proves that there is a great demand for virgins!" LaCorte exclaims.
LaCorte, 78, an Italian businessman with a booming voice, never dreamed that he would hit such a nerve in the popular psyche with his offer to pay $1,000 to each of 100 high school girls in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island who can prove that they have remained virgins until the age of 19.
In the two days since he made the offer, LaCorte says, 20 bachelors have called, begging for a peek at what he calls the "honor roll of virgins." More than 100 interested girls have also telephoned from as far as Wisconsin and Colorado.
If all this sounds rather medieval, it may be because LaCorte, a bespectacled man with white hair, gray beard and bow tie, is a product of the Old Country.
"Where I come from, Sicily, virginity is considered a very important virtue for girls," he says. "If a man seduced a girl, they were finished! It's a very serious offense. But I understand that young girls here look to be seduced."
Not all of the reaction has been positive.
"It's a sad commentary on our society that we've come to this," says Jeanne Head, chairwoman of the Manhattan Right to Life Committee. "I think his intentions are good, but I don't like his double standard and his remark that men are looking for virgins."
Kelli Conlin, president of the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women, says her members are "outraged. It's a direct invasion of privacy. You can't have girls subject themselves to a test when no one has the right to know that kind of information."
LaCorte had stipulated that girls seeking the awards would have to undergo a medical exam to certify their virginity. But experts point out that the hymen may be torn in various ways other than intercourse.
Dr. Yvonne Thornton, director of obstetrics and gynecology at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, says virginity "cannot be diagnosed accurately gynecologically because of the variations in women's anatomy."
LaCorte calls these concerns unwarranted. "The program is only symbolic," he says. "We're not really interested in proving a girl is a virgin. It's only to direct attention to the problem.
"I want to make it fashionable again to be a virgin ... it shows maturity, self-respect and will power."
Still, stung by criticism that he is offering "bribes," LaCorte is considering other ways to spend his money. He says he may set up social clubs for girls who sign up and hold "weekend seminars to prepare girls on how to be a good wife, a good mother and homemaker.
"Some of the girls don't even know how to make a cup of coffee," LaCorte says.
He says he would also like to introduce the girls to young men who can prove that they have no diseases and are financially independent.
Does he see any hint of a double standard in all this? LaCorte responds that it's difficult to determine whether a young man is a virgin. Furthermore, he explains, "woman is the foundation of civilization. It's their decision to say no, because men are a bunch of donkeys."
The virginity scheme was born when LaCorte became alarmed by a report that 40,000 American girls under the age of 15 become pregnant each year. He says he went to bed thinking of ways to help young girls resist the temptations of the flesh. By 4 a.m., he had decided that handing out $1,000 checks would help "make girls realize that virginity is an important treasure to preserve."
The next day, he deposited $100,000 in a bank, called a local newspaper -- and the phone hasn't stopped ringing.
One caller, an elderly woman, wanted LaCorte to find a "nice virgin" for her son who is "shy and doesn't go out."
Letters have also poured in. One, which arrived this morning by express mail, is from a 22-year-old Brooklyn secretary who, by her account, has dated several men but remains a virgin. "I hope my story has restored your faith in the American Female," she wrote.
LaCorte came alone to America on July 4, 1929, with 70 cents in his pocket. He couldn't speak English; for a while he sold razor blades and shoelaces for a living. He started selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners because "you didn't have to talk, you just showed them how it works," he says. In those days he would walk 50 blocks just to save a 5-cent carfare.
LaCorte later started his own insurance agency, which thrived by catering to largely Italian neighborhoods. He still lives modestly, although on paper he is a millionaire because of two brownstones he bought 30 years ago.
Emboldened by the reaction to his New York offer, LaCorte wants to branch out overseas. He has been calling his wealthy friends in Italy, urging them to begin a similar program. "Italian girls are going bad too," he confides.