Remembering Gloria Leonard, Erotic Film Pioneer

By Ashley Rosemont

This week porn lost one of its iconoclastic heroines: Gloria Leonard, who died of a stroke at the age of 73 in Hawaii. Leonard starred in a number of erotic films in the 1970s, when the form was in its heyday, and in later years, when the industry came under attack by feminists and religious conservatives, she defended her choices. The New York Times obituary quotes her as saying ““I said the whole point of the women’s movement is for women to choose whatever they want to do,” she said “Why should my choice be considered any less or more valid than your choice?” (from Leonard’s interview with  The Rialto Report, a website and podcast dedicated to erotic cinema).

Read on…

After gaining widespread notice for her work in erotic films, Ms. Leonard, an experienced publicist, was hired as a publisher for High Society, the popular and influential men’s Gloria Leonardmagazine, in 1977. The magazine published erotic images of popular actresses like Ann-Margret and Jodie Foster; this led to some celebrities suing the magazine but because the image came directing from film stills, the magazine was not found responsible for damages. (An interesting side note: in 1983 the magazine received a letter and a check from none other than John Hinckley, requesting a copy of the “Jodie Foster issue” be sent to him at a hospital in Washington.)  High Society is still publishing, but as with many magazines of its kind (such as Playboy), the quality has become somewhat cruder and more obvious as times have changed. But during Leonard’s time helming the magazine, it proved enormously popular: in 1982, the magazine outsold The Reader’s Digest.

Leonard recorded previews of upcoming issues on the magazine’s office answering machine, and these recordings in her trademark sexy voice proved so compelling that they led to one of the first-ever sex phone lines, the “Living Centerfold Telephone Service,” which  offered recorded messages for a fee. A 1983 news article says the service used to offer a Wednesday “Ladies Day” special of “beefcake” or male voices offering sultry messages. “No one,” she stressed, “can ever accuse me of sex discrimination.” Obviously, such a feature could be enjoyed equally by make or female callers.

By 1970s monetary standards, the service made money hand over fist (though Leonard’s message that inspired it had never been intended as a commercial commodity): over half a million calls came in every day, making at least $10,000 every 24 hours. Initially there were complaints, but when the FCC and Justice Department got involved, nothing happened; perhaps because the service never used profanity, and the number was only available in the magazine, which was intended to be sold only to people over 18. At the time, Leonard said “This could turn into a real test of free speech under the First Amendment…and if it come to that, frankly, I don’t see us losing.”

Leonard was born “Gail Klinetsky” in the Bronx, and her father manufactured fine women’s clothing. Before getting her start in pornographic film, Leonard had jobs selling lingerie, writing liner notes for record albums, ghostwriting for a well-known advice columnist, and as a registered bond trader on Wall Street. Her first erotic film, The Opening of Misty Beethoven, was made by a man who Leonard called “the antithesis” of the stereotypical porn producer: “Tall, dignified and articulate.” She thought doing one film would help her show how “liberated” she was and “get it out of my system.” But she went on to make thirty more films, many of them (like Maraschino Cherry, Odyssey: The Ultimate Trip, and Intimate Desires) considered classics of the artful genre that defined erotic movies in the 1970s. She retired from the film industry to work for High Society, but remained a vocal defender of women’s work in erotic cinema.

Ms. Leonard was married to porn producer Bobby Holland, and they divorced in 1990. She served as the administrator for the now-defunct Adult Film Association (AFA), an industry trade organization. When the AFA merged with the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), Leonard caused a controversy with her insistence that the word “adult” be retained for the new organization’s title: she was forced out by some who thought a high-profile porn star would not make a suitable spokesperson. Ironically, years later, after she returned to porn production in 1997, the FSC elected her its president in 1998.

Leonard was a maverick and pioneer in the adult entertainment business, and certainly one of the few woman who not only worked in front of and behind the camera, but also passionately defended her choices and those of her female colleagues to prosper in this industry.

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