The Tropic of Cancer: Booked for Selling a Book

09/14/2017 05:23 am ET

Banned Books Week, which begins on September 24, 2017, celebrates the freedom to read. It reminds us that some of our favorite classics such as Lolita, Naked Lunch and Ulysses were once considered obscene and forbidden. Following is one of those stories.

When Laurence McGilvery and his wife Geraldine were arrested in La Jolla, California, on November 17, 1961, for selling a copy of Henry Miller’s banned Tropic of Cancer, they were taken from their bookstore, to the San Diego jail in two cars. Why? Geraldine was still nursing Erin, their new baby. Since San Diego had two jails, Geraldine was taken to the one for women and he to the jail for men.

Their arrest was a small town sting operation. A. E. Jansen, the San Diego Police Chief, sent a young police cadet, who posing as a student writing a paper on censorship, bought the banned book. The next day two vice officers arrested the McGilvery’s for selling obscene matter. Supposedly, by then, they had cast their eyes on some of the offending opening pages which contained some of the “dirtiest” writing that could be imagined.

Laurence McGilvery Photo by Eugene Ray

Logan Jenkins noted in a news article that this same chief “had warned Elvis Presley that he’d be arrested if he repeated his previous pelvis-grinding concerts in San Diego.” In 1956, Elvis did appear with his famous hip-swiveling performance and was not arrested.

In a recent interview in La Jolla, McGilvery said, “Since Geraldine was still nursing Erin, one officer drove them and the other came with me in our 1957 sunroof VW. I was booked first, at perhaps 4:30 or 5:00 pm., served tea (which I drank), and then served dinner (which I gave away to the fastest talker in the drunk tank) and was out in around twenty minutes. Then we proceeded to the Women’s Jail in the County Courthouse. Our attorney, Harvey Furgatch, was already there with bail.”

“Gere’s experience was quite different from mine. She had to strip, be examined, take a shower, and put on jail clothes. She told the jailer that bail and a nursing baby were waiting outside for her. The jailer replied something like, “The all say that,” and went off to dinner. The other inmates — prostitutes, drunks, shoplifters, mostly, I suppose, asked why she was there. There were astonished when she said it was for selling a book.”

“Meanwhile, Harvey and I were sitting in the lobby until well after dark when she finally came out. We spent the time keeping Erin happy, successfully, as I recall.”

Jenkins, in summarizing the 1962 trial, wrote that the judge ruled the entire book had to be read to the jury. Each side selected readers. The defense selected Kingsley and Eleanor Widmer, who were known for writing about censorship. The now deceased Eleanor was also infamous for her dramatic flair. After the prosecution ordered her to read some of the more salacious parts, she started calling the French characters “Mama Bear” and “Papa Bear.” The entire courtroom burst into laughter. The jury listened for over nine hours. After a fifteen day trail, the McGilvery’s were acquitted of selling obscene material.

In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene. This ruling is responsible for the free speech in literature that prevails in the U.S. today.

Henry Miller visited the San Diego area on at least three occasions. Bradley Smith (1910 - 1997), a La Jolla author and Time-Life photographer, who co-authored My Life and Times with Miller, revealed the details on taped interviews that were partially conducted in Smith’s La Jolla home in the late 1960’s.

Miller told Smith that he worked clearing brush in Otay, near the Mexican border in 1910. While there he caught clap at a whorehouse in National City. He also claimed that he attended a 1912 lecture by Emma Goldman, the anarchist, who espoused free love or sex and questioned all authority. Miller said the lecture changed his life.

McGilvery continued, “Until she died in 2005, Gere remained quite bitter about the inquisition like treatment she received for the two hours she was in jail.” But that did not deter the McGilvery’s from continuing with their bookstore in La Jolla. Today, fifty-five years later, he still sells fine art books by appointment from his office on Fay Street. Erin, his daughter, is the owner of Folio Interior Design in Del Mar, California.

The Tropic of Cancer, now considered to be an important work of twentieth century literature, is read in college classes and is still sold in dozens of countries around the world.

Footnote: In 2005, Mary Duncan purchased the Miller/Smith tapes from Smith’s estate. Three excerpts can be heard on youtube.com/henry-miller-mary-duncan. The original tapes cover twelve hours of interviews from the book My Life and Times. Miller also wrote the Introduction to Smith’s Erotic Art of the Masters: 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, which is now available as an E-Book on Kindle.

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