A "John" Named Nelson Algren

Annie Sprinkle led off her review of Chester Brown's Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John by pointing out that in her "nearly 40 years in the world of sex workers," she knew of only one person ever "to come out voluntarily -- with honesty, integrity and pride -- " as a "john." She even doubled checked: "To ascertain if any other such brave johns had slipped my mind, I surveyed a few of my older prostitute friends. 'No, just Fred Cherry,' they confirmed."

So I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, where her July 3 review, titled "A John's Story," appeared:

Annie Sprinkle notes that "to be a known john is to be trailed by shame and stigma" and that Fred Cherry, who unsuccessfully "sued Mayor Ed Koch for the legal right to pay for sex with prostitutes," was the only john brave enough to come out voluntarily that she knows of. Perhaps she would be interested to hear that Nelson Algren, the novelist, was another.

When Koch first came up with the idea of publicizing a citywide "john list" to discourage prostitution, Algren, whom I knew at the time, was "outraged" and "volunteered to head the list," as I reported in the Chicago Sun-Times, on May 17, 1981, eight days after Algren died. "He dashed off letters to the mayor, the newspapers and radio stations." But nobody took him up on the offer.

Algren's outrage was principled. He believed the john list was "a cynical exploitation of middle-class fears." But he also had personal reasons for being upset. The publicity complicated his research for The Devil's Stocking (his final, posthumously published novel, which prominently features a whorehouse on 48th Street near Times Square) and, worse, it forced his "girlfriend, a prostitute he saw regularly," as I wrote, "to leave the city because of increased raids and lack of customers. Algren never forgave the mayor for that."

The NYT Sunday Book Review chose not to publish the letter. I hope it was at least passed on to Sprinkle. I still think she'd be interested to hear about Algren.

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