By day, 55-year-old Ralph Whittington is curator of the main reading room at the Library of Congress. After hours, he applies his library skills to a collection of pornography so extensive that the Museum of Modern Art has agreed to take it over after his death. Not just jack-off material, this. Like any good librarian, Whittington doesn't limit his collection to his own tastes. He values the rare and esoteric over the simply arousing.
Whittington has appeared on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, on Extra!, and is the star of King of Porn, one of cult director Jeff Krulik's most fascinating short documentaries. While his library superiors aren't thrilled about the publicity his hobby has garnered, there's not much they can do about it. He's retiring in 2000, and will thereafter be the King of Porn full-time.
GETTINGIT: Have you ever run in trouble at work because of all the attention your porn collection has received?
RALPH WHITTINGTON: The library's not too thrilled. I have to report to the public affairs office whenever I do an interview. I always demand that stories about me have a disclaimer at the end that this is not the library's material and that I don't work on library time. Of course writers love the Library of Congress angle -- they call me the librarian of sexual congress.
I'll be retiring [soon], and my bosses will probably have a big party, but they can't stop an employee from doing what he wants to do as long as he don't misrepresent the library.
GI: Your mother lives with you. What does she think of your hobby?
RW: She tolerates it. She thinks, "It could be worse, he could be out drunk or doing drugs. At least I know where he is."
GI: Does it make dating difficult?
RW: I have a lot of rejection because of it. When I find someone who isn't turned off by it I call her a "20 percenter." But if somebody sees you on TV, that tends to put you in a different light. It gives you credibility.
I'd never say, "Hey, come here and watch this film." I've learned what to show and not to show. I don't show a girl some big-breasted porn star, cause she'll say that's all you think about. But if you show a girl someone like Ginger Lynn, who's small on top and about five feet tall, she'll say, "Jesus, I'm as big as she is and just as pretty," so she don't get offended.
GI: When did you begin your collection?
RW: Thirty years ago. I've also collected 45s for 40 years -- I have 4,000 45s and 1,500 albums of '50s doo-wop, rock n roll and rhythm and blues. That's really my first love. I'm donating the records to the library, but they don't want anything to do with the other collection.
GI: Can anyone visit your collection?
RW: Anybody can come if they have a legitimate reason. A few years ago someone doing an article on fashion wanted to know if there are any fashion statements in porn. I said yeah, in the '60s when you had the hippies, there were quite a few amateurs who were showing up in loops with their hair in braids, wearing tie-dyed clothes and clunky shoes. In late '50s and early '60s, almost all women wore spike heels, but now that's out of fashion except in the porno world.
GI: How has porn evolved over the decades?
RW: The video camera changed a lot of things -- it made gonzo and amateur porn possible. Back in the '70s, movies had plots and were shot on film. Now guys just want to see action. You can still buy the classy films with pretty good storylines, but they're few and far between.
Today, there are categories that were never around 20 years ago, like seniors porn. There's a magazine called Over 40, and a great video called Aged to Perfection. Older people with video cameras are making amateur porn. It all has to do with the graying of America -- Hugh Heffner is now in his 70s. I've got one film where the woman is 87 years old. I saw this ad and I said I've got to have this. What interests me is who the hell is buying an 87-year-old woman in an amateur film? If an 87-year-old man is buying porn, he's not buying some damn woman that's 87 years old!
GI: What was your first piece of pornography?
RW: It's kind of hard to pinpoint. I can tell you when I saw my first piece of pornography. I was in second or third grade and I was on a field trip with my elementary school class in Baltimore. I found a pocket porn magazine, two or three inches wide and five inches long, on a park bench. The teacher caught me and wanted to know where I got this thing. I said I found it and she thought I was lying.
GI: How many videos do you have?
RW: Five or six hundred, and 1,500 magazines. My biggest problem is deciding what to buy, because about 2,000 films come out every year. I read Adult Video News cover to cover and if something kind of catches my attention because it's out of the ordinary then I buy it. The key to my collection is diversity. I have 86 different categories. What sets me apart from the average guy is that the average guy basically buys this stuff for self-gratification and doesn't spend money on things he doesn't like. I buy things I don't like, like the senior stuff or these crazy gang-bang tapes with one girl and hundreds of guys. That's a genre that wasn't around 20 years ago. There have always been tapes of one girl and three or four guys, but never a hundred.
GI: Do you get many donations to your collection?
RW: I really do. About every six months I'll get a call out of the blue. Usually somebody's uncle Charlie died and the family were going through his stuff and found his porno. They can't put it in a rummage sale, and they know that I'm going to keep it. The B&D material -- a lot of people have that in their trunks. People are surprised that so and so who just died had that up in their rooms, and they don't want anything to do with it. I get more of that free than anything else -- nothing else even comes in a close second.
GI: What's the most unique movie you own?
RW: In 1996, I made a film myself with the porn star Chestie Moore. She was fairly big in the business, but she stopped making regular porn films and opened a fan club. All stars have fan clubs, but she said that her club was unique. She didn't expand on that, but I joined it to see what it was about. One of the tapes she offers her club is "Fuck the Fans." I didn't believe it until I bought one. After I saw it, I went down to Daytona Beach and shot a 20-minute video with her using all kinds of sex toys. Her husband is her photographer, which was kind of intimidating. Usually she sells the tapes to her club, but I paid her so that I could take the tape right out of the machine. Of course a lot of my friends have seen it.
GI: What's your most valuable piece of porn?
RW: I have bawdy house coins from whorehouses in the 1860s. One coin says, "10 cents for lookie, 25 cents for feelie, 50 cents for doie." I have one film from 1913 called Free Ride, which is supposed to be oldest film they've found in the U.S. I have the first issue of Hustler, which is worth $100. I also have Deep Throat on Beta One -- the first film transferred to videotape. That may be the most valuable thing in my collection, but I don't know what it's worth because you don't have auctions like you do with other products.
Michelle Goldberg is a contributing editor at Shift Magazine and a regular contributor to Salon, Speak, and The National Post.