John wrote a couple of novels, under his favorite pseudonym, Harry Gibbs. He had a particular affection for Three Women, and happily signed the copy I found.
It was published in 1965 by Midwood Books, a company that churned out paperbacks like Taboo, Wild and Wicked, Jailbait, The Swap Set. They all had their quota of sex scenes, but were never graphic enough to break the smut laws. Today, they don’t even seem daring; but are often entertaining for their period flavor and flashy covers.
John generally remembered them for the fun he had with them, dropping in private jokes, friends’ names, and bits of satire. Three Women is the story of Brad Phillips and his complicated love life: which, in fact, revolves around five women, not three. Brad must have lost count in the “dark fuzziness enveloping his brain as he sank into a whirlpool of sensation.” And that’s only on page 7, with much “numbness and lust that was destroying his sense of reason” ahead.
Among Brad’s conquests is Shelley Burnside, “the rich, beautiful, demanding artist who wanted him to pose nude for her during the day and cater to her whims during the night.” Shelley and Brad attend a few Bohemian parties in Greenwich Village, which gave John a chance to poke fun at the mid-’60s scene there.
Brad’s patience is sorely tried, for example, by an experimental film he sits through on page 127: “It was four hours long and consisted of an endless series of blurred images which flashed across the scene in a confused jumble. There were no actors in the picture, just a maze of moving trees and telephone poles and now and then a sudden close-up of a wilted flower. Brad would have fallen asleep if he had been more comfortable. The film broke several times and there were interminable pauses while the proud film-maker tinkered with the projector.” Here, one senses, Harry Gibbs has called upon his real suffering for his fiction.
One funny — and personal — detail surfaces with a Village artist, Ben Benjamin, who has a unique gimmick.
“‘Ben is a worm painter,’ Shelley explained.
“‘A worm painter?’ Brad’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Do you paint worms?’
“‘Nawwww,’ Ben sat down in the sling chair and took a swig of his spiked coffee. ‘I paint with worms… Like, I dip worms in paint and drop ‘em on the canvas. Dig?’ Ben explained patiently. ‘They crawl around and make abstract designs.’”
John had actually enlisted 35 worms to create a painting for “Play Your Hunch,” one of the game shows he wrote for in the ’60s. It appeared on the show on November 8, 1960; John recalled that the art critics summoned to pass judgment were baffled by it, and pronounced it “mindless.” You can see it hanging proudly behind him in this snapshot from 1967.