Notes on Gershon Legman:
1. Holed-up in a bed with a smashed ankle, Gershon Legman took to paper folding. In 1940 few Westerners knew of the intricate art of origami. A most fascinating practice, a kind of alchemy: through a series of tiny and precise folds, a single sheet of paper could morph into an almost infinite number of distinct forms. Legman was introduced to folding as a child after discovering an illustrated rendition of The Lover’s Knot in a magic book. Propped up in bed, Legman folded and unfolded and refolded the knot. In the same year, he published his first book Oragenitalism: Oral Techniques in Genital Excitation for Gentlemen. What unfolds in the slim, sixty-seven page volume is a beautiful and thoroughgoing testament to clit-licking.
2. Better known as a folklorist and dirty joke virtuoso, Gershon Legman also pedaled Anais Nin’s dollar a page erotica. Anais Nin’s biographer, Noel Riley Fitch claims that, at the age of twenty-three, Legman could be heard saying “I have devoted my life to the clitoris.”
3. Legman’s first brush with erotica: seated on the floor of his mothers closet, among a forest of dresses and panties, thumbing through volumes of Havelock Ellis which his mother kept with all their “forbidden books” in her closet.
4. When Legman published Oragenitalism (1940), cunnilingus was still illegal in most US states. One of the most popular marriage manuals at the time—Theodore van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique—detailed foreplay, including brief mentions of the clitoris, nipples, and mouth as well as described the “ten sexual positions.” According to Van de Velde, oral sex was OK for foreplay but orgasming from that method was as “pathological” as homosexuality, masturbation, or fucking from behind. In this cultural climate, under French pseudonym, Legman wrote his meticulous guide to cunnilingus, devoting passages to nearly every aspect, including even the styles of facial hair best suited for the act: “The Beard and the mustache have in common a tendency to sop up the vaginal secretions and, if grey or white, be stained by them. The stain will not show in the dark—nor—being amber in color—in blond hair.”
5. Oragenitalism did not sell many copies so the publisher offered it as part of a package deal that included a volume of Norman Douglas’ erotic limericks and an underground version of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. In the same year of its publication, almost every copy of Oragenitalism was burned when police raided the publisher’s headquarters on obscenity charges.
6. A ruthless pursuer of minutia, Legman would more accurately be described as having devoted his life to exposing the West’s forbidden history. In the 1940’s no American scholar’s knowledge surpassed Legman’s in regard to rare and impossible to find erotic texts as well as a dirty jokes, limericks, lewd graffiti, and celebrity and political sex gossip. No matter his subject his research method remained the same: find everything. Except for a brief stint in the 1960’s, he operated entirely outside academia, leaving the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor his first semester under auspice unspecified scandal. Instead, Legman camped out every day for nearly a year at the New York Public library reading up and through history. It was during this time that he developed his research aesthetic: the considered reintegration of seemingly unrelated details, scraps of forgotten or suppressed information, and placing them within their proper political, social, and psychological context.
7. At train stations across New York, Legman could be found sitting on a bench, folding and refolding a piece of paper, listening to some stranger tell raunchy joke. Listening to ordinary people share their stories was integral to his approach. He often used origami as a way of getting people to open up. He was not only interested in the jokes themselves, but also why people told them. Legman felt that people used jokes as a way of navigating otherwise dangerous or disturbing sexual information.
8. Legman’s magnum opus, The Rationale of a Dirt Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor (1968) is 811 pages long and contains material collected in the United States over the course of forty years. Like all his writings, in Rational Legman eschewed the footnote, loathing the very premise. He sought to exhaust the subject within the text itself
9. In 1943 Kinsey hired Legman as the Institute of Sex Research’s first official bibliographer. The pair met through Legman’s former employer, Robert Latou Dickinson, a pioneering gynecologist and birth control advocate who contributed largely to the modernization of sex. Although Dickinson was eighty-two at the time, he was proud of the fact he could still orgasm two or three times a year.
10. Dickinson remained a priceless resource for Kinsey and their friendship continued to deepen. In 1949 Dickinson wrote letter to Kinsey about a town in deep Kansas where all the women were reputed to have orgasms very easily and almost always. When Kinsey visited the town, he discovered that parents soothed their female babies by massaging the genital area which often led to a quieting orgasm. Kinsey felt that their orgasm habits were a learnt reaction carried through adulthood.