By Emory Holmes II*
In the early 1980s, I was chief editor of Players, a monthly magazine for African American males. The magazine was known as `The Black Playboy,’ because it featured black female nudes, interspersed with articles on pop culture, leisure and sports; but its greedy and thuggish white owners kept its editorial slant and erotic imagery low-minded and vulgar in every way.
They had grown rich in the 1950s, publishing nudie books, printed on cheap paper, and aimed at the white mass market, and Players was their only “slick” publication — and their first “one-hander” (that was our term-of-art for soft porn mags like Players) — targeted at the then utterly ignored black consumer. The two owners – I’ll call them Frick and Frack – were not interested in elevated ideas, or the aesthetic or moral improvement of their readers; they were only interested in cash and flattering the prurient tastes of America’s legions of up-front vulgarians.
I’ll give them their due: They did publish writers who would not have otherwise had a chance — blacks, Chicanos, and homosexual writers. Still, they had three rules regarding women to be featured in Players: they had to appear to be 18, have European features, and large breasts.
One memorable cover headline that fell across my desk on the first week I was rehired by the publishers in 1981 was authored by Mr. Frick. It featured a smiling and gorgeous butter-colored African American beauty holding a placard that read: “Black Women, Why Black Men Hate Them.” This was the sort of abhorrent text and imagery I was expected to promote and defend. Now, I’m no saint. I can be as ardent and cheesy as any garden-variety All-American trench-coat-wearing sybarite. And too, I’m as comfortable and familiar strolling the stinking, lower precincts of American life as I am sipping cocktails in its tonier boudoirs and mansions. But I do have my limits and bright lines of probity and taste I would not wade across, even in a wet dream.
So, I hatched a plan to subvert the magazine’s disagreeable mandate – and to work this trick of literary prestidigitation, right beneath Frick and Frack’s noses. I had tried this scheme a few years before, with disastrous results, when I was the associate editor of the magazine in 1975. With legendary editor Joseph Nazel (who had hired me over Frick and Frack’s protests), I was a 26-year-old idealist and, with Joe, part of a staff of two, responsible for assembling the magazine each month. In those days, I thought it possible to change the world through literature and art; and that Players magazine could be a vehicle for uplifting and informing the habits and tastes of the heretofore neglected black American male.
Frick and Frack promulgated an editorial policy that assumed any uplift in the quality and ideals of their publications meant only trouble and unnecessary expense. A classier magazine meant that the editors, writers, artists and models would inevitably demand a higher standard of pay. After only a few months in 1975, I walked out of the magazine, frustrated and angry that my efforts to change its content had been so futile. Now, I was back. Frick and Frack hired me again, even though they disliked (read: despised) me. They wanted me to write novels for their pulp fiction imprint, Holloway House (home of the notorious, and dead, inner-city authors, Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines); and they could not be faulted for assuming that my efforts to transform their “tit book” into Esquire or the Atlantic were as doomed as they’d been a few years earlier.
But this time, I was older, and just a tad smarter. And I was determined to make a book specifically targeting the interests and tastes of two remote populations in American life: the African American prisoner and the African American soldier. Two at-risk groups of American youth in urgent need of good ideas and a date. If I could hit his market, and light it up, only good would follow. I began contacting many of the advertisers who had abandoned the magazine over the years because of its low-minded content and look. I urged them to look at the changes I was making and if they liked them, to come back onboard. Each month, I would institute some small change – a cartoon, an ad, the quality of a story or photograph. Advertisers began returning. Frick and Frick were baffled. Revenue increased. They began leaving me alone. Bad move.
I determined to change the models we featured in the magazine. Formerly, I had characterized them as “the girls of Motel 6,” and they were, on the whole, a worrisome and weary lot, some of them junkies, with needle tracks showing along their arms, their legs lined like a Google map.
I was having lunch with James Jeffrey, one of our ace photographers, who shared my subversive ambitions to transform the magazine. My conceit was to replace the magazine’s cadres of hookers and hood rats with satin dolls, the brainy babe next door – someone with whom a fellow (like me) could fall in love.
That’s when Eugenia Wright walked into the restaurant. Heads turned. Everything seemed to stop. She was tall, elegant, sensual, fresh, and lovely as the exotic Caribbean flower after which she was named. I promised Jeffrey that if she walked past our table, I’d take a chance and ask her to grace the cover of our magazine.
She did; so I did.
She resisted the idea at first, of course; once she realized I was asking her to appear on the cover of the notoriously low-brow tit book, Players. But after I explained what I was attempting to do, and that I would treat her and her image with taste and sensibility, she took a chance. I got to know her over the succeeding weeks: She was 26 years old, an actress, soon to be married to J.D. Hall, one of our city’s fine, emerging African American actors. She was born in Guatemala, but raised by her Jamaican grandmother. Despite her light skin, she was deeply proud of her African heritage, and fully considered herself an African American woman.
She had been trained in the theater by Mildred Dunnock, who had been one of Brando’s formative influences; and had been a favored protégé of Arthur Mitchell, then a principle dancer and instructor for the New York City Ballet. In L.A. she had been a star in two controversial theatrical productions, one an adaptation of “Macbeth” set in Africa, wherein she played Lady Macbeth with a fictionalized Idi Amin in the role of her murderous husband and co-conspirator; and the second, in a mixed-race production of “Romeo & Juliet.” Her portrayal of the doomed, star-crossed Juliet won her a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award.
She was just the kind of girl I was looking for to lift the leering gaze of Players up from the gutter to the sunlight and beauty of the natural world. I instructed Jeffrey to shoot two photo sessions – none of them nude – but one, depicting her as a temptress (this is the set I would show Frick and Frack), and other (the set I planned to actually use), depicting her as she was, a classy and intelligent woman, in all her natural beauty, wholesomeness and allure.
Eugenia was a stunner. You can judge for yourself if Jeffrey’s cover shot affirms this brilliantly. Her image adorned our April issue, in 1983. I haven’t a clue if Eugenia’s pretty cover sold more than the other cutiepie covergirls we featured over the succeeding months. But, in the weeks after Eugenia’s cover hit the stands, a lucky miracle began to unfold and slowly. Frick & Frack went figuratively and effectively deaf, blind and, finally, dumb, compounding their fatal error of leaving me (with the magazine’s precious cargo of images and content) utterly alone, more or less, to do what the fuck I liked.
I titled our February 1984 effort the “history” issue – and that’s exactly what it was.
This issue had articles on Paul Robeson, slave poet George Moses Horton, black astronaut Guion Bluford, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, and the legacy of Marxism in Africa. Stanley Crouch wrote a piece on Thelonious Monk, and the pictorial was of a small-breasted, fully-clad starlet named Lynn Whitfield, posing as famous black women of history — Marie Laveau and Josephine Baker, among others.
Frick and Frack freaked when it hit the stands. Frick just had a look of sadness on his face. Frack brings me into his office, glares at this magazine and, livid, says: “She doesn’t even have tits. Look at her! And look, you’ve put Paul Robeson on the cover. This radical. This fucking Communist. Listen, this will never ever happen again.”
Our political issue was already at the printer. The cover had a black woman dressed in red, white and blue, running for president. They couldn’t stop it. Watching their anger and defeat was like being in a parade coming down Broadway. The band was playing. It was the happiest day of my life at that point.
I left the magazine for good that year.
I was lucky to work with a great roster of artists and writers: Wanda Coleman, Bob Smith, Odie Hawkins, Peter Sis, Tony Gleason, Tony Gleaton, Joseph Nazel. As fine a working group as any publishing house could assemble. And yes, Players was a low minded book, but we tried to make it as solid as gold in a garbage sack. To the extent we were successful, Eugenia Wright helped us pull that off. She helped us change the spirit and content of Players from godawful to sublime.
She died March 31, of an acute respiratory illness complicated by pneumonia, at the age of 59.
Rest in Peace, sweet Eugenia.