by SAMUEL FULLER
I’d met my first prostitute when I was a seventeen-year old crime reporter for The New York Graphic. A veteran newspaperman walked me into a brothel at the corner of 97th Street and Broadway, giving me a tip about saving nickels on phone calls. Instead of using the pay phone at the corner to call my city editor, why not ask “the girls” if I could use theirs? Madame thought I was cute and let me make my call. From then on, I used to drop by the house of ill repute when I was on the Upper West Side and needed to phone in a story. It was a fascinating environment to my young eyes.
At the beginning, there was little contact between me and the employees. I was pretty nervous about being in a place like that. I’d heard so many terrible things about prostitutes. Sergeant Peacock down at the precinct tried to scare me about the “ladies of the night” with some bullshit about your balls dropping off if you hung around them. Society and the media made the very word “prostitute” engender fear and distaste.
My mother had also filled me with a load of crap about prostitutes. Did she have a conniption when I told her I used the brothel as my office when I was uptown! Rebecca launched into a righteous speech about immorality and hygiene. Syphilis was a big problem in those days, blinding, even killing, people who caught it. I reassured my mother I’d never had any sexual contact with the girls. But for Chrissakes, I told her, nothing prevented me from talking with them.
Little by little, I got to know the girls as people. They treated me like a kid brother, though they weren’t that much older. Any sensual urges I might have had were quashed by the girls’ business-like approach to their job. I was never tempted to sleep with a prostitute because I knew them too well. They told me all about their lives, and I grew to respect them.
In the morning, they sat meditating like nuns in a convent, wearing nothing but negligees and pajamas to entice the early-bird customers. If I showed up, they would give me some money and ask me to go out and bring them back coffee and donuts. I did these little chores gladly. Once I brought some hot coffee to a girl named Helen. Before Helen could drink it, Madame called her upstairs for a gentleman who’d just walked in. Helen asked me to hold on to her coffee until she came back.
”It’ll be cold,” I said.
”Uh-uh,” said Helen, glancing at the guy. “I know my clients. Believe me, it’ll be warm.”
The girls had their own code of ethics, their own dreams. A lot of them wanted to have children and a family. That was their ticket out of that dead-end life, back to normalcy. Very few made it happen. Most languished in that netherworld where Madame provided for everything in exchange for sixty-five cents of every dollar the girls took in. From my perch in Madame’s office, I overheard their conversations about laundry bills, cab fares, and backaches. When Helen once complained about the exorbitant commission extracted from her pay, Madame looked at her with a harsh glint in her eyes and asked her, “Do you want to be a Lindy?” The not-so-subtle threat to be out on the street, all on her own, was a reference to Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic.
They had a terrible complex about their work. When they went out, the girls imagined everyone knew, with just one glance, what they did for a living, as if the word “prostitute” were branded on their foreheads. Secretly, they clutched onto romantic visions, hoping a well-to-do client would invite them to a swank restaurant or club. That rarely happened. The smart ones put aside as much money as possible, then resettled in a place where no one knew them.
One of my pals, Dotty, managed to move out of the brothel into a luxurious apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. My city editor sent me to interview Dotty about a crime story I was on. She was almost a prisoner in that swell place, kept on a tight leash by the well-to-do man who’d rescued her. She answered my questions, but she made me promise not to use her name in the story. It would be bad for her new life. I promised and kept my word. Dotty had a gorgeous smile.
Cut to thirty years later. I was meeting one of my lawyers for lunch at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. I arrived early, walked up to the bar, and ordered a Bloody Mary. Somebody tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around. An elegant woman stood there smiling at me.
“I remember you,” she said. “Do you remember me?”
I looked at her lovely face and couldn’t place it. I shook my head.
”Corner of 97th Street and Broadway,” she said.
I suddenly remembered. Dotty, the girl who got out.
”I told my husband that you had ethics,” she said. Her dapper elderly husband walked over with their daughter, already a young woman. The husband was a well-known lawyer for the mob. The daughter looked exactly like her mother had when I’d met her in the early thirties. We gibble-gabbled, and I was careful not to say the wrong thing. We said goodbye, and she gave me that beautiful, mysterious smile before I turned and walked away.
Those recollections jarred me into writing The Naked Kiss, a yarn about a prostitute who decides to start anew in a small town where nobody knows her. She thinks she can escape the double-dealing and deceit of the big city. However, she’ll have to struggle against just as much ill will and hypocrisy in the sticks. My story would delve into the small-mindedness that thoughtlessly points its finger at sinners, fostering intolerance and hate.
I wanted to grab the audience like a screaming headline, and quickly establish the character of my lead, Kelly, in the first scene. Critics have called this my “signature” scene. That’s bullshit, because every scene in every movie I ever made bears my imprint.
That sequence was the last thing we shot, because I wanted Constance to shave her head. She did it without a qualm. In France after the Liberation, I remembered how they’d shaved the hair off women who’d been sleeping with German soldiers. Kelly’s pimp pulls this horrible trick on her as punishment for her revolt against his authority.
When I was a crime reporter, I covered suicides. A helluva lot of them left behind suicide notes for their loved ones. Typically they wrote things like “God forgive me” or “I can’t go on.” I’d never forgotten one note written with an eyebrow pencil on a paper bag by a prostitute: “Today is my independence day. I am going to celebrate it now.”
Film directors all over the world have told me how much they have been influenced by the opening sequence in Naked Kiss. I’m always pleased to hear that. At the time, however, I was only thinking about portraying my character honestly. Extending the language of film sometimes starts with just trying to show one true thing.
Samuel Fuller died in 1997. His autobiography, A Third Face, can be purchased here.