Ralph Ginzburg, 76, Magazine Publisher Who Tangled With Goldwater and Supreme Court
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Ralph Ginzburg, who died yesterday at 76, was a brash magazine publisher who lost a libel suit to Barry Goldwater, and whose First Amendment battle before the Supreme Court landed him in federal prison on obscenity charges.
With his magazines Eros and Fact derailed by litigation, Ginzburg in 1968 founded Avant Garde, a high-end journal of arts and politics whose main legacies are the typeface used for its distinctive masthead and its pioneering development of the practice of selling subscribers’ addresses to junk mailers.
Ginzburg next founded Moneysworth, a wide-circulation newsletter of financial advice, meant to resemble Consumer Reports without the product reviews. He had moved, he told Newsweek in 1975, “from satisfying lust to satisfying greed.”
Having spent the better part of his career producing magazines, Ginzburg abruptly shifted at age 55 to a new career as a photographer, and spent the next two decades working for the New York Post and freelancing for other publications. In 2001, he published “I Shot New York,” which included a photo a day of the city for an entire year.
But it was the Eros and Fact cases that were pivotal in Ginzburg’s career, and he never seemed completely cured of shock that the courts decided against him for what he — and many others — regarded as constitutionally protected speech.
In the Fact case, Senator Goldwater, the GOP candidate for president in 1964, sued Ginzburg for libel over an article that appeared shortly before the election in the magazine headlined, “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Unfit To Be President!”
Ginzburg had sent questionnaires to some 12,000 psychiatrists, and received some 2,400 responses, some of which indicated that the GOP candidate was paranoid, had chilly relations with his father, and had played cruel practical jokes as a child.
The case featured testimony by Peggy Goldwater that her husband had never sought psychiatric treatment, and ended with a $75,000 damages award to Goldwater that the Supreme Court refused to hear on appeal.
Most dramatic was the Eros case, in which Ginzburg was found guilty of marketing his racy magazine using salacious marketing techniques, including sending out flyers from Middlesex, N.J. (The postmasters of Blue Ball and Intercourse, Pa., reputedly refused to do business with Ginzburg.)
The Supreme Court’s 1966 majority 5–4 decision penned by Justice Brennan characterized Eros as marked by “the leer of the sensualist,” and upheld a five-year prison sentence and $42,000 fine, even though there was never a finding of obscenity. Ginzburg held a press conference in front of a statue of Benjamin Franklin, whom he described as, “the founder of our post office and America’s first post-master general, [who] said that nothing should be banned from the mails except inflammables and perishables and that no form of censorship should be tolerated by the American people.”
In 1972, after years of legal wrangling, Ginzberg served eight months in federal prison in Allenwood, Pa. He used the experience as the basis for his book, “Castrated: My Eight Months in Prison,” in which he detailed the prison rounds and also described in excruciating detail the joy of making love to his wife during a furlough. It must have been sweet for him that the passage — more explicit than most of what appeared in Eros — was first published, in late 1972, in the New York Times, a newspaper that had editorialized in favor of his initial conviction. Autre temps, autre moeurs — the definition of obscenity had changed drastically in less than a decade.
In an article for Eve’s Magazine online in 1999, Ginzburg wrote, “The lesson of this lamentable saga is clear: American newspapers can be counted on to defend freedom of the press, but only one kind: their own.”
Ginzburg was raised in Brooklyn, the son of a housepainter. He studied journalism at City College, and edited the downtown campus newspaper, “The Ticker.” After graduating in 1949, he became a cub reporter for the New York Daily Compass, and in 1950 worked on the night rewrite desk of the Washington Times-Herald while stationed in the Army at Fort Myer, Va. In 1952, he became director of circulation and promotion for Look Magazine, and then went to work as an editor at Esquire, where the publisher, Arnold Gingrich, was mightily impressed by a long article Ginzburg had written about sex in literature. Esquire never published the article, but Ginzburg published it as a short book in 1958 as “An Unhurried View of Erotica;” it sold 150,000 copies.
Thus alerted to a formerly underserved market, Ginzburg set about designing what he described as a combination of American Heritage and Playboy. It was born in 1962 as Eros. He brought on board Herbert Lubalin, who was to work with him on all of his subsequent magazines as a designer. The first issue included an article on erotic playing cards, Degas brothel paintings, and a photo essay entitled “Love in the Subway.” It was splashy and distinctive-looking, hardly pornographic; but it was apparently a Lubalin photo essay for the magazine’s fourth and final issue featuring a nude couple — a black man and a white woman — trading affectionate embraces that brought down the wrath of the Kennedy Department of Justice.
Ginzburg’s next title, Fact, showed a similarly eclectic range of articles in a more muckraking mode.The first issue charged that President Harding was a negro,and that his cronies used the Justice Department to cover it up. The Goldwater issue, titled “The Unconscious of a Conservative” charged that the senator should not be considered a natural-born citizen, since he was born in the Arizona Territory, three years before it was admitted to the union. But it was the psychiatrists’ poll that brought the libel charge.
After the Supreme Court refused to review his conviction in 1970, Ginzberg said, “If freedom of the press doesn’t mean that an editor can question the psychological fitness of a presidential candidate, then freedom of the press doesn’t mean anything.” And indeed, Ginzberg never again pushed at the edges of press freedom quite as hard again.
Tall, bespectacled, and sporting a droopy moustache, Ginzburg had a vaguely exotic presence appropriate to one who had a decades-long involvement with the Sierra Club. Many of the photos in “I Shot New York” are of the city’s fauna, including a remarkable picture of a Concorde flying behind a gull’s nest.
Ginzburg remained a caustic and enthusiastic advocate, and among his causes in later years was a vocal anticircumcision advocate. Often one to make inflammatory personal statements, he once noted to a New Mexico hospital official that “the American movement to outlaw circumcision is teeming with Jews — like myself.”
Born October 28, 1929, in Brooklyn; died July 6 at a Bronx hospice of multiple myeloma; survived by his wife of 49 years, Shoshana, and their children, Bonnie Erbe Leckar, Shepherd Raymond Ginzburg, and Lark Kuhta.