Those few who may recognize the name Wakefield Poole today probably do so as a porn director. And it is true that his 1971 film "Boys in the Sand" revolutionized the way porn was produced, received and appreciated.
But, as this fascinating, can’t-put-it-down autobiography (a revision of an earlier one) reveals, Poole had a very successful career on Broadway before "Boys" changed his life. And he had several careers, as well as a serious drug addiction and the loss of all of his possessions, including an art collection now worth tens of millions of dollars.
Now living on social security in his native Jacksonville, FL, Poole tends to his own and neighborhood cats and meets periodically with a small group of elderly gay men and lesbians. I don’t know how many of his neighbors realize that this quiet man was once a major cause célèbre and a Broadway insider who counted Liza Minnelli and Michael Bennett among his closest friends.
Poole recounts his extraordinary life in a deadpan, "just the facts, ma’am" manner. I’m not sure whether it’s because he’s not by nature reflectively or whether he simply has so much to say in a limited number of pages. Whatever the reason, the outpouring of famous names; Broadway and TV shows; Hollywood and porn movies; and personalities of every stripe and every social milieu makes this a truly compelling page-turner.
Like so many before and after him, Poole came to New York from the hinterlands seeking a career on the stage. In his case, he quickly became a working gypsy (chorus member) who rose through the ranks to choreograph and even direct Broadway shows.
Along the way, he made friends with everybody who was anybody in the ’60s. To take just one of his casual asides: One night, he and two friends got drunk with Barbra Streisand and her then-husband Elliot Gould. The four of them rented a limo and drove out to Fire Island. In another scene, he stays up chatting with a very young Liza Minnelli, who blurts out at dawn, a propos of nothing, "I want to sing like Mama!"
She also asked his advice about marrying Peter Allen. He told her if he pleased her to do it. These were the days when all but the most committed gay men went out with women. Many of them, Allen and Poole among them, even married them. Poole’s marriage was not a "violet" one: He loved his wife and, at least at the beginning, was passionate. But he had always known where his real sexual interests lay, since an older man had sex with him while still living in Jacksonville.
Poole’s real coming out, however, happened when he took his home camera and $4,000, brought a few friends and acquaintances out to Fire Island Pines, and filmed for two days. The result was "Boys in the Sand," the first porn film that offered glamorous outdoor locations; great-looking, well-groomed actors; and careful edits and scoring.
The film caused a sensation, with straight couples sitting in a gay porn house so that they would be up on the latest Topic A. The film also ushered in the era of Porno Chic, with movies like "Deep Throat," "The Devil in Miss Jones" and "Behind the Green Door" being taken seriously by critics and scholars, as well as raking in millions of dollars.
But Poole found that, once you are known to have made a porn movie, it brands you. He found himself persona non grata on Broadway. His partner (who also acted in the movie) wanted to move out of New York to San Francisco. And it’s here that the book takes a darker turn.
The couple arrived in the middle of the nuclear burst of post-Stonewall energy that would make the Castro one of the most famous gayborhoods in the world. Poole continued to direct, with decreasingly successful results. He and a new partner invested in a store that sounds part head shop, part Urban Outfitter.
He also discovered he liked cocaine. Plus, there were far too many distractions; San Francisco at the time may well have had the most bathhouses per capita of any city. Poole is very open about his sexual activities and his drug use. Before this, he seems to have limited himself to hallucinogens and (lots of) pot. But the white powder got him away from work or a sense of purpose.
The most shocking part of the book for me was reading that Poole had given up sex entirely at a relatively young age -- part of the drug abuse. It was depressing reading about how he sold off his incredible collection of contemporary art for peanuts to pay off drug debts. He sold a set of Warhol "Marilyns" for $7,000. A few months ago, one was sold at auction for $4.45 million. If he had somehow kept his art, he might very well be worth over $100 million today.
Like everyone else at the time, Poole’s world came crashing down in the ’80s. It wasn’t only the AIDS epidemic, but his drug use, personal life and work. He managed to get clean and started a career as a chef while occasionally dabbling in film.
This updated autobiography mentions the 2010 benefit screening in Fire Island Pines of "Boys in the Sand." He talks of how gratifying it was to be treated like a rock star and taken seriously as a film auteur.
I was at that event and am happy that Poole (unlike so many of his contemporaries) has lived long enough to see his work appreciated as the groundbreaking art that it is. With this book, I can also fully appreciate Wakefield as a man, with all of the contradictions of a life fully lived.
by Wakefield Poole
Paper $20 (no index)