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Take Five: An interview with Marilyn Chambers biographer Jared Stearns

In anticipation of his upcoming book, PURE: The Sexual Revolutions of Marilyn Chambers, Jared Stearns tells us what led him to write about this icon of the 1970s.

HEADPRESS: When and how did you first discover Marilyn Chambers? What was it about her that fascinated you?

JARED STEARNS: When I was thirteen, I snooped in my grandfather’s dresser drawer for adult material. A VHS tape labeled Marilyn Chambers’ Private Fantasies #2 was buried under a stack of wool sweaters. My grandparents weren’t home then, so I watched the video. I distinctly remember being captivated by Marilyn. She was beautiful. I was a young, gay teenager just discovering his sexuality, and while I knew I wasn’t sexually attracted to her, she had undeniable star quality. Then, I would hear her name referenced on television shows, usually as a punchline. I remember watching an episode of the daytime talk show Live with Regis and Kathie Lee in the nineties, and Regis Philbin held up a photo of a dancer or gymnast who’d contorted their body into a strange position. Kathie Lee Gifford quipped, “I haven’t seen those kinds of moves since Marilyn Chambers!” The audience laughed because they knew who Marilyn Chambers was—and what she was famous for. It occurred to me even then that it was unusual for someone who’d been in an X-rated film to be so well-known. To this day, there are really only a handful of household name porn stars.

In 2011, one of the museums here in San Francisco did a retrospective of hardcore films, both gay and straight, that were made in the city in the late sixties and early seventies when San Francisco was “the smut capital of America”. They closed the program with Resurrection of Eve, the film the Mitchell brothers made with Marilyn after Behind the Green Door. I saw an ad for the film, which I had never seen, and went purely out of my fondness for Marilyn. I’m not sure what happened in that theater, but when Marilyn appeared onscreen, I experienced that same feeling of captivation when I saw the Private Fantasies video. I was compelled to learn everything I could about her.

A moment of downtime during the filming of David Cronenberg’s Rabid, 1977. Cinepix.
A moment of downtime during the filming of David Cronenberg’s Rabid, 1977. Cinepix. Photos: The author's collection and the Marilyn Chambers Estate.

Your book makes extensive use of interviews with people who knew Marilyn and were close to her. Can you tell us a little about the process of working with her friends and family? How did they feel about a book being written about her?

Marilyn’s only child, McKenna, is the keeper of the flame. I didn’t become friends with her until about five years ago. By then, I had been a Marilyn Chambers fan for nearly a decade and amassed a sizeable collection of photos and memorabilia. So when I proposed a biography, I came in with a certain amount of credibility in that I knew a lot about Marilyn’s career already, but I still had to earn McKenna’s trust. She lost both her parents by the time she was eighteen and is understandably protective of her mother’s legacy. She loves talking about her mom, and so do I, so we connected and built a relationship. Now, I count her among my dearest friends. The friendship motivated me to do my best to tell her mother’s story because it’s never been told before.

McKenna introduced me to Marilyn’s siblings and some longtime friends, but they were hesitant to talk to me, a stranger, only because they loved Marilyn so much—and still do. Fortunately, they recognized that I was not trying to drudge up any dirt on Marilyn or leaning into the “porn star” angle. I’d also written some magazine articles about Marilyn, which helped show them my intentions for the book. I’ve always viewed the book as a celebrity biography, and one of the entertainment areas happens to be adult films.

I asked Marilyn’s close friends and family the same question: what’s the biggest misconception about her? They all shared the same answer: that she was dumb. That’s the “porn star” label and all the connotations attached to it. It’s so tiresome. Marilyn was whip-smart, but the “porn star” label continues to haunt her.

A few Hollywood folks refused to speak to me, and one or two were hostile in their responses, but everyone in the adult industry was friendly. David Cronenberg kindly gave me some time, mainly because he enjoyed working with Marilyn. She made a lasting, positive impression on him. And I managed to get a few people who knew Marilyn during her peak who’d never spoken on the record. There’s no greater thrill for a biographer than hearing a phrase like, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but…” There are a lot of untold stories in this book!

One thing I hadn’t expected when researching for interviews was that so many people who knew Marilyn were no longer with us. Of course, Marilyn died too soon and took with her many stories we’ll never know. But PURE: The Sexual Revolutions of Marilyn Chambers is the most complete version of Marilyn Chambers’ life story in existence.  

Marilyn’s mugshot following her 1985 arrest in Cleveland. She was charged with pandering for prostitution during a live strip show. City of Cleveland Police Department.
Marilyn’s mugshot following her 1985 arrest in Cleveland. She was charged with pandering for prostitution during a live strip show. City of Cleveland Police Department.

How did you decide on the title of PURE?

The title is a play on the famous Ivory soap tagline “99 44/100% pure”. As most people know, Marilyn became famous for Behind the Green Door only after it was revealed she was the model holding a smiling baby on the Ivory Snow laundry detergent box. Ivory was manufactured by Procter & Gamble, one of the largest consumer packaged goods manufacturers in the United States. It was their first and most famous brand. The controversy of the Ivory Snow model also being an X-rated star was an international controversy in 1973.

The title isn’t just about the tagline, though. “Pure” is an accurate adjective for Marilyn. She was honest and unapologetic and maintained a sense of purity even when she was having sex on screen.  

Marilyn is also very fondly remembered by those not so close to her, from fans of her adult films to members of the gay community. What do you think it is about her that has captivated so many others as well as yourself?

It goes back to that natural star quality Marilyn possessed. That can’t be taught. It goes beyond talent. She radiated a kind of classic Hollywood glamour like you’d see in the actresses of the 1930s and forties. The only other actress in the seventies with the same type of glamour was probably Faye Dunaway. Even during Marilyn’s lifetime, she had a broad appeal.

I had a t-shirt with the image of the poster for Behind the Green Door, and I would regularly get stopped on the streets of San Francisco, where I live, by people who met her, saw her films, or were fans. It was a wonderful surprise how often her face triggered a memory. It wasn’t just straight men, either. Women often remarked how much they liked her, too. Gay men, in particular, would comment about how much they liked her. I remember being at a concert wearing the shirt, and a gay couple next to me leaned over during the show and said, “That’s an awesome tribute to Marilyn Chambers. We love her!” When I spoke with Herschel Savage, Marilyn’s co-star in Up ‘n’ Coming, he said, “I’m surprised she doesn’t have a bigger gay following.” I agreed, and I make the argument in the book that she’s overdue for consideration as a gay icon.

Marilyn poses during the photoshoot for the Insatiable poster, 1980. Tom Keller.
Marilyn poses during the photoshoot for the Insatiable poster, 1980. Tom Keller.

What do you think we can take away from Marilyn’s story today? She went through so much that it seems her life will resonate with many people.

Ultimately, it’s the story of a human being and her ups and downs. There’s something in her story that everyone can relate to. She lived much of her life in the public eye, but so much of her story has been garbled or simply untold. And one part of her life defined her, for better or worse.

How many of us wish there was a more accurate public portrayal of who we really are? She took an unusual career path, but I think women, especially, will relate to her story. She dealt with misogyny, sexism, and sexual harassment in the workplace, which many women continue to face. For the record, Marilyn did not experience harassment in adult films; it was in Hollywood. When she was eighteen, she was propositioned by a powerful producer to be his mistress in exchange for roles in Hollywood films and television. She refused, and he threatened to ruin her career. It’s a page right out of the #MeToo movement. She was also in two physically and emotionally violent relationships. A few of my close male friends who read earlier drafts of the book asked, “Why didn’t she just leave?” I understand why they asked, and Marilyn asked that question herself, but it’s not that simple. The answer is often complex and potentially dangerous. Thankfully, Marilyn walked away from both abusive relationships. She was a survivor. She died too young, but her death had nothing to do with her past. Porn didn’t kill her, as much as some people would like to believe that. I hope people will be open minded enough to learn more about Marilyn Chambers, the woman and entertainer. If nothing else, people can take a trip back to a time that will never be again—and learn about the woman who was at the center of it all.

12 December 2023
99 44/100% pure. Casting call for soap powder and beyond
In these extracts from his forthcoming Pure: The Sexual Revolutions of Marilyn Chambers, Jared Stearns...
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