There are a lot of ways a book called Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World’s Oldest Profession can go wrong. Fortunately, this brisk new study of the cultural history of prostitution by Tyler Stoddard Smith aims for big intellectual and sociopolitical connections, and finds quite a few.
The book is mainly a collection of anecdotes about famous people who have been prostitutes, madams, gigolos or pimps, and the reach is wide: Xaviera Hollander (who wrote a popular memoir called The Happy Hooker), Heidi Fleiss, Wyatt Earp (he owned brothels), Madame Pompadour, Mata Hari, Eva Peron, Casanova, Snoop Dogg and Mary Magdalene are all covered. Perhaps the book’s biggest revelation is the sheer number of show-biz celebrities who either told of or are rumored to have worked in the sex trade: Al Pacino (he told of briefly surviving as a gigolo to a wealthy older woman as a 20 year old in Sicily), Dee Dee Ramone (this was immortalized in the Ramones song “53rd and 3rd”), Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Steve McQueen, Valerie Solanis, several Beat writers, and at least a couple of notable political figures from the recent past in Washington DC. A longer and more in-depth study might examine what it means about our society that a large number of ambitious young creative people have resorted to prostitution as they were finding their way in the big city, and search for moral conclusions. That’s not what this book tries to do, but Whore Stories does succeed in opening the topic for further public discussion.
The tone of the book is snarky, hip and refreshingly intelligent, often daring to cross the line into realms of hallucinatory imagery or bad taste. Why not? Here’s the author’s explanation of the project, from the introduction:
I’ve visited prostitutes from Nuevo Laredo to Amsterdam, Hamburg to Tokyo, and Las Vegas to Havana, and one thing never changes. People are too quick to make assumptions about what “visiting” means. Where I’m from, “visiting” can mean anything from “talking and catching up with folk” to “setting fire to a miniature pony,” although I haven’t heard it used that way in ages.