The Accidental Voyeur: Gloria In Excelsis

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“The difference between erotica and pornography,” she once quipped, “is good lighting.” As some sage once wisely noted, there are some people you might meet only once in your life but you remember them forever. Gloria Leonard was, for me, one of them.

And so, it was with great sadness that I heard about her recent death at age 73, after she’d suffered a stroke at home in Hawaii. In intensive care at North Hawaii Community Hospital, the doctors finally said there had been too much brain damage. Partially paralyzed but able to breath on her own after they removed her ventilator, though only briefly, she passed away on February 3, 2014 around 5 pm PST.

As the public record shows, she is survived by her daughter Robin and had previously been married to the late producer/director Bobby Hollander, and is probably best remembered for the role she played in creating and then legitimizing the phone sex business in the United States. She was also the publisher of High Society magazine and a champion crusader of First Amendment rights as president of the Free Speech Coalition, and had also appeared in 65 adult films as one of the industry’s very first MILFs (starting at age 35), though lesser known is the fact that she had directed eight movies.

And it was precisely one of those that endeared her to me.

The only time we ever met was back in January 2001, during the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas. I had been doing yet another walkabout of the convention floor and somehow found myself amid the booths for Private with their bevy of Eastern European lovelies. And then, suddenly, there she was. I can’t remember who introduced us – most likely a Private publicity functionary — but I still have her business card today. “Gloria Leonard, Account Executive,” it said, for Private North America, a NASDAQ-listed company with its office address in Mississauga in Ontario, Canada.

She had started working for Private out of Los Angeles back in 1997, the year she was inducted into the XRCO Hall of Fame. I asked her what “Account Executive” meant and she laughed,  and said something about “helping them out with sales and marketing.” I then told her: “You won’t believe this, Gloria, but do you remember a movie you directed called Two Hearts? It made a lasting impression on me. And to think I only got it because I had a crush on Racquel Darrian and I didn’t even know you had directed it!” She was delighted to hear that since not many people knew she’d been a director too, and we discussed the movie at length in mutually excitable porn geek fashion.

Two Hearts, I told her, was the first adult film I’d seen made as a narrative-driven comedy, whereby the female need for emotional connection took center stage. The copy on the back of the boxcover reads: “A story about a scientist and a tattoo and the meaning of life. A modern day parable.  Let Racquel Darrian and our Gloria Leonard take you on a sensual journey where you’ll feel a lot. And possibly even learn a little.” The plot is pretty wacky: Randy Spears plays a dude with a strange affliction, a tattoo on his penis inflicted upon him as a child by his own father, and he can’t read what the tattoo says unless he has an erection, so he decides on a course of action to unravel this mystery — a casting call of hot babes, so he can discern which can best service him in order to render the tattoo legible!

This contest comes down to two finalists: Racquel Darrian against Ona Zee, metaphorically the young nubile nymph versus the experienced older woman. Their initial rivalry gives way to friendship as both realize they each represent polar opposites, the kind all men inevitably contemplate. (Teen slut or horny housewife, which guy hasn’t mulled over that one?) Randy, in turn representing the goofy Everyman in all of us, eventually succeeds in his quest (No, I won’t reveal what that bizarre tattoo says here), though that’s somewhat beside the point. I marveled at Gloria’s storytelling prowess and I even remember hitting rewind on the remote to catch some dialogue again. Its philosophical bent played no small role in charming me into the realization that porn could, in fact, provide both comic and sexual relief. Ah, the good old days before Ron Jeremy came along with San Fernando Jones and the Temple of Poon.

“Gloria was a wonderful, smart, funny and sweet woman, she will be missed by so many,” my friend Melissa Monet summarized perfectly, after we’d exchanged news about her death. Melissa (who became a porn star in 1994 at age 30, emulating similar MILFhood) had directed in 1998 the documentary film Porn: It’s a Living, in which Gloria herself delivers the memorable opening line: “Not too many people are going to be proud, saying: ‘Look at my daughter, look how good she sucks cock.’” Yes, that was Gloria, paving the way for so many, for without her there would be no porn star spokespersons on behalf of the industry — she made it possible for the Jessica Drakes and Sasha Greys and Aurora Snows of the world to explain this industry to a curious yet often judgemental mainstream public.

“When parents send their children out into the world with hopes and dreams, about the last thing they want for them is the life of a professional fornicator. Yet sometimes, that’s exactly what happens,” Aurora Snow observed of her own profession, in a piece she wrote in The Daily Beast. But Gloria Leonard said it all first. Those of us who believe in free speech, libertarian values and the spirit of fair-minded inquiry are deeply in her debt. And myself, I’m grateful to her for that one movie she made back in 1992 that so brilliantly documented the male-female dance of desire and lit for me an eternal flame.

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Drew McKenzie was previously the "Cinema Blue" columnist for Penthouse Variations and also wrote for AVN Online, Fox (from Montcalm Publishing, New York) and Guld Rapport (from Stockholm, Sweden). He is also the author of seven books -- three on porn stars, all done under his real name.