(Thanks to Brian Ritt for a fine examination of the life and work of Orrie Hitt. Questions and comments for Brian can be directed to rittster at hotmail dot com.)
THE SLEAZY SIDE OF THE STREET
by Brian Ritt
Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street
--On The Sunny Side of the Street
Orrie Hitt wrote about low-rent people in low-rent places.
His men were rotten to the core, as bad as they come, lust prowlers, promoters, cheaters, suckers, pushovers, and Peeping Tom's. Their names were Dutch, Arch, Rip, Brick, Buck, Shad, Slade, Big Mike, Clint Crown, Johnny Vandal, and Jerry Slink. They dreamed and schemed, manipulated and manhandled.
Meet one of Hitt's men: "He was a big man, a couple of inches over 6 feet, and he weighed 180 pounds. None of his weight was fat. He was all raw muscle and bone with broad shoulders and close cut sandy hair. As for being handsome he didn't know... Most of the women thought he was pretty much of a man at the age of 26 and that, to Dutch, was what counted."
--Naked Flesh, Kozy Books, 1962, pg. 3
His women were too hot to handle, ex-virgins, frigid wives, sin dolls, wayward girls, torrid cheats, easy women, frustrated females, inflamed dames and, most often, trapped. Their names were Sheba, Sherry, Honey, Candy, Cherry, Betty French, and Lola Champ. They used what they had to use to make a buck--limited opportunities left them few other choices. They were duped and deceived, approached and abandoned.
Meet one of Hitt's women: "Jutting breasts, a flat stomach, willing hips, anxious thighs and legs that demanded all of the man in me, bringing to both of us an ancient pleasure which never grew old."
--Man-Hungry Female, Novel Books, 1962, pg. 127
His places were shabby streets, strip alleys, pleasure grounds, private clubs, passion pools, girls dormitories, dirt farms, nudist camps, and sexurbia counties.
Enter one of Hitt's places--The Hotel Shelly: "By my watch, every night in this creep joint was too long. The rugs in the lobby were faded and the seats of the chairs sagged worse than the knees in my pants. The manager had a lousy disposition and a couple of ulcers as big as watermelons. One of the bellhops was always chasing strange-acting guys. After almost a month in this racket I was ready to get out of the hotel business for good."
--Shabby Street, Beacon Books, 1958, pg. 5
You might even say Hitt wrote about low-rent emotions: unnatural urges, warped desires, untamed lusts, tormented passions, taboo thrills, and strange longings. Once he even wrote a book about panda bear passions.
Experience one of Hitt's emotions: "His hands roamed her body as a savage roams the darkness of an unknown jungle. He filled his hands with her, sensing the rich beauty of her flesh, and he bore down on her mouth, crushing her lips. She twisted nearer to him, moaning with longing and anticipation, her restraint shattered, her fingernails clawing at his skin, bringing pain, turning the desire that he felt into raw, reckless lust."
--Naked Flesh, Kozy Books, 1962, pg. 56
But there was nothing low-rent about Orrie Hitt.
Behind the tawdry and lurid titles, covers, and subject matter of Hitt's books was a beloved and faithful family man who worked ten to fourteen hours a day.
He was born Orrie Edwin Hitt in Colchester (now Roscoe), New York, on October 27, 1916. Died in a VA hospital in Montrose, New York, from cancer, on December 7, 1975. He married Charlotte Tucker in Port Jervis, New York (a small town upstate where he became a lifelong resident), on Valentine's Day, 1943. Orrie and Charlotte Hitt had four children -- Joyce, Margaret, David, and Nancy. In contrast to his macho male protagonists, Orrie was slightly under 5'5", and took a 27 inch inseam, which his wife had to alter because stores didn't sell pants that short. But he was a hell of a tough old bird, who had more grit and backbone than any number of his fictional he-men combined.
Hitt wrote approximately 150 books. Sources differ as to the exact number. Even Orrie himself wasn't sure. "I'm no adding machine", Hitt answered on the back cover of his book Naked Flesh, when asked how many books he'd written. "All I do is write. I usually start at seven in the morning, take 20 minutes for lunch and continue until about four in the afternoon."
In his prime, Hitt wrote a novel every two weeks, typing over 85 words per minute. "His fastest and best works were produced when he was allowed to type whatever he wanted," said Hitt's children. "His slowest works were produced when publishers insisted on a certain kind of novel, extra spicy, etc."
(Note: a large part of the information in this article comes from a lengthy interview with Orrie Hitt's four children, conducted in 1993 by R. C. Holland for his fanzine "Books Are Everything!" He conducted the interviews by mail, and combined the answers into single blocks, rather than quoting each individual. I'll do the same for this article, and when quoting, will simply refer to "Hitt's children".)
Most of Hitt's books were PBOs. He wrote a few hardcovers, as well. Pseudonyms include Kay Addams, Joe Black, Roger Normandie, Charles Verne, and Nicky Weaver. Publishers include Avon, Beacon (later Softcover Library), Chariot, Domino (Lancer), Ember Library, Gaslight, Key Publishing, Kozy, MacFadden, Midwood, Novel, P.E.C, Red Lantern, Sabre, Uni-books, Valentine Books, Vantage Press, Vest-Pocket, and Wisdom House.
He wrote in what is known today as the "sleaze" or "adults only" genre. Many of the writers in this genre were hacks, using the thinnest of plots merely as an excuse to throw some "tits and ass" (to borrow a phrase from a famous Lenny Bruce stand-up bit) between two covers to make a quick buck. Other writers used the genre as a stepping stone to more "legitimate" writing, later unwilling to discuss this part of their career. And there were a few like Orrie Hitt, whose writing left an original, idiosyncratic and, in my opinion, lasting mark even beyond the horizons of 1950s-mid 60s "sleaze" publishing.
What made Hitt unique was simple, really--his belief and passion that he was writing realistically about the needs and desires, the brutality (both verbal and physical), the hypocritical lives inside the quaintly painted suburban tracts houses, and the limited economic opportunities for women that lay beneath the glossy, Super Cinecolor, Father Knows Best surface of American life as it was culturally represented during the 1950s and early 60s.
Hitt observed and investigated the people and places he wrote about. When he wanted to write about a nudist camp, he went to a nudist camp though, his children were quick to admit, "he would not disrobe".
His research allowed him to write convincingly enough so that author Susan Stryker, in her book Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback, says, "Only one actual lesbian, Kay Addams, writing as Orrie Hitt, is known to have churned out semipornographic sleaze novels for a predominantly male audience." Stryker actually thinks "Orrie Hitt" is a pseudonym, and "Kay Addams" is a real lesbian author! I'm sure Orrie'd be laughing his ass off about that one.
"[My agent] was obviously under the impression that women didn't have breasts", Hitt wrote in an autobiographical article for Men's Digest magazine, "and that you didn't write about them if they did -- or that men and women slept together."
But it wasn't just about sex for Orrie Hitt. It was also about guts.
"The characters," Hitt's protagonist--a movie producer complimenting a screenwriter on her work--says in the novel Man-Hungry Female, "were very real, red blooded people who tore at the guts of life. That's what I'm after. Guts."
And if there was one person who knew about guts, it was Orrie Hitt.
Life started out tough for Hitt. His father committed suicide when Orrie was 11 years old. “Dad seldom spoke of his father, who had committed suicide, because it was a very unpleasant chapter in his life,” said Hitt’s children.
After his father's death, Orrie and his mother moved to Forestburgh, New York, where they worked for a private hunting and fishing club. Orrie started out doing chores for the wealthy members and was paid 10 cents an hour. Later, the club's management offered him a better job, at 25 cents an hour--good money during those Depression-era years. Eventually, he became the club's caretaker and head supervisor.
"Dad talked a lot about working as a child to help his mother make ends meet," Hitt's children recalled. "He wanted his children to have a better life while growing up."
Tragedy struck Hitt again during those years at the private club. Hitt's children explain: "Dad's mom died at her sister's house on the club property during an ice storm, so dad walked to the house to get his mother and carried her back to his car in order to get her body into town."
Sometime between his father's and mother's death, Orrie Hitt decided he wanted to be a writer. Initially, his ambition was greeted with something less than cheers and applause.
“I guess I was in my second year in high school when the teacher gave me the bad news.” Hitt wrote in Men's Digest. “I’d never make it as a writer. To begin with, I didn’t know up from down about the English language and, secondly, I was too much of a dreamer."
Hitt continued. “Well, it hurt. Almost anything hurts a kid of 15. What the teacher told me hurt especially because those were the years of the Great Depression and I knew, since my widowed mother was only making $50 a month as a hotel chambermaid, that there would never be enough money for college…It seemed to me that the teacher had taken that hope away from me, the only real hope I’d ever had since I can remember.”
But the lack of encouragement from Orrie's “educator” didn’t stop him. He soon started writing articles for outdoor magazines -- and sold them.
“The articles dealt with animal raising,” Orrie wrote, “all kinds of trapping and hunting and fishing, things which I knew about because I spent my vacations and weekends with relations in the country. When the teacher did learn of my luck she said nothing.”
A couple years later, Hitt and his sophomore teacher had a final contretemps.
“During that last year in high school I was told that an educational book published once a year in Albany would consider articles on school subjects from students and teachers,” wrote Hitt. “I wrote about our rifle club and mailed the material to them. The teacher who told me I couldn’t write selected some other subject. My article was published and the teacher’s article was rejected. After that I was pretty sure that, right or wrong, the guy I saw in the mirror when I shaved was the man whose advice I’d follow.”
Hitt continued writing and selling articles and short stories while working at the private club, although the long hours left him little time to write. He also met and acquired an agent.
Then came World War II, and the 24-year-old Orrie Hitt enlisted in the Army, “going in as a private and coming out as a First Lieutenant.”
Orrie met the woman who would become his wife during his service in the war, and upon his release, he not only had a wife to support, but a child, as well. In order to support his family, he had to curtail his writing career for the next 6-8 years, taking a variety of odd jobs which barely paid the bills. He sold life insurance, roofing and siding, and frozen foods to stores. He worked for a local automotive firm and marketed a new type of sparkplug. He worked for a local radio station as a DJ and ad salesman. Altogether, he worked between 15 to 17 jobs, all the while pining to pursue the passion he felt he was born for.
“Oh, I might’ve done a few short stories which didn’t sell but I’m not counting them," Orrie wrote. "A book was in the back of my mind and I was unable to shake it.”
And then the Iceland cometh.
“My next stop was Keflavik, Iceland, working at the airport hotel and, again, the pay could’ve been better,” Orrie wrote. “However, I found in Iceland what I wanted. Once I had learned my duties there was plenty of time to write. And this time it was a book.”
Hitt worked at the airport hotel for a year, and by the end of the year he'd written two more books.
Throughout that year, Hitt had submitted all three books to his agent in New York. The agent’s responses, one after another, were discouraging; he claimed the books were unmarketable. It must have seemed like sophomore year all over again. But, as Hitt did with the old schoolmarm, he ignored his agent’s advice and got right back to work. But instead of pounding the typwriter keys, this time he pounded the pavement. He went back to New York and “made the rounds of publishers myself, receiving encouragement but no contracts." Hitt did find one taker--a "vanity" publisher who wanted Hitt to pay them to publish the book. (He turned them down flatly.) Finally, he found a legitimate publisher who wanted his book and, "A few days later I had a royalty contract."
That was 1953, and Hitt's first book was titled I’ll Call Every Monday, published in hardcover by Red Lantern books (later re-issued as a paperback by Avon).
From that point, according to Hitt's children, Orrie's work schedule was "continuous and incredible. From morning to dinner time he was at the kitchen table with his typewriter, and his iced coffee and ash tray full of half-smoked Winston's were at his side... Ideas flowed out at 90 words a minute on his old Remington Royal...There he would sit, amidst cookies, glasses of milk, and all the comings and goings of a busy family of four children, and write to his heart's content. He always enjoyed having the family around. I don't ever remember him asking us to be quiet so that he could concentrate...The only days I remember him not typing were Christmas, New Year's, and Easter ."
During the evening Hitt watched comedy shows on TV -- Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, and Sgt. Bilko. Or a buddy stopped by and they'd throw back a few cold ones while watching wrestling. Makes sense when you consider the dark, violent, emotionally harrowing lives he wrote about all day.
As a man-about-town, Orrie, "was a loquacious man, anxious to talk to anyone who would listen...especially when he had a few too many beers," Hitt's children remembered. In fact, one night while Mr. and Mrs. Hitt were at a bar, a woman tried to "pick-up" Orrie, curious if he was anything like the characters in his books. Orrie saw quite a bit of humor in the situation. Mrs. Hitt, however, did not. POW! Right in the kisser, Orrie!
As a father, Hitt's children characterized him as, "sensitive and loving and stopping at nothing to provide for his family. He wasn't interested in 'keeping up with the Jones's', just in doing well enough so his family didn't have to want for anything. We were taught right from wrong. Often our house, the 'party house', was packed full of kids. Dad was kind yet stern; you knew when not to push him to the limit...Every one of our friends liked dad. He would listen or help when needed and they could always use his shoulder to lean or cry on...He was nothing like the characters he portrayed in his books."
As a writer for the "adults only" market, life in a small town was not always easy for the Hitts.
"We knew that he attempted to have his books marketed in places other than our small home town due to the nature of the books," Hitt's children recalled. "Our father always said his books were mild in comparison to what was written many years later. As children, we encountered a fair amount of prejudice from other families as the news of dad's source for our livelihood spread...When we read his books, however, we could see the events that occurred in his life and the people that lived in our small home town that provided the inspiration for his characters."
Shades of Peyton Place!
Hitt earned between $250 and $1000 in advances for his PBO's. He earned additional money from reprints and royalties, though not all his publishers were on the up-and-up, a situation not unusual for many of the fly-by-night (some should have been called "lie-by-night") publishers serving the "adults only" market at the time.
The Hitt children: "Some [of Hitt's books] had words and phrases added without his consent. He also asked for some of the manuscripts back because of the publisher's low offer...Some reprints were done without prior authorization and some appeared to have been pirated. In the latter case, the titles, authors, and names were changed, but it could never be proven."
But generally, Hitt's relationships with his publishers were good...sometimes too good. "If the publishers were having money problems," Hitt's children said, "dad would wait patiently for his money. Once he waited too long, the publisher went bankrupt and dad lost out; and it was a large sum of money. He would often spend hours on the phone calling publishers in New York and California trying to recover money he was owed."
Hitt's books also contain the common mistakes (typos, misspellings, words printed twice, words left out, etc.) that characterized the slim-to-none editing style of the "adults only" publishers during the 1950s and 60s.
Regarding the content of Hitt's books, it wasn't all blood and guts, angst and anguish. Orrie wrote some wonderfully loopy metaphors and similies as well.
"If she bore his child it was an obligation that he'd have to face. To run or to ignore it was to deny that he was a man. Onions? Why was he thinking of them? Onions were so much a pound, depending on the season. Well, the pleasures of the flesh cost money, too...Yes the price of onions and the price of desire. So totally unrelated and, yet, in cost so much the same."
--Naked Flesh, Kozy Books, 1962, pgs. 94-95.
"Her nipples could stay hard longer than a bear could hibernate."
--Wilma's Wants, Novel Books, 1964, pg. 62.
Intentionally funny or not? You decide. In my own opinion, after reading about 30 of Hitt's books, I would say the majority were intentional, and occasionally not. As I sit back and chuckle, wondering how Hitt's mind made the connection between the responsibilities of parenthood and onions, I really don't give a damn. I just enjoy it.
Toward the latter part of his career, Hitt's writing took an unexpected turn. He started writing books for a publisher called Novel Books in 1961. In contrast to other sleaze books, where "the story", was just a frame around a sometimes mind-numbing succession of softcore sexual liasons, Hitt's stories turned this concept on it's head. The titles, cover photos, and blurbs (A NOVEL BOOK IS A MAN'S BOOK!) were as sensationalistic as ever, but between the covers, Hitt filled his pages with points-of-view about personal and political issues. What's even more interesting--as we, from a safe distance of almost 40 years later, can sit back and chuckle at books that now seem so "dated"--is that the same issues are still provocative today.
On censorship. "As a writer, and as an American, I dread any form of censorship. Of course I agree that discretion should be exercised...but I do not think that the right of expression should rest in the hands of any particular group."
-- Wilma's Wants, 1964, Novel Books, pg. 94.
On Socialism. "Well, there is a man wants to run for governor of this state, whether or not he's endorsed by his party. One promise he's made is that if he's elected he'll see that every boy and girl who wants to have a college education will get one. What kind of talk is that? Only a form of Socialist state could promise everybody everything."
-- Ibid, 1964, Novel Books, pg. 74.
On writing about sexually provocative subjects. "Of course I wrote about loose wives, wandering husbands, girls who were too willing, men who were anxious, but I considered these things as a part of life and I wrote about life."
--Ibid, 1964, Novel Books, pg. 82.
On union bosses. "Unions. A lot of people will yell, but I want a close study of them. Money under the table, big shots taking dough to settle a strike that from the very beginning was as useless as a pair of falsies on a whore."
-- Man-Hungry Female, 1962, Novel Books, pg. 75.
On a free society vs. a dictatorship. "Damn! How could I be so blind! The minute you take from one man to give to another, even if the first man is a millionaire and the other man is broke with ten mouths to feed -- you're taking away man's inalienable right to freedom and ownership of his own property like Jefferson and Paine talked about. The minute you tell a man he owes his life or his money to another man, you've got a dictatorship, a socialist police state where character, ability, and ambition are just words that don't mean a damn thing. Brave New World, that's what it is."
-- Shocking Mistress!, 1961, Novel Books, pg. 153
Let's pause for a breather here, folks.
Orrie took one hell of a leap from onions and nipples to Jefferson and Paine, eh? I bet if you check your heart you'll find it's beating a bit harder, and if you check your pulse you'll find your blood racing a bit faster. You might even feel some anger about the views Orrie espouses, whether you're for or against them. But that was part of what made Orrie's writing unique--a passion and curiosity about the world, and a no-holds-barred style of expression.
So between 1953-1964 Orrie Hitt wrote approximately 145 books. But between 1965-1968, only 5 Hitt paperback originals were published (although a number of earlier books were reprinted during this period). So what happened? Had the cancer, that eventually killed Hitt in 1975, already started? Hitt's children would have been young adults by this time; maybe they had their own children and Orrie wanted to spend time with his grandchildren. Unfortunately, I have no information about these "lost years" (publicly, at least) of Orrie Hitt, about the last ten years of his life. Perhaps that information will someday come to light.
Hitt's complete novel writing career lasted from 1953-1968. During that time, Hitt and his family experienced both feast and famine. "When dad was financially healthy, he was very sharing and caring," Hitt's children said. "We felt like we were rich. But when the chips were down and the money was gone, things got pretty bad. Once we lived from hotel room to hotel room, leaving when the rent came due...There was a time however, when we owned a beautifully remodeled home,we had beautiful new cars, one daughter was in college, and we had plenty toeat...Our life was lived in extremes -- we went from eating out every Wednesday night to dad eating from garbage cans in the city!"
Orrie Hitt died at a too-young 59 years of age. Quite possibly, his steady regimen of coffee, cigarettes, and 10-14 hour workdays contributed to the cancer that caused his early death, although this is speculation on my part. Besides his fairly young age, there was another tragic element to Hitt's death. "Our dad died in debt in a veterans hospital," said Hitt's children, "although he had helped others all his life. But, when we needed help, the same people were nowhere to be found."
Hitt's children summed him up this way: "We're proud of both our parents. When we lost our dad, we also lost our best friend. Dad taught us many things in life; hard work, love, honesty, respect, caring, and never giving up."
Doesn't sound like a sleazy guy to me.
Hitt, Orrie. "My 'Sex' Books", Part 1. Men's Digest, #31, 1962. Pages 37-39.
Holland, R.C. Books Are Everything! Vol. 5, No. 1, Whole Number 21. 1993. Pages 28-48.
Stryker, Susan. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback, Chronicle Books, 2001. Pages 61,66.
Various novels of Orrie Hitt.
Trivia note: Hitt's children briefly stated that Orrie said he did some ghost-writing for Mickey Spillane, but they have no idea of the nature of that work.
Special thanks to Jerry Chadburn of Always 1st Books, for introducing me to the work of Orrie Hitt, and to Rose Idlet of Black Ace Books for allowing me to xerox her copy of Books Are Everything!
And, of course, to James Reasoner for allowing me to put this article on his blog.