Recalling the man who 'Banned in Boston'

Posted: May 12, 2003 12:00 AM

The last American official with the power to ban wickedness -- at least within the city limits of Boston -- has died. His name was Richard J. Sinnott (pronounced "sin not"), and between 1960 and 1980 he alone could keep the show from going on anywhere in his undoubtedly fair city by revoking the municipal license of theatres, nightclubs and other venues for morally questionable acts. Mr. Sinnott's powers may have effectively come undone with loosening sexual mores and unraveling social codes, but in an earlier era, the prospect of being "Banned in Boston" caused playwrights to gnash their teeth, producers to bite their nails, and intellectuals to tear their hair over Boston's bubble. Whitman, Hemingway, even "Snow White" were all banished for a time from the city by Mr. Sinnott's predecessors, among them the Pilgrims, who, in the 17th century, banned Christmas celebrations in Massachusetts, undoubtedly for being too merry.

By 1960, though, no book was subject to Boston's censors, and notions of "obscenity" and "pornography," once beached on the seamier side of life, were beginning to make their splash in the cultural mainstream. Censorship as a government institution, even in Boston, was about to go under. Even so, as Mr. Sinnott's obituary in The New York Times points out, "Banned in Boston" could still beat a rave review, turning a real lemon into the showbiz version of forbidden fruit. The sole stripper Mr. Sinnott kept off Boston's boards later thanked him for tripling her salary. When a dance company failed to draw Mr. Sinnott's stamp of disapproval for performing half-naked, producers were furious, the newspaper reported, later sending Mr. Sinnott a postcard from New York. "Thanks a lot," they wrote. "The show closed." Eventually, so did the censor's office.

Looking back, Mr. Sinnott wasn't sure his roughly 10 bans had been worth the bother. He thought they might have made Bostonians look like "party poopers." So they did, but what of it? While Boston's bluestocking statutes made the city the butt of jokes, could they also have served some public good?

Neither Whitman, Hemingway nor "Snow White" suffered much, and at least one stripper in the world ate better for a while (which, you never know, might have led to a more uplifting career). Looking back on decades of ever-more free speech that have made ever-more graphic depictions of sex and scatology ever-more ubiquitous, maybe it's time to indulge in a little nostalgia for Boston's quaint attempts to put a lid on it. There was in the city's quixotic efforts a certain idealism; the city believed in the public good, and it believed said good should be protected. This notion, no doubt, had something to do with the legacy of such founding fathers as John Adams, a native of nearby Quincy, Mass. (where, by the way, Bostonians would travel in 1929 to see a proscribed performance of Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude").

Adams specifically noted that the viability of the new nation depended on "a moral and religious people." If smut was threatening Main Street, what else were good patriots to do? And how bad was it, really, to go to Quincy for Eugene O'Neill -- and New York City for anything else?

As the fates fixed it, Mr. Sinnott's obituary appeared shortly before Wal-Mart announced it would no longer be selling the magazines Maxim, Stuff and FHM. This British trio of dirty glossies -- glossy dirties? -- adds up to a male common denominator so low it's probably negative. In a kooky spin on the Victorian art of euphemism, however, publishers here and over there persist in calling them "racy" or "lad magazines"--almost quaint terms that ring a bright-young-things sort of bell. This is a far cry from all-but-full-frontal bludgeon of dumb sex and crudity the magazines really wield. "Maybe they [Wal-Mart] think Tyra Banks should have been wearing pink instead of black," Stephen Colvin, whose company publishes Maxim and Stuff, told The New York Times. "For any men's magazine to put a woman on the cover seems a bit troubling to them."

This is about as disingenuous as you can get. Wal-Mart, our modern-day Main Street, banned the magazines just as it bans all pornography, soft and hard. Which is only part of the story. Just because Wal-Mart stopped selling Maxim et al. doesn't mean the mags have disappeared down a hole. Anti-obscenity crusades far stronger than Wal-Mart's have never pulled off such a trick.

And to my mind that's not the goal. Far better to push the noxious stuff out of the mainstream and over to the margins. "Consumers should have the freedom to decide for themselves what they want to purchase," Magazine Publishers of America says. And so they do. Only sometimes consumers should have to turn off Main Street to do their shopping.