On the Passing of Margo St. James, the Realist Nun, by Richard Milner

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Filed under: Creative Activism, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Richard Milner is the author of Darwin’s Universe: Evolution from A to Z.

Margo St. James, the media prankster, former hooker and champion of sexual freedom, died on January 11 in her hometown of Bellingham, Washington. She was 83. During her decades as a counterculture activist in San Francisco (1960s through 1980s), she led the crusade to upgrade legal rights for “ladies of the evening,” whom she described with respect as ‘sex workers.” To that end, she founded COYOTE — “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics” — which she characterized as “a loose union of women,” or perhaps “a union of loose women.” She was a serious unionist. When a reporter referred to her as a “former madam,” she demanded a retraction and proudly proclaimed, “I was never management.”

But I always thought Margo’s best claim to fame was as “the Realist Nun,” which is how I first heard of her. What, you may ask, was the Realist Nun?

In 1958, a satirist, social critic, and prankster named Paul Krassner founded an outrageous underground magazine called “The Realist”. It was inevitable that in the San Francisco of the 1960s Margo and Paul would meet and become longtime pals and co-conspirators. Margo got hold of an authentic nun’s habit and began wearing it when stepping out with Paul. Once they visited an airport and lingered at the departure gate, where they embraced and began kissing passionately, with Margo attired in the nun’s outfit. Finally, when they were through, she said in a loud voice, “Goodbye, have a great flight, Father Berrigan!” And thus began the annals of The Realist Nun.

Among the brilliant events staged by Margo, was the annual “Hooker’s Ball,” which she created during the 1970s to promote and raise money for her cause. At first, the event caused only a mild media ripple in San Francisco, but each year its popularity grew by leaps and bounds to became the hottest ticket in town, attended by thousands in 1978 — including many local characters from politics and law enforcement.

I was living in New York City in the mid 1980s, when I received a call from Margo. “Listen,” she said, “I’m here to promote the Hooker’s Ball, and I’ve been booked on the “Midday Live Show with Bill Boggs” tomorrow, which is having a special Valentine’s Day theme. They want me to bring two real hookers who are willing to talk about their work, and two “Johns” who are regular patrons. Getting the girls was easy; I know a couple of very articulate young women here in New York who are delighted to come on television with me. But we couldn’t find even one male who is willing to appear on camera with us. So, Richard, would you be willing to join us as a ‘trick’?”

She knew it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Host Bill Boggs asked one of the women, “Is it true that some men will pay prostitutes just to talk because they’re too shy to have sex?” “Oh yes,” she replied, “I have some ‘talk tricks’ who cannot discuss sex with the women they know or anyone in their family, and they’re happy to pay for intimate, confidential conversations.” When asked if that was true, I said: “Bill, I always go to a hooker if I want advice and counsel. I go to my attorney if I really want to get screwed!” Everyone fell down laughing, and Margo’s promo for her “Hooker’s Ball” was very successful.

Margo also published a newsletter called “COYOTE HOWLS,” for which famed San Francisco underground cartoonist Gary Hallgren contributed a full-page comic strip about a street corner discussion on unionizing sex workers. I’m grateful for his permission to reprint the comic here, as a tribute to our friend, the late, great Realist Nun.