Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 126: Is this Ed Wood's only Christmas novel?

Santa curls up with a copy of Ed Wood's 1968 novel Nighttime Lez.

We know Ed Wood celebrated Christmas. In the '50s, when he was still living with actress Dolores Fuller, he famously produced some 3D cards featuring himself dressed as Jesus. Those cards remain prized collectibles among Ed's fans even today. Later, according to Nightmare of Ecstasy, Eddie proudly gave out copies of his own paperbacks as Christmas presents. I like to think of him offering The Oralists (1969) or Purple Thighs (1968) to his bewildered landlord in lieu of rent.

The Yuletide season does not figure all that prominently in Ed's creative output, however. Offhand, I can't remember even a mention of the holiday in any of his movies, pornographic or otherwise. But what about his written work? Eddie churned out so many novels, nonfiction books, short stories, and magazine articles that the topic of Christmas must've come up at least a few times, right? Recently, I immersed myself in Eddie's literary work from the 1960s and '70s, mainlining one book after another. Since the holidays were approaching, I naturally started looking for mentions of Christmas in any of these sex-and-violence-drenched classics.

A later edition of the book.
Eventually, I hit pay dirt. Nighttime Lez (sometimes printed as Night Time Lez) is yet another of Ed Wood's many salacious, adults-only novels. It was published in 1968 by a company called Columbia, which had previously released Eddie's debut novel Black Lace Drag. For whatever reason (authorial pride?), Eddie used his real name on this tale of Sapphic intrigue, eschewing any of his usual pseudonyms. 

Thematically and stylistically, Nighttime Lez is very standard Wood stuff. I'm sure he wrote it quickly and without a great deal of thought. The plot revolves around a beautiful young woman in Los Angeles named Paula Thomas. Dissatisfied with her heterosexual experiences, she tentatively visits a lesbian bar called The Iris Inn. There, she almost immediately becomes physically involved with two monstrously butch older women: owner Tommy and barfly Sam. But these two grotesques initiate her into the lesbian lifestyle, and soon Paula encounters some younger, more attractive women, including Jeni, Sin, Loretta, and Doris (who is Tommy's current paramour). All of these women, butch and femme alike, form a close community of friends with benefits. They spend their time drinking, partying, and hooking up. The only male member of the group is Henry/Henrietta, a cross-dressing bartender with an odd sense of humor.

The title vaguely suggests that Paula may be living a double life, and indeed she is. By day, she's a well-paid corporate secretary at the Tishman building on Wilshire Boulevard and is unapologetic about sleeping her way up the corporate ladder. This plot point allows Ed Wood to include a few heterosexual love scenes along with the many, many lesbian ones in Nighttime Lez. Paula's latest boss is mild-mannered Ralph Henderson, a married man so enamored of Paula that he wants to take her with him whenever he travels overseas. Some of the other female employees at the Tishman building are jealous of Paula, but it doesn't seem to bother her much.

To keep things interesting, Ed Wood throws a few soap opera-type plot complications at his characters. Sam contracts pneumonia. Tommy and Doris almost break up. Henry/Henrietta dates a troublemaking straight guy who tries to sexually assault Paula. And Paula? Well, let's say that our favorite secretary is not as careful about birth control as she should be. (In this book, Ed Wood opines that birth control should be a woman's responsibility, since men hate wearing those uncomfortable condoms.)

What truly makes Nighttime Lez stand out among Ed Wood's books is that it contains an actual, lengthy Christmas sequence! In Chapter 9, Paula attends a dreary office Christmas party. Here's how Eddie describes that:
There was a Christmas tree, the usual smorgasbord with bottles of whiskey, scotch and gin, and there were the two dollar limit presents; names for the recipient drawn a week earlier by each of the employees. And by the time the gifts were opened most of the office behavior was lost to other times and places. A joke gift brought on squeals of delight.

Try as she might Paula couldn’t put herself completely into believing two dollar presents were something anyone could get their jollies from—joke or not. She opened her own only because of the eager insistence of the other girls. The present was a pair of black panties with the painting of a white door with a red light over it, imprinted on the front. Who specifically gave the gift, she would never know, but she did know that everyone of the girls in the office had something to do with the choice. There was no laugh on the part of the girls. When the gift was opened their feigned joys disappeared and they drifted off in their own personal groups. Paula did not come up with the reaction they had supposed. She simply stood up and measured the garment to her hipline over her skirt, then moved beyond them to the bar where Henry poured her a stiff martini.

“Thanks Henrietta,” she said lightly so that the name couldn’t be overheard. Henry was on his best masculine behavior since it was a square office affair and Paula had promoted him the job. He wasn’t about to do anything that might hurt Paula’s relationship in the business world. “I think that was a dirty trick.”

“Maybe that’s the only way they shoot their wad,” she said, as she sipped the martini then handed the panties to the young man. “Merry Christmas!”

Henry took the black panties with an eager hand and stuffed them into his pocket. “You sure you want to part with them?”

Paula grinned. “Why advertise my extracurricular activities to any newcomers?”

She had just finished her whispered remark as Mr. Ralph Henderson, a man in his middle fifties, balding, but rather good looking and still well built, moved up to the bar. “Scotch and water, bartender,” he said to Henry, then turned to Paula. “Well now, Paula. Are you having a good time?”

Paula let the glint sparkle in her eyes. It was one she knew the man approved. “Frankly, Mr. Henderson, I used to have better times at my girl scout meetings.”
Interesting, right? Even if you haven't read Nighttime Lez, you can probably spot some of Ed Wood's main motifs on display here: panties, booze, "jollies," etc. The name Paula itself is one of Eddie's favorites, perhaps because it has an obvious masculine counterpart (Paul). The Violent Years (1956) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957) both have characters named Paula. Tonally, Nighttime Lez is quite similar to the Wood-scripted Rene Bond vehicle The Cocktail Hostesses (1973), which also features a lot of office hanky-panky. Had Nighttime Lez been made into a movie, I would have again cast Bond in the lead role. She'd be the ideal Paula Thomas.

But what can we say about Ed Wood's particular version of Christmas in Nighttime Lez? Well, it's a mixed bag. The holiday party that Paula attends seems no fun at all, apart from the sexually suggestive Secret Santa gifts. Mr. Henderson places the blame on the cops: "With the law cracking down harder and harder each holiday on the drunk driving, it makes everyone think twice before taking too many, then getting into their car for the long drive home." I would have thought office Christmas parties were the height of depravity in the 1960s and '70s, but apparently they were already getting too tame for Ed Wood's taste.

A typical 1960s office Christmas party. Note the abundance of booze.

During this bacchanalia, the optimistic Mr. Henderson slips a $50 bill into the Christmas card he gives his secretary, and soon the two of them leave the party to visit a cocktail lounge. It all leads to a passionate rendezvous at Paula's place, where our heroine eagerly earns her next promotion. But Paula's Christmas festivities are not done! Not much later in the book, she and Jeni have another erotic encounter, and Paula wishes her lover a merry Christmas as the latter is climaxing. Weirdly, as foreplay of some sort, Paula tells Jeni all about her lovemaking session with Mr. Henderson. (Because if there's one thing lesbians love, it's sex with men.)

A little later, Paula meets with both Doris and Jeni to drink and talk about sex. Doris worries that Tommy is growing tired of her and will soon dump her for someone younger. But Jeni doesn't want to hear this negative talk, especially at a time when everyone is supposed to be happy. "Oh, let's get off the morbid kick," she says with a degree of impatience. "It's Christmas and all is right with the whole blasted world." These characters are certainly getting blasted, so this sentiment is doubly appropriate. 

Calling Nighttime Lez a Christmas novel would be a stretch, sort of like how I argue each year that Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is secretly a Christmas movie because it takes place in December and you can even see some festive holiday decorations in one shot. But Nighttime Lez is one of the few times in his literary career that Eddie used the holiday as a significant plot point. If you and your loved ones want to gather around the fireplace and read Nighttime Lez aloud instead of Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," I wouldn't try to dissuade you.

Before we leave the topic of Ed Wood and Christmas, however, here's another scandalous seasonal passage from one of Eddie's novels. In It Takes One to Know One, published by Pad Library in 1967, the gender-bending hobo narrator Don thinks back to his childhood as he rides the rails:
The farthest back I could remember was a time when I was a very small child. It was a Christmas time. My little cousin, Doris who was about my age came to our house for the holiday visit. My mother and dad gave her a Teddy Bear snow suit. It was made of some kind of very soft fur. That Teddy Bear suit seemed to lure me from the first time it made an appearance. So it was a natural thing, the first chance which came about I tried it on. How I loved to wear that snow suit—the little coat—hat and pants. Whenever I had the chance I’d sneak into the darkness of the closet and put it on—wear it longingly and wish it were mine for good and always. It felt so good close to my body. Once I put it on wrong side out just so I could feel the fur against my skin. 
Now that's what I call a happy holiday! You have one, too.