October 26, 1992 12:00 PM

SURROUNDED BY AGED SUGAR-MAPLE trees, Richard Rhodes’s colonial home in Connecticut looks—inside and out—like the habitat of a serious author. Over the living room mantel hangs a Louise Nevelson wood sculpture given to Rhodes when he won the National Book Award in 1987, and the bookshelves are crowded with imposing titles, including The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein and The Life and Times of Edward Teller. But look closer and you’ll notice Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, The Female Orgasm and Smut. A peep into the closet reveals an impressive collection of pornographic videos, including Behind the Green Door and Insatiable.

It turns out that Rhodes, 55, who is best known for his 1988 Pulitzer-prizewinning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, is drawn to other explosive topics as well. His latest book, Making Love, is an exhaustively unabashed chronicle of his sex life. Nothing is left unbared: the size of his penis (average), his fondness for masturbation, memories of adolescent homosexual activity and how he made it with former lovers—of whom he has 11.

Critics have not been appreciative of Rhodes’s aggressive candor. Martin Amis called the book “Portnoy’s Complaint shorn of all talent.” But people looking for art, Rhodes contends, have missed the point. “When Gay Talese [author of a trailblazing ’70s sexual investigation, Thy Neighbor’s Wife] read the manuscript, he told me, ‘You’re a reporter, only you re reporting about your penis. I go into detail about everything I write about, so what’s so different about giving technical descriptions of my sex life rather than the atomic bomb?” he says. “It’s the truth, and may hopefully break down some taboos.”

Raised in Kansas City, Mo., Rhodes endured a horrifying childhood. When he was 13 months old, his mother, Georgia, committed suicide by putting a gun in her mouth. Nine years later his father, Arthur, a boiler-maker, married a woman who, Rhodes claims, tortured him and his older brother, Stanley, with “starvation and beatings and slashing our legs and backs with the brass buckle of a belt.” His brother finally went to the police, and when a judge saw how emaciated the boys were, he sent them to an orphanage, where Rhodes began reading up to seven novels a week. Based on his aptitude tests, he was offered a full scholarship to Yale.

He met his first wife, Linda, while both were working at Newsweek in the early ’60s; together they raised Katherine, 28, now a molecular biologist in San Diego, and Timothy, 29, a Seattle architect, until their divorce 14 years later. Rhodes moved to Kansas City, where he worked as a publicity writer at Hallmark Cards and met his second wife, Mary, an art director, whom he divorced after 12 years. In 1969 he started free-lancing articles for Harper’s and Esquire. He also began to write novels and nonfiction on such varied topics as the Ozarks and, of course, sex. In 1983, after attending a sex-enhancement lecture, he edited ESO, the first of two manuals on extended sexual orgasm. After securing his reputation with The Atomic Bomb, he wrote A Hole in the World, a well-received account of his childhood.

For most of his adult life, Rhodes has struggled with suicidal anxiety that after seven years of psychotherapy in the 1970s he traced to his abuse as a child. A heavy drinker, he did not give up his “years of bingeing” until 1986, when he fell in love with his current companion, Ginger Untrif (referred to in the book as G—), 36, a radio producer he met while taping an interview in Kansas City. Soon after, they moved to Cambridge, Mass., and then in 1989 to Connecticut.

Rhodes believes his compulsive need to gratify sexual partners is a misguided effort to compensate for being abused as a child—a need, he admits, that sometimes verges on the sadistic. In his book, Rhodes describes how he would sometimes entice G— to as many as 14 orgasms in an afternoon. “It was too intense,” says Ginger. “But he wasn’t being selfish. He thought that was what I wanted—until I told him otherwise.”

These days, Ginger spends many an afternoon taking flying lessons, which Rhodes sees as “a great arrangement, because when she’s out flying, I get to j—off.” By some standards, this might qualify as research, since Rhodes devotes dozens of pages in his book to graphic descriptions of masturbation. When not otherwise engaged, he and Ginger travel the world together researching his next book, The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb; this week he will interview scientists at Arzamas-16, the Russians’ top-secret equivalent to Los Alamos.

After Making Love, does Rhodes fear being greeted with snickers and sneers? “I’m not ashamed of the book. In fact, I feel it’s something I should have done long ago,” he says. “So if I get some sort of hostile response, what else is new, huh? That’s life.”

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