Novelist Gwen Davis and 'Mr. Nude Marathon' Mix It Up in a Landmark Libel Case
Simon Herford is a beefy, sadistic and fictional leader of nude encounter groups. Paul Bindrim is a real-life Southern California psychologist who once belonged to the strip-for-sanity school and is now into “aqua energetics” (swimsuits required). Any similarity between the two men is quite intentional—or so says Bindrim. The 59-year-old therapist claims that he is the much-maligned model for Herford, a character in Touching, a 1971 novel by Gwen Davis. She denies it. He has gone to court anyway.
Legal experts regard the case as a landmark. Libel suits against nonaction authors are common. But novelists, especially those who write romans a clef, usually are only threatened—and settle the occasional lawsuit out of court for modest sums. Two of Davis’ 10 novels, for example, have elicited complaints, and once she had to settle privately with writer Eleanor Hoover over another character in Touching.
The Bindrim case, however, has been public and bitter from the moment he sued in 1976. (“He could have at least filed while the book was still in print,” Davis, 45, observes.) When the case came to trial in Santa Monica in January 1977, the jury awarded Bindrim $100,000 from Davis and her publisher, Doubleday; the judge later reduced the amount by half. Davis and Double-day appealed—and lost again. Their shared liability now stands at $50,000 for compensatory damages, and Doubleday must come up with an additional $25,000 for punitive damages. They are now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court for review.
Some of the facts in the case are not in dispute. Davis acknowledges she attended one of Bindrim’s “nude marathons” at Sandstone, then a touchie-feelie center in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon. She also admits signing an agreement not to reveal what went on. “I never did,” Davis insists. “I wrote fiction. The marathon in the book was inspired by my experience, but inspired is not copying.”
Davis’ memories of Sandstone are dramatic (and not unlike, it must be pointed out, the developments in Touching). “At first the action was loving,” she recalls. “But the next day people were spread-eagled in a pool and hit in the groin with karate chops.” Bindrim, she says, shoved a baby bottle fitted with a large nipple into people’s mouths, presumably to help them regress to childhood. Sexual intercourse was taboo, but Davis found the session a “turn-on.”
Bindrim insists his emphasis was on “spiritual therapy,” not sex; as for those karate chops, he describes them as “Reichian massage.” His most serious charge against Davis: “She thought she could use people’s lives to turn out a cheap novel. She put them in jeopardy simply to make money.” Tapes made by Bindrim indicate, he says, that Davis used the dialogue in the sessions “damn near word for word” in her novel. “It’s phenomenal she could remember it.”
The daughter of divorced parents, Davis grew up in Manhattan and graduated from Bryn Mawr. In 1954 she went to Paris to study music and wound up singing in a nightclub until ordered home by her mother. Moving on to L.A., she sang at the Purple Onion, wrote a first novel and picked up an M.A. in creative writing from Stanford. Then came marriage to businessman Don Mitchell, a pregnancy and a short-lived Broadway play that she wrote. (“My daughter lived. The play died,” she quips.)
Mitchell and Davis now live with their children, Bobby, 11, and Madeleine, 13, in a modest Beverly Hills house. “I’m a working writer,” says Davis, arguing that she does not have the cash to pay Bindrim. For his part, “Mr. Nude Marathon,” as the press dubbed Bindrim in the late ’60s, supports himself conducting $70-an-hour therapy sessions. His co-therapist “in workshops and in life” is Helaine Harris, with whom the divorced Bindrim has been living in Encino for three years.
As publicity over the case mounts, Bindrim’s workshops may soon be SRO. Ironically, Touching was a commercial failure, though Davis’ current notoriety could escalate sales of her other books. But future novelists may well suffer. “Anybody who knows an author can claim, ‘I’m sure the author wrote about me,’ ” says Bob Callagy, the Doubleday lawyer handling the case. The Writer’s Guild of America sums up the California decision in one word: “Chilling.”