“Sometimes I’d find myself thinking, ‘That dude’s scrotum is really misshapen and weird,'” Mark Haskell Smith says. “And then I’m like, ‘Why am I staring at the dude’s scrotum?’”
Why, it was all in the name of research, the writer explains, as he sat sipping his coffee this past Memorial Day morning on a park bench beside the Trails, Griffith Park’s beloved vegetarian restaurant. Haskell Smith has come out to discuss the “rich and complex and fascinating” history of nonsexual social nudism, or naturalism as some like to call it, and the subject of his latest book Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World. He is, in fact, dressed, casually in a purple-checkered oxford thrown over a T-shirt, a white bush hat and pale khakis, as he revisits the perils of participatory journalism.
It was here in the park that as part of his writing process he engaged in “the most pathetic, naive training ever.” Over two months he traipsed twice a week to and from the Observatory in a bid to steel his body for an all-nude trek through the French Alps. How did that turn out?
“There’s an older Italian librarian in his 70s, there’s Bernard, from Paris, he’s like 75, and vroom, they’re booking past me,” he recalls. “Fortunately there was this old, slightly shrunken, one-eyed Italian lady on the hike. I was like, ‘I’ll stay with Mina.’”
In the book, Haskell Smith fully enters the land of nudism to find a world peopled by good-natured hedonists, the sort who have more in common with wine connoisseurs and foodie fanatics than with seedy perverts. He says he emerged with a more tolerant attitude but no life-changing epiphanies.
“I think if I find myself in a deserted beach in the Caribbean and no one's around, yeah, I’m not going to wear a swimsuit. But am I going to stand around a barbecue naked on Memorial Day with 100 other people? No way,” he says emphatically. “Although they’re very nice people. I didn’t really meet any assholes on the trip. That didn’t sound right. That did not come out right.”
All told, Haskell Smith spent just over two years traveling around the United States and abroad, learning about body image, anarchism and the evolution of pubic hairstyles. He interviewed Scott Wiener, the San Francisco supervisor who led the ban on public nudity in the city, along with L.A. fashion designers, crime novelists and true believers. He traveled to Cap d'Agde, France, to grocery shop in the nude; the Caribbean to cruise in the nude; Vera Playa, Spain, for family-friendly nudism; and the Alps for that bout of naked hiking. He never wore a macramé cock ring or got an awkward sunburn. (Not everyone he met along the way was so lucky.) It is a book purposefully filled with as many personalities as facts.
Among L.A. writers, Haskell Smith has long had a reputation for being a generous colleague and a dedicated mentor. Critics enjoy his gimlet eye. For the past decade, Haskell Smith has been churning out Elmore Leonard—inflected absurdist crime sprees starring flawed people doing strange things, and he has a penchant for satirical social critique on subjects from organized religion to reality TV. The L.A. that often forms the books' backdrop resembles, as one L.A. Times reviewer put it, “the hard-boiled Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, spun out in brighter-than-life Starburst colors.” Attempts at a film adaption of his third novel, Salty, currently is breaking crowdfunding records in the United Kingdom (nearly £2 million and counting) and has Simon West (Expendables 2) attached to direct.
“He’s a person who has helped define what you can do in both nonfiction and crime in Southern California,” says Gangsterland author Tod Goldberg, who directs the UC Riverside MFA program where Haskell Smith teaches.
A dedicated Eastsider for going on 30 years (one brief sojourn to 310 ended thusly: “I said, ‘It’s not you, it’s the Westside. I’m leaving.’”), Haskell Smith started life as a Midwestern son of a single mother who worked as a bank teller. “We weren’t Italian, we weren’t Jewish, we were just working-class mutts,” he says. “I’ve always been jealous of people who are like, ‘We’re going to my noni’s house for a Lebanese feast.’ I’m like, ‘I want a Lebanese grandma!’”
In lieu of a Lebanese grandma, Haskell Smith turned to a life of writing. To varying degrees, all his books delve into subcultures — the more semi-legal the better.
“I’m always curious about people, and what they do and their motivations, and what brings them pleasure," he says. "To do something that your friends might look at you differently for, that could lose you your job — someone being willing to risk that is fascinating to me. I’m not an advocate for anything but tolerance.”
Enter Naked, his second nonfiction work after Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers and the Race for the Cannabis Cup, in which he pressed his California medical marijuana card into service in order to report on pot growers competing in the Olympics of marijuana.
After his tenure with the cannabis farmers ended, “I was thinking about other groups that are quasi-legal,” he says. “Nudists are always getting arrested. I spent about a week researching what is the world of nudism.”
So when an editor at Grove/Atlantic asked him to pitch a nonfiction idea, he emailed over his page and half of notes on the subject. “And the next morning my agent calls and said, ‘I just got an offer on something, and I don’t know what it is. You’re going to drop trou?’”
Trous were indeed dropped, beginning on the driveway of his Eagle Rock home, where he embarked on a round of mental conditioning by sitting in the altogether on a lawn chair behind his oleander hedge. “It would have been weird if the UPS guy had shown up,” he says.
Weird, but perhaps OK. Getting comfortable with your own skin is, after all, a major theme among nudists. “Whether you have a big penis or a small penis or what shape your breasts are, nobody says they care,” he assures.
Leave it to Americans to find a way to overdo even body acceptance. “That has then has led to people being like, ‘OK, I don’t have to be healthy,’” he found. “So now there’s this obesity epidemic, particularly in American nudism, which has led to some groups saying, ‘Body acceptance is one thing, but being unhealthy is not a good thing.’”
Ever since the Puritans brought a boatload of shame across the Atlantic, Americans have been busy policing their awkward relationship with their bodies. Attempts at legislation often expose our contradictory thinking and institutionalized sexism — witness the current brouhaha over breastfeeding in public — even in historically free-spirited California. As communities in L.A. flirt with taking a gender-neutral stance on toplessness, San Franciscans, prior to a 2013 ban, could legally pop up naked just about anywhere in the city. Haskell Smith sees rendering nudity illegal as another casualty of our northern neighbor’s vanilla-fying tech gentrification, “kind of like they’re trying to get the wild streak out of that city and make it more comfortable for Google millionaires,” he says. “It’s too bad. How can we have a tolerant society if everyone is offended and scared of everything?”
Meanwhile, Florida is showing us up. Over in Pasco County, Haskell Smith found a rash of otherwise unremarkable subdivisions where “everyone is nude, people mow their lawns in the nude, get their mail in the nude, walk to the clubhouse in the nude. They just live in the nude,” he says. “That’s not just one town, this whole county is full of them.”
Nudism as we know it was essentially a Victorian invention. “It goes back to the Industrial Revolution,” Haskell Smith says. “Cities were crowded, they were clogged with coal smoke, people were getting rickets and all this stuff. It really was, if you get more vitamin D, you just feel better.” Weimar Germany pretty much led the charge to strip down out in the countryside, though with plenty of like-minded English and French.
Sex, of course, also played no small role. But particularly in Europe, nudism has always incorporated a serious political flavor. (It also had an unfortunate contingent of anti-Semites among its early champions, which Haskell Smith explores in his book.) Many manifestos have been written on the topic. The author’s favorite is French anarchist Emil Armand's 1934 treatise Revolutionary Nudism, which pushed for LGBT rights and sexual liberty as a path to individual freedom. “When you talk to the more radical nudist, they talk about the cosmetic industrial complex, which is oppressing everyone, which is not untrue,” he says. “Nudism could be the most anti-capitalist thing you could do.
“Just imagine if people were not so body-conscious — if they were not so obsessed with how they looked and how people look at them,” he continues. “Maybe they would like themselves more, so then they would like each other more. And maybe people would be friendlier and more tolerant. It would be horrible for advertising and marketing. They wouldn’t know how to sell stuff anymore. Yeah, it could make the world a better place,” he leans in, throwing up his arms. “Sure, why not. Let’s try it.”
Mark Haskell Smith will discuss and sign Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World on June 3 at 7 p.m. at Vroman's, 695 E. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, (626) 449-5320, vromansbookstore.com, and on June 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books,1818 N. Vermont Ave, Los Feliz, (323) 660-1175, skylightbooks.com.
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