SIXTY-SOMETHING GERMAN ARTIST FROM SAN FRANCISCO SPENT HIS ENTIRE LIFE GETTING LAID
Even during his 1970s reign as a gay sex icon, German-born Peter Berlin — not his real name — was a mysterious, aloof character, known as the Greta Garbo of Porn. He made and starred in only two commercially released films: Nights in Black Leather and That Boy. But these, along with erotic photographs he took of himself, and sold via mail order, ensured adoration from fans around the world, not least the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, Rudolph Nureyev and Andy Warhol. For Peter, however, the initial thrill of fame quickly wore off. Now in his sixties, he lives quietly in San Francisco — his home for thirty years — and watches a lot of TV. It took ages to arrange to speak with Peter — he rarely answers the phone.
James: Hello Peter, how are you today?
Peter: I’m recouping.
Why, have you been ill?
No. You see, I like to treat myself and get myself a present every once in a while. I live a quiet life and so I feel I deserve a present sometimes. In plain English, I like to just get high. So I did, and now I’m recouping from that.
What were you using?
I used some grass, of course, and amphetamines — and some crack on top of that…
Really, crack? That’s quite hardcore isn’t it?
Well, this black guy I met years ago liked crack, so I always bought it for him, and then I would join in. My real preference though is speed, because I’m naturally a very laid-back person. So speed gives me a little push. When I came to America in 1970, or whenever, I was introduced to drugs and I stayed with them, but I’m very much in control of it.
So drugs are a sporadic thing for you, rather than a habit?
Yeah, like every 10 or 14 days is fine. It takes a lot out of me though, because I go very intense for basically two days when I’m using them — very intense! My trick needs about three breaks usually.
So when you have these drug binges are they generally to enhance sex sessions?
Yeah. Some people use speed and then… they clean their apartments! I’ve never understood that. I’m fascinated with the idea of drugs, though. I never smoked or drank alcohol, right? But the drugs, over the years, became part of my life. I’ve never regretted it. I hear of people who go to rehab and say they are so glad they got off it — I use drugs like others take a drink.
But crack is a bit more intense than having a drink…
I don’t think so. I think alcohol is the worst drug. If I have people around me who are high on alcohol, it’s one of the worst obnoxious highs I know, and health wise it does much more damage than anything else. The idea that so-called illegal drugs are worse than alcohol is completely ridiculous. And I speak from experience. I feel completely it’s none of anyone’s business other than mine. I did stop using the drugs completely when my friend James got AIDS. I met him in 1976, and I was together with him for more or less 20 years before he died. I had to take care of him… He got paralysed and went into a wheel chair, and it was like a really big ordeal. Do you have experience of using speed?
Yeah, I used to take it a lot when I was a teenager. It was really cheap, and very strong, and me and my friends would buy it every weekend. But the comedowns were terrible! My mother could never understand why I stayed in bed all day on Sunday feeling so ill. Speed isn’t at all popular now though — people prefer coke or ecstasy…
I don’t have the connection to ecstasy… I live a very private life now. All my friends died — all of them. And that affected me so profoundly that I sort of retreated. Now I am very isolated from the world.
All of them died? Really?
They all died of AIDS. That includes James, and another guy who lived in New York, he died about two years ago. Then I met Victor here in America about six years ago, and he died suddenly last year. I have only one friend left in Germany — that’s the only connection that I have to my past. And my best friend, Joachim, who I met in Germany, he died in 1988.
Joachim Labriola, the painter?
Yeah, I first met him when I was the manager of a movie theatre, and his family owned a hotel right next to it with a bar and café. He was always sitting in the café with the girls and boys, and I would be putting up posters at the movie theatre. He would smile, but I thought he was straight. Anyway, one day he said, in order to get to know me, that he had this camera I should see — because he knew I was interested in photography. I didn’t realise at first that it wasn’t just about the camera… He was sort of liking me. And then we had this one-year affair — that was my second affair, my first was in Berlin when I was growing up. By then I’d already realised how painful and stupid the idea of love affairs is — it’s so completely misunderstood. Anyway, I broke up with Joachim — I couldn’t deal with all the lying and cheating. But we stayed best friends. He opened up the world to me.
You and him did a lot of travelling together, didn’t you?
He said, ‘Why don’t we go to live in Rome?’ So we lived there. Then we went to New York. I never really liked travelling for its own sake, though. I only liked to go from A to B for a reason. And the B was always some sexual thing — a sexual encounter.
So you were always very highly sexed from an early age then?
I tell you, when I discovered my sexuality
I realised it’s the best thing that life has to offer. That’s why I did what I did, right? I thought there is nothing better than having sex. And I realised that if we can separate sex from that what we call a love affair, then I was free. The only reason I put myself on a plane or in a car was for sex — looking to get laid. That was my career. Forget the porno star, filmmaker or whatever…
But being a porno star must have helped you to get more sex?
No! No! When I became Peter Berlin, and was recognised on the street — for the first five minutes it was nice, right? But then I realised what a nuisance and what a hindrance it was. When I went to a park, or to a bar, and I was recognised as Peter Berlin, already the whole thing was over for me.
Because I don’t want to be liked because of my status as a porno star. This was a challenge in my life — to make sure that people like me for the person I am, because the porno part of me is such a stupid byline basically. So, for me, that’s why I stopped doing porn. I had my thrill — to be in a porno movie, because there’s a very strong exhibitionistic part of me. And then when I have done something for the thrill of it, it’s over. And I only did things for the sexual thrill. For me, sex is the most beautiful, exciting and worthwhile thing to do. And if you really analyse it, even though I can have a good time with myself, and get excited when I look in the mirror, I always preferred to do it with someone else. And only with one person. I never had orgies — I could only do one to one. I went to painstaking efforts to make sure I could go on a trip with that person, and be sure that both parties would have a good time.
Is it true you’ve never been into fucking?
Thank god! The fear of needles and the dislike of penetration saved me from being dead now.
So you don’t like being fucked, but do you like being the fucker?
No. I always believe in what you do well, you have to receive well. I don’t believe in the notion of ‘Oh, I just fuck’ or ‘I just get fucked’. This idea of penetration is put there by nature in order for people to have babies. And now people feel they have to transpose it — especially when it comes to gay sex. If you really like it then there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I had thousands of men in my life — in the early days I did more physical things. I have fucked and I’ve gotten fucked — three times in my life, by Joachim. But the fact that I didn’t enjoy fucking is what saved me. On the other hand, I sometimes think — and it’s terrible to say this — but I’ve had a good life and I’m ready to go. Not that I want to die, you understand. But all my friends are gone, and I miss them so much. I realise that sharing life and having friends is the most important thing. Forget money, forget fame, forget a career. It’s all baloney. The great gift of life is friends. And since I don’t have them anymore, I’m really aware of it — I talk to them. I mean literally — I’m on the street and I talk to them.
Do people look at you strangely when you do that?
Well not really, because people probably think I’m on a cell phone. I can sort of step out of myself and look at myself, and it amuses me to imagine how it must look. I have had a lot of time to think, and you are not able to do that if life is occupying you by just doing things and being busy.
Do you think people keep themselves busy and distracted on purpose, though? That if they had too much time to think about the harsh reality of life they might go insane?
Yes, there you are. But they don’t even do it deliberately. They just think this is the way to live. When I was growing up I didn’t know what to do with my life. It was like there’s nothing really important to do in life apart from having a good time. And I lived my life in that way, where I gave myself and lots of men pleasure — only men, I never had a woman.
Weren’t you ever curious to see how it would be with a woman?
It just wasn’t there in me. I told a woman friend once that that if I went out of the house one day, and there were no women, I wouldn’t even notice! Even three days later I probably still wouldn’t notice!
I bet that comment delighted her!
She was very much offended. I explained to her it’s not that I hate women. I have no issues with women. But it’s like completely asexual to me. I remember with Joachim, once in Paris, I said, ‘Look at this guy at the next table!’ and Joachim said, ‘Look again Peter…’. So I did — and it was actually a woman. When I realised that, my whole interest dropped to a zero immediately.
In the various photos I have seen of you, you seemed to be presenting an exaggerated version of masculinity. At the time you were taking those pictures, in the 70s, were there many other people who looked like that? Or were you a trendsetter?
I’ll tell you, once I was walking in Paris. They had these mirrors in shop windows. I saw someone walking towards me, and I thought, ‘Oh fuck! Look at him!’ Then I realised it was me. That was the greatest compliment I have ever given to myself. I was objectively looking at myself and thinking, ‘Yes, this is a very good version of a man.’ And I never in my life ran into anyone like me. I always hoped I would run into my lost twin brother or something. Because I just love my image. And when I say image, then that is different than me. Those images that I created are a very stylised exaggeration of that which I call masculinity. Even though, in my case, there is a sort of androgyny too. I like the appearance of softness.
How old were you when you became aware of your beauty?
The first time was probably when I was around 20 years old. When I looked in the mirror one day, suddenly I got excited by what I saw. It was such a new sensation. I was so scared. I thought, ‘Nobody told me about that!’ I thought it was so exciting and I’d keep it just for myself — as a secret. And I learned to really get off on myself with my mirror image. Very early on, I remember my mother bought me a suit and I took the pants apart and made them fit tighter and she was dismayed and looking at me and saying, ‘You look disgusting!’ That’s when I realised that this is very much part of my experience — people looking at me and saying I look disgusting. For many people the way I dress is disgusting. If I would dress the way I would like to all the time, I would be put away in a nut house.
What, do you mean now or in the past?
No, I still do it. I did it yesterday when I was high, and my trick needed a break. I went out and the way I was dressed up is basically illegal. I’m such a target for the police. Even now. Basically, I dress as you would expect Peter Berlin to. Ideally I would like to just wear completely sheer panty hose and make them fit around the big dick and the ass. But what I wear over it — to make it legal — are these tight white shorts. The police stop me sometimes and say, ‘Hey, you! You’re walking around in your underwear!’ So I’m always running away from the police. There are these challenges, because what I advocate is threatening. But other people say, ‘Oh, you did this and that, and you’re not a pornographer you’re an artist,’ and all these compliments. And really the only compliment that I want is to walk on the street and see at least one other Peter Berlin, but I’ve never seen one. So I don’t agree with people who say I had a great influence. Bullshit! You see a lot of people walking around looking like Britney Spears or Madonna. I didn’t achieve that! And I would have loved to have seen Peter Berlins running up and down the street.
I haven’t ever seen the two films you made in the 70s, Nights in Black Leather and That Boy. What did you do in them? Do you star solo in them?
No. I met this guy who went to the art school here and he’d made a little black-and-white film, which he showed to me. I said, ‘Why don’t we make a porno?’ He loved the idea so we both put money into it. When we started filming I just said, ‘It’s a nice day, let’s go out to the beach.’ There were some friends who wanted to come — five or six others — and so they were there too. I couldn’t believe the success of the film! A distributor in Los Angeles took it on and he gave us $8,500, and we’d spent $5000 on the film, so we got our investment back. Not too bad for fourteen days work!
So you don’t have sex in the film, then?
Yes, but simulated. There is a fucking scene, but I had a limp dick because really I was shy and not ready — I was just trying to do things I’d seen in other porn films. After I made Nights In Black Leather I made That Boy the next year, and after that I kept thinking I would make another film every year…but ten, fifteen years passed and I didn’t do it. Now my problem is that I’m so reclusive. In order to make something that I’d want to do I’d need other artists to be involved — to do the sound and so on. But nobody’s knocking on the door and saying, ‘I have ten million dollars, let’s make a film.’ You know, I remember when I went to Andy Warhol’s Factory. I was sitting there and Andy said, ‘Oh Peter, it’s so nice of you to come. You are so great and you should do more films! I have people here, why don’t you come here and do something with us?’ And I said, ‘Oh thanks, that’s great!’ But do you think I ever called back and arranged something? No! You see, Andy was as shy as I am. But he had that ability to get other people to be around him who basically painted his paintings. I have ideas but always squander them.
It seems like you don’t value the work you made?
My feeling is that a photograph is not worth as much as a painting, where someone has put a lot of work into it. So, I used to give a lot of my photographs away. I met Sam Wagstaff, that friend of Robert Mapplethorpe — a beautiful, big man who had one of the biggest collections of photographs around. A very rich man. When he met Mapplethorpe, he liked his images, gave him a cheque for about $50,000, and said, ‘Here, do something.’ That kind of thing never happened to me. Wagstaff was in my house, and I showed him my photographs and he wanted to have three of them, and I gave them to him — a multi millionaire! He could have paid any price.
So, do you still take photos of yourself now?
I make videos of myself. But my still cameras are lying idle. I never use them now. It’s a waste of talent, but I’m over sixty now, and I’m okay with doing nothing really.
But if you’re doing videos, then basically you’re continuing with the type of image-making that you’ve always done, but just in a different format…
I have hundreds and hundreds of hours of me getting off on camera. It’s sort of like a journal. And much of that stuff is really good — you’re in charge with video, you can see the results immediately. The only thing is, who in hell would go through it all and edit it? The sheer volume of it is amazing.
So, apart from seeing your tricks or videoing yourself, how do you pass your time?
Watching television! People don’t usually admit that — they say they have been reading a good book. They try to hide the reality. I watch TV and I get a feel for the pulse of the world. I do sometimes think I should do something creative, but I just don’t. Joachim always encouraged me, and now he’s gone, that encouragement has gone too.
But don’t all the requests for interviews or the letters you get from people, or the fact that someone has just made a documentary about you… doesn’t all that encourage you?
No. It doesn’t. There’s something in my personality… it’s like I sort of check out. Maybe I lack the discipline? I just don’t believe in work. I don’t believe in doing something that is strenuous. It should all be fun and games!
That’s a very honest, bold attitude…
I’ve lived my life like that. The only time I really worked was when I edited the last film I made, That Boy. Every other thing in my life was just waking up in the morning, thinking, ‘What do I wear tonight? How do I get laid? And where?’ That was my whole career. My career was getting laid.
The unashamed pursuit of pleasure.
Yeah. It makes me sad to see people running around and getting sick and stressed, all because of work!
But how do you manage for money?
For years I did mail order with my photographs — after I was eventually screwed out of the money for the films. I sold photographs and slides — at times a thousand dollars a day were coming in. People who liked me would buy anything I had done. I did very well there. But I gave it up because I found I was just looking each day to see which envelopes had cheques in them. It was greed. I got bored with it. Then I inherited money from Joachim when he died. I live nicely without doing too much.
If you are sitting and watching TV all day, isn’t that having a bad effect on your body?
Let’s put it this way, for a man over 60 years old I have a fantastic body! Though I do look at myself sometimes and think, ‘Thank god for clothes!’ But I see the different viewpoints. People of my age put pictures of themselves on the Internet to look for sex. But I don’t like men. I like youth. They have that innocence. I now basically only find black men interesting. I remember Mapplethorpe exclusively went for black men and I said, ‘There are some nice white people, you know!’ ‘Oh no!’ he said. Now I do understand though. Out of ten people I meet, nine are black. It’s not that I’m racially preoccupied, I’m just realising what attracts me. There is something beautiful about black people. Whites can go for 50 years in the gym, but they never will achieve that grace. I am floored by it. There was this one black guy. He was living on the streets, and he shouted, ‘Peter!’ to me when I walked past one time. I took him home and he never left! I took care of him and tried to give him a home. He had alcohol and drug problems and he had a violent streak. He was physically abusive. He was in jail. People told me they thought he would kill me. I stuck with him and he is fine now and has his own place. But he stays here a lot. It’s good to help someone else.
How do you feel about That Man, the documentary which Jim Tushinski has been making about you, that’s being released later this year or next year?
I’m sort of glad that somebody is doing something, even though I know that it will not have the impact that I would achieve if I did it myself. The only thing I said about it was, ‘Please, please don’t bore people!’ Because I tend to rattle on when I start talking! He has interviews in it with other people, though, which takes away from my airtime! You know, I can look really good and I can look really terrible. But I wanted to give him the whole freedom when he put the camera on me. I didn’t even look at what he was doing. Maybe I should have.
Check out www.thatmanpeterberlin.com for more information about Jim Tushinski’s documentary ‘That Man’