Peter de Rome Quit His Job at Tiffany’s and Discovered His Inner Pornographer

Interview by Alex Needham

Born in 1924, Peter de Rome didn’t start making gay pornographic films until he was in his forties. In 1971, eight of his cerebral and often bizarre shorts were officially released as ‘The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome’. Peter then found himself with a following that included Andy Warhol (who he coolly said no to when approached to make ‘a Warhol film’) John Gielgud and William Burroughs. Most of his 8mm films were shot guerrilla-style in public with little or no budget, for just the cost of the stock. He stopped making porn in the early 80s, but these days Peter’s films are finding a new audience. I met him backstage at the British Film Institute in London.

Alex: How are you this afternoon?
Peter: I’m holding up, thank you very much.
Do you still live in New York?
Yes, I do. I arrived here on Tuesday. I had one day in Sandwich where I have a little cottage. I’m here for the summer because I don’t like summers in New York. I fly back on 9/11.
Why Sandwich?
I grew up in Ramsgate which is just six miles away. Just before my mother died I moved her to a nursing home in Sandwich, and I liked it so much there that I stayed on. That was in 1977.
Is there a gay scene in Sandwich?
There used to be. There was a guy called Nick Rock, if you can believe that name, who had an antique shop and he was the center of it all. He got arrested for importing some kid from Dover. It hit the local newspapers and I think that started the rot.
Are you still in touch with the gay scene in New York?
No, I’m so old now, I’m past all that — I’m eighty-eight this year. I’m sure there’s a lot going on, it’s just that I’m not interested. I don’t think the gay scene’s as heavy as it was in the 70s. In those days, there was a very active scene on the West Side and on the trucks.
Did you used to get involved?
A bit. I remember going there once and seeing Gore Vidal coming away. I felt like saying, ‘Any luck?’
Are your films art or porn?
A mixture, really. I just felt like making my own little things, but I never had any highfalutin ideas about them at all.
Who did you make them for?
For myself, just for fun, until I took a few of them to the Amsterdam Wet Dream Festival in 1971. ‘Hot Pants’ won first prize… My silly little film which I shot in half an hour. Both John Russell Taylor and David Robinson reviewed it over here for the ‘Times’ and the ‘Financial Times’ and were very kind.
I love the idea of it being reviewed in the ‘Financial Times’.
Then when I got back to New York several people had heard about it. Jack Deveau, who had just finished making his first porn film, ‘Left Handed’, asked to see it. When I showed him, he said, ‘What about blowing them up to 16mm and releasing them commercially?’ So he produced them for me, and they opened at the Lincoln Art Theatre in New York very successfully. Then they played most of the big theaters in the States.
You seem to have a knack for engaging men in sexual activity.
Mostly one-night stands… I’ve never had a long-term affair. I’ve got two very good friends, but they’re not sexual. One of them has been — he’s straight, married with grandchildren, but I adore him. With the other one, the sex wore off pretty soon, but we’re the best of friends. They’re both black. That’s one of the reasons I stay in America, because I really adore black men.
Was your affinity for black men because you were sexually drawn to them?
I’ve always loved the visual quality of blacks. Even as a kid, I loved poring through National Geographic to see the black bodies. I hadn’t really realized it until I got to America. And it’s American blacks, not African blacks that I’m attracted to. They’ve got to have a mixture of American blood, I’ve found out. I had bought a little 8mm movie camera, and I started shooting these black guys in the nude. People I liked…
Were they all straight?
Could be… But the funny thing was that, being Southerners, they wanted a real relationship. A lot of them would turn me down because they realized I was doing it for a quick fix.
What was your technique for persuading men to star in your films?
There was no technique at all. In ‘Adam and Yves’, there was going to be a black orgy with about twelve guys, and I contacted several people I knew and said ‘Do you want 150 bucks for one night’s work?’ They said OK. We shot it in the men’s room of the Lincoln Art Theatre where my films were showing. I had to go through Third Avenue, which between 53rd and 54th was all hustlers at that time and I thought, ‘All the guys I’ve asked to come along won’t make it, so I’ll pick a couple up on Third Avenue and take them along’. And it worked!
So you never got a smack in the face when you asked a total stranger whether they fancied engaging in gay sex on film?
Never, no. I made another film called ‘Deliveries in the Rear’. I’d seen a boy on Park Avenue who had some photocopies under his arm and he was showing the most incredible basket and I thought, ‘Just right’. I followed him into a building, got into the elevator with him, and on the way up I said, ‘Excuse me, but I’m making a film and I wonder whether you’d like to be in it. It’s gay porn and I’ll pay you 150 bucks.’ And he said OK just like that.
And did you sleep with all these guys?
Not necessarily. Once, after John Gielgud saw one of my films he said, ‘Who’s that guy with the huge dick?’ I arranged a meeting between them and it worked out very well.
Gielgud sent you a pitch for a film, didn’t he?
He was a big fan. Every time he came to New York, he wanted to see my latest. He wrote me a scenario in his tiny little handwriting. He gave me four titles, one of which was ‘Trouser Bar’. It starts off with several people looking into the shop window, but the blinds are down. It looks as though somebody’s going down on somebody else but then you go inside and you realize that it’s a men’s store and it’s display guys on their knees dressing mannequins in the window. Then the first customer comes in, goes into his changing room and puts on various clothes. Gielgud was mad about fabric. Corduroy and velvet… He loved men’s clothing. Then another guy comes in. There’s a peephole through the cubicles, and they watch each other and start groping. It develops into a bit of an orgy. One guy gets into jodpurs and onto a make-believe horse with a whip. And then you cut to people outside who’ve been watching and that’s it.
You didn’t fancy making it?
It had to pass some kind of committee comprised of people like Dickie Attenborough and maybe Dame Judi, who look after Gielgud’s literary estate. I think they’ve turned thumbs down on it.
Your film ‘Underground’ depicts a hippy fucking a businessman on a subway train. Was it actually filmed it public?
For real. I’d had this idea because traveling on the New York subway in the rush hour, there was groping all the time. I was on one camera, there was another guy on another camera, two lookouts, two actors and Jack Deveau. That was it. We didn’t get chance for retakes. At first, I’d thought I’d do a lot of cutaways, but when it came to editing the film it played so forcefully in its own time that it didn’t need it. The sex scenes were filmed late at night. The transit police were starting to get suspicious. It was really my most successful film.
There’s something about the outrageousness of the scenario that is really appealing. Did you ever get on the wrong side of the law with these films?
No. Only one guy sued us, because I was using James Brown’s music for ‘Hot Pants’. A guy who was in his band saw the film — he must have been gay — and they sued us. They settled for 500 bucks.
I wonder what James Brown would have made of the film.
I don’t think he would have cared. He was into everything…
How about ‘Prometheus’… Is that your most hardcore film?
Yes, it is. I didn’t really want to do it.
It does seem slightly out of keeping with the rest of your work… The naked guy tied to the floor while other men abuse him.
Absolutely, but when we decided to release the films commercially, Jack said, ‘I think we’ve got to do something more hardcore because that’s what people want to see these days’. In ‘Adam and Yves’, the full-length feature that followed, he wanted fist-fucking which I wasn’t interested in at all, but I had to put it in. In ‘Prometheus’, we go about as far as we can. I didn’t like it at all… It was very difficult to film, for one thing. When the guy’s being whipped, you can tell it wasn’t really hurting.
Was the guy into it, the one on the bottom?
Yes, very much so. Aren from Estonia. He was into anything. Whatever you did to him, he loved it. Funnily enough he became a pretty successful executive. He hasn’t done any more porn.
Would you make another film?
I doubt it very much. I’m past it.
Did AIDS put an end to your filmmaking career?
Really, yes. They were closing down theaters in New York which were showing porn. Jack Deveau had died — not of AIDS, of cancer — and no one else was going to finance me. A lot of the people who were in my films died of AIDS, particularly in ‘Prometheus’.
So what did you do when you stopped making films?
Bummed around… I really haven’t worked for a long time. I live very simply and luckily I’ve got a rent-controlled apartment in New York. That’s the only reason I can stay there, because it’s so absurdly low. I live at Murray Hill, 35th and Second.
How have you found getting older, as a gay man?
It’s OK. I don’t really mind. I don’t have any sex any more. I can’t even get an erection, really.
When did you stop having sex?
About 10 years ago, now.
The physical shape of the guys in your films… It’s a body type you don’t see that much these days. Lean and wiry, but not gym-honed.
They were lean, weren’t they? I like asses very much. I started one film called ‘Beautiful Buns’. They never look quite as round on film as they do in life, because film is two dimensional. And I’ve got a theory about blue jeans, too… When you see a man wearing tight blue jeans from way off it looks as if he’s got a great basket showing, but the nearer you get the smaller it gets. I think it’s because of the white thread that’s interwoven with the blue thread that brings the light onto it. It accentuates the shape.
So when filming asses you’ve got to have the lighting just right.
Absolutely. I’m not half as careful about lighting as I was with Jack Deveau. It took so much time lighting a scene. I used to tell him that Orson Welles didn’t give a damn where the light came from, as long as it was dramatic.

‘The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome’ are available in a lovingly-packaged DVD (Region 2 for UK and Europe) with 36-page booklet including essays, credits and extracts from Peter’s diary from the BFI here. In the U.S.A., Peter’s films are available on DVD and on-demand from Bijou.

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