Remembering Marilyn Chambers

The adult movie queen and Ivory Snow model, who died on Sunday, was the the ultimate madonna/whore of her era.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 14, 2009 4:04PM (EDT)

We live in an age when the aesthetics of porn are the mainstream, when the girl next door is likely to be as well-waxed and augmented as an Adult Video News Hall of Famer.

But there was a brief moment when a porn star could look like the girl next door. When she looked like Marilyn Chambers.

On Sunday, Chambers, the laundry detergent model turned X-rated icon, was found dead by her daughter in her home in Santa Clarita, Calif. The cause is still unknown. She was 10 days shy of her 57th birthday.

Her life was a textbook case of the power of timing. As an aspiring model in San Francisco in 1972, she answered an advertisement for a role in a new film being made by strip club owners Jim and Artie Mitchell. The movie was "Behind the Green Door," a hardcore odyssey involving the abduction and ultimate sexual transformation of a young woman.

It was the same era that "Deep Throat" (1972) and "The Devil in Miss Jones" (1973) were radically reinventing the culture of adult entertainment. Porn was no longer just for creepy guys in seedy theaters -- it was something grownups could admit to watching, enjoying and, later, discussing. "Behind the Green Door," with its taboo-shattering interracial cast, was a benchmark, but it was the revelation that Chambers had appeared on the Ivory detergent box, clutching a baby in a beatific, 99.44 percent pure tableau, that cemented her fame. That such a wholesome, smiling girl could be the assured, adept centerpiece of all manner of exotic acts was fascinating. The ultimate madonna/whore of her era, she represented a dichotomy that perplexes, intrigues and infuriates still. As one editor at fleshblog Mr. Skin eulogizes, "Marilyn Chambers will forever live in our hearts -- and other pumping organs -- as the first Hollywood porn crossover icon. Without her, there would have been no Traci Lords, no Jenna Jameson."

Chambers went on to star in other Mitchell Brothers vehicles like "Insatiable," as well as non-porn fare like David Cronenberg's "Rabid." She enjoyed, for an adult star, a fiercely loyal following, the respect of the industry, and an astonishingly durable career. As late as 2007, she was producing and narrating instructional guides to masturbation and anal sex, a sage doyenne of pleasure passing on her wisdom to a new generation.

We may take it for granted that all the smut in the world is a mere mouse click away; we may install stripper poles in our own homes. But we are still, in many ways, as uptight, backward and confused in our attitudes about men, women, sex and pornography as we were in 1972. Though Chambers herself went on to bush shaving and breast augmentation, it's her earliest images she'll be remembered for -- the casual, genuine beauty and the warm, open sensuality that remain in sadly short supply both in and out of adult entertainment. She transcended boundaries, genres and even eras, with an unbridled enthusiasm that made being dirty look like so much good clean fun.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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