Ralph Whittington Gladly Catalogs the Materials His Employer Doesn’t Want

Deep in the bowels of the Library of Congress (LC)’s Jefferson Building, amid the meticulously arranged avalanche of books and manuscripts known as the general stacks, Ralph Whittington stands in his cubicle, savoring a moment that only a truly hard-core archivist could appreciate.

An LC archivist for more than three decades, Whittington knows that often it’s simply blind luck that yields the choicest treasures—like the time he stumbled on an ancient, lambskin-covered volume and rescued it from the oblivion of misshelved books.

Now the seasoned curator is admiring an item that has eluded him for quite a while. With the deliberateness of one who takes special care of things, he sets the item reverently on his tidy desktop. This find, however, is not intended for the hallowed Library of Congress but for his own private collection.

It’s a video titled Johnny B. Bad, which allegedly chronicles the X-rated sexploits of Chuck Berry and a cadre of young groupies. An acquaintance visiting New York scooped it up for Whittington from a Times Square vendor. The video is a black-market bootleg obviously dubbed from the original, its tape case plastered with naughty notes (“Chuck’s been a bad boy”) and poorly Xeroxed photos depicting the 70-year-old rock ‘n’ roller doing just about everything except the duck walk with various females.

“Terrible quality,” admits Whittington, but that makes it no less important. It’s pornography (or “porno,” as he says in his Southern Maryland twang), and that’s all it takes to gain admittance to the ever-growing collection the 52-year-old has made his life’s calling. Whittington’s home in Prince George’s County is so crammed with porn, from 19th-century bawdy house coins to the exhaustive four-hour video compilation 2002 Cum Shots, that he now maintains an annex—in his mother’s basement.

But unlike all the closeted porno fiends hiding in split-level homes across the country, Whittington is proud of his hobby, raving about his collection in a way that recalls certain sports card collectors. He doesn’t even bother to lower his voice among the volume-averse pedants in the Library of Congress.

Some people collect coins, others stamps. Whittington collects smut, and a whole helluva lot of it. Friends, co-workers, and anybody else who might chance upon a dumpster full of Japanese skin magazines know to call Whittington before allowing some perfectly good porno to go to waste. “If you want to be good at this, you’ve got to put your pride in your pocket,” he says of his unabashedly public reputation. “When Uncle Harry dies and leaves his porno stash, they know to give it to me. You know, ‘Ralph ain’t gonna throw it away.’”

On the job, Whittington often serves as the LC’s unofficial authority on pornography, fielding questions on the mostly taboo topic when other departments are stumped. Years ago, he weighed in on a copyright squabble concerning Long Dong Silver, the X-rated curio made famous during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas flare-up. More recently, he fielded an inquiry from a woman who had just seen The People vs. Larry Flynt. “She wanted to know what issue of Hustler has that famous cover of the woman in the meat grinder,” Whittington says. He directed her to the LC’s rare book room, where Hustler is available for perusal in bound volumes, which protect the smut from scissor-wielding vandals.

Besides Hustler, though, there are few porno mags (excepting highbrow soft-core like Playboy) currently catalogued at the LC, and X-rated films have been effectively banished from the permanent archives. When Whittington offered to bequeath his collection to his employer, the LC declined. New York’s Museum of Modern Art will serve as the final resting place of his archives upon his death.

Still, Whittington is quick to admit that his extensive holdings have as much to do with personal pleasure as public posterity: “I really enjoy this stuff. I’m not like some guy who says, ‘I only read Playboy for the articles.’ I mean, I really do take a hands-on approach.”

Even so, Whittington’s archivist instincts often override his repulsion over the sorts of acts that porn chronicles. How else, he protests, would he end up with adult-as-baby videos cluttering his house? “Being a curator and an archivist, I collect things that I think are going to be important down the road,” he says. “I’m a professional about this. What sets my collection apart is its diversity. I buy things I don’t even like, and most people don’t spend money on things they don’t like. Like this adult-baby thing—the last thing I want to see is some asshole in a diaper getting powdered. It’s so stupid, but there’s somebody who gets turned on by this.”

May Whittington’s voice fills the tiny kitchen of her old brick house in suburban Prince George’s County. The 79-year-old widow is petite but spirited, especially when she’s talking about her son Ralph’s stubborn obsession with pornography.

“I have thought this thing over, and I know that it’s a lot of money involved, and that it’s something for a rich person. But then sometimes I think, well, at least he’s home collecting—he’s not at a beer joint or something like that, so this makes it easier for me to accept. I have to accept it,” she says.

Ralph sits at the table, snickering while his mom describes what it was like in the old days. It’s obvious that the two have an amiable, warm relationship despite their differences.

“I know I’m old-timey,” she says. “But when we were coming along, you didn’t hear any of this. Sex was never brought up in our house…”

“But that’s not good, though,” interrupts her son. “Ignorance is not bliss.”

“Before my daddy died,” says May. “I remember the last thing we talked about. He said, ‘I want to tell you dear’—he’s talking right at me—he said, ‘Before you’re dead and gone, you know humans’ll be just like animals—they won’t care where they have sex.’ I said, ‘Daddy, come on!’ And you know what? Daddy’s right.”

Whittington says a neighbor summoned her recently—during suppertime, no less—to point out a strange disturbance in her back yard: a young couple having sex right out in the open.

“I have a video called Sex in Strange Places,” says Ralph, as if confirming a widespread epidemic. Then he matches his mom’s story, telling about a woman he once saw in the Library of Congress quietly masturbating in the stacks while reading a book.

Down in the basement, Whittington raises the thick, heavy lid of an old sidelong freezer, an unplugged Cold Spot model from the Eisenhower era.

“I had many a vegetable and meat in there,” says his mother, hovering behind him.

Now the freezer is filled with neat stacks of mint-condition magazines—forgotten, rather innocent obscurities from the ’50s and ’60s like Jack and Jill and Harem. Each issue is enclosed in an airtight plastic sleeve. Whittington explains that at his place there simply isn’t enough space for these items, which are more men’s mags than bona fide smut anyway. “When I retire, I’ll get into these more deeply and get them sorted,” he says.

As his mother disappears upstairs, Whittington darts toward a dark corner. There, behind a thicket of old gingham dresses hanging on a clothesline, sits a pile of converted Avon boxes. Inside is a gold mine of celluloid pornography. Tucked in metal canisters, these are the old 8mm films, known as loops, that flickered in theaters and peep shows in the golden age before videos.

“Six months after video came out, you could not buy 8mm,” says Whittington sadly. Then his face brightens and his eyes gleam as he holds up a film boasting a color-photo cover. Graphic, to say the least. “This is my favorite box of all time, Post Hole.”

He puts it back and pulls a real collector’s item from a box. It’s a canister with the title hand-written on the side: “LINDA LOVELACE WITH DOG.” It is supposedly a bestiality film of Lovelace before she gained international fame in Deep Throat, the highest-grossing porn movie of all time. “She kept claiming, ‘I didn’t do this, I didn’t do that,’” says Whittington, before muttering, “It was a German shepherd, I believe.”

“Here’s one called Pig Party,” he says. “It’s about a girl giving a pig a blowjob—really bizarre.”

After rifling through a few more boxes, he seems satisfied with his stock, resting peaceful and undisturbed in his mother’s basement. “She doesn’t entertain down here,” he says with a chuckle.

Ralph Whittington’s basement apartment is more than a shrine to pornography—it is its very cradle. To help support his hobby, he rents out the top part of his house, and he lives down here amid his sprawling collection.

Except for a wall dedicated to his R&B record collection (4,000 45s and 1,500 LPs, which LC authorities have already accepted), nearly every inch is crammed with porn: In the pantry, rows of X-rated videos fight for space with brightly colored cereal boxes, as if mocking their breakfast-time innocence. The living room has a few narrow pathways between more Avon boxes of cataloged material.

One of his most highly prized items is a homemade clock fashioned from a Victoria’s Secret catalog; it was a present from his daughter, an art student.

Every box is labeled with a different category. Sometimes it’s a porn star, sometimes a genre: sex with puppets, shaved-head sex, ass films, ménage à trois, nudist camps, midgets, gums (toothless blowjobs), cheerleaders, gang bangs, wrestling, nurses, high heels, shoe dangling, seniors, and plumpers, among countless others.

His own favorite remains women in stiletto heels, an obsession that dates from his boyhood visits to Catholic Mass. “Every Sunday I’d see countless women walking down the marble aisle in their finests—I’d see tall ones, short ones, fat ones—all in stiletto high heels and the click, click, click…”

An old-fashioned card catalog provides a reference for Whittington, who refuses to index his holdings on computer. He says he will stop buying new material after 1999, thus keeping his collection focused entirely on 19th- and 20th-century porn. “I’ve got to let the younger people take it from there,” he says. The Internet doesn’t interest him either, because he’s simply drowning in what he’s already got. The tour takes maybe two hours, and still Whittington has barely scratched the surface of his vast domain. So many boxes remain untouched.

In his bedroom, the porn sanctuary is taken to its ultimate extreme. Instead of the usual array of family photos, the divorced playboy has crowded his dresser with snapshots of himself with porn stars. The walls are filled with ever more boxes, the floor scattered with the debris of recently opened mail packages. (“Every other day’s like Christmas,” he says.) The problem is there’s simply not enough time to absorb all the porn, much less catalog it in proper archival fashion. He’ll have to wait for retirement to try to catch up with the onslaught of product.

But Whittington did achieve a momentary reprieve from his race against time. Last year, he got the chance to actually star in his own porn movie and thereby secured a permanent place in his archives.

Whittington says X-rated sensation Chessie Moore, the mother of a teenage boy in Florida, offers a special known as “Fuck the Fans.” He arranged a 15-minute shoot at a motel in Daytona Beach, with Chessie’s husband behind the camera. But it was Whittington who was the director and star.

In the video, Whittington and Chessie grope on the bed under a glaring light. There’s a lot of slurping and such, and finally she puts on some stiletto heels and holds her legs high above. Then an ecstatic Whittington comes face-to-foot with his fantasy (“It’s like climbing Mount Everest,” he says later). He grins at the camera and fades into darkness.

He still keeps those shoes—signed “To Ralph”—in a sealed plastic bag inside one of the several boxes marked “Chessie Moore.”

—Eddie Dean