It’s amazing when you consider what we might now view as quaint, familiar photographic imagery was once a serious no-no. We’ve all seen photos of Betty Page bound and gagged to the point where it’s no more shocking than a LIFE magazine cover image. When John Alexander Scott Coutts aka “John Willie,” publisher of the original Bizarre magazine and the author/ artist of the iconic art comic The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline started, excuse me, basically invented fetish photography as we now know it, it was a punishable crime.
Possibilities!, a massive 472 page coffee table book of John Willie’s photos, published by J.B. Rund’s Belier Press is the be-all, end-all last word from the world’s greatest expert on the subject.
Belier Press has been in existence since 1974 and the publisher’s own story is as interesting as the subject of the books he puts out. J.B. Rund was a young teen running around in the original rock ‘n’ roll era (1955/56) looking for second hand rock ‘n’ roll 45s to buy cheap from juke box distributors in Times Square. One of these stores also had “adult books” and this is where the author first saw a John Willie photo. The afterward of this book goes into great detail about this discovery period and the history of Belier Press. Belier Press has published all kinds of books, not just fetish photography, though I can say that the first time I ever saw a photo of Betty Page was on the cover of Belier’s Betty Page Private Peeks volume two. He also put out R. Crumb’s Carload o’ Comics, The Complete Fritz The Cat, all of the reprints of the Irving Klaw catalogs (Bizarre Katalogs), Eric Stanton and Gene “Eneg” Bilbrew and other fetish artists in Bizarre Komix (24 volumes!), The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline and the recent deluxe reprint. An amazing run.
Possibilities! has more than 1,360 photographs basically giving a visual history of John Willie’s fetish coming of age and, in fact, the birth of what we take for granted now as an art form, a style, a distinctive look and feel all which can be traced back in these photos to something that sparked excitement in one man’s mind (and loins) and the fact that he wasn’t afraid to act on that idea, even though for all he knew he may have been one of the only people on earth to feel this way.
John Alexander Scott Coutts (or JASC as the author refers to him) was born in 1902 in Singapore, the youngest of four children of William Scott and Edith Ann Spreckley Coutts. His father, wanting to go into business for himself moved the family to St. Albans, Hertfordshire, a northwest suburb of London in June 1903. As a very young child Coutts was drawn to a particular type of children’s fantasy literature called “Fairy Books,” where he developed an attraction for “damsels in distress” and the want to rescue these damsels. At around this time he also showed a talent for drawing.
To quote the author:
At about the age of puberty he became aware of another attraction—for women in high heeled shoes—which had a strong sexual connotation for him. In his fantasies John wanted these women in high-heels to be tied-up (in order to rescue them?).
In September of 1921 Coutts entered Sandhurst (the Royal Military Academy), graduating in 1923 with a commission as Second Lieutenant and joined the Royal Scots regiment. In 1925 he married Eveline Stella Frances Fisher, a nightclub hostess who he decided needed “rescuing.” They were married without the required permission of his regiment and against his the wishes of his father (who cut him off), so he moved to Australia in late 1925 or early 1926. The marriage disintegrated soon after. One day in 1934 Coutts stumbled upon McNaught’s, a shoe store on King Street that had a sideline catering to shoe fetishists. He also discovered in that establishment the existence of a weekly British magazine called London Life.
London Life was, as Rund puts it:
...a weekly British magazine that openly dealt with a range of fetishes, but in a conservative manner that would seem quaint by today’s (lack of) standards. Suddenly John Coutts realized that he was NOT alone!
At this point he was introduced to a locally based organization for shoe fetishists, possibly called “The High-Heel Club,” run by a retired ship’s captain who went by the name “Achilles.” He then met Holly Anna Faram around 1934, a woman that shared his his interests in bondage & high heels. She became his first model, and his second wife.
“Coutts was frustrated by the refusal of London Life to print any of his letters on the subject of bondage and arrived at the conclusion–in 1936 or ‘37–that he could produce a superior and more liberal publication, which in 1946 would come to called Bizarre.
In the decade in between coming up with the idea of Bizarre magazine and getting the finances to put that project together, he came up with the idea of selling high-heeled shoes, though he actually wanted to market his photographs of women wearing those shoes and not the actual shoes themselves. But it didn’t work out that way.
In 1937 Coutts got access to “The High-Heel Club” mailing list and started his career as a photographer. He also acquired the right to use the name “Achilles.” At first, using the list, he offered rather pedestrian photos of women wearing high-heels. He then added Holly Anna Faram who turned out to be an amazing model and started offering bondage poses, but in a veiled manner. Like many artists, writers and musicians Coutts was not a good businessman and not very good with money, a problem that would follow him throughout his life.
Early in 1938 he placed a series of ads in London Life magazine for his sexy shoes, charging what he felt would be too much for any potential customer (wanting to push his more reasonably priced photos instead) and naturally people started to order them. Now he had to do something, or return the money. So Coutts added shoe maker/designer to his list of accomplishments. He also put the money together to make his dream magazine but World War II broke out and that ended that dream, at least for a while.
In 1940, John Coutts volunteered for service in the Australian Army (listing his religion as “Pagan”). In 1945 he decided to move to America to once again attempt to bring his Bizarre dream to life. At the end of that year he travelled to Canada on a merchant ship to subsidize the trip. In Montreal he found a printer that not only had an allotment of paper (remember this was wartime), but was willing to take on the job. At that moment both “John Willie” and Bizarre were born.
As far as Coutts’ new name was concerned and what it meant—“Willie,” of course, being British slang for the male sex organ—but “John Willie” was also a Cockney rhyming slang term for a little boy, so ummmm… take your pick! At last he was on his way. Willie moved to New York City in 1946 or ‘47, trying to work on Bizarre with not a lot of luck. He postponed publishing after four issues and started again in 1951. He sold the magazine to a friend in 1956 after publishing 20 issues. He also did business with infamous fetish photographer and mail order dealer Irving Klaw, famous for his Tempest Storm and Betty Page photos, bondage photos, fetish cartoon serials and of course, the photos by John Willie. Klaw made two color full length films (Teaserama and Varietease) which survived and can be seen on one DVD from Something Weird Video.
To quote Rund again:
In April of 1961, after moving to Los Angeles, Coutts/Willie was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, followed in May by a confrontation with a Postal Inspector concerning his photographs. He then decided to put an end to his activities as “John Willie” and destroyed all of his negatives as well as his mailing list sending this announcement to his customers:
“On this occasion I will forgo the usual editorial “WE” (which is more businesslike) and instead, as this is the last letter you will ever receive from me I am reverting to “I”. I got sick (it happened very suddenly) and had to undergo a major operation (of course I’d have no insurance). As a result, there will be no more “Gwendoline,” and the whole business will be closed as of June 25th. (I have a few weeks grace—I hope.) I would like to inform you that on that date everything, but everything, including the mailing list will be destroyed… It’s been nice to have known you and I wish you the very best in your games of fun and nonsense.”
This was followed by a quotation from John’s favorite book (his “Bible”), The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, from which he had also quoted at the beginning of each issue of Bizarre: “Ah, with the grape of my fading Life provide, And wash my Body whence the Life has died, And in a Windingsheet of Vine-leaf wrapt, So bury me by some sweet Garden-side.”
John Alexander Scott Coutts passed away on August 5th 1962, at a doctor friend’s house in Scottsdale Arizona, on the same day that Marilyn Monroe died.
Little could Coutts have known the impact his art and life would have on the future of human sexuality. This impact is mostly due to Bizarre magazine and his The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline, both of which have been documented. According to author and publisher J.B. Rund:
The former (Bizarre) in the disappointing reprint of the magazine. The Latter (Gwendoline), together with a substantial amount of previously unpublished and uncollected artwork, in The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline, (Belier Press, 1974 and 1999). And to a lesser extent, as a photographer, which heretofore has been poorly and disrespectfully done. The present work will expand on this other talent, and provide an extensive—but not a complete—record of his prodigious output in that medium.
The photos in the book are culled almost completely from just two sources, the author/publisher’s personal collection and that of the Kinsey Institute. It’s separated into three huge sections, geographically (Australia, New York, Los Angeles) which match his life’s timeline and it’s just incredible to see it all in one massive artistic survey. The notes, introductions and afterward are riddled with the most minute details that seem to leave no stone unturned. If you have even the slightest interest in pop culture, photography, women in distress, art, bondage, or the history of alternative culture, then you owe it to yourself to own this book—the only one you’ll ever need on this subject. Trade edition available from Belier Press for $70. Deluxe limited edition of 150 numbered copies each in a custom made cloth slipcase containing an ORIGINAL print of a photograph taken by John Willie in Los Angeles circa 1958-61, a different photo in each book, plus reproductions of two previously privately circulated photographs taken by Willie in Sydney circa 1938 (not in the book). Plus John Willie Speaks–John Willie Sings!?!, an audio CD, just under forty-eight minutes, consisting of a monologue from Within A Story, his only known speaking part in a motion picture from 1954, and excerpts from the only known interview with Willie from 1961-62, excerpts from A Bawdy Recital–Poems, songs and stories performed by John Willie in 1962. Whew! A serious bargain if you ask me, as only Belier Press could whip up.