Long ago, before his psychopathic sex thriller Snow Angel sold 300,000 copies and he began a lucrative, Emmy-nominated career in soap-opera writing, Washington novelist Thom Racina took a courageous stand against selling out.
It was in the early 1970s, when Racina, now 51, was one of the top hired guns in the porn-writing industry. He was a hard body of the soft covers, a Dirk Diggler with a 12-inch pen. At his peak, his publisher paid him about a thousand bucks a pop. Racina did straight, gay, male, female--almost anything his editors wanted. "It was a great living," he says. "All my books were all about sex. Every mutation imaginable. The publisher literally called me on Tuesday and said, 'I need a lesbian book by next weekend, and a brother-sister book by next month.'"
But he had limits. When his editors asked him to write a title he recalls as Sadie and Her Collie, Racina, on principle, refused. And now, as Racina hawks his most recent book, a Washington-based political thriller, Hidden Agenda, he's milking this tiny well of dignity for all it's worth.
The writer was raised in an "uptight, Midwestern, Catholic household" in Kenosha, Wis. Despite his strict upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Racina gravitated toward porn. While studying at the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago, Racina asked a friend how he'd managed to snag a great apartment and a car while barely seeming to work. The friend told him that he wrote dirty books.
"I was a horny teenager--the horniest boy in the Midwest," Racina says. "So I went into a dirty book store, learned the formula, wrote one, sold it, and then wrote another and another." From about 1968 to 1974, Racina says proudly, he authored more than 150 porn books, never spending more than three days on any one of them. "I was a factory. When you're 16 to 25, your hormones are still raging. You could say I wrote with one hand on the keyboard."
"Thom and I have been friends for 20 years plus," says Frank Hagan, a Los Angeles-based television producer and developer, "and I still can't figure out if he had the world's most active imagination or one of the best sex lives I've ever heard of." Asked point-blank, Racina--who's gay--chooses the vivid imagination option. "If I'd slept around that much," he says slyly, "I never would have gotten so much accomplished."
In the days before Judith Krantz, Racina's books could be bought only in the dim back rooms of X-rated shops, for 50 cents or a dollar a copy. In 1976, Racina inched toward the mainstream with The Happy Hustler, a male takeoff on The Happy Hooker, the infamous autobiographical best seller written by high-end New York madam Xaviera Hollander: "I was sitting in a friend's bathtub reading it, and I said, 'Look at this! This is the same crap I write!' So over the weekend, I came up with the takeoff. Warner Books bought it, and it changed my life."
But in Racina's case, there was no real-life hustler. With the publisher's approval--and with everyone's lips sealed--Racina's roommate Michael Kearns played the part in interviews, pretending that everything Racina wrote had happened to him. The hoax helped The Happy Hustler sell hundreds of thousands of copies, enough for Racina to buy a home.
The truth leaked out only when Kearns was cast as a friend of John-Boy's on TV's The Waltons. That revelation sparked a minor scandal, but by that time Racina had managed to profit handsomely: The Happy Hustler had led to more "legitimate porn" books. He ghostwrote, or, more precisely, fabricated, several additional lives, including those of stripper Fanne Foxe--famed for her midnight dip in the Tidal Basin with U.S. Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.)--and Ivory-Soap-girl-cum-porn-goddess Marilyn Chambers (she of Behind the Green Door renown).
"A few years after I made up Marilyn Chambers' life for her, we had dinner," he recalls. "She told a story about the first time she ever had sex. I said, 'Marilyn, I made that up. It didn't happen.' I ran out of there screaming, 'I can't do this any more!'"
That incident compelled Racina to trade dirty writing for a new life of merely trashy writing. In 1977, he wrote a novel called The Great Los Angeles Blizzard. The book did well; its movie rights were purchased. But two decades and a plethora of weather-disaster films later, Blizzard keeps getting waylaid in the netherworld of producers' out boxes.
Around that time, Racina began to write for the network soaps: Gen
eral Hospital, Days of Our Lives, Another World, Santa Barbara, and a host of others. The woman who ran ABC's daytime programming knew all about Racina's early works and saw something special in his talents, so she snapped him up. "Her interest was directly related to the books," Racina recalls. "She said, 'You've got a sexy mind, and that's what our viewers want. But you've also got good Midwestern values, and our viewers want that, too.'"
Hagan sees soaps as a natural progression of Racina's porn effort. "Unlike soaps, porno has the sex act," he says. "But soap operas are pretty much the same thing. You could say that soaps are foreplay that lasts a year." Though soaps get condescending looks from people in snootier genres, Hollywood insiders know that churning out 52 weeks of material a year takes genuine talent.
"Anyone working in soaps has my enormous respect," says Fern Field, who met Racina in the soap business and now works as an executive with the USA Network and the Sci-Fi Channel. "It's like making a movie a day. It's a miracle that anything of quality gets done at all--but as a point of fact, a lot of it is very good." In the soap world, Racina became a major player, writing what is probably the most famous and highest-rated soap episode in history: the wedding of Luke and Laura Spencer on GH.
Friends marvel at how easily Racina transferred his own experiences to characters dramatically different from himself. Racina wrote a famous Days of Our Lives story line revolving around the love affair between Bo and Hope; though the story was heterosexual, it was based on details of a gay relationship Racina was experiencing at the time. Racina also wrote for the African-American soap Generations. "Here's a white kid from Kenosha writing black daytime TV, and you wouldn't know it from the dialogue," Hagan says.
Racina was paid well for his work, though not as much as the $18,000 a week that some top soap writers get today. "I just became a whore," Racina asserts. In those heady days, he bought his parents a new BMW every year, but about three years ago, he quit to return to fiction writing (of a less pornographic bent than before). He loved his work, he says, but "hated the people."
Racina's first post-soap novel was Snow Angel, a murder thriller starring a charming psychopath. It sold almost 300,000 copies and was bought by ABC as a possible TV movie. But Racina's newest book, Hidden Agenda, hits closer to home--Washington, that is.
Set in the twilight of the Gore-Feinstein administration, the book is the story of protagonist Jonelle Patterson, a young CNN reporter who rises improbably fast from obscurity. Patterson begins to worry that her stardom has come a little too easy, so she and her husband seek to figure out why buildings happen to fall down precisely when she's there with a camera, and why Imelda Marcos is shot when she's standing nearby. Patterson eventually learns that someone is indeed creating the news--but she doesn't know who, or why.
Hidden Agenda is a wet dream for name-droppers: It includes Arianna Huffington, Larry King, Helen Thomas, Cokie Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Ralph Reed, among many others. (As part of the book's vast, right-wing conspiracy, Falwell and Reed, unsurprisingly, don't come off very favorably.) The name-drops, of course, have the nice side effect of generating buzz. Although Racina says that Barbara Walters and George Will have sent him thank-you notes, Racina is salivating for more. "Come on, Larry and Cokie, stop thanking me!" he pleads. "Just mention it on air!"
Reviews of the book so far are mixed. The San Francisco Examiner opined that "Hidden Agenda is a smart, up-to-date read that unfortunately will not stand the test of time [because] Racina uses too many real people in his plot line." The Capital Times, of Madison, Wis., called it "entertaining, escapist mind candy: sweet and fluffy, but you know it's bad for you."
The darts richochet right off Racina, who spends much of his time commuting between his dual homes in Palm Springs and Washington. The latter is a pad on 15th Street that he's currently renovating with his significant other, Mark Larson. Dupont Circle denizens will notice Hidden Agenda's many real locations, from the Results gym to Mystery Books.
"I love Washington, and I've wanted to do a Washington book for years," he says. "I'm a political junkie. I wanted to be president when I grew up. Just like Bill Clinton, I saw JFK on the White House lawn with Jackie and the kids, and my knees gave way. But I'm not going to get elected president, so this is the next logical step."
With Racina--a man who has often made his living by fabricating life stories--it is sometimes hard to tell the shtick, and the hype, from the reality. (He's told his full story on both the Phil Donahue and Danny Bonaduce shows.) But it doesn't matter, because the fact and fiction of his life overlap in one intriguing, tawdry tale.