Meanwhile, Baron was beside himself with his demanding, hands-on manager on the phone to him every day. “One hundred twenty-eight pages, same subject, same person, and each page she’s nude! It’s hard. What do you do with it?” He was determined that form would lead content. Baron didn’t want anything that would look like a normal book. The metal covers, he declares, are “aggressive,” followed by cardboard inside, which is “warm. It’s like layered.” As you open up the candy-bar wrapper, you can think of it as “unwrapping a sex toy,” Baron says. He licks his lips. “Schlurp! The excitement isn’t just her. Everything should be to the level of who she is.” He advises, “Put on the CD and look at the book. It could almost be a video in a way.”
Enter Nicholas Callaway, who has produced two elegant coffee-table books on Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as last year’s admired volume of Irving Penn’s photographs. It was his job to mass-produce 750,000 copies of a complicated, handmade-looking art book printed in five colors and five languages with several different kinds of paper and an eight-page comic strip, the kind of book, he says, that ordinarily you “might expect to see only 250 copies made.” For the covers, he tells me, “we ordered three-quarters of a million pounds of aluminum. You can stamp a number on each one.” The packaging required heat-sealing. As to opening the Mylar hag to get to the book, Callaway says, “We wanted there to be an act of entering, of breaking and entering.” It took a MacArthur Fellow, the printing and publishing wizard Richard Benson, to figure out how to produce the quality they were after on a three-story-high, ultra-speed press that would churn out 25,000 impressions an hour instead of the usual 5,000 for such books. So instead of taking six months to print, the whole book is being produced in a record 15 days.
But technology was only part of the equation. Several printers who could produce the volume required simply refused to have anything to do with the lucrative contract on moral grounds. The midwestern printing firm that finally accepted the job will not allow its name to be used, and gave its employees the option of shifting crews and not working on the book at all if they objected for ethical, religious, or moral reasons. Nevertheless, Callaway thinks he’s witnessing not only the latterday version of the release of Lady Chatterley’s Lover but also a daring and bold act of self-made iconography. “To preserve oneself for history at the peak of one’s form — your body does not remain the same. What other figure in the history of entertainment has done this? It really is a radical act.”
The F.B.I. man in Los Angeles had spent one whole day last June being coached on how to talk like an oily tabloid editor. Now it was night at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, and he and a reporter from the British tabloid News of the World, as well as Gavin de Becker, Hollywood’s leading safety and privacy consultant, who is employed by Madonna and many other stars, were waiting for the man with the stolen pictures.
Sex had been shot under the strictest security. Anybody remotely involved in the book was obliged to sign a statement of confidentiality and forbidden even to speak of its contents. Fabien Baron himself had installed a special alarm in his studio, where he hid the book layouts in a closet every night. But late last May, de Becker — who never publicly speaks of client matters, but has been authorized by Madonna to speak about this case to Vanity Fair — heard from a source in “the tabloid community – that someone in New York was trying to sell a batch of explicit pictures from the book. The person had contacted News of the World. Asking price: $100,000 minimum.
“We negotiated a deal with News of the World.” says de Becker, who made it clear that if the paper tried to publish the pictures it would be sued immediately. One of Madonna’s legion of lawyers faxed the same message to 17 other publications around the world. News of the World agreed to set up a meeting with the contact in Los Angeles in exchange for being allowed to print a story about the incident, and the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles agreed to participate in a sting. “If we could arrange to get the guy in the right place,” said de Becker, “they would nab him.”
After being sent an airline ticket, a 44-year-old New York man named William Stacey Anderson flew to Los Angeles. De Becker had an agent on the plane and others at the airports, but nobody knew what Anderson looked like. Fortunately, he contacted the News of the World reporter in the reporter’s hotel room — which was wired so that their conversation could be recorded — and duly showed up with 44 perfect prints in a box. De Becker, who was monitoring the conversation, said Anderson balked when he saw the F.B.I. agent, who was posing as an editor — his meeting was to have been with the reporter only — but he calmed right down when the agent showed him $50,000 in cash and said he had to go get the rest of the money.
When the G-man returned to the room, he flashed his badge and took Anderson into custody. Ironically, the alleged culprit was a woman who worked at the New York photo lab that was processing the pictures. She is still at large. “I wanted them to arrest the girl,” Madonna says. “But now they can’t find her, and the F.B.I. is, like, on to the next case.”
Naturally, such drama brought down paranoia and suspicion among the 50 or so people connected with the book until the mystery was solved. “All this security made everything a lot slower,” says Baron. Paranoia struck several more times in the following weeks, once in London and once in New York, where Bob Guccione and Penthouse got into the act. A couple claimed to have found more of the same pictures on a bench in Central Park. Guccione, who Madonna says would have liked to serialize the book in Penthouse, agreed to help out, and had his staff set up a meeting. When the couple walked into Guccione’s office, they were met by a detective from the New York City Police Department. But the couple had a foolproof story: they claimed they had had no idea how to return the pix, so they had thought it best to hand them over to Mr. Guccione. “Please get them to the right people,” they said.
After a decade of perhaps the most glaring media exposure in history, Madonna still feels that she’s misunderstood and that she isn’t taken seriously enough as an artist. “1 think I’ve been terribly misunderstood because sex is the subject matter I so often deal with — people automatically dismiss a lot of what I do as something not important, not viable or something to be respected.” By the same token, Madonna resents being singled out for being such a brilliant marketer of her own image. “I think people like to concentrate on that aspect of me so they don’t have to pay me any respect in the other categories. They never say, ‘Oh, she’s a beautiful songwriter,’ or ‘That’s a nice photograph,’ or ‘That was good acting,’ or ‘That was a great performance onstage.’ Everyone always ‘says the same thing: ‘She really knows how to market herself.’ And to me it’s an insult in the form of a compliment. I don’t think that is why I’m successful. It’s also what I’m marketing and what I am saying.”
These days Madonna, who believes those who disagree with her are either “not in touch with their sexuality or threatened by me being in touch with mine,” is talking like a soul sister of Dr. Ruth, only the packaging is a little different: “I am not going around saying everyone should fuck more,” Madonna says. “That is not the point. The point is just to feel comfortable with yourself and whatever you want to do. Whether it’s be with another man. Be with another woman. Be with three people. Be alone. Masturbate. Whatever. You shouldn’t feel shame about it. It’s not quantity. it’s quality. And honesty.”
It is a hot Sunday afternoon. Madonna is violating her rule of not working weekends to do this interview. But work is work is work. She is in a long navy column of a dress, her white bra and bikini underpants showing through, and she is wearing high-heeled open-toed sandals and little makeup or jewelry. She is surprisingly small in person and not an overwhelming physical presence. The electricity is conserved for the camera or the stage.
“Do you enjoy sex?” I ask her.
“That’s like saying to a gynecologist, ‘Do you enjoy having children?’ Why? Because you deliver babies all day, you can’t enjoy having your own child? There are so many different levels of sexuality — I absolutely do enjoy it. I think I should just shut up and go away about all of this if I don’t enjoy sex.”
But she is alone in her apartment overlooking Central Park West, and she gives the impression of being quite alone, although there are always reports of girlfriends and bodyguard boyfriends floating around. (The most recent names in the gossip columns are those of Jimmy Albright, a handsome fellow in his mid-20s who works in security, and ex-model-nightclub owner John Enos.) Her hair is wet on the ends, scraggly, and her part is wide and dark. As usual, she has been pushing herself hard, and in fatigue she tilts on that thin edge where street chic can all of a sudden look trashy. On the other side of a glass-topped coffee table covered with art hooks, she sits rigidly as we speak, and rarely if ever smiles, but her compelling eyes often spark. There is an icy coolness about her that cuts right through the heat. This is strictly business — all business.
“Sex is not love. Love is not sex,” Madonna proclaims. “But when they come together, it’s the most incredible thing.”