The careers of stage-and-screen star Mae West, moral crusader Anthony Comstock and birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger are intimately bound up in the history of sexuality in America. So, too, are those of burlesque queen Ida Mencken, publisher Samuel Roth and condom-maker Julius Schmidt. Their enterprising exploits will be on display when the Museum of Sex opens this week.
The museum’s inaugural exhibition, “NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America” opens Saturday at 233 Fifth Ave., where visitors may be more shocked by the $17 entry fee than by the material on view.
Nicknamed “MoSex,” the for-profit museum is the brainchild of New Yorker and former software company executive Daniel Gluck. His vision was to create a “Smithsonian of Sex,” a scholarly institution that aims to “preserve and present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality.” In preparing “NYC Sex,” Gluck assembled a board of historian-advisers drawn from prestigious universities, the National Library of Medicine and the Kinsey Institute.
The exhibition focuses on Gotham as fertile ground for sexual subcultures and their influence on modern attitudes about sex. The 15,000-square-foot show delves into the histories of prostitution, obscenity, burlesque and contraception. It also covers heterosexual sexual exploration and the emergence of gay and lesbian communities.
Because of Jews’ prevalence in entertainment, industry and publishing, they inevitably show up in the museum’s roster of the risqué. Included among a number of Jewish figures in the show is Mencken, who Gluck says drew flocks of fans when she donned a body stocking and submitted to corporal punishment onstage in the mid-1800s.
There’s also Schmidt, the German-Jewish immigrant who used his experience working in a sausage factory to build a condom empire after World War I. And there’s Roth, considered a father of the modern pornographic industry, who did time for selling, possessing and mailing obscene materials — in one case an underground edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
Of course, the most important Jewish figure at the Museum of Sex is Gluck, 34, its executive director. The son of a Jewish refugee from Belgium and an Iraqi-born Israeli who settled in New York, Gluck earned degrees in art history and business from the University of Pennsylvania.
Asked what his parents think of his latest endeavor, Gluck says, “There are certain things they definitely don’t want to know from … but they understand what we’re doing is world-class.”