Entertainment

08.19.13

The True Life of Marilyn Chambers, the ‘Other’ Queen of Porn

Linda Lovelace’s name is still in lights, but her ’70s rival Marilyn Chambers—who hit it big the same year and married the same man—died in obscurity. Christine Pelisek tells her story.

Just before the credits roll on Lovelace, the $10 million biopic of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace and her allegedly abusive first husband—whom the film portrays as a hot-headed, manipulative Svengali who nearly drives Lovelace into ruin until she leaves him—a brief postscript appears: “Chuck Traynor went on to marry Marilyn Chambers, the second most famous porn star of the era.”

After so many scenes of Traynor beating Lovelace, forcing her into prostitution, and even shooting a blow-up doll in her likeness during a fit of rage, the sentence lands like a morbid punchline. Poor Marilyn Chambers, whoever she was.

In fact, Chambers was the second-most famous porn star of the era. A leggy, athletic blond, she broke out in 1972, just months after the release of Deep Throat, as the star of the similarly spectacular Behind the Green Door, in which she played the silent role of a woman kidnapped and forced to perform sexual acts in front of a sex theater full of rowdy men. Nearly as shocking: before filming, Chambers had posed as a mother with child on a ubiquitous package of Ivory Snow laundry detergent—the picture of wholesomeness—and the new label was just hitting shelves.

America was practically aghast. Ivory Snow sales spiked; Green Door raked in a reported $50 million on a shoestring budget. The “golden age of porn” had begun, and Chambers had done as much as anyone to usher it in.

Forty years later, Lovelace, who died in a car accident in 2002, is still a household name, an icon of the sexual revolution. Yet Marilyn Chambers—who came to fame in the same year, who struggled with the same goal of finding mainstream success, who even married the same man—died in relative anonymity in a trailer park, surviving on porn residuals, Comic-Con appearances, and a job at a car dealership.

What happened to Marilyn Chambers?

***

“I think Marilyn would be pissed that the movie wasn’t about her,” says Steve Miner, a childhood friend of Chambers’s and a movie director with credits including Friday the 13th Part 2 and its 3-D sequel, Friday the 13th Part III. “She was very competitive and ambitious. I bet she would have been upset. The movie could easily have been about Marilyn … and had as unhappy an ending.”

Chambers, who was born Marilyn Ann Briggs in Providence, Rhode Island, died at the age of 56 in 2009 of a cerebral hemorrhage and aneurysm related to heart disease—seven years after Lovelace and Traynor died three months apart. Toxicology results found small traces of the painkiller hydrocodone and the antidepressant Citalopram in her system, but not enough to have played a role in her death.

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Marilyn Chambers's famous laundry detergent label. (Ivory Snow)

At the time, Chambers was working at a BMW dealership in Los Angeles and living in a mobile home near Santa Clarita, some 40 miles northeast.

“A lot of people didn’t know who she was,” says Peggy McGinn, another close friend. “She went by Marilyn Taylor. And those who knew didn’t care because of the way she carried herself. She was a classy lady.”

Chambers made about $1,000 to $1,200 a week from the dealership, McGinn estimates, “not after taxes.” She also brought in about $12,000 in residuals and about $15,000 making guest appearances at Comic-Con. “She earned enough to get by,” McGinn says. She also had a passion for gardening. “Marilyn had beautiful flowers,” she remembers. “The neighbors would say, ‘What a beautiful garden,’ and the next day their garden was planted. That was her therapy.”

Still, Chambers had not lost her appetite for the spotlight, and especially hungered for mainstream success. After all, she had won her Screen Actors Guild card through a small role in 1970’s The Owl and the Pussycat (starring Barbra Streisand) and had always dreamed of being a real actress—not the kind of acting she did in Green Door and more than a dozen porn films after it, like the 1980 bestseller Insatiable.

Shortly before her death, Chambers flew to New York City to audition for The Deep Throat Sex Scandal, a play about the making of Deep Throat and the obscenity trial that followed. “She killed it,” says David Bertolino, who wrote the play. “I think she knew she could act, but I think she wanted to prove it to the general public. She was phenomenal. I had goose bumps.”

Chambers was delighted when she got the part. “She was going to quit the car dealership, but not until the ink was dry and the check was in the mail,” says McGinn, who says her friend spent her last weeks alive memorizing her lines. “It was just a matter of days. She was leaving it all to do the play in New York.”

In a strange twist, Chambers was to play the part of Shana Babcock, the best friend of Linda Lovelace. In the play, Babcock tries to persuade Lovelace to leave the abusive Chuck Traynor. Chambers, who had divorced Traynor back in 1985, was uncomfortable with the storyline. “She felt I judged Chuck harshly,” Bertolino recalls. “From the accounts we got from various people, we heard he ruled with an iron fist. She wasn’t thrilled that I captured that, and she defended him.”

“A lot of her jewelry was missing. It’s not hard to break into a mobile home.”

It was nothing Chambers hadn’t heard before. In real life, Lovelace had made very public claims against Traynor in her 1980 autobiography Ordeal, alleging much of the abuse and manipulation that became the basis for the 2013 film. She even took a polygraph test to prove her claims to her publisher, and testified before Congress about the dangers women face in the pornography business.  

Many people in the porn industry, including Chambers, disputed Lovelace’s account of her time with Traynor. “Marilyn didn’t believe any of it,” says McGinn. “She read Linda’s book and said 75 percent was absolute B.S. He was not a very nice guy, and maybe Linda was very meek … Nobody would touch Marilyn. She would kick your ass.”

Chambers did acknowledge that Traynor, who died of a heart attack in 2002, did hit her once—but says she hit him right back, according to McGinn. “She hit him back really hard. She said, ‘I broke two fingernails, because my arms were like propellers.’”

Whatever the truth, Traynor’s reputation as a womanizer had long been cemented, says porn star Ron Jeremy. “She told me some girl who was watching her one-woman show put a note in her hand and said, ‘I have friends who are law enforcement. If you are in trouble or being kidnapped, let me know.’”

Chambers never got to the chance perform in The Deep Throat Sex Scandals. She died while the play was in rehearsals.

On opening night in 2010, Bertolino says he placed some of Chambers’s ashes on the stage as a favor to her daughter. They were held, of course, in an Ivory soap box. “We actually gave her a credit,” he says. “Marilyn Chambers appears nightly posthumously.”

***

A coroner’s report found that Marilyn Chambers died on April 12, 2009. But McGinn doesn’t believe that; she says Chambers died the night before.

“She always had one glass of wine and one cigarette before she went to bed,” McGinn recalls. Inside the mobile home the next day, she says, were an untouched glass of wine and a burned-down cigarette. “She never got a sip of wine. The cigarette was one long ash. It was like she didn’t have a puff of it. She died exactly the way we all want to die. She didn’t know what hit her.”

McGinn says she discovered a tattered copy of Chambers’s 1975 autobiography My Story near her pillow. “I don’t think she was proud of the book,” says McGinn matter-of-factly. “You can tell Chuck [Traynor] is writing every word. Part of it says, ‘Chuck is the greatest man I ever knew and the love of my life.’ I said, ‘You wrote a book?’ And she said, ‘Sort of.’ ‘Sort of’ tells me everything.”

(There is a scene in Lovelace in which Traynor dictates Lovelace’s memoir Inside Linda Lovelace in the same manner.)

Marilyn Chambers
Marilyn Chambers in 2004. (Barry King/WireImage)

Chambers didn’t leave much behind. Her mobile home was returned to the dealer; her Toyota was worth less than she owed on it. But she did leave a $20,000 life insurance policy for her daughter, McKenna Marie Taylor, from her third marriage to truck driver Chuck Taylor. The couple shared custody of McKenna, and Chambers chose the mobile home near Santa Clarita in order to be close to where her ex-husband was living at the time. “I do know that the thing she was the most proud of was being a mother to her daughter, and that was her greatest accomplishment,” says Daryl Coates Manning, a childhood acquaintance of Chambers.

McKenna Taylor, now 22 and a college student in Northern California, says her mother never kept her background in porn a secret. "She never kept anything a secret," Taylor says. "She never made me feel uncomfortable. Of course, being a girl ... I got to ask her so many questions she was kind of an expert on. My friends would come to me and say, 'I really need to talk to your mom about something.' She was the go-to person. She was an open book." 

Chambers was cremated a few days after she died, on the same day as McKenna’s prom. “We cremated her, went to a nail salon, and [McKenna] got dressed and went to her prom,” says McGinn. “[Marilyn] was in a box. It had her date of birth and death written on it with a Sharpie. It said her weight was 150 pounds. I crossed it off and wrote 112. I took 38 pounds off. That’s a true friend.”

A memorial service was held for the former star, who Playboy once named one of the top 100 porn stars of the 20th century, attended by some 200 people. “There must have been at least 10 people that said, ‘I got a check in the mail for $2,000 because I mentioned a surgery or my kid couldn’t go to camp,” says McGinn, who hosted a dinner afterward. “That’s probably why she died broke. People were important to her. That’s what she cared about.”

A few days later, McGinn believes that someone broke into Chambers’s home and ransacked it. “Some of her files were missing out of her filing cabinet,” she says. “We never found the will. A lot of her jewelry was missing. It’s not hard to break into a mobile home.”

***

Marilyn Chambers and Chuck Traynor divorced in 1985 after 11 years of marriage—reportedly after she agreed to give Traynor, who allegedly owned half the royalties from her films, her half as well. "He was a really bad guy," said Chambers’s brother Bill Briggs in a 2009 story in Connecticut magazine. "Basically he said, 'You can leave, but you're not getting anything.' So she left everything behind. She had made all of them—the Mitchells [producers of Behind the Green Door] included—rich, and she never had a lot of money after that."

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Chambers with porn star Ron Jeremy, date unknown. (David Bertolino)

Somehow, though, the former couple remained friendly. In the late ’90s, Chambers, who was by then in her late 40s, called on Traynor for support as she prepared to make a comeback in pornography, eventually making three new films. “When Marilyn came back she specifically asked if Chuck could be on the set,” says Mark Kernes, senior editor of the trade magazine Adult Video News, who saw them on the set of 1999’s Still Insatiable. “He gave her confidence. It was a friendly face. She asked him there for moral support. When there were breaks she would go up to talk to him. They still had a connection even though they weren’t married.” Chambers even posed with an Uzi in her hand for a billboard promoting Traynor’s Las Vegas gun shop, and remained friendly with Traynor’s widow, Bo, after his death.

(Lovelace makes the claim that Traynor was too controlling of his then-wife to be on set; it depicts Deep Throat producers purposely sending him on errands to keep him away from her during filming.)

During the following decade, Chambers ran for vice president—of the United States—on the Personal Choice Party ticket, and became a draw at porn conventions and Comic-Con. She also approached Miner with an idea to make a movie about her life. “She called me a couple of years before she died,” Miner said. “She wanted to know if I was interested in getting involved in a movie about her life. I didn’t really see it as a movie but I didn’t want it to be discouraging for her.”

In 2007, she landed a small part in the low-budget film called Solitaire, in which she played a Rhode Island cop in hot pursuit of a group of teenage thieves, but she died before she got to see the movie. 

“I think Marilyn was taken advantage of her whole life,” says Valerie Gobos, an agent and producer who owns the rights to Chambers’s life story. “She didn’t have a good manager or a good lawyer. If she had known better in her youth, she would have been a lot better off financially. She wasn’t real savvy to say, ‘Hey let’s sign a pre-nup.’ I think she never was a good business person.”

“She thought she could cross over to the mainstream, but she couldn’t,” says Gobos. “The studios wouldn’t accept her.”

***

Now, more than four years after Chambers’s death—and perhaps spurred by the prominence of Lovelace—Marilyn Chambers is beginning to get a second look.

In October, Chambers’s 1975 book, My Story, will be rereleased with a foreword written by her daughter, McKenna. A remake of her breakout film, Behind the Green Door, is expected to be released this fall. There’s even talk about naming a street in her honor in her native Rhode Island.

The Deep Throat Sex Scandal, the play that Chambers hoped would launch her comeback, ended up shutting down after two nights due to a dispute with the theater owner. However, the production moved to Los Angeles’s Zephyr Theatre in the winter of 2013 and had a successful run, with guest performances by Sally Kirkland and Bruce Vilanch, among others.

"She created Marilyn Chambers," McKenna Taylor says of her mother. "She was definitely proud of it. It's cool to say my mom was part of the sexual revolution." Taylor says her mother didn't believe her profession defined who she was. "She didn't regret anything she did," Taylor says. "It wasn't just porn. It was way more than that. People didn't have the right to talk about their sexuality freely back then."

Gobos, who is currently working on a documentary and movie about Chambers, shares the sentiment. “I don’t think she regretted becoming Marilyn Chambers. She did what she felt she needed to do to become a star. She wanted to be famous and she accomplished that.”

But her friend Steve Miner disagrees. He sees her life as a cautionary tale about the pornography industry. Except in this case, he believes, Marilyn Chambers is not second to Linda Lovelace. “Hers is not a story about a victim but a protagonist that makes bad choices,” Miner says. “It paid off in very short terms. It clearly didn’t pay off in the long term. It just seems like the whole porn industry is a road to ruin. Marilyn is the ultimate example for me.”