Alice Denham — writer, Playboy centerfold, film actress who left a vivid chronicle of her literary and sexual adventures in her 2006 memoir, “Sleeping With Bad Boys: A Juicy Tell-All of Literary New York in the Fifties and Sixties.”
“Manhattan was a river of men flowing past my door, and when I was thirsty, I drank.”
Ms. Denham came to New York in the early 1950s, fresh from the University of Rochester, with two things on her mind: literary fame and romance. The city held forth the promise of both, in abundance. “New York in the fifties was like Paris in the twenties.”
A stunning beauty with a talent for repartee, she made her way easily into Manhattan’s literary salons, and her presence did not pass unnoticed by a long list of editors, publishers, film producers, actors and writers — most of whom made a play for her, quite a few successfully.
Her conquests, she said, included the actor James Dean, a close friend until he fell hard for the Italian actress Pier Angeli; the authors James Jones, William Gaddis, Evan S. Connell and Philip Roth; and Hugh Hefner, whom she had persuaded, in a clever gambit, to feature her as a centerfold and reprint, as part of the package, her first published short story.
“Of course he was no egalitarian,” Ms. Denham wrote. “But he possessed one of the finer male characteristics I was aware of: He liked my writing.”
She counted among her many friends Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal and the painter Ad Reinhardt. “As a proper Southern girl, I was bred to be good at men,” she wrote. “I was, too.”
Alice Denham was born on Jan. 21, 1927, in Jacksonville, Fla. Her father, a stockbroker, lost everything in the Wall Street crash and moved the family to Coral Gables, Fla., where he found work as a property manager for a large company. In 1940 he was hired by the Federal Housing Administration, and the family moved to a Washington suburb, Chevy Chase, Md.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1949 she won a scholarship to the University of Rochester, where she earned a master’s degree in English the following year, writing her thesis on T. S. Eliot’s plays.
Ms. Denham headed immediately to New York, where, through an actress friend, she met James Dean. “This Jimmy boy looked like an adolescent, like my kid brother, with surprising maturity and great swaths of infantile petulance,” she wrote. She gave him high marks as a lover.
Ms. Denham plunged into the bohemian life. She modeled by day, posing at camera clubs and doing photo shoots for romance and detective magazines, paperback covers, comic strips and movie posters. For a spread in True Adventures magazine, “Girl Gun Runners of Saigon,” she posed as four different Vietnamese women holding an array of weapons as they took position on a ridge.
Always, she wrote. In 1955, Discovery, a well-regarded literary magazine edited by Vance Bourjaily, published her story “The Deal,” about a young woman, an aspiring artist in Las Vegas, who agrees to sleep with an aged gambler for $1,000. The story, she wrote, “ made me a novice artist among artists, I hoped, not a mere model.”
Years of struggle followed. Playboy, after reprinting “The Deal,” with an illustration by Leroy Neiman, in the July 1956 issue that included her centerfold, rejected two more of her stories, informing her in a letter that it did not intend to have any more women’s bylines.
While she searched in vain for a publisher for her first novel, about the love affair between an artist and a composer in New York, she wrote jacket copy for publishers, acted in films with titles like “Olga’s House of Shame” and modeled at industrial shows, appearing as Miss Minute Maid in 1957 and 1958.
Socially, her dance card was full. “Every month I had a mad new crush, a fabulous new romance,” she wrote.
Her novel, “My Darling From the Lions,” eventually came out in 1967, attracting little attention. She had asked her many writer friends to contribute a blurb. None did.
Ms. Denham later wrote the novel “Amo” (1974), about a feminist centerfold who has a fantasy life on another planet, and “Secrets of San Miguel” (2013), a tell-all chronicle of the expatriate artistic community in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, which she visited for many years.
Ms. Denham’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to her husband, she is survived by a brother, John, and a sister, Leila Starke.
“Sexual friendships taught me politics, race, class, countries, temperaments, occupations, all useful for a novelist,” she wrote of her heyday playing the literary field. “But that wasn’t my motive.”
“Sex,” she added, “was my great adventure.”
~From her NY Times obituary, she died on Jan. 27 at her home in Manhattan. She was 89.