There were other, less colorful episodes at Spin, including a nasty sexual-harassment suit filed by a writer who claimed that Guccione Jr. had “sexualized the workplace.” Although a jury awarded the woman $100,000, Guccione Jr. avoided personal blame. But even if Spin had its bumpy moments (a longtime writer says, “Bobby’s the greatest guy in the world until you work for him”), much good stuff got through. The punchy music coverage—reports of the whereabouts of netherland rock legends like Ike Turner were classic—often buried Rolling Stone’s slumbering corporatism. Norman Mailer and William Burroughs wrote long pieces. William Vollmann was a regular, traveling the whorehouses of the planet on Gooch’s legendarily difficult-to-extricate dime. In the end, however, perhaps Guccione’s most impressive act at Spin was leaving it. He started the magazine with $2.5 million borrowed from his dad—leading to a dispute over ownership that would result in an epic eighteen-year falling-out between the two—and sold it in 1997 for a reported $43 million. When Spin changed hands again this year, it fetched a piddly $5 million, a figure Gooch calls “staggeringly pathetic.”
As befitting a prince of the House of Gooch, there were a number of memorable liaisons along the way. Staying at Gore Vidal’s house in Ravello, Italy, during the shooting of Caligula, Bob Jr. found himself fixed up with the daughter of Imelda Marcos, who arrived with several ninja-style bodyguards. “She was a stunningly beautiful girl, but we did not have much to talk about.” This is typical of his “somewhat miserable record in blind dates,” Gooch reports. Once, Bo Dietl, the grandstanding ex-cop, invited him to Rao’s. “ ‘Don’t bring a date,’ he said. ‘I’ve got someone for you,’ ” Bob Jr. recounts. “He did, too. Brooke Shields. And her mother.” Other boldface hookups included Candace Bushnell and a dalliance with conservative brimstoner Ann Coulter.
“Ann wasn’t always the strident, hate-filled creature she is today,” Gooch laments, ruefully adding that his tombstone will likely read HAD A WEAKNESS FOR TALL BLONDES. He knew the relationship was doomed when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. “It’s the middle of the night, we’re in bed, and the phone rings. Ann is jumping up and down, yelling gleefully, ‘We did it, we did it!’ The next morning she’s got three separate televisions going so she can watch all the coverage at once. It was appalling. Poor Ann. It is always sad when the persona eats the person.” For her part, Coulter denies ever being “arm candy for Bob Guccione Jr. The Gooch was my arm candy—my boy toy whom I regretfully had to replace with a much younger man.”
“I have no problem whatsoever accommodating, side by side, the ideas of multiple universes and the Immaculate Conception,” says Gooch.
Watching Gooch glad-hand David Pecker at Bonnie Fuller’s recent book party at the Core Club (seeing Fuller, “a good friend,” with Helen Gurley Brown, Gooch declared, “There’s the money shot!”), a cynic might conclude the younger Guccione is exactly the man casual haters have often assumed him to be: some carousing Pinch knockoff of the ol’ Punch block, one more Murdochian son, of a decidedly lower order. This would be an error, since despite the fringe benefits of his parentage (“People come over to me to say, ‘Gee, thanks. Without Penthouse, I don’t know how I would have gotten through high school’”), the Gooch is a peculiar sort of fortunate son. No Skull and Bones collector of gentleman’s C’s, he dropped out of high school in Tenafly, New Jersey, where his mother settled following her divorce from Bob Sr. “I spent a lot of my time taking care of the rest of my family, because I was the oldest,” he says. Any way you cut it, none of this sounds like a résumé usually found in the often-staid precincts of science publishing.
“I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from him,” says one Discover contributor. “Son-of-Penthouse, Spin, it is pretty incongruous. People wondered if they were going to have to write about the chemical composition of Madonna’s douche and do choral renditions of ‘She Blinded Me With Science.’ ” Gooch did not assuage this unease when he was quoted in the Times saying, “To me, scientists are people who by definition live outside the norm, floating in zones that have never been reached before . . . people with strong egos and God complexes. That sounds like rock and roll to me.”
Several months in, the vibe remains mixed. “The science audience doesn’t follow the normal magazine rules,” says one longtime science writer. “He talks about ‘rock stars,’ but past celebrity types like Brian Greene and his string theory, the hard-core science reader is more interested in the microbes than the microbe hunter. Discover is not a scholarly journal, but you better know what’s in those journals. The fact is, most people in the field read the magazine. Most of the letters to the editor come from scientists. You’ve got to have your shit straight or they will notice.”