The pictures told the story.
The paintings in Bob Guccione’s ballroom, that is. The walls that had been hung with Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, a couple of Degas pastels, a Modigliani nude, and a Rose Period Picasso were now hung with . . . Gucciones.
Bob Guccione, the begetter of Penthouse magazine, has occupied this townhouse at 12 East 67th Street since he moved from London in the mid-seventies, the better to do battle with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy. It’s one of the biggest private houses in Manhattan, with 30 rooms, and it costs $5 million a year to maintain.
In 1985, Forbes magazine put Guccione on its Rich List, figuring that he was worth $200 million. Now Guccione’s company is bankrupt. The mansion, used as collateral for Atlantic City real-estate loans, is now owned by his creditors, and Guccione, they say, may face eviction as early as February 6.
Nowadays, a “legendary recluse” usually means a famous person without a publicist, but Bob Guccione actually is a legendary recluse. He didn’t see many people even when his third wife, Kathy Keeton, was alive, but she would sometimes prevail on him to entertain, either in the city or at their country house in Rhinebeck. But Keeton died in 1997, and Guccione now sees few people apart from his staff of eleven, and he leaves the house only to see the doctor, have his hair cut, or for an occasional weekend. Few come to the house besides lawyers. Otherwise, he works in his bedroom or the workroom, where the light-boxes are, or he paints in his studio, all of which lie above the ballroom.
When was there last a ball in the ballroom? I ask.
“Not in a while,” Guccione’s executive administrative assistant, Susan Moore, says levelly.
I have known Guccione since his London years and have been here from time to time, and at first the house seems unchanged. There’s a barking on the other side of the black wrought-iron gate, but the five Rhodesian Ridgebacks are shut away, and the El Greco—a female saint, eyes heavenward—confronts you as you walk in off the street. The indoor swimming pool shimmers on what used to be the ground floor of the house next door, until the publisher brought them together. The walls are of narrow Byzantine bricks, made to his specifications. “He designed every inch of the house,” says Peter Bloch, the current editor of Penthouse. “It was incredible to watch.” Two lead sphinxes, cast for Napoleon, each with the head of Marie Antoinette, are at the far end of the pool, flanking a Roman statue of Bacchus holding a bunch of grapes. Two of the Roman images on the wall are antique bas-reliefs of the emperors Nero and Vespasian, and the third was a prop from Guccione’s X-rated movie, Caligula.
The ballroom is up a flight of white marble stairs. A gilded piano stands at one end of the room, there are busts of Apollo and Augustus Caesar at the other, and carved caryatids stand on either side of an ornate fireplace in the middle. One table is piled with art books. A hefty Bible, a present from Kathy Keeton, sits on another.
Suddenly, Guccione materializes beside me. He is wearing slacks, sneakers, and an unstylish tank top. His fifties-rocker hair is iron-gray, but he looks buff and is tanned tandoori-red, and given his habits, this suggests a tanning-bed, not the sun. Weirdly, he’s not wearing his trademark medallion.
He is (as always) low-key. Will he be able to keep this house?
“I don’t know. Everything is a bit . . . uncertain at this moment. I really don’t know.”
The canvases on the wall are competent, if derivative. The women in them are clothed. Guccione has exhibited in museums, and some 130 canvases and drawings were in a show that opened at the Las Vegas Art Museum on September 6 and ran until November 9. How had it done?
“It was well received and well attended. It surprised a lot of people that I was a sincere painter,” Guccione says.
So people thought you were—
“A one-dimensional pornographer!” he finishes for me.
Does it trouble him that most people feel he was just that?
“I’m not especially surprised by that. Not at all,” he says.
He speaks evenly, his articulation slow and somewhat throttled, the after-effect of cancer surgery. “My cancer was only a tiny tumor about the size of an almond at the base of my tongue,” he explains. “The cure is probably every bit as bad as the disease. It’s affected my ability to swallow . . . the mobility of my tongue . . . it makes it very difficult for me to talk. I hope your machine understands me.”
It’s not that bad, I say. Would he like to listen to himself?
“No!” It’s a sort of yelp. “I would be embarrassed.”
The gilt piano once belonged to Judy Garland. I eye a cluster of framed photographs on the top, expecting celeb pictures. Bill and Hillary Clinton are there, standing with Guccione’s current girlfriend, April. But the rest are snaps. One shows Guccione’s father, another his son Nick and a grandchild. Another shows “my driver, playing pool.”
There are no pictures of the elder sons, Bob Junior or Tony.
Bob Junior was an executive at Penthouse when he launched his music magazine, Spin, to take aim at Rolling Stone as Penthouse had taken aim at Playboy. Spin was funded by Bob Senior and came out in 1985. It floundered for three years, and Guccione père withdrew his dough. Fils kept the title, secured backing, and the magazine found its feet to such an extent that he sold it in 1997 for $43 million. Bob Senior has refused to see or speak to Bob Junior for eighteen years.
Tony Guccione went to Harvard, where he was something of a swell, joining the Spee, a dining club that numbered JFK among its former members. “My father saw himself as a Joe Kennedy—the founder of a dynasty,” Tony says. He graduated magna cum laude in 1986 and joined General Media, his father’s corporate umbrella. Eight years later, he was executive vice-president and in line for the leadership. But when he advised his father and Kathy Keeton that he saw signs of approaching financial catastrophe, neither was disposed to pay attention.
Incessant clashes drove Tony to resign in June 1996, and he started Fad, a video fashion–cum–pop culture venture. Six months later, his father sued him. “He sued because I had committed the worst crime in his eyes. I walked away! That particular action was unequivocally adjudicated by the judge in my favor,” Tony says. “It’s a sensitive matter. These interfamilial disputes just fester over time. It was unnecessary and avoidable.”
Bob Junior, who had frequently tried to make contact with his father without success, again tried to visit him when he was being operated on for the cancer. Again, he wasn’t allowed in.
I ask Bob Junior why his father was so implacable.