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The Porn King in Winter


“It’s not about money,” Bob Junior says tersely. “I’ve tried to reconcile. But I think it’s beyond healing. And I’m sad about it. I still love him. And I do admire him. He’s a very misunderstood man. On many levels.”

Tony Guccione believes that it was crucial that his father saw himself as Sicilian. “The Sicilian persona is that they are able to cut off a limb without remorse,” he says. “My name was on one limb. And when he made that decision, it was as if there was no retreat from it. I will not cross that line! It was integral to his sense of self. I think he saw it as a sign of strength.”

Bob Guccione was born in Brooklyn in 1930. His father, Anthony, was an accountant for a neon firm. Both parents had Sicilian roots—his mother’s family came from near Palermo. A seminarian and an altar boy, Guccione says he was destined for the priesthood, but testosterone kicked in and he married at 18. The couple had a daughter, Tonina, but the marriage failed, and Guccione, who had wanted to be an artist since childhood, took off for Europe, Lost Generation–style. It was the early fifties. He painted in Paris, Rome, and Morocco. He met a darkly pretty English girl, Muriel, fell in love, and went with her to London. They married, and Guccione took a day job, managing a chain of dry cleaners. “He came up with a very ingenious promotion,” Bob Junior remembers. “He hired out-of-work actors to picket them, complaining that the prices were too low.”

Muriel also contributed. “My mother had a mail-order business sending out modest pinups,” Tony Guccione says. “My father saw the possibilities.”

He took a job as a cartoonist at a weekly called The London American but soon became obsessed with the commercial potential of the sexual frontier and kept pressing eyeball-grabbing material on Derek Jameson, another editor at the magazine. “Derek said, ‘Bob, we can’t put tits and arse on our front page. We’ll all end up in the nick!’ ” says Barbara Taylor Bradford, a writer who was then working at the weekly. In due course, Guccione showed Jameson and Bradford the dummy for a new magazine. “It was beautiful. He was very professional with everything,” she says.

He asked their opinion.

“I said, ‘Bob! It looks like a total copy of Playboy!’ ” says Bradford.

“He said, ‘If there’s one, there’s always room for two!’ He was looking for backers. In the end, he backed it himself.”

Guccione says he had an overdraft of £700 by the time he published the first issue.

It was 1965. He called it Penthouse.

"We were the first to show full frontal nudity, the first to expose the clitoris. HBO would not have gone as far if it wasn't for us."

There was a scathing review of an exotic dancer, Kathy Keeton, in Penthouse No. 2. “We put down the show and put her down. Based on a press release,” Guccione says. “Her manager called me up. Screaming down the phone about ‘How could I be so crude and so insensitive about such a fine artist?’ ”

Guccione checked out the show. The young editor was taken backstage. “All the girls had their mirrors and pictures and pinups and horoscopes and all that. And Kathy’s room was absolutely spartan,” Guccione says. “There wasn’t a piece of paper anywhere. Except she had that week’s Financial Times piled together on her table. And she had some science books. She had read them. And science was an avocation with me. I was amazed by what I saw.

“I invited her to come and work for me. I don’t remember how much she was making onstage. Probably £150 a week. And the average secretary was making £5 a week then. But she said yes.

“I said, ‘I can’t pay you very much.’

“She said, ‘That’s okay.’

“I said, ‘£10 a week?’

“She said okay.

“I said, ‘I’ll give you £5 a week, and I’ll owe you £5 a week.’

“She said okay.”

Kathy Keeton was soon managing the financial side. They finally married in 1990.

As the competition with Playboy heated up, Penthouse happily took the low road. Penthouse was breaking taboo after taboo. “We began to show pubic hair, which was a big breakthrough. At the time, this was referred to as the Pubic Wars. Because after about nine months of denial, Playboy started to put wisps of pubic hair in the pictures.

“And we became more graphic. We introduced lesbian pictorials. As a matter of fact, everything new in men’s magazines—everything!—was started by us. We were the first to show full frontal nudity. The first to expose the clitoris completely. I think we made a very serious contribution to the liberalization of laws and attitudes. HBO would not have gone as far as it does if it wasn’t for us breaking the barriers. Much that has happened now in the Western world with respect to sexual advances is directly due to steps that we took.”

Guccione had shot many of the Penthouse pictorials using a Nikon 35-mm., and there were always rumors that the Gucciones had an “open” marriage, but many in a position to know doubt that Guccione was predatory. “Bob told me he knew he’d made it when he didn’t have to sleep with the girls he photographed,” says writer Lynn Barber. “At first he had always had to promise them a relationship. And sometimes I had to chaperone the girls to the other photographers. I was called the stylist, but really it was because Bob wanted to make sure that nothing happened.”

The publisher’s deep pockets allowed him to follow Playboy into movies. Guccione spent $17.5 million producing Caligula. Gore Vidal worked on the script. When his movie tanked, Guccione complained that critics saw him as a pornographer. He announced plans for two other pornodramas: a biopic about Catherine the Great and a feature based on Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

He also indulged the aesthete. Among the illustrations in his first art book—a present from an aunt—was a Degas pastel of a woman bathing. “Years later, when the book was all tattered, I preserved that picture by tearing it out. I carried it with me everywhere,” he says. “When I was painting in Europe, I had it folded in my wallet.”

Then he saw the original at a London auction preview. “I said to Kathy, ‘That is ours! Come what may—that is ours!’ ” he says. “The next day, I waited till just before the end until I made my bid. Then I just sat there with my hand up. Just to let everybody know that they were just pushing the price up and if I happened to bring my hand down they would be stuck with it. That’s how I got the Degas.

“It was one of his very best. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art put on a Degas retrospective, they borrowed it and put it on posters, postcards. They made it the cornerstone.”

Guccione was distancing himself from the Hefner style as quickly as he could go. “People who don’t know me think badly of me,” he said. “They think I’m like Hefner. But the fact is, I’m not a Hefner. When I give parties, I give birthday parties. I don’t give parties with stars and celebrities. I don’t have that lifestyle, and I never had.”

The early years in New York were grand—he bought the townhouse in 1975—but increasingly remote. Guccione went in to the magazine less and less often. Barbara Taylor Bradford and her husband would sometimes attend one of the rare dinner parties. “He liked me to sit next to him,” she says. “He was socially shy. The designer Pauline Trigère might be there. It was mostly his advertisers. One time, I was in the study and one of the paintings stacked against the wall fell over.”

“Bob. Is that a Van Gogh?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “But it’s okay. Canvas is very strong.”

By the late eighties, Guccione’s art collection was said to be worth as much as $200 million, depending on who made the valuation. “Museum directors were calling and asking him to black-tie dinners. Malcolm Forbes would call him,” says Paul Quatrochi, an art dealer who worked with him occasionally. “He felt that he knew both sides. He was a buccaneer and an enfant terrible who could also debate you about the First Amendment. He told me once: ‘If I die today, I have lived a full life.’ He felt he was a whole man.”

A wholly private man, too. “I was always a bit shy of the limelight,” Guccione says. “If I was caught in it, I rose to the occasion.” Peter Bloch says, “If you did see Bob at a party, he would stand in a corner and talk about international politics. Then he would leave after a few minutes. Bob is a total workaholic.”

Guccione’s ambitions only grew. “He’s got a larger-than-life, Citizen Kane ambition. And Penthouse was his platform. The Vanessa Williams cover in 1984 was the inflection point,” Tony Guccione says. Meaning the zenith. Miss America naked! “It sold 5 million issues. Penthouse was outselling Playboy at the newsstands. In the early to mid-eighties, they were selling two and a half to three million a month.” The cover price was $4 at the time.

Tony Guccione began to spot weaknesses in the operation. His grandfather, an ordinary accountant, was the secretary-treasurer. His aunt was the office manager. “Nepotism is one thing. The need to function well is another. The company was making many millions a year, but it was run like a corner deli,” he says. Pressures from Reagan’s America—the Meese Commission, the Reverend Donald Wildmon—were getting the mag tossed from such choice locations as the 7-Eleven store chain. But Bob Guccione and Kathy Keeton, cocooned in their self-created universe, slalomed from one misconceived project to another. There was the Atlantic City casino, still-born, partly because an on-site householder wouldn’t sell, and partly because the FBI was investigating Guccione for supposed Mafia ties and he couldn’t get a gaming license. Guccione was vindicated, but that was well over $160 million down the drain. General Media, namely Bob and Kathy, launched three magazines over the years: a women’s magazine, Viva; a science–cum–science fiction magazine, Omni; and the self-explanatory Longevity. They were efficiently published—Anna Wintour edited Viva—but they failed; Omni arguably because Guccione and Keaton were stubbornly determined to achieve a circulation base of 1 million, no matter what. Omni and Longevity burned through $100 million. Tony Guccione says, “My father would fund them till they keeled over. It was painful to watch these ventures stumbling—like watching somebody on a drinking binge.”

Omni also attests to the couple’s shared enthusiasm for the scientific fringe. Cold fusion, for instance. In 1989, two scientists claimed that they had proved experimentally that limitless free energy could be harmlessly produced from water. Mainstream scientists failed to duplicate the results and condemned the claims as piffle —which did not deter Bob and Kathy. “At one point, Penthouse magazine was supporting 82 scientists in San Diego,” Guccione told me. “Eighty-two scientists from around the world. We had Russians, Israelis, computer experts, physicists. They were all working on this fusion project.

“And we were doing very well. But we had reached a point where we needed to create a device which would ignite the plasma. That device would have a life of about one ten-thousandth of a second and cost about $35 million to build.

“And since I was the sole supporter, I couldn’t go any further.”

I learned about the final scientific adventure in the summer of 1997, when I was invited to a small party at the townhouse. The occasion was the publication in Penthouse of “The $200 Billion Cancer Scam.” The story was that Kathy Keeton, who had been diagnosed as having “galloping breast cancer” and given six weeks to live, had survived two years because she had refused chemotherapy. Instead, she was relying on hydrazine sulfate, a $3-a-day treatment discovered by a scientist about whom Penthouse had been enthusiastic, Dr. Joseph Gold. The article also announced that Guccione was planning to mount a class-action suit against the National Cancer Institute.

I still have that issue. It is dated September 1997, which was the month that Kathy Keeton died. Is Guccione still making contributions to health sciences? I ask.

“At the moment, I can’t make contributions to anything,” he says. “I’m broke.”

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