The Porn King in Winter

Bob Guccione Photo: AP Worldwide Photos

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.

“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.”

Paul Quatrochi offered Guccione $20 million for his Picasso in the late eighties. He turned the offer down, saying the painting was worth $40 million. Poor timing. The bills for the excesses had been piling in, and Sotheby’s repossessed the canvas in 1992, selling it to Jafri, the brother of the sultan of Brunei, for $9 million. “It was a fantastic investment!” Guccione says with defensive ebullience. All the modern art went. The Degas too. “I miss that the most,” he says.

It is widely believed that it was the deluge of porn on the Internet that scuppered Penthouse. Not so, says Guccione. “In 1992, I had colossal tax problems. I had to borrow $80 million. And I had never borrowed a dime in my life,” he says. “I paid the interest every year without fail. I never missed a payment. I reduced it to $50 million.”

A couple of years ago, the company agreed to start paying off the principal as well as the interest. Guccione claims that he was incapacitated with cancer at the time and wasn’t party to the negotiations.

“Those bond-holders literally strangled us,” he says. “They sucked every penny out of the company. I was paying something like $12 million a year. It became too much.”

Could he have survived Internet porn?

“Sure. We were doing very well on the Internet ourselves. What I was doing was diversifying in my own industry to allow for these things that were harming us in terms of lost sales. We were expanding in some areas. Like clubs. Gentlemen’s clubs.”

Guccione’s other strategy to combat the new hard-core has been more questionable. In the later nineties, he decided to up the ante. “Pees on Earth,” the title of a double-page spread in December 1996, is self-explanatory. Urination, fetishwear, and “facials” have been on the menu monthly.

“That’s Mr. Guccione,” Lainie Speiser, the magazine’s director of promotions, says. “He likes to move it forwards. He thinks he’s taken it to the next level.” Tony Guccione says, “He loves to push the envelope. He’s a very defiant, aggressive person.”

Shortly before his departure, Tony Guccione advised a makeover for the magazine, a strategic toning down. Others agreed.

“It’s disgusting! I would say, ‘Bob, do we really need these pictures? They’re all about humiliation!’ ” says a former executive.

“He’d say, ‘That’s what readers want!’

“We would say that it wasn’t what the readers wanted, and it certainly wasn’t what the advertisers wanted.

“Bob would say, ‘When people tell me I’m wrong—that’s when I know I’m right.’ ”

The result was catastrophic. Bill Clinton, of all people, had Penthouse tossed from military stores. And it is even possible that the publisher didn’t take much pleasure in executing the strategy himself. He used to shoot a few pictorials every year but had not done so for six or seven years.

Why, I ask?

“I got tired of it,” he says, barely audibly.

Penthouse declared bankruptcy in August. Those circling around the property included the inevitable Larry Flynt, Jenna Jameson, and a Mexican property developer, who announced plans to build a Penthouse-themed resort. All wanted to keep Guccione in a prominent role.

Two weeks before Christmas, a hitherto unheard-of investors group, PET (as in Penthouse Pet) Capital Partners, who had been snapping up most of General Media’s bonds since late November, attended the bankruptcy-court hearing. “We appeared out of nowhere. This is a group of people I have worked with before,” says Marc Bell, a 36-year-old New York entrepreneur, now based in Boca Raton, who headed up the group. General Media had worked out a reorganization plan. Marc Bell’s group is prepared to pony up $50 million. They will learn if they’ve prevailed on February 26.

Bell is no stranger to media. In the early nineties, he published a health-and-fitness magazine, Vertex, and two giveaways, New York Weekly, which he describes as “the largest free-circulation newspaper on the Upper East and West Side,” and New York Metro Computer Press. Why Penthouse?

“It needed repair, it needed refunding,” says Bell, “but it’s a very well-known trademark. We’re going to look at various aspects. And Bob is going to stay with the magazine.” Bell envisions not so much a brand-new Penthouse as a return to an older model. “The goal is to try to bring the magazine back towards a wider audience. To make it less hard-core, to bring back more artistic photographs,” he says.

Bob Guccione will be the publisher emeritus for ten years, and editorial consultant, with a salary of half a million dollars a year. Whether the autocratic publisher will be amenable to taking instruction is another matter. The long-running battle for the townhouse may also be inching toward resolution. This had been spared from the bankruptcy of General Media, as his personal property, but he had mortgaged both it and the country house long ago to a New Jersey company, Kennedy Funding, when he was financing the casino in Atlantic City. Kennedy Funding now owns the townhouse, and Guccione may be evicted as soon as February 6. Robert Feinstein, Bob Guccione’s lawyer, takes a more sanguine view. “Either there is going to be the mother of all litigations or we’ll reach a deal,” he says, cheerfully. The day before we were to photograph Guccione, I called to confirm the time and was startled to hear he had made a rare foray from East 67th Street—he had gone out for a haircut. A shoot is a shoot.

Guccione gave me a tour as the photographer was setting up. But even as he catalogued the details, he acknowledged that his hold on the place was precarious. “I’ve never held on to my money. I gave it away,” he said. Then he struck a pose between one of Napoleon’s black lead sphinxes and the much-mended classical sculpture of the god of wine, Bacchus. “I’ve managed to hold on to a few things,” he said, managing a smile—a fainter smile than would be allowed a Penthouse Pet.

The Porn King in Winter