Closeup/Media

Now voyeur

Obviously, Bob Guccione had a better idea

Hubert de Santana February 6 1978
Closeup/Media

Now voyeur

Obviously, Bob Guccione had a better idea

Hubert de Santana February 6 1978

Now voyeur

Closeup/Media

Obviously, Bob Guccione had a better idea

Hubert de Santana

Bob Guccione is a man who believes in show and presence. The multimillionaire founder, editor and publisher of Penthouse magazine is wearing a suede jacket, velveteen slacks and beige Italian boots. His white shirt with its huge butterfly collar is open almost to the waist, revealing seven gold chains with assorted medallions and a Penthouse key nestling against the ruddy skin of his deep, nearly smooth chest. The cuffs of his shirt are turned back. A heavy gold bracelet dangles from his right wrist; on his left wrist is a gold Piaget watch. The face of the watch is the iridescent eye of a peacock’s tail feather. His hair has been darkened artificially. Curled up on the seat beside him is the Pet of the Year, Victoria Lynn Johnson. Guccione’s image is Byronic and narcissistic, and on a first meeting he gives the impression of being a man who has had a lifelong love affair with himself.

We are in a chauffeur-driven limousine, heading for Hamilton, Ontario, where Guccione is to make a television appearance. In the television studios the overzealous application of makeup has left his eye lashes frosted with powder, and the theatricality of his appearance is heightened. The show goes well, and on the way back to Toronto Guccione loosens up a little. He is annoyed and baffled by the hassles his magazine has been having in Canada. Several pages of a pictorial spread were tom out of the May, 1977, issue, after an Ottawa bureaucrat named John Merner made the Delphic pronouncement that “public opinion is anti oral sex.”

The September, 1977, issue of Penthouse also ran into trouble. More than 85,000 copies were seized and after a trial, which lasted from August 25 to September 6, in Brampton, Ontario, Judge Chester Misener ruled that Penthouse was obscene and the seized copies should be destroyed.

Guccione has appealed the decision. He directs his anger at Roy McMurtry, Ontario’s Attorney General, for he interprets the Canadian campaign against Penthouse as cynical political manipulation. “But McMurtry and most politicians like him are terribly naive. In attacking it he guarantees getting his name in the papers and getting a lot of interest from different groups, but he is also alienating as many people, if not more, because of the total readership of Penthouse, a magazine which is bought by more Canadians than any other magazine in Canada.”*

Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione was born in Brooklyn on De-

cember 17, 1930. He grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey, where he attended a local high school and Blair Academy, a fashionable prep school. His father, Anthony, was an accountant, and the family lived comfortably. He was brought up a Roman Catholic and was an altar boy. At one time he thought he would be a priest, but three months in a seminary convinced him his vocation lay elsewhere. His high IQ brought him many scholarship offers when he graduated from Blair

in 1948, but he turned them all down. He went to Italy instead because he wanted to be a painter. He was married at 18, but the marriage broke up after one year and the arrival of one child. Guccione stayed in Rome for 3Vi years and got involved in the Italian film industry, doing bit parts and some dubbing. He moved to Tangier, where he met an English girl named Muriel Hudson. They drifted together * Wishful thinking.Latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show average Canadian sales of Penthouse at 445,000 copies per month, well behind Reader’s Digest ( 1.25 million), TV Guide (more than a million per week), Chatelaine (one million) and Maclean’s (676,000 every two weeks).

through North Africa and Spain to the south of France, where Guccione haunted the cafés, doing caricatures and pencil portraits, or reading palms (in five languages).

A year later he moved to Germany, where he became such a good chess player that he reckons he could have earned a living as a chess hustler. His wanderings took him to Paris, London and, in 1954, back to America. He married Muriel, and his first child by his second marriage was born in 1955. Three more children followed.

Guccione published cartoons, designed greeting cards and wrote a syndicated column for college newspapers. In his early twenties his weekly income was in the region of $1,500. But after four years he returned to Paris to paint. He was soon penniless and moved to London, where he joined a dry-cleaning firm which had been in receivership for years.

He then talked his way onto the staff of the weekly London American and was soon appointed managing editor. On that day the rest of the staff resigned in a body. Undeterred, Guccione hired a tiny staff and ran a no-frills operation. But the paper folded for lack of advertising support, and Guccione learned an important lesson: advertisers are fickle, and a strong paper should be able to survive on circulation revenue alone. It made him “very newsstand oriented,” and that is how he noticed that Hugh Hefner’s Playboy had no serious competition in the field of glossy magazines for men.

Here was the turning point that made him abandon the mirage that had tantalized him for more than half his life. The pull toward a life of art had been enormous, its strength visible even now as Guccione ruminates in his lavish New York apartment: “I grew up as a painter, an artist, and there’s nothing closer to God’s earth than an artist. His destiny is to find little truisms in life, to embellish them and make them visible to others.” Nevertheless, when fame as a painter was not forthcoming, Guccione seized his chance for fortune in the world of men’s glossies. He chose his field carefully—it wasn’t Esquire or Field And Stream he went up against—and his failure in art would be quickly compensated by his enormous financial success as a publisher. He chose the tortoise as his symbol and confidently predicted that it would eventually overtake the Hefner hare.

Guccione could find no investors so he decided to raise subscription money with a prepublication brochure. A fashion photographer taught him the rudiments of

photography in one afternoon. The next day Guccione photographed three women in the nude and designed a brochure that showed eight delectable views of their bodies. He persuaded a printer and a paper manufacturer to give him credit, then posted 25,000 brochures to people on a mailing list that had never been updated. The result was that his brochures went to doctors, clergymen, schoolgirls, old-age pensioners, MPS’ wives. Before long questions were asked in the House of Commons about the new flood of pornography which had washed over England’s green and pleasant land.

Guccione was charged under Section II of the Post Office Act, which prohibits the sending of indecent matter through Her Majesty’s mail. Since it was not a criminal charge the police could not enter his home to serve him with the writ. He remained in a state of siege for two weeks, editing his new magazine over the phone while a skeleton staff worked to get it together. Then he surrendered, appeared in court, and was fined £.110. The first issue of Penthouse, with a print run of 120,000 copies, appeared in London early in 1965 and was sold out in five days. Guccione was on his way. “It was a guerrilla action from the word go,” he says proudly.

But it was a long time before he could reap the rewards of his entrepreneurial audacity. Advertisers showed a great reluctance to have their wares displayed amid acres of skin. Enter Kathy Keeton, a South African who was an “exotic dancer” in a night club when she met Guccione. She sold advertising space by day and danced at night and within three years she had built a solid base of advertising support. Kathy Keeton is a tall, elegant blond who is now the associate publisher of Penthouse, as well as the editor and associate publisher of Viva, a skin magazine for women, started by Guccione in 1973. Her present salary is in the region of $335,000 a year. Guccione, who is divorced from his first wife and legally separated from his second, has lived with Keeton for the past 13 years.

The circulation of Penthouse was 180,000 when Guccione brought it across the Atlantic in 1969 to challenge Playboy on its own ground. “We’re going rabbit hunting,” he announced in a full page New York Times ad which showed the famous Playboy bunny in the cross hairs of a riflesight. Playboy was already a 16-year-old institution, with a circulation of more than five million. But in just 15 months, Guccione’s U.S. circulation rose from 235,000 to 500,000. By the end of 1973, it was an incredible 3.8 million. Playboy's circulation peaked in 1972 at more than seven million. But sales have dipped steadily since then, and this year it cut its circulation guarantee to 4.5 million—exactly the same as Penthouse. The tortoise has not only caught up with the hare, it has taken the lead at the newsstands.

Today the total worldwide sales of Pent-

house are five million or more. Monthly sales in Canada are in the region of 445,000. On an average at least three people, mostly males in the 18 to 40 group, peruse each copy.

What does the person who spends two dollars for a copy of Penthouse get for his money? He gets a generous piece of pornon-the-cob, garnished with good fiction and investigative journalism. Aside from

the pictorial spreads, the most popular section of the magazine is Penthouse Forum, a monthly collection of letters from priapic readers who describe their sexual experiences in drooling detail. Guccione finds these letters “insightful,” and so they are. They give an insight into what human beings are capable of when armed only with their imaginations and their genitals. The letters also prove that the penis angst of the North American male is alive and well. To judge by the pathetic phallacy of

these letters, male Penthouse readers are extraordinarily well endowed and are able to defy normal human biology by having innumerable and inexhaustible orgasms. Women readers seem to be equally insatiable; they are also unfathomable, in every sense of the word. There are letters that extol the delights of bondage, sadomasochism, incest and sexual devices. Not surprisingly, most are printed without name and address. But they appear, even under close inspection at Penthouse’s New York office, to be genuine submissions from the reading public, though they may be products more of imagination than experience.

What is disturbing about these letters is the pervading tone of moral anarchy. They describe sex without emotional commitment; by putting the emphasis only on experimentation and gratification, they reduce the sexual act to a mechanical, animalistic exercise. This attitude is carried over to the pictorial spreads in Penthouse, many of which are done by Guccione himself. The sequence of pictures is boringly predictable. Women are always shown sprawling naked, examining their breasts as if checking for malignant lumps, fingering their nipples and genitals as though they had discovered them for the first time. They lie back with their eyes closed and their mouths open, an expression which could be diagnosed as terminal ennui or adenoidal sleep. To me these pictures are vulgar in the extreme, a charge Guccione flatly repudiates. “The truly vulgar picture will never appear in Penthouse," he declares, his voice vibrant.

Most of Guccione’s models are lens virgins who have never been photographed in the nude before. A centrefold model—the Pet of the Month—is paid $3,000, plus a $10,000 retainer fee for a year’s promotional tours and appearances. Guccione’s best photographic work was done in the early Seventies, when he managed to combine romanticism and eroticism in fine, lyrical pictures. His latest work shows an obsessive preoccupation with the vagina. Why?

“The vagina is enjoying a vogue at the moment because it’s like a brand-new toy,” he explains. “People never saw it before. As soon as people know what the vagina’s all about they’ll be able to integrate it back into the woman again.” Guccione keeps a straight face as he says this, and I realize that he is struggling to rid himself of his own residual inhibitions, possibly left over from his Catholic upbringing.

There is a serious side to Penthouse. Every issue carries fiction—recent contributors have included Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and J. P. Donleavy—and investigative journalism which is often first-rate.

In 1975, Guccione ran a story on Rancho La Costa, a $ 100-million resort in California with a clientele that included Richard Nixon and U.S. senators as well as some of the leading figures in organized crime. The authors named the four “syndicate blue-

bloods” who own the spa—which led to a $630-million libel suit, the most colossal in publishing history. Guccione has spent one million dollars in legal fees and the case has not yet come to trial.

The magazine “declared war” on heroin in 1969 and has remained anti drug ever since. Guccione also campaigns on behalf of the Vietnam veterans, who he feels were shabbily treated by their country.

But Guccione cannot allow himself to become too solemn or he will scare off the pubic hair brigade; and if he gets any raunchier he may offend fastidious readers, along with his advertisers and distributors. It is the classic dilemma of every merchant in the skin trade, a market which is now glutted with magazines trying to outsmut one another.

Since 1973 Guccione has lived in an expensive apartment on Manhattan’s upper East Side. It is crammed with bric-a-brac, most of which was owned by the late Judy Garland. There are floor to ceiling mirrors, a gilded piano, chandeliers and hundreds of tortoises of everything from ceramic to crystal. The dining table is made of manycolored marble, and in the centre is a tall fruit stand with recumbent lions at its base. The bananas and oranges on the stand are genuine; the grapes are plastic. This juxtaposition of the real and the ersatz is typical of the man and his magazine.

For Bob Guccione is a walking anthology of contradictions. He enjoys being a celebrity and revels in publicity. But the artist in him longs for solitude. In private it quickly becomes apparent that the boundless vanity and machismo which he flaunts in public are a mask to disguise his vulnerability. He is not a gregarious man. He entertains little, and surrounds himself not with nubile young women but with family members and three dogs—gigantic Rhodesian ridgebacks. Intelligent and articulate, Guccione is a warm and witty raconteur with a limitless fund of stories and anecdotes.

Guccione adores women, and the feeling seems to be reciprocated. But it is a Guccione axiom that “all men are basically voyeurs, and all women are exhibitionists.” He makes millions provjng it.

The jaded, world-weary hedonist of the public imagination is in reality a puritan whose politics (and perhaps his morals) are deeply conservative. Having made his money by peddling pom, he hankers after social and intellectual respectability.

Bob Guccione is the sole owner of Penthouse International Ltd., a private company which he estimates is worth between $200 and $250 million. He has turned it into a family business. This year Penthouse alone will gross $30 million before tax. Guccione also publishes Forum (worldwide circulation, 1,980,000), Viva and Photo World; two new magazines will be introduced next year. He is giving serious consideration to bringing out a Canadian edition of Penthouse.

Guccione’s investments in the movie in-

dustry have paid handsome dividends. He had a large financial stake in such hit films as Chinatown and The Longest Yard.

He will find it hard to find the time. He works 20-hour days, looking after the business interests of his publishing empire, attending to his photography, editing and rewriting copy for Penthouse. Guccione eats neither breakfast nor lunch and fuels himself on Tab and coffee. At night he sorts through thousands of color slides, selecting the ones that will make up the pictorial spreads in Penthouse. He gets by on an average of four hours' sleep.

Guccione is a dynamo of nervous energy, but this brutal schedule has

exacted its toll. Though his six-foot frame is sturdy and his stride is still lithe and tigerish, his face is lined with fatigue and there are insomniac wrinkles below his eyes. (His photographs invariably make him look younger than his 47 years.)

Has it all been worthwhile? The answer is an emphatic yes. Slipping effortlessly into his favorite role of the Merchant of Venus, he says fervently: “If we could get people to be aware of the beauty of their own bodies, and of the whole world of pleasure and satisfaction that can exist between two people who have nothing else going for them, then we’re really accomplishing something.”^