article

10.22.10

My Pal the Porn King

The Daily Beast’s Anthony Haden-Guest remembers Bob Guccione, his friend, boss, and publishing’s tragic hero.

The Bob Guccione I came to know in London in the mid 1960s would not have struck anybody, I think, as raw material for tragedy. He was a London-American in that time when Americans were an extraordinarily active ingredient in what John Crosby (an American) was just about to dub “Swinging London”: avatars of counter-culture mixed with moviemakers encouraged by tax-breaks; London had already been nicknamed Hollywood-on-Thames.

Gallery: View Penthouse's Ground-Breaking Covers

Bob Guccione’s presence was at first modest. An unsuccessful painter and a cartoonist very much in the manner of New York cartoonist/satirist Jules ( Sick! Sick! Sick!) Feiffer, he was married to an Englishwoman, Muriel, and supported his family by running a dry cleaner’s. Then he hit upon a likelier model to imitate: Hugh Hefner.

And an imitation Penthouse was. A “playboy’s” penthouse! Get it?

Bob Guccione himself, though, was an original. Victor Lownes, Hefner’s man in London, was (and is) a formidable social operator, a riding-to-hounds kind of guy with a country house where he gave swell parties frequented by upper-class Brit hipsters. Brooklyn-born Guccione wore sheen-y shirts open to just above the navel, and chains, plus a medallion, which were so central to his self-imagining that some years later I was startled to see him in a buttoned-up shirt and tie (I was quickly reassured to see the outlines of the medallion and chain beneath). And that was terrific.

Guccione had great plans. I accompanied him and a covey of Pets, Penthouse’s Bunny-equivalents, to an island off the coast of what was then Yugoslavia, where he planned to establish an outpost of empire. This was for an article in a British magazine. In 1968 he took the battle directly into Playboy territory, the United States, and was soon hugely successful there. He founded magazines with no sexual orientation, like the science/sci-fi magazine, Omni, the health title, Longevity, and an adult woman’s magazine, Viva, for which he hired a young British fashion editor, Anna Wintour. In 1982 he made the Forbes 400; his net worth was listed at $400 million, a sum to which he added substantially in 1984 when he ran pictures of Vanessa Williams, which later cost her the crown as the first African-American Miss America.

The battle between Guccione and Hefner intensified in the early 1970s, and it was Guccione who first “went pink.” “We introduced lesbian pictorials,” he told me years later. “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.”

Ironically, Guccione was replicating Hefner’s strategy when Hefner had pitted Playboy against his former employer, Arnold Gingrich and Esquire. Esquire had run tasteful cheesecake by Alberto Vargas and the like along with the short stories by Quality Lit writers, so Hefner simply made the Playboy girls tastier and cheesier alongside his version of Quality Lit. Gingrich had taken the high road. But now Hefner, faced with Guccione’s challenge, had to take the low road. I followed the trajectory of this conflict between Hefner, Guccione and a bevy of budding soft-core publishing moguls, including Rocky Aoki, in a feature in Rolling Stone: “The Pubic Hair Papers.”

Those were the palmy days, but where Hefner’s imperium was klieg-lit and public/private, a zone of free-loading famous faces and Bunnies glugging good red wine, the lord of the raunchier mag, if not yet a recluse, led a more sedate life, especially once he moved from London to a Manhattan town house on East 67th in the mid 1970s. This was one of the biggest private dwellings in New York City. It was here that Guccione hung a huge art collection, which included an El Greco, a van Gogh, two Degas pastels, a Leger, a Modigliani nude and a Rose Period Picasso. I went there from time to time, even once to a party, but it was very much a business party. Yes, there was a swimming pool in its lower depths but I never saw it in use once.

What was it that doomed Bob Guccione? Thin-skinned, vain and headstrong… That jaunt to the isle off the Yugoslav coast, the resort that didn’t happen, had been the prequel to a succession of colossally unwise business ventures. Hefner, at the urging of Lownes, produced Macbeth, the Roman Polanski version. Ken Tynan worked on the script. In 1979 Guccione produced Caligula with a script by Gore Vidal, which starred Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and Sir John Gielgud. It was too hard-core for distributors and set Guccione back $17.5 million.

Other mishaps included plunging much moolah into an Atlantic City gaming casino for which he never got a license, and ventures into weird science, like Cold Fusion, which is a 21st-century version of turning shit into gold via the Alchemists’ Stone.

And this: In the summer of 1997 I was invited to the town house, where the other guest was Sue Lloyd, the former British model-and-actress-turned-painter, an old friend of both mine and of Kathy Keeton, Guccione’s long-time inamorata and eventual wife. We were celebrating the publication in Penthouse of “The $200 Billion Cancer Scam.”

The gist of the article was that Kathy Keeton, who had been diagnosed as having “galloping breast cancer” and was given six weeks to live, had survived two years because she had refused chemotherapy. Instead she was relying on a $3-a-day treatment discovered by a scientist on whom the magazine had been keen. The scam under attack had been chemotherapy itself, and the piece mentioned that Guccione was mounting a class-action suit against the National Cancer Institute. Keeton died that September. But there was that extra two years.

Alan M. Dershowitz: Why I Admired a Porn KingThat same mixture of hubris and thin-skinned-ness destroyed his relations with two of his three sons. The last time I saw Bob Guccione he was still in the East Side townhouse; there was a photograph of his son Nicky on the piano, but no proof of the existence of his other sons, Bob, Junior, and Tony. He had supported Bob, Jr., financially when the son left Penthouse to start the music magazine Spin, which came out in 1985 but wallowed in the doldrums for a while, until Bob pere withdrew his money. The two had not spoken again when I met with Bob in 1997. But Spin had done OK. Indeed, Bob, Jr., had sold the magazine in 1997 for $43 million.

haden-guest-bob-guccione_135756
Bob Guccione poses with ladies in 1974. (Globe Photos, ZumaPress / Newscom)

Tony left Penthouse that same year to launch a fashion venture on video. Around then he asked me to his loft and urged me to write a book about his family. It would not (I gathered) be a bouquet. I declined. In 1999, the father had the son evicted from that loft and sued him under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

I wrote for Penthouse now and again, my most memorable assignment perhaps being the coverage of Jasmin St. Claire’s Gangbang, which netted the actress much more than had her previous job in financial services. The magazine was getting more and more fetishistic. A space alien who relied on it for information would have decided that peeing ranked highest amongst the erotic experiences of the human race.

I would see Bob from time to time. But the man who was going to squash Playboy was bankrupt at our last meeting. It was widely believed, and remains so, that the Internet and all its free pornography doomed him. Not so, he insisted to me. It had been bad loans and worse decisions handling them, reached by his management when he had been incapacitated by tongue cancer.

The battle between Guccione and Hefner intensified in the early 1970s, and it was Guccione who first “went pink.”

I wrote an article about Bob in the February 9, 2004, issue of New York magazine and some of the above echoes it. I thought it was fair, indeed affectionate, but Bob, who was duly turfed out of his townhouse, never spoke to me again. He may have been thin-skinned and vain, but I’m glad I knew him. And, yes, he was capable of tragedy. He lived it.

My article was published in New York magazine and some of the above echoes it. I thought it was fair, indeed warm, but Bob Senior, who was duly turfed out of his townhouse, never spoke to me again. But that’s all right.

Bob Junior released a statement this afternoon: "My father was a great man. He was a revolutionary publisher and an advocate for free speech and the rights of Vietnam Veterans when both were shamefully abused. He was full of vision and passion and humor, larger than life but intensely private, a mogul and a corny romantic. Most of all, he was a great father. He will never not be with me." So that’s all right too.

Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.