10.22.10

Why I Admired a Porn King

Bob Guccione was a nice guy who did things that some people thought were not nice, says Alan Dershowitz, who defended Penthouse against charges of obscenity in the Bible Belt.

I first met Bob Guccione, who died this week, when he asked me to defend Penthouse magazine against charges of obscenity in the Deep South and the Midwest. Such prosecutions tended to be instituted in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Penthouse’s pictures offended not only many on the religious right (some of whom I’m sure enjoyed them in private) but also many on the feminist left (very few of whom I’m sure enjoyed them). Notwithstanding the widespread outrage at Penthouse’s graphic portrayals of women and couples, we won every single case, because the First Amendment trumps offensiveness in the United States.

Gallery: View Penthouse's Ground-Breaking Covers

Many feminists, most especially the late Andrea Dworkin and Professor Catherine McKinnon, reviled me for defending “a pornographer.” Dworkin called me a “pornocrat” and was photographed giving me the middle finger for defending the obscene. Civil libertarians tended to support me on the ground that the First Amendment protects bad people who do bad things. The quotation most often associated with that position was by H.L. Mencken, who famously said:

“The trouble about fighting for human freedom is that you have to spend much of your life defending sons of bitches: for oppressive laws are always aimed at them originally, and oppression must be stopped in the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

Although there is undoubtedly some truth to that position—I have defended Nazis, Stalinists and other assorted bigots—it does not apply to Bob Guccione. Bob was a nice guy who did things that some people thought were not nice. I think what he did was none of anybody’s business except those who enjoyed his magazine. He never forced anybody to look at the pictures, and the pictures didn’t harm anybody. I know that this last view is controversial and I have debated it with numerous feminists over the years. I will be happy to continue to debate it, as I did in the many columns I wrote for Penthouse magazine and in the testimony I gave before the Meese Commission on pornography, but that is not the purpose of this column. (For a full expression of my views on pornography, see the chapter in my book Shouting Fire, “Why Pornography” pages 163-175.) The purpose of this column is to tell its readers about Bob Guccione, the man. Since he led a relatively solitary life and was seen largely through the lens of his controversial magazine, not very many people got to know him. He was not Hugh Hefner, who used his house to exemplify his sexual values.

The guests at his dinners were philosophers, British barristers, poets, occasional athletes (mostly boxers), and artists. I don’t remember any politicians or Hollywood celebrities.

Bob’s house—an elegant mansion on the East Side of New York—was his private refuge from the world. He invited people to dinner and I was a frequent guest. The only naked woman I ever saw in the house was rising out of a seashell in the Botticelli painting that hung on the wall near his marble staircase. The guests at his dinners were philosophers, British barristers, poets, occasional athletes (mostly boxers), and artists. I don’t remember any politicians or Hollywood celebrities. The talk around the table was serious, often revolving around the wonderful art we were privileged to see throughout his home. He loved early 20th-century paintings, especially by Modigliani, Picasso, Leger, and Rouault. He had so much art that much of it was stacked up in his office.

In addition to the art of the great masters, Bob had a collection of his own paintings, most of which were done when he was a young man living in Europe and exploring various forms of painting. His paintings were exhibited in several museums and some hung in his office.

Anthony Haden-Guest: My Pal the Porn King Guccione believed deeply in what he was doing to expand boundaries of sexually explicit photography, as well as his efforts to expand the boundaries of medicine through his other magazines and the research he supported. We often disagreed about both, but I never questioned the seriousness of his views. Bob was a serious guy. He didn’t laugh much. He always seemed to be on a mission. Some of these missions succeeded, especially during the early years of Penthouse. Others failed, most particularly his efforts to build casinos and expand his business into other areas. These failures resulted in predators coming after him with a vengeance. They took his homes, the art he had collected over the years and even his furniture. Bob could live with that, because he knew that taking financial risks had consequences. What he could not bear was his creditors taking his own art—the painting he himself had done as a young man. Although these paintings did not have enormous commercial value, they meant everything to Bob. He wanted them around him as he lay dying, but his creditors denied him his last wish. Bob Guccione died fighting for his right to maintain control over his own artistic output. It was a good fight, and although he died fighting it, the fight is not yet over. I hope his family eventually gets to enjoy the paintings that were so much a part of Bob’s soul.

Professor Alan M. Dershowitz is a Brooklyn native who has been called “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer” and one of its “most distinguished defenders of individual rights.” He is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He has also published more than 100 articles in magazines and journals, and more than 300 of his articles have appeared in syndication in 50 national daily newspapers. Professor Dershowitz is the author of 27 fiction and nonfiction works. His new novel, The Trials of Zion , will be published by Hachette Book Group on October 1, 2010