He rarely leaves "The House," a vast, vine-covered Upper East Side crypt that is the largest private residence in Manhattan. Confining himself to a modest suite of rooms on the mansion's third floor — a level from which he will sometimes not stir for weeks on end — he sleeps by day and works by night, hunched over a light table in a chaotic, paper-strewn office-garret, poring over slides of naked young women. He is at once a public-relations master and a recluse; a street-savvy cynic and a gullible optimist; a tough-guy heavy and a sensitive artist. At the pinnacle of his power, when he was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he even dreamed of defying death. Today — December 17th, 2003, which happens to be his seventy-third birthday — his business is bankrupt, his house up for sale, his personal debt in the tens of millions of dollars.
He is Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione, creator of Penthouse, the greatest adult magazine in history. Unlike Playboy's airbrushed, schoolboy take on boobs 'n' buns, Guccione's Penthouse made sex look like something that happens between real adults (who weren't your parents). Dark, decadent and more elegantly louche than Hugh Hefner's magazine ever dreamed of being, Penthouse played bad-boy Rolling Stones to Playboy's perky Beatles. A prime artifact of the glamorously gritty Seventies, Penthouse was the adult magazine that wormed its way into the kinkier recesses of the libidinal subconscious and, arguably, did more to liberate puritan America from its deepest sexual taboos than any magazine before or since. And in its moody visual style and muckraking, conspiracy-theory-heavy journalism, Penthouse also happened to be a direct reflection of its complex, unsmiling and mysterious creator. "Bob's a little an-hedonic," says Dick Teresi, former editor of Omni, the science magazine that Guccione published from 1978 to 1996. "There's a satanic sense, a darkness — even a Sicilian darkness that reminds me of all my Sicilian relatives. A paranoia. Playboy has fun-loving girls. But with Penthouse — there's a darkness. Well, that's Bob."
He has always made it a point to leave visitors waiting. Today is no exception. As I wait in the second-floor ballroom of his mansion, I have time to admire the white Icelandic goatskin rug underfoot, the hand-carved tables and chairs, the gilded eighteenth-century piano with ornate candelabras and the full-size mosaic-inlaid indoor swimming pool. After forty minutes, Guccione finally makes his entrance, descending a curving marble staircase from his office-and-bedroom suite. Despite all he has been through lately — and it's enough to crush a lesser man — he carries himself with an imperial swagger, shoulders back, head high: a Roman ruler sauntering to the lip of a balcony to survey his subjects below. He gives very few interviews these days, most by fax, almost none in person. The reason is obvious the moment he speaks.
"Very nice to meet you," he says in a mushy half-whisper that is almost indecipherable. The sad condition of Guccione's once-famous baritone is the result of cancer that has claimed most of his tongue, soft palate and epiglottis. A liquid nutrient mixture, Boost (administered by a tube attached to a peg implanted in his abdomen), is his sole means of sustenance now — a cruel circumstance for a man whose taste for female flesh was rivaled only by his pleasures as a gourmand and amateur chef.
"This," he says with a smile, as he settles into a chair opposite me, "is a time when you realize that food is even more important than sex." Except it comes out "Thish ish a chime innoo reelyshe food ish even maw potent thin sesh."
Otherwise, Guccione seems surprisingly well — youthful, strong, like a man half his age. A face-lift he had some years ago startles less in person than in photographs. His hairpiece is age-appropriate: a silver fox semipompadour. His lean, muscular body exudes more than a little of the old sexual threat: the famous chest, sun-lamped to a ruddy roast-beef hue, is exposed to midabdomen by a Greek fisherman's jersey, sleeves rolled high to expose powerful biceps. But reminders are everywhere of his diminishment. Gone from amid his graying chest hairs are the multiple gold chains and medallions that were his sartorial signature. He has been forced to edit his neckwear to a single gold strand. "I was getting so many MRIs and tests," he explains, "you have to take them on and off — it got to be a pain in the ass after a while."
To the sounds of deeply muffled traffic from outside, we talk about Guccione's childhood, his peripatetic youth, the origins of Penthouse. Impeccably well-mannered, he is gracious, cultured, amusing, a born raconteur and clearly enjoying himself. So it seems a jarring impertinence to interrupt his happier musings to ask him about his current problems. But to my surprise, Guccione is glad to discuss them. Over the course of four separate interviews, he never once goes off the record, and he talks with surprising candor about his fall. By turns rueful, sardonic, bitter and resigned, he blames much of his ruin on others: the FBI, the Reagan administration, Atlantic City gaming officials, the zeitgeist itself. And there is much truth in Guccione's explanations. He is nothing if not the victim of cruel fates. But the ultimate reality is that his dramatic fall is chiefly his own doing, the inevitable result of the very confidence, grandiosity, fearlessness, suspicion and entrepreneurial braggadocio that allowed a middle-class Jersey boy to build what was one of the most successful magazines in publishing history and become, for a time, one of the richest men in America.
"That optimism and disjuncture from reality gave him the capacity to get where he got," says a former business adviser. "I mean, Bob was a guy who said, 'Let's compete with Playboy.' Who in their right mind would do that? Well — guess what?"
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