The Twilight of Bob Guccione

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On a recent Charlie Rose Show commemorating Playboy's fiftieth anniversary, Hugh Hefner complained of not getting enough hugs as a child. Hustler's Larry Flynt grew up deprived in the South, his first sex partner a chicken. By contrast, Guccione's childhood was exceptional for its abundance of love and stability. Born in Brooklyn, he was raised in Bergen-field, New Jersey. The eldest of three children and the only boy, he was doted on by his first-generation Sicilian-American parents. His father, Anthony, was an accountant for a neon-light company owned by one of his wife's brothers. Guccione was devoted to both parents but especially his mother, Nina. The feeling was mutual. "To her," says Guccione's eldest son, Bob Jr., "my father could do no wrong." The confidence instilled in him by his worshipful mother manifested itself early. "At school, my classmates would follow me," Guccione says. "I would set the pace: This is what we're going to do. This is how we're going to do it." At the same time, he demonstrated an early penchant for reclusiveness, sequestering himself for hours with pencil and paper. "I wanted to be an artist," he says, "first a cartoonist, then an animator and then a painter."

But in his late teens, after graduating from high school at the private Blair Academy, Guccione briefly explored a different ambition: the priesthood. He joined a seminary but lasted only a few months before he renounced the celibate life. And no wonder. Famously virile, Guccione could boast, as recently as 1999, at age sixty-nine, of having sex five times in a day. He still trumpets evidence of his undimmed sex drive: "I see more breasts and more bodies than anybody because I see them by the thousands. I personally go over every picture in Penthouse. But I haven't lost this much of my appreciation for the female form." He holds his thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart.

Having perhaps wisely abandoned his quest for holy orders, the eighteen-year-old Guccione rededicated himself to his childhood dream of becoming a great painter. Seeking inspiration, he left home for California. His penny-pinching father provided minimal financial support, but he learned early how women could aid his survival. Every girl he dated worked in a restaurant. "That way, I could eat," he says. One such woman, Lilyann, he got pregnant. Guccione married her, then moved with her to Rome. In further travels through Paris and Spain, Guccione supported his wife and newborn daughter by sketching portraits of tourists, reading palms, cartooning. His dark, sullen good looks even won him small roles in Italian movies. By night, he painted oils of startling mastery: still lifes, landscapes, portrait heads. But after five years, he had sold no canvases. Lilyann, fed up, fled to California with their daughter.

Freshly unencumbered, he hopped a steamer to North Africa and joined a circle of expatriates who had formed around writer William S. Burroughs. Guccione smoked pot, played chess, painted and further educated himself in bohemianism, rebellion and art. On a jaunt to Casablanca, he met British cabaret singer Muriel Hudson, a fun-loving twenty-five-year-old. They married in 1956, moved to London and had three children. Despite considerable poverty, Guccione carried himself with a lordly confidence that led Muriel's friends to sardonically dub him "JC" — short for Jesus Christ. By his early thirties, however, he found himself in a most un-Guccionesque-sounding role: as husband and father renting a small house in Chelsea and working as the manager of a dry-cleaning firm. Still yearning for the creative life, he submitted cartoons and humor columns to a struggling weekly called the London American and soon became the magazine's editor. It was then that he started haunting newsstands to see what was selling and why. He noticed an American magazine that was doing a brisk business: Playboy.

Though Hefner's magazine had been around for a decade in America, Guccione had missed it during his global wanderings. But he thought a similar magazine, featuring British nudes and editorial, would sell even better than Playboy in England. He admits to a "voyeuristic" bent but says that until he saw that first issue of Playboy, he had never looked at a men's magazine. Creating Penthouse was primarily practical, a way to generate a regular "income stream" so he could pursue his true calling: painting. At the same time, once he committed himself to the magazine, Guccione poured into it all of his bohemian-artist's loathing for sexual repression and censorship. "People said it was pornography," he recalls, "and I argued with them. I said, 'What's pornography?' Censorship is pornography. Repression is pornography. I wasn't just a businessman rationalizing his business. I was a believer!"

He spent three years trying to find other believers to invest in Penthouse. No one bit. So he decided to do it himself — establishing a pattern that would persist for the rest of his life: a refusal to take on partners; to act as lone wolf. He talked up the not-yet-in-existence magazine to trade publications and newspapers. Among those who read of Guccione's plans was a young Londoner, Joe Brooks, an art director at the Thompson newspaper chain. From the outset, Brooks (who is still with Penthouse, its longest-serving employee) says that Guccione was dreaming big — or at least talking big. "He said he was going to print 800,000 copies of the first issue and he was going to charge two shillings, which was very high. I thought, 'Everything about this guy is off-the-wall. I think I'll phone him up.'" He did, and Guccione invited Brooks to his house in Chelsea. "He answered the door not in a suit, like most businessmen in mid-1960s London," says Brooks, "but in a black T-shirt and jeans with a big fucking medallion and gold chain around his neck. He chain-smoked five packs of Marlboros a day and drank strong coffee dawn to dusk. I'd never seen anything like him." Offered a job at a fraction of his current salary, Brooks took it, captivated by Guccione's screw-the-world insouciance and convinced Penthouse was an idea whose time had come. "This was the early days of the Beatles, Carnaby Street, the Who — plus the sexual revolution," says Brooks. "You'd meet a girl and basically say, 'Your place or mine?' You couldn't miss with Penthouse."

But first they had to create the magazine, which was difficult, since Guccione had no money. In a scheme to raise cash through subscriptions, he produced a color brochure filled with photos of half-naked girls and sent them out by direct mail. "He had bought the mailing lists of priests, convents, members of Parliament, nurses — anyone who would get their nose out of joint," says Brooks. "There was an immediate outcry: 'This is pornography!' 'Who is this man?'" Guccione was denounced in Parliament, dubbed a "sex fiend" on the front pages of the London tabs and fined 100 pounds for violating a Victorian statute against sending lewd materials through Her Majesty's post. Guccione's son, Bob Jr., then nine years old, remembers the scandal: "I was walking home from school and saw these placards in the newspaper kiosks, saying 'Sex Maniac Denounced in Parliament.'" He laughs. "I didn't find out until later that it was my father."

For Guccione, it was a publicity bonanza worth millions. Subscription orders poured in with checks and cash enclosed — enough to pay a printer. Still, money was tight. He had to talk writers, cartoonists and artists into working on credit. Photographers, however, demanded payment upfront. "I had no choice," Guccione says. "I had to take the pictures myself."

A photographer friend gave him an evening's tutorial; the rest was up to Guccione's artist's eye. "Once I had the frame," he says, "I knew what I was doing." Indeed, he did. Borrowing compositions from his beloved Degas, he produced shots of jaw-dropping aesthetic and erotic power. Seeking the textured look of his favorite paintings, he improvised ways to surround his nudes with a nimbus of glowing eroticism. "I blew hair spray in the air and held my camera underneath it to pick up some of the mist on the lens," he recalls. enable to use a strobe flash, he shot only in the muted London light that fell through the windows. "Bob used light like a master painter," says Brooks, "but he has an incredibly dirty mind. It's a beautiful combination." Banning everyone from the shoots, he made his photo sessions intense one-on-one encounters with the model. He did everything himself: styling the girls' hair, doing their makeup, even (in later years) trimming their pubic hair. He instructed his models not to smile or even to look at the camera. Often positioning himself behind a bouquet of flowers or a lacy curtain, Guccione seemed to be peering in on his models' most intimate moments of self-exploration.

"We followed the true philosophy of voyeurism," he says. "To invade privacy. To see her as if she doesn't know she's being seen. That was the sexy part. That was the part that none of our competition understood." Guccione often spent days on a single shoot. "I used to throw away rolls of film just wooing the girl into being relaxed," he says. "Making her laugh, directing her expressions. 'Close your eyes, half-close your eyes...." Only with some reluctance does Guccione admit that many of his finest pictorials were, in effect, acts of foreplay between artist and model, caught on film. "It was very ..." He pauses, then continues with a note of apology, "How to say it? It was very attractive: the setting, the intimacy; it's very difficult not to submit to; so in most cases in the early days, I would sleep with the girls."

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