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The Twilight of Bob Guccione

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The first issue of Penthouse hit the London newsstands in 1965, bearing an original Guccione cover shot of a sulky British bird in an oversize sweater and nothing else. It sold out in two days. "Far from liberating myself to paint," Guccione says, "I became so inundated with responsibility and the pressures of success that there was no way I could pick up a brush." He worked twenty-hour days, writing, cartooning, snapping pictures, composing limericks, selling ad space. Ask him about "Swinging London" of the mid-1960s, and Guccione snorts, "I missed it all."

Meanwhile, Guccione's marriage to Muriel was in trouble. "It's fair to say that, even before Penthouse, he was very sexually active," says Bob Jr. "So when he started the magazine, it was like finding out that an alcoholic had bought a pub. My mother had had enough." Pregnant with their fourth child, Muriel issued an ultimatum: It was her or the magazine. Guccione sent Muriel and the kids packing, moving them to a London suburb and eventually beginning divorce proceedings.

By then he had already met a woman more amenable to the Penthouse ethos. Kathy Keeton, a slim blonde from South Africa, had come to England at twelve on a scholarship with the Royal Ballet's school. At age twenty-six, she was working as a burlesque dancer and actress. Smart and ambitious, she read the Financial Times and pored over magazines about science, her passion. She jumped when Guccione offered her a job as Penthouse's first ad salesperson. Unlike Muriel, Keeton had little problem with the magazine's emphasis on naked girls. "She understood it completely," Guccione says. "She enjoyed it." Keeton became Guccione's lover and soul mate. They would remain together — despite his serial work-related infidelities — for the next thirty-two years. "They were as one," says Guccione's middle son, Tony. "Total devotion to each other. It was a kind of 'us against the world' mentality that soldered them together." Lori Wagner, a Penthouse Pet who appeared in the magazine often through the 1970s, says that Keeton was able to overlook Guccione's dalliances with certain Pets. "It was, 'Don't ask, don't tell,'" says Wagner. "She knew that Bob really loved her. He would sit in business meetings and do nothing but sketch Kathy's face." Keeton, meanwhile, acted as Guccione's eyes and ears at the Penthouse offices — since he rarely set foot outside their home. "She was probably the toughest woman I've ever met," says Omni editor Teresi. "But she wasn't in it for herself. She was there to protect Bob."

Penthouse was three years into its London run when Guccione's British distributor mentioned that the magazine was outselling Playboy two-to-one among American servicemen in Vietnam — the prime eighteen-to-thirty-year-old male demographic. It was then, Guccione says, that he realized his erotic vision could rival Hefner's in America. So he and Keeton moved New York, set up headquarters in a suite at the Drake Hotel and in 1969 took out a full-page ad in the New York Times showing Playboy's rabbit logo in the cross hairs of a gun. The caption read, 'We're Going Rabbit Hunting.'

Guccione vowed to catch the bunny in five years. A few months later, in the April 1970 issue, he hit on the formula for doing so. There, he ran a small photo of a naked blonde walking on a beach — a shadow at the top of her thigh was just identifiable as pubic hair. "Back then, the legal line between what was 'obscene' and what was acceptable was pubic hair," Guccione says. "When there was no prosecution, we went even further."

He began to print brazen full-frontal photos of his seductively sullen Pets, pubic hair in full display. Hefner at first vowed never to stoop to such depths. "Nine months later," Guccione says, chuckling, "there was pubic hair in Playboy, because we were killing him on the newsstand." Within a year, Penthouse's circulation had risen past I million, then 2 million, closing in on Playboy. During the height of the so-called Pubic Wars, Hefner and Guccione ran into each other at a private screening of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange — their sole face-to-face encounter, ever. "He snubbed me," Guccione says. "He shook my hand, said, 'Nice to meet you' and disappeared. I never had any bad feelings toward him. He did toward me — with some justification, because we were making serious inroads into his territory."

As the Seventies progressed, Guccione kept one step ahead of Playboy in the evolution toward greater and greater explicitness, introducing the "split-beaver" shots for which Penthouse is notorious, and making girl-on-girl pictorials a staple of the American male's fantasy diet. ("Lesbianism was something that was of interest to me," Guccione says, "and I recognized that I wasn't alone.") But not all of Penthouse's exposés were devoted to female genitalia. The magazine also carried tough investigative journalism on topics ranging from CIA corruption to the mob to the sleaziness of the medical establishment. In 1975, Guccione was named Publisher of the Year by Brandeis University for a series of articles on the shoddy treatment of Vietnam veterans. "Bob has this anti-Establishment desire, almost a desire to hurt fat cats," says Ori Hofmekler, an astringently satirical painter whose work has appeared in Penthouse for seventeen years.

Inevitably, Penthouse in the mid-Seventies became a favorite target for feminist critics decrying the objectification of women, but behind the scenes the magazine was one of publishing's most female-friendly shops. Guccione and Keeton surrounded themselves with an army of smart, savvy women, many of whom would go on to top positions in mainstream media, including Penthouse ad saleswoman Dawn Steel, who became head of Paramount Pictures, and current Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who joined Guccione's stable in the late Seventies as fashion editor of Viva, his fascinating, shortlived experiment in remaking women's magazines as a gender-bending mix of fashion, art and soft-core sex.

By July 1977, Penthouse had drawn even with Playboy, both magazines posting circulations of 4.5 million. That month, Guccione was pictured in Time wearing a rare grin, doodling a weeping Playboy bunny and boasting of Penthouse's pioneering firsts: "Lesbians, threes, full-frontal male nudity, erect penis." No wonder he sounded buoyant. Pocketing a large percentage of the then-hefty two-dollar cover price of each newsstand sale, he was growing richer by the instant, soon making the Forbes 400 list of the country's wealthiest people with a personal fortune of around $500 million (the equivalent of a few billion today). Guccione threw himself into the role of empire-building publishing magnate with a vengeance, buying an entire building at Broadway and Sixty-eighth Street to house his burgeoning magazine group, which he dubbed General Media and which eventually included the science magazine Omni, its spinoff Longevity and sex quarterlies Forum and Variations, as well as a welter of titles on subjects ranging from automobiles to defense contracting, bodybuilding, computers and photography.

Guccione prided himself on his thoroughly uncorporate approach, scorning the label "businessman" as if it were an insult. It's an attitude he retains to this day, even when the dire consequences of his financial profligacy lie all around him. "I'm not a businessman," he tells me. "I'm an artist. To this very day, I can't read a, um, what do they call it? — your financial results, you know? The accountant thing."

For those he hired to oversee his affairs, Guccione's love of rolling the dice, and his haughty disdain for bean-counting suits, presented a challenge. His former business adviser says that it was impossible to rein in Guccione's lordly spending — especially since Keeton, supposedly the better businessperson, shared his mind-set. "They fed off each other," he says, "and they were not impacted by reality. I used to say that the Guccione theory of economics is, 'Expenses should exceed income by 100 percent.'"

With dreams of establishing his own movie studio, he branched out into Hollywood, investing money in The Longest Yard, The Day of the Locust and Chinatown. In 1976, he began work on the world's first megabudget X-rated porn flick: Caligula, a Roman epic he hoped would shatter the boundary between our unspoken sexual desires and the polite restraints imposed by society. He paid for the entire movie himself, commissioning Gore Vidal to write the screenplay, and hiring top British actors — among them Malcolm McDowell, Sir John Gielgud and Peter O'Toole. Eighteen months of shooting, $17 million of Guccione's money and many lawsuits later (both director Tinto Brass and screenwriter Vidal demanded to have their names taken off the picture), Caligula opened in late 1979. Or was meant to. Distributors refused to touch a movie stocked with brother-sister incest, bestiality, a scene of (simulated) anal fisting, one urination sequence and many, many languorous blow jobs. Guccione announced, "Fuck'em," and rented his own theater in Manhattan's East Sixties. The reviews were murderous, the box office feeble (although the movie has since become Penthouse's best-selling video). Guccione was unfazed. He began plans to film the second in a projected trilogy of sex epics, the story of Catherine the Great — although this time he would avoid the pitfall that had made Caligula, as Guccione delicately puts it, "not as good as it could have been." Guccione himself would direct.

He also began work on the home that would be his greatest labor of love since his creation of Penthouse. He bought two adjacent town houses on East Sixty-seventh Street, gutted them and built his palatial 27,000-square-foot, forty-five-room, nine-level mausoleum to the self. Architects worked for three years to realize Guccione's cool, imperial fantasy. Artisans were flown in from Italy to do the marble work and lay imported Italian bricks. The house was outfitted with a swimming pool; a movie screening room; a ballroom; a baronial dining room; eight fireplaces; a gym; a wine cellar. Framing the front door's interior iron gates were two columns whose capitals bore the sculpted likenesses of Bob and Kathy embowered in acanthus leaves. A pack of Rhodesian Ridgeback guard dogs prowled the marble floors. At a cost of tens of millions of dollars, he filled the house with priceless paintings, prime works by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Botticelli, Dürer, Chagall, Degas.

Yet despite the opulence, which seemed designed to rival Playboy's West Coast mansion, life was very different chez Guccione than at Hefner's pad. Where Hefner promoted an image of himself as randy harem master of the "love grotto" in which movie stars and rockers, raging on champagne and poppers, sampled the phalanxes of blond bimbos nightly, Guccione expressed his power and wealth through the application of a chilly decorum. At the House, there were no bacchanals, no drugs, no orgies. "We had parties," Guccione says, practically lifting his nose in the air, "but they were business parties, for advertisers; not for fun." When Guccione held a twenty-first birthday party for his daughter Nina in 1979, he had his bodyguards eject from the House a local radio personality who had been hired as a DJ. He had gone swimming naked in Guccione's pool.

Meanwhile, Guccione himself kept a shy, awkward distance from his visitors. At dinner parties, he often sequestered himself for hours at a time in the kitchen cooking pasta sauces for his guests, who included such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Arthur C. Clarke and various Apollo astronauts. When Guccione did put in an appearance, he habitually confined himself to a corner where he would huddle with a favored intimate before making an early dash for his bedroom upstairs.

For some, Guccione's behavior was mystifying. "Bob never went out," Joe Brooks marvels. "I used to think, 'With all the money you've got, the life you could lead!' " Guccione did buy a country getaway mansion upstate but only reluctantly spent time there. "Kathy made him go," says Brooks. "He'd go for the weekend, sit around, watch TV, play video games, cook, get in the limo and drive back."

A number of favored Pets did live in a dormlike arrangement on the upper floors of the House in Manhattan, but they were kept on a short leash, chaperoned when they traveled on promotional jaunts for Penthouse and forbidden to bring male guests to their rooms. "They had to inform us who they were having in," Guccione says. "If they didn't observe the curfew, we sent them away." Some of the in-house Pets — including Anneka Di Lorenzo, who performed a blistering lesbian scene in Caligula, shot by Guccione himself — were his lovers; but this was not something the master of the house advertised, preferring to present himself as the East Coast's anti-Hefner. "I couldn't possibly live like he does," Guccione once told People magazine, "turning my home into a circus tent." To family and domestic staff, Guccione kept his affairs discreet. According to his then-teenage daughter Nina, the sole signs of her father's trysts were his early retirement to bed on the heels of a favorite Pet, followed by the steady thump of Tangerine Dream music from the upper reaches of the House and a telltale aroma of pot smoke wafting downstairs. "Everyone knew," Nina says, "but you didn't say anything about it."

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