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The Twilight of Bob Guccione

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On a dank late afternoon shortly before Christmas, I pay my second visit to the House. Today, Guccione descends from his lair clad in white jeans and an acid-washed denim parachute shirt. At our last meeting, he was friendly and expansive. Today his mood is gloomy, distracted. I'm not surprised. The deadline on a three-month extension on his bankruptcy filing is fast approaching, and he must clear certain debts by Christmas, or he's in deep trouble, facing the possible forced sale of the House and his business. As we talk about these problems, Guccione begins to fidget, his gaze roaming upward to the twenty-foot-high ceiling, his answers growing monosyllabic. I switch gears and ask about better times: Penthouse's Golden Years of the late 1970s, and the extraordinary photographs Guccione took in this era. His mood lifts. He turns to his assistant, Jane Homlish.

"You know the Australian girl?" he growls with his martyred throat. "Can you get that issue? Thank you."

Homlish disappears upstairs, then returns and hands to her boss the September 1979 Penthouse. He lays it open on the glass coffee table. "This is what I meant about voyeurism," he says, gesturing at a pictorial he took twenty-five years ago of that year's Pet of the Year, a blond beauty dressed in nothing but a pair of yellow leg warmers. Her rosy skin glowing warmly against the chiaroscuro shadows of an Edwardian interior, she strikes a series of languidly acrobatic inverted poses with spread legs poised on either side of her head. She seems unaware of the camera, never looking at the lens. The combination of her uninhibited attitude and Guccione's stealthily voyeuristic camera is potent, a blend of misty Impressionism, Victorian fantasy and throat-clutching sleaze so powerful that the Kodak processing lab would not release thousands of the negatives until Guccione brought a lawsuit against them.

"Much more erotic than we're doing today," Guccione mutters. Something in the tone of his voice and the look on his face — a ruminative, heavy-browed gaze — provokes me to ask if she was one of his favorites. He shuts the magazine. "Not a favorite," he mumbles — and changes the subject.

The answer is not entirely accurate — but it points to an aspect of Guccione familiar to all who know him. Namely, his ability to strike from his life any person — friend or family — whom he deems disloyal. For in reality, the model in the spread was then-twenty-one-year-old Cheryl Rixon, who had indeed been one of Guccione's favorites — never his lover but, like certain other Pets, a protégée, a surrogate daughter with whom he could share his sardonic black humor, his life-wisdom and his dreams. First appearing in the magazine in December 1977, and made Pet of the Year in 1979, Rixon lived in the House with Guccione, Keeton and a handful of other Pets for four years, from 1978 through 1981, and was put on a small retainer. She worked hard for the company as a model. "I was in the studio three or four days a week," says Rixon, who today lives in Los Angeles, where she runs her own jewelry company and is married to a partowner of the ultrahot Sunset Strip restaurant Chi. "I was doing shots for Penthouse, for Viva, ads, editorials, fashion. I traveled all over the planet promothing the magazine."

For Rixon's Pet of the Year pictorial, Guccione flew with her on the Concorde to England to shoot in his London apartment. On the eve of their departure, Rixon had gone to the gym, where she happened to see supermodel Janice Dickinson strike an upside-down yoga stretch pose. Rixon duplicated the pose for Guccione as a special surprise at the photo shoot — sans leotard. "Bob was just entertained," Rixon says. "He thought that was the best idea anyone had ever come up with."

The shoot lasted a week, and the pair worked all day, every day — an exhausting regimen, especially for Rixon, who was twisting herself like a contortionist through the daylight hours and getting no sleep at night. "I would be on the couch, and Bob would come into the living room and sit on the floor and talk the whole night, telling me all about Catherine the Great. I saw that entire film, even though it was never made. He sat and described every frame of that movie to me."

Rixon liked and respected Guccione, but life back in New York, at the House, she says, was often "uncomfortable" — and not only because of the curfew and because all her phone calls were logged, timed and (she was told) taped. There were also the complex psychosexual dynamics that ran beneath the House's carefully cultivated facade of propriety, not to mention the ruthless competition between the Pets and Keeton — both of which Guccione fueled, partly as entertainment for himself, partly to foster greater loyalty from his dependents. "All the girls threw themselves at Bob," Rixon says. "They imagined that they would take Kathy's place." Rixon herself did not pursue Guccione (she was dating Roger Taylor of Queen at the time), but far from this endearing her to Keeton, it did the opposite. "Only later did I understand that she was offended that I didn't try to steal Bob," Rixon says.

Meanwhile, Guccione, a superb chess player, took a grandmaster's delight in working complex combinations between his Pet pawns. "Bob always had a bounty on my head," says Rixon. "If a girl could get me in a girl-on-girl pictorial, there were benefits in it for her. He knew it wasn't going to happen, but he liked to see their antics in trying. He's a voyeur at the bottom of all of it. He liked to see what people will do." Some of the other Pets found the gamesmanship too much. "I was always feeling hurt because I ended up falling madly in love with him," says Lori Wagner, who lived at the house for several years in the late 1970s. "One of the reasons I left was that I just couldn't deal with my feelings. Especially when Kathy became a very good friend of mine."

Rixon's own sojourn at the House came to an abrupt end in 1981. Never given the Rolls-Royce that she was promised as part of her $195,000 in prizes as Pet of the Year, Rixon had the temerity to raise the issue with Keeton. She was told that the dealership had gone out of business and Penthouse had failed to secure the car, so it was gone. When Rixon complained, Keeton grew furious and phoned Guccione. "He said, 'After all I've done for you!'" Rixon recalls. "I was numb. I thought, 'Wow, for everything I've done, would it kill you just to give me my prizes?' I had nothing. I'd devoted all my time to Penthouse." Rixon was kicked out of the House. She sued Guccione for her prizes and, after six years, won a cash settlement. Guccione responded by imposing an injunction that her name never again be spoken in his presence, a ban that remains in effect twenty years later.

By the dawn of the 1980s, Penthouse was, improbably enough for a $140-million-a-year porn business, a mom-and-pop shop employing three generations of Gucciones. In a clear bid to retain control over his empire, Guccione had hired his retired accountant father as company treasurer, one of his sisters as office manager, the other as a PR agent, his eldest daughter from his first, short-lived marriage as head of West Coast promotions and his oldest son, Bob Jr., as head of circulation and marketing. This was life as Guccione liked it: sequestered twenty-four hours a day in his mansion with his artwork, his dependents and his Pets. Editorial meetings with the staffs of his various magazines were conducted at the House, where a given editor would meet with him in a dark wood-paneled office off the second-floor ballroom, guard dogs asleep at Guccione's feet. "The dogs were flatulent," says Teresi, "so you'd have these farting Ridgebacks in the dark room with the red chandelier. This heaviness fell over my body whenever I was there. After a while you think, 'Aww, man, how can he take this? There's not enough oxygen, there's no light.'"

Yet Guccione thrived on such seclusion, which left him free to indulge his intellectual enthusiasms and hobbies, which now included a serious foray into life-extension — a field close to his heart, as he and Keeton advanced into middle age. As guinea pigs for the dreams of living-to-100-and-beyond outlined in their magazine Longevity, Guccione and Keeton ingested up to 500 diet supplements daily (Guccione, according to his daughter, kept an entire shopping bag filled with pill bottles), tinting themselves orange from massive doses of beta carotene. The couple's regimen also included human growth hormone to halt the aging process and, to keep Guccione's sexual motor revved up to full capacity, testosterone. Teresi recalls that around 1981 Keeton asked that he look into the logistics of "cloning Bob." Another General Media editor remembers a time when Guccione let slip the conditional phrase "if I die." A family member recalls how Guccione and Keeton spoke of being cryogenically frozen, shot into space, then brought back to Earth once mankind had developed the technology to resurrect them.

To those close to Guccione, such crazy dreams spoke less to his grandiloquent ego than to an unlikely gullibility that was a major facet of his personality and which left him prey to all manner of hustlers and grifters who managed to talk their way past the security gates and attack dogs. "He simply believes what people tell him," his former business adviser says. "You say, 'Bob, I can get green cheese from the moon, and I think it would sell here.' He'll say, 'You think so? I can do a marketing plan!'"

Hence, in the early 1980s, Guccione decided to single-handedly fund research into creating the world's first nuclear-fusion reactor, a power source that would, if successful, solve the world's then-pressing energy crisis, rid the planet of pollution-causing fossil fuels and, perhaps not incidentally, make Guccione the richest man in history. He set up nuclear physicist Robert Brussard and eighty-two other experts from around the world in a research lab in San Diego, all paid for by profits from Penthouse. His former business adviser remembers nervously trying to talk Guccione out of the project. Guccione wouldn't budge. To this day, Guccione remains unapologetic about the $20 million he squandered on the doomed project. "It's a wonderful feeling to be a pioneer," he says, "and had that been successful, we would have solved all the energy problems of the earth." Bob Jr. believes that the fusion project was part of his father's search for the respectability that had always eluded him as publisher of a sex magazine. "I don't think he could ever get enough validation," Bob Jr. says. "Maybe if he had a multibillion-dollar fusion company, then somebody would notice."

I put this theory to Guccione in one of our interviews. Expecting him to bridle at a perceived aspersion on Penthouse, Guccione surprised me when he did not reject the theory out of hand. "That may be true," he said quietly. "But I'm not conscious of it."

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