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?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Solving all the energy problems of the earth proved to be an expensive proposition, even for a man of Guccione’s enormous wealth. He planned to supplement the funding with cash from a new revenue source: casinos. Owner of a prime piece of real estate in Atlantic City, he had begun work on the Penthouse Casino back in 1978. Typically, Guccione funded the massive project entirely with his own money. “People were saying to me, ‘You have to be careful; they might not give you a license,’ ” Guccione recalls. “But I said, ‘There’s no way in the world they cannot license me. I have a completely clean record.'” Today he admits that he might have been naive in his assumptions about the gaming commission, which was under intense pressure to keep out anyone who carried even a whiff of sleaze. Guys like … Bob Guccione. “The impression they must have had of me was: a Sicilian pornographer coming in to own a casino, with no partners. That spelled Mafia to them.” Guccione denies that he has ever been connected to the mob. “I wouldn’t be in the trouble I’m in if I was Mafia,” he says, reasonably enough. Bob Jr. concurs. “My father has always been clean. Ironically, it has taken this bankruptcy for people to finally believe him.”
But suspicions about Guccione — exacerbated, he insists, by an FBI probe (that turned up no wrongdoing on his part) — scuttled his chances in Atlantic City. A bank that had, he says, promised him a loan of $125 million to complete the casino backed out. By 1980, he had sunk some $65 million of Penthouse profits into the stalled casino project. “It was an albatross around his neck,” says his former business adviser.
That albatross only grew heavier as Penthouse saw its sales decline as the 1980s progressed. The advent of AIDS, the aging of the baby boomers and the election of Ronald Reagan seriously chilled the sexual revolution. Several major retail chains — 7-Eleven, Rite Aid, Kmart, CVS — yanked Penthouse from their shelves, costing Guccione tens of thousands of sales off the newsstand, a huge blow to his bottom line. The rise of videocassette players — and porn videos — did further damage. “Why spend four bucks on a magazine,” says Joe Brooks, “when you could spend ten bucks and see a girl move and hear her moan?” In July 1984, Penthouse did make publishing history by selling the single largest number of issues off the newsstand of any publication ever: 5.4 million copies of a spread featuring recently crowned Miss America Vanessa Williams, who, some years earlier, had posed nude in a pseudolesbian embrace with another model. But that cash bonanza was a one-off anomaly, and sales continued their slide.
Successive waves of bad luck now broke over Guccione. In 1985, he was hit with an IRS bill on back taxes totaling $45 million. Facing no choice, he pulled the plug on the nuclear-fusion project and sold off the rusting, half-completed Penthouse Casino for a fire-sale price, the proceeds of which went to the IRS. Along with lawyers’ fees, interest and other incidentals, this brought Guccione’s losses in Atlantic City to $145 million. Meanwhile, decades of lavish spending on his magazines had been paid for by huge loans, totaling tens of millions. Unable to keep up with his payments, Guccione was forced in 1993 to sell some $80 million worth of bonds in the company, repayable at ten percent interest, in seven years. Guccione was gambling big that he could reverse Penthouse’s sales slide.
But in the 1990s, explicit sex offerings on cable and pay-per-view television further eroded his magazine’s share of the softcore market. Then came the rise of the Internet. Penthouse’s sales went into free fall, dipping below a million, then dropping like a stone to 600,000 copies a month. Efforts to expand into cyberspace failed to rescue Guccione. In a filing with bondholders, General Media revealed that widespread credit-card fraud had swallowed its Internet profits. To stay competitive, Guccione took Penthouse hard-core with excursions into fisting, anal sex, cum shots and peeing. He says he had no choice: “A soft-core magazine today just doesn’t have a chance.” Advertisers, however, left in droves — especially over the pissing. “His lawyers sat down with him and said, ‘C’mon, Bob, don’t commit public suicide, cut out the pissing,'” says Joe Brooks. “But Bob didn’t stop. It’s like talking to his dog.” Profits continued to shrink, and Guccione was forced to fold Omni and Longevity.
Things were even worse on the home front. In 1995, Kathy Keeton was diagnosed with galloping breast cancer that spread quickly to her stomach and liver. After a two-year-long battle, she died in 1997 at age fifty-eight. Guccione was inconsolable. He obtained a special dispensation and had Keeton buried on the lawn of their country estate. He has left her name on the Penthouse masthead, where she is still identified as vice chairman of General Media. In a 1999 television interview, he broke down discussing Keeton’s death, sobbing, “I’ve never fully recovered.” To me, Guccione, misty-eyed, choked out, “She was a monumental part of my life.” Indeed, some close to Guccione say her influence extends beyond the grave. In her final months, Keeton befriended a pixieish ex-model named April Warren, later rumored to be Keeton’s hand-picked successor for Guccione’s affections. The couple remains together to this day.
From the Beginning, Guccione viewed Penthouse as a dynasty, himself the patriarch of a clan that, like the Kennedys (which went from bootlegging to the White House in a generation), would go from porn to the presidency in his lifetime. When his second son, Tony, was a child, Guccione spoke of how he would become president. When Tony later pointed out that he was born in England and thus could not occupy the Oval Office, Guccione replied, “Senator, then.” But those dynastic dreams, like so much else, have withered. Guccione is estranged from all but one of his five children (he still speaks to Tonina, daughter from his first marriage). “My father was extremely loyal right up to the point when people crossed him or slighted him,” says Tony. “And then he’d cut them off with no regret. It was a confirmation of his own strength.”
First to be banished was Bob Jr., known to his siblings as Bobby. A shorter, gap-toothed, sweeter-natured version of his father, Bobby, now forty-eight, grew up “hero-worshiping” his dad. Told by his father, “You’ll never be anything without me,” Bob abandoned dreams of being a writer and at nineteen joined Penthouse, where he was groomed to take over the company. In 1985, he and his father launched Spin but soon fell out over control of the magazine (According to an E! documentary, Dad wanted to put Pia Zadora, wife of a big advertiser, on the cover; Bobby thought she didn’t quite fit Spin’s alternative-rock image). Guccione tried to fold Spin, but Bobby had ownership of the name. He found outside investors and left his father’s company. The two have not spoken in sixteen years, despite Bobby’s repeated efforts to patch things up. “You have to ask, ‘Am I going to be hamstrung by this emotionally forever?'” says Bobby. “You have to accept it when someone doesn’t want to know you.”
With Bobby’s departure, Tony, now forty-two, was tapped to carry the torch. Six feet, two inches tall, classically handsome, with a full head of hair, good teeth and an upmarket London accent, Tony was the only one of his children whom Guccione insisted go to college. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a degree in economics. But once Tony took over, he butted heads with Guccione over his plans to restructure the company and modernize the Penthouse brand. In 1996, stymied in his efforts to get his father to adopt any of his ideas for rescuing the sinking company, Tony resigned as executive vice president of General Media. As he puts it, “Not everyone can be bent to my father’s will all the time.” Guccione evicted Tony from the loft he’d bought for him in downtown New York. Six months later, he sued Tony for allegedly pirating the Penthouse domain name. “All the assertions were entirely without merit,” says Tony. “But that was just my father’s way of letting me know he could still touch me.” The two have not spoken in eight years.
Next up was Guccione’s daughter Nina, now forty-four. A striking auburn-haired woman, with her dad’s dimpled smile and greenish eyes, she grew up, like her other siblings, with an “obsessive adoration” for her father; she moved into the House with him and the Pets when she was sixteen. It was not easy to be the daughter of a famous pornographer. Whereas her brothers could boast of dad’s work to friends — and (against their father’s strict prohibitions) sometimes date the Pets — Nina was embarrassed and troubled by Penthouse and was consigned to comparing herself, unfavorably, to her father’s harem of flawless Pets, many of whom he was sleeping with. “Years and years of therapy,” she says, have helped her to resolve some of the traumas this caused. Upon Tony’s departure in 1997, she was asked to help run the company. She threw herself into the role with a gusto that only a daughter desperate for her father’s approval could. But like Tony, she found her father dismissive of her ideas. She quit in early 2002. “When you don’t do what Dad wants you to do,” she says, “you’re out of his life.” Guccione has not spoken to her since she left, and she says he has disinherited her. Nicky, Guccione’s youngest child, had been put in charge of Penthouse’s video division, but he fell out with his father last year and, according to Nina, was also disinherited — although father and son do retain some contact, since Nicky, who lives upstate with his wife, a former Pet of the Year, has supplied Guccione with his sole grandchild, a two-year-old boy.