Fabulous Bob Guccione
[ people - november 05 ]
Back in the very late 60s, I had a call from an American who was living in London at the time. He wanted to meet me to discuss my writing for his yet-to-be-launched magazine. We met in his office, a third floor walk-up on the Fulham Road, and I have to admit I wasn’t impressed. It was somewhat shabby and I was more used to plush Fleet Street offices. He was very affable and introduced himself as Bob Guccione. He was slightly taller than me and his features and hair-style, a sort of quiff, reminded me of the actor Tony Curtis. He spoke in a slow drawl, said he admired my work and I could write on whatever I liked. However, he couldn’t afford to pay me the normal rate but as he was a friend of a friend he would appreciate the favour.
So, I began writing for Penthouse magazine. His first issue, which he mailed out to many people, was confiscated by the Royal Mail. It accused him of sending pornographic material through the mail. Bob went to court and won his battle. Of course, he got tremendous publicity out of this. It was the first imitation of Playboy but, unlike that magazine, Penthouse bared all in its photos. Bob took all the centrefold photographs himself and they were, in comparison to Playboy, to put it mildly, raunchy. They were not waist up like Playboy, but more waist down. I did, at the time, also have to interview Hefner on his rare foray from his Chicago mansion. He parroted his ‘philosophy’ to me, sending me half asleep and I never wrote the interview.
As a Guardian writer at the time, I wasn’t exactly at ease with being sandwiched between glossy nude women. Did anyone read me or did they just look at the women? But I justified my slumming with the consolation that many good writers wrote regularly for Playboy. I took Bob at his word and wrote on every subject from motor racing, striptease, hang-gliding and movie stars. He never rejected a piece and barely edited my beautiful prose. I was paid a pittance. However, some friends, all male I should add, were far more impressed by my Penthouse association than my Guardian one. They would introduce me saying ‘he writes for Penthouse’ and there would be an envious silence as they imagined me cavorting with those stunningly nude (all white by the way) Penthouse Pets. Playboy called their women ‘bunnies’ and Bob called his ‘Pets’. Of course, it was the blatant exploitation of women which continues on today but I shan’t enter that debate.
Penthouse’s circulation rocketed over the next few years, in the UK anyway, and a few copies were also being sold in the States. Bob moved offices and acquired a staff, one of them who became his partner, was an icy blonde, Kathy. Kathy would sometimes greet me effusively and at other times I didn’t exist in her eye line. (He had been married and divorced, with three children. I knew one well. Bobby junior founded Spin magazine and sold it a few years later for over $40 million. He and his father had stopped talking to each other even before that). But Bob and I remained on good terms. Good enough for him to call me up occasionally and ask: ‘Tim, whacha doin’ tomorrow evening?’ He would have Miss January or Miss June centerfold, over from Nebraska or Ohio for the shoot, and he wanted me to take her out to the theatre. Or whatever? It was exciting duty but hard work as these beautiful girls had fuzzy minds and discussing anything apart from tourist sights, their shoot and the weather, they had no conversation. But they were all sweet and kind, and full of erotic innocence.
As Playboy then had a club on Park Lane, Bob decided to open his own club, a few streets down from it on Whitehorse Street. I was expected to show up now and then to show my support and chat up the Pets who wore as skimpy costumes as the bunnies up the road.
But Bob was restless at being contained by London. Penthouse was selling well in the States, though still published out of London, and he made his move across the Atlantic. I continued to contribute but now with its very American slant, Penthouse needed less material from Europe. Penthouse’s circulation was climbing like a rocket in the States as the photographs became even raunchier with two girls in the centrefold. It was soon to hit five million a month.
I was growing equally restless in the UK and as I had, for the first time, a novel to be published in the States, decided to explore New York. I called up Bob and told him and also called in my favours. He was delighted to hear I would be over and arranged for me to stay, on Penthouse of course, at a hotel in mid-town Manhattan. It turned to be a suite but unfortunately a block away from the fire station. An American fire engine’s siren will wake the long dead.
Bob now had his offices on 57th street and Broadway and they were very impressive. Sleek with expensive fittings and beautiful women manning the reception desks and phones. Bob suggested I find something ‘American’ to write about for the magazine and he’d pay the mouth-watering American rates. But it wasn’t that easy to write an American story as I was still not familiar with the country, let alone New York. I stayed in the hotel a month, finding my way around to editors’ offices, working on a new book. Then I read in the newspapers that Bob had bought a mansion on 67th street, between Fifth and Madison. I don’t know whether it was coincidence or not but he called me up to tell me that as his ‘chit’ in the hotel had expired and would I do him another favour, if I was staying on in New York. So I ended up living in his 42-room mansion which had a swimming pool and a ball room and a kitchen the size of a tennis court. But it barely had any furniture, except for one room. It was a great address to stay in and I had more than enough space to do my writing. And, when the weather was bad, to jog around the ballroom and the huge entrance hall. One morning, I was woken by hammering and banging on the iron front door. When I opened it, firemen were standing there telling me there was a fire on the top floor.
I moved out and found my own place on the upper Westside. I didn’t see Bob very much again. The last time was when I bumped into him in the Jockey Club. He was dressed flamboyantly as ever - black slacks, black silk shirt open to his waist and enough gold chains around his neck to make a maharajah envious. He had long moved into his mansion and acquired an art collection worth $200 million. Apart from Penthouse he was also publishing a glossy science magazine.
I read recently that he’s now deep in debt and Penthouse has hit rock bottom, less than 50,000 a month. Bob blew his money on art and $17.5 millions on his porn film Caligula which starred Sir John Geilgud and Peter O’Toole. It bombed. Bob invited me to the premiere in New York and it was Technicolor Times Square porn. And also to the premiere of his next porn film Catherine the Great. I was out of town for that. He also blew $140 million on a casino in Atlantic city which was never built as one owner refused to vacate a small house on the property. According to the press Bob’s now defaulted on a $41 million loan.
A few years back I heard that Kathy had died and sent him a condolence letter to that fabulous mansion. I never heard back. Now I read that he’s suffering from throat cancer and, like a great Gatsby, no longer cares what happens to his once-fabulous empire. He lives alone, a recluse, with a pack of Rhodesian Ridgebacks. I liked Bob and did write about him, and his mansion, in one of my novels.