Byline: Patricia Bosworth
"I'm frankly amazed at my own optimism," says Bob Guccione, the 74-year-old pioneering pornographer and founder of Penthouse magazine. "Whenever I'm facing a crisis-and I'm certainly facing a crisis now-I just fight harder. I know I'm going to survive."
Recent news reports have portrayed Guccione as a broken man. Having lost his entire Penthouse empire, he is said to be destitute, camping out in just four rooms of his princely home, on East 67th Street in Manhattan, spending most of his days curled up in bed asleep or watching CNN.
"An exaggeration," he croaks, attempting to smile. "Exaggeration," repeats his special assistant, Jane Homlish, to make sure he is understood. In 1998, a doctor performed laser surgery on Guccione's tongue in an experimental cancer treatment, so it is hard to understand him when he speaks. Because he has difficulty swallowing, a liquid nutrient called Boost is piped into his stomach.
And yet he looks trim, tanned, and healthy. His skin positively glows, and he appears almost serene, except for the dark, haunted eyes that glare out from under his thick, grizzled brows. The reason he sleeps during the day, he says, is that he is up until four in the morning working on projects and his oil paintings.
He has just given me a tour of his mansion, one of the city's largest private homes, which he designed himself. He uses the entire place-he even had a small dinner party here recently. He's especially proud of the mosaic-lined swimming pool on the ground floor, flanked by two lead Napoleonic sphinxes, each with a Marie Antoinette head. They're at the far end of the pool. On the floor below is a fully equipped gym. There's also a huge paneled screening room, a winding marble staircase up to the "ballroom," and a double living room with antique-mirror walls. Part of a great carved fireplace that once belonged to the architect Stanford White is in Guccione's bedroom.
The mortgage on the house is now owned by Mexican businessman Dr. Luis Enrique Molina, who literally saved Bob from eviction in February 2004 by paying $24 million to his creditors. Bob says he doesn't know how long he'll remain here, since he and his girlfriend, April Warren, are the only occupants of the house's 45 rooms. He still has 6 servants (down from 22), in addition to Homlish, who says she has no plans to leave him.
She was working with Guccione when I first met him, in 1974. He hired me as the executive editor of Viva, a sister publication of Penthouse that was billed as "the world's most sophisticated erotic magazine for women." That was during Guccione's glory days, when he was said to be one of the richest men in the world. According to a report in the New York Post last October, Penthouse has earned $4 billion since 1965, when Guccione founded it. During that time Guccione has squandered about $500 million of his personal fortune on bad investments and risky ventures.
Today, Penthouse's circulation is down to 400,000 from a 1979 high of 4.7 million, a victim of X-rated videos and pornographic Web sites. On October 5, 2004, Marc Bell, a 37-year-old private-equity investor from Boca Raton, Florida, acquired the magazine in a bankruptcy sale. Bell insisted he would turn the title around in three years and make it more viable. He didn't reveal his plans except to say that the new version would be softer, "more like Maxim."
The two sides disagree about what happened next. Bell says Guccione declined an offer of $500,000 a year to stay on as a consultant. Guccione maintains he signed an agreement, but Bell reneged on the offer. Bell says that until recently he had been consulting with Guccione regularly and that Guccione and Homlish had helped him edit the Penthouse Pet of the Year issue. (The Pets, Penthouse's answer to Playboy Bunnies, remain the star attraction of the magazine.)
According to Homlish, the relationship was severed within minutes of the ruling that approved Bell's takeover: "We got a call from the Penthouse office saying, 'You are no longer with the company,' and [they told us] to send over all the materials, layouts, pictures, etc., we had at the house."
"It was pretty hostile," Bob mumbles, but Bell maintains that there was nothing unpleasant about it.
Meanwhile, there are reports of chaos at the new Penthouse. Many longtime staff members have been fired, and some insiders feel that Bell, who has little magazine experience, doesn't understand the dynamics of Penthouse or its curious but enduringly readable mix. Bell insists that, while there will still be pictorials of Penthouse Pets, the end product will no longer be "embarrassing."
"Bell is too cautious, too button-down," says a former editor who remains loyal to Guccione. "Whatever you might think of Bob Guccione, he always took huge risks."
There are differing opinions about the so-called impact of Penthouse. Feminists have denounced it as an obscene insult to women, whereas admirers insist it was unique because it broke so many sexual taboos. One thing is certain: it remains among the greatest success stories in the history of magazines. "The secret of Bob's success was his timing," says editor Gay Bryant, who came from London and helped launch the American edition of Penthouse in 1969, four years after Bob started it in Britain. "Bob challenged Playboy at the peak of the sexual revolution."
Another colleague adds, "Bob out-raunched Playboy by displaying genitalia and pubic hair in the magazine. That had never been done before. He knew what to sell to the 18- to 34-year-old guy [who accounted for 70 percent of his readership in the 70s and 80s]. He knew how to mix tabloid headlines, sensationalistic muckraking journalism, and dirty pictures. It was a hell of a combination."
In the beginning, Bob photographed all the Pet pictorials himself. He used natural light, soft-focus lenses, and muted colors, and his models were young and in- nocent. Soon, though, he began to get more daring, featuring full frontal nudity, girl-on-girl shots, and graphic displays of genitalia. ("Going pink" was the trade expression.) "The pictures got really dirty," a former art director says. "And the models changed. They were no longer innocents. They were strippers or porn stars and they'd had face-lifts or breast implants. They weren't as real."
Throughout, Bob maintained that he was an artist. Growing up, he had wanted to be a painter, and he started Penthouse only because he thought it could subsidize his art career. Friends say he always had a pornographic imagination. "Comes from his repressed Catholic background," says Robert Weil, a former editor of Omni magazine. Bob once studied to be a priest.
Even when he was a big celebrity, Guccione kept a …