The house that Bob built

Interview: Janie Lawrence talks to BOB GUCCIONE
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The Independent Online
A forest of hairs pushes its way through a blouson shirt which, in the manner of Tom Jones, is undone to the navel. Distracting at the best of times, this vision of hairiness seems all the more bizarre as one very earnest Bob Guccione leans forward to outline his views on God. God? Guccione? Yes, the founder of the sex mag Penthouse always intended to be a cleric. "I thought that I really wanted to be a priest but after I went to the seminary, I went through puberty in a resounding way," he explains in a distinctive gravelly voice that's pure Brooklyn. "I decided it was not for me."

From potential priest to promoter of pornography. I imagine that 67-year- old Guccione might well, in that familiar "time is running out" tradition, be cosying up to God once again. As the man who has been dubbed the "King of Porn" makes a surprising detour into things spiritual, the latest issue of Penthouse, depicting the cover girl in a pair of stilettoed rubber boots, lies on a nearby table. "No," he says, "now I am a non-believer. I think in time one becomes older, wiser and more circumspect. If there is a God, he must be terribly unjust or work in such mysterious ways as to be totally unfathomable. I cannot accept anything that is so unfathomable."

Bob Guccione came to England in the Fifties, intending to become a painter. Instead, he joined the staff of London American, a weekly news magazine. When he decided to launch Penthouse, his own magazine, in 1965, the first issue sold out in five days. Over 30 years later, he is a very wealthy man and lives in the largest private house in Manhattan, boasting marble floors and a Roman-style sunken pool. His dress sense is redolent of the more shady characters in Starsky and Hutch: cowboy boots, white jeans and a tonnage of chunky gold jewellery. A phalanx of bodyguards is never far away. Today, in the hotel lobby, several men built like tanks are on standby in case I launch a surprise assassination attempt. It happened to that other very public face of porn, Larry Flynt, and they're taking no chances.

Although Guccione insists that Penthouse sales in the USA are still healthy, the UK version has not fared well. He has reclaimed the franchise and wants to put Penthouse back on track. "It badly needed resuscitation. It became very pornographic and really misogynistic and that was not what Penthouse was all about." The man who pioneered pubic shots is worried about misogyny? Might it not be more to the point to admit that it's been losing pots of money? "I meant resuscitate the image, more than its sales. But that goes with it."

You may be confused to hear this but Guccione doesn't like pornography. Absolutely not. In fact the very word aggravates him. It's all something to do with that fine line between erotica and pornography which he insists isn't really fine at all. "There's a great difference between erotica and pornography," he begins, casually, clearly used to churning out this line of defence. "In my opinion, pornography is a vulgarisation of the art of erotica. So if something is vulgar, it is no longer artistic. When it becomes artless, it becomes pornography. You can photograph a woman completely nude and that can be a work of art - lyrical, beautiful and mystical. As opposed to the very brassy, vulgar image of the girl fully dressed."

Among the changes in the new British Penthouse is that the dubiously titled "Pet of the Month" slot has been scrapped. "I am surprised to hear your criticism of that word when you're English," he says, frankly looking nothing like surprised. "When I started Penthouse, the term `pet' was a very affectionate word. If you got on a bus, the conductress came up to you and said, `One and six, pet'. It was an endearing term and I used it for that purpose. Only when I went abroad did people say to me, `Pet is really a domestic creature and you're treating women like animals.' "

But then, Guccione sees both the sexes in animalistic terms. He describes his own youthful prowess: "In the past, I would seize almost any opportunity. Like any ordinary young male. The nature of man is not to be monogamous. It is not the nature of any male anywhere in the animal kingdom. He's not intended to be. Nature wants you to go out and replicate yourself. As much as you can, as fast as you can. When you are no longer capable of fulfilling nature's prime directive, life is over."

Guccione's life has been spent fulfilling nature's prime directive in style. When he was 18, he married Lilyann Becker. Three years and one child later, he met British singer, Muriel Hudson. Another four children followed but the marriage floundered when he became involved in setting up Penthouse. "I think she felt threatened. She thought that if I worked with pretty girls, I would be taken away and she wouldn't stand for it." Plainly wife number two knew where she would stand in the mating game. "In the very beginning, you know it was like having your own candy store. Wonderful opportunities presented themselves in a very erotically charged atmosphere. And I guess I took advantage of them. I never bothered to tell my wife. I was very good at sleeping behind her back which is something I did not ultimately respect myself for."

By the time he met his current wife, Kathy Keeton, when he was 35, he had "sown plenty of wild oats". He recalls that what impressed him most about Keeton, the dancer who had just appeared in the film, The Spy who Came in from the Cold, was her choice of reading material. "I thought, `What an incredible woman. She reads The Financial Times and books like African Genesis.' She had a real feeling for business." He asked her to come and work for him and proudly announces that she was the "first woman in the Western world" to sell advertising space.

However, he still had some "wild oats" to use up. "I said, `Kathy, from time to time, I'm gonna wander and you're not. I know that's wrong, I know that it's chauvinistic but that's the way I feel.' " Breaking with tradition, he made a point of keeping her abreast of every such occasion. "I was very sincere and I always went back and told her. I'd say, look I was in Barbados or Paris shooting a girl and the second or third day I made love to her. I always admitted to her whatever I did. I never wanted her to hear it from anyone else. I think she understood it was a real demonstration of respect for her - true love. It's very easy for a man not to have to say anything. To keep it to himself or tell his buddies about it. But I never had buddies. My wife is my best friend."

Sounds like a Catholic man's need for absolution to me. "Guilty? I never felt guilty about it. Maybe if I had felt guilty, I wouldn't have said anything about it." Perhaps she would have preferred it if he'd simply kept his flies zipped up? "Kathy's very sophisticated. She realises that these things are going to happen." Naturally, though, what has been sauce for the goose would not have been appropriate for the gander. He is momentarily puzzled I even ask. "Kathy has never had any interest in going with another man. I would not have accepted it. She has been completely faithful to me. Really that's one of the reasons I've been so much more monogamous with her than anyone else in the past." At his age, he can't have any oats left. Would he stray again? "There would have to be some very big reason. I'm really very happily married."

Both he and Keeton work for Penthouse. He is as involved with the US magazine now as he was 30 years ago. "There are certain aspects of the magazine that I keep entirely to myself. All the girls are chosen by me and I choose the pictures. I design the layout each month and all the definitive detail. The things I do with the magazine I cannot allow anyone else to do because nobody would do it as well."

I wonder how he has been affected by political correctness. "It's absolutely collapsing in the US. It was very much a thing of the moment, a fashion. Like all fashions, it goes in time." He categorically denies the often touted view of the link between violence towards women and pornographic pictures. "Censorship promotes violence," he counters. He goes on auto- pilot: "People who are sexually satisfied don't go out and commit violent anti-social acts. It's those people that are prohibited from acting out their sexual fantasies that begin to lose the line between reality and fantasy."

Two years ago, Keeton was diagnosed as having breast cancer. "We were floored. She thought it was an ulcer because she began to experience a pain in her stomach. But she had it in her liver, her stomach and lymph nodes. She was given three, maybe six weeks at the outside." Against all the odds, he says that she is now in full remission. She refused chemotherapy and they are now both active in promoting the alternative therapy they believe is responsible. Referring to the pharmaceuticals industry, it's the one time he becomes genuinely heated. "It's the two billion dollar scam - they don't like the fact there is a genuine treatment for cancer which costs as little as three dollars a day." He's taken up the issue in the American Penthouse.

Along with Keeton, three of the Guccione progeny also work for Penthouse. He is no longer on speaking terms with his son from his second marriage, Bob Jnr. Allegedly they fell out in 1988 when Bob Jnr borrowed money to launch his own music magazine, Spin, and a year later daddy demanded it back. It must sting as it's the only question he blanks immediately. "Neither of us talk about it," he says dismissively.

Has he contemplated retiring and handing over the reins to a younger Guccione? "So long as I own the company, I have to keep doing what I do. There's still a few things I want to do. When I've accomplished those and got other things off the ground thereafter, in all practical terms, I can retire." With plans for a casino in Atlantic City and his own TV network that could be some time yet.

After a break of 30 years, he's finally returned to painting. Now he usually paints at three in the morning after he's finished working on the magazine. He's already had several one-man exhibitions and says that if he does retire, he would spend all his time painting. "I don't feel now that I have to prove anything to myself or to anyone else. I feel pretty good about life." As the man himself might say: good on you, pet.

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