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Bob Guccione

 

When the founder of Penthouse saunters down the stairs of his mansion in New York, I think at first that there must be some mistake. Surely this cannot be a 68-year-old man? Perhaps there has been some confusion over the name and I am going to find myself interviewing his son Bob Guccione Jr.

 

It is not just his clothes that create this impression: gold-tipped boots, tight, faded black jeans, black silk shirt and a quantity of chunky gold around his neck. Guccione Sr is tall and lean, his hair is gingery-blond and his face is that of a man 20 years his junior.

 

"For my age I'm pretty good," volunteers Guccione, who, I quickly learn, is not a man afflicted by false modesty. "I'm pretty healthy and I take care of myself . . . I make love every day without fail, sometimes as much as five times a day. I do not use Viagra. I do not need to use Viagra." He does, however, take a human growth hormone and 50 tablets a day of nutritional supplements.

 

He never touches alcohol and gave up smoking 15 years ago. But his voice remains a legacy of those five packets a day: low and gravelly, almost hoarse at times. And his words are so drawn out that it sounds as though he is on the wrong speed setting.

 

I ask him if he has ever had a face-lift. This is, of course, fantastically rude, but something about Guccione's relaxed manner seems to allow it. He answers as though it is the most normal question in the world. "I had cosmetic surgery almost 20 years ago when I had a cancerous tumour removed from my scalp. They had to pull my sideburns up into my head to put my hair back and then they had to pull the other side of my face up to even it. But that's it. I haven't had anything done since."

 

Guccione rarely gives interviews but has agreed to this one to coincide with the publication next week of the 30th anniversary issue of Penthouse magazine in the States. In Britain it is even older - 34 years - but it is the more explicit US edition which is the flagship issue, known, stresses Guccione, as much for its serious reportage as for its pornography. Not that pornography is a word that Guccione would use.

 

"Pornography is associated in my mind with a vulgar depiction of sexuality, not an artistic, elegant, beautiful show . . . Explicit sex is part of a political statement. I frankly believe that all consensual sex is beautiful and natural and we shouldn't be ashamed of it."

 

Out of this mission statement, Guccione has created a multi-million-dollar empire. I had read that he was worth $300 million, but Guccione reckons he is worth more. "I have no real idea what my worth is. I'm sure it's much more than $300 million. Penthouse alone is worth more than $300 million."

 

He lives in what is reputed to be the largest townhouse in New York, where the extraordinary art collection alone is worth many millions of pounds. The house covers 28,000 square feet on the Upper East Side. As you walk through the wrought-iron gates that once belonged to Richard Nixon, you are picked up on closed-circuit television. Ahead is a marble hall with priceless Old Masters hanging on the walls. To the right is a swimming pool, lined with mosaic, its aquamarine water glinting between the huge pillars.

 

Guccione meets me on the first floor, in a vast reception room which doubles as a ballroom. A chandelier of original Venetian lead crystal hangs from the ceiling and Icelandic goat pelts cover the floor. In an anteroom is a mosaic floor depicting the head of Pompey, as designed by Guccione. To one side is Judy Garland's old piano with Moonlight Serenade by Glenn Miller on the music stand. An assistant points out some of the paintings: "A Botticelli, an El Greco, an early Guccione."

 

"An early who?" I say stupidly, unable to recall any Old Master by that name. It is, of course, Bob Guccione, who sees painting as his raison d'être. To most people's surprise, he does not paint nudes but styles himself as a post-impressionist, concentrating on still lifes and landscapes.

 

Next year he plans to bring an exhibition of his work to London. It will be his first show here since 1953, when, as an impoverished artist, he displayed his paintings in an Italian restaurant in Greenwich. It is an event he describes with some humour.

 

"I hung my paintings with great care at a place called Monty's and sat in the corner holding my breath. People filed in, sat down and ordered, but not a single individual looked at the paintings, and I got more and more frustrated. Then I saw one guy slap his spoon into his pasta and sauce shplitzed onto one of my canvases. That was it. I got up, pushed them aside and took my paintings off the wall while Monty ran around the room screaming in Italian: 'What are you, some kind of maniac?' That was my first and last exhibition so it was kind of tempting to have one all these years later."

 

Guccione was born in Brooklyn, the son of an accountant of Sicilian descent. He had a Catholic upbringing and was an altar boy for four years, even joining a seminary with the aim of becoming a priest. "But I discovered that what the Church was teaching and what I felt in myself were in conflict."

 

So he became an artist, odd-jobbing his way through Morocco, France and Italy. "I was so poor I slept outdoors and went round cafés in the South of France offering to do pencil portraits of tourists or read their fortunes." 

 

At the age of 29, with an ex-wife, a wife - Muriel Hudson, a British singer - and five children to support, he moved to London to try to make some money. First he ran a dry-cleaning firm called Knobb's in Finsbury Park, before coming up with the idea of creating a British magazine to rival the American Playboy.

 

The first issue landed him a writ for indecency and he was summoned to appear in court. It was, as he says, the best advertising campaign he could have hoped for: "It came out in a landslide of publicity and controversy . . . I have built an empire on controversy."

 

In 1969 he moved to New York and shelved his painting ambitions. It was only five years ago that he again picked up a paintbrush, working in the dead of night after spending his days running the Penthouse business. He paints until 6am and sleeps until midday.

 

Upstairs in his studio is a half-finished picture of a bowl of fruit set against a panoramic background of a sun-kissed Mediterranean town. One cannot help but think he is fighting a losing battle. Even if he were one of the best painters in the world - and he sincerely believes that he is - he is only ever going to be remembered for Penthouse. Guccione disagrees: "That will change through the perspective of history," he says with confidence.

 

Yet he is the first to acknowledge the irony of his situation. "I created Penthouse magazine for one reason only. I was looking for a way to support myself so that I could continue to paint. But it was a better idea than I thought and I was inundated with responsibility. I still am."

 

Far from being just a figurehead for the company, he is involved in every detail. "I do most of the house copy, I assign all the photographs, I choose all the girls, I edit all the pictures, crop them and design them completely. I don't know of any other publisher who gets that involved in his business - but I can't leave it alone."

 

Is it because he loves it so much, or just that he hates delegating? "It's not because I love it. I hate it now. But I don't think anybody else could do it as well."

 

There is something rather sad about this statement. Here is one of the wealthiest men in the world, past retirement age, doing a job that he hates. Why not call it a day? "Because I have too many things that are on the verge of happening that would give increased value to the company. That value will then go to my kids and to the estate and it would be silly for me to walk away from it now because if it's worth x today, tomorrow it could be worth X plus Y plus Z."

 

Yet he is estranged from two of his five children. He has not spoken to Bob Guccione Jr for more than a decade after they rowed over the funding of an offshoot magazine that the younger Guccione had set up. More recently he became estranged from his son Tony after the latter allegedly fraudulently used the Penthouse logo on a website. "The other son and two daughters will be my heirs."

 

Will he make peace one day with his sons? "No," says Guccione adamantly, before I have finished the question. Does it sadden him? He draws a deep breath. "I think every parent is sad to lose a child - or lose touch with a child. It is a sad experience but nonetheless it is a reality in my life and I have to live with it."

 

He sees it as a direct consequence of his wealth and success. "I don't know of a single family where they don't have exactly the same problem. Money and power seduce people. I think it upsets their circuitry somehow and they do crazy things."

 

Would he rather, in retrospect, not have had the money and power? "No. That would be catering to the weaknesses of other people." He insists that money is the key to happiness. "Anybody who says money doesn't buy you happiness didn't have the money to test it with."

 

This is not convincing. Yes, he has every material thing that he could possibly wish for but he does not exactly radiate happiness. Those close to him say that he has never really recovered from the loss of his wife, Kathy Keeton, who died of breast cancer nearly two years ago at the age of 58. Although she was his third wife, they were together for 32 years and ran the Penthouse empire together. Her name still appears on the magazine's masthead as vice-chairman, and Guccione says he will never remove it. "Kathy had a much better sense of business than I have."

 

He once said that he could not imagine life without Kathy and I ask him how he is coping. "It's something I'd rather not talk about because I still get very emotional about it." His eyes water and he becomes slightly choked. "I have a girlfriend [30-year-old April] and that relieves some of the loneliness. But Kathy was the biggest thing in my life and always will be."

 

Guccione lives an isolated existence, shunning parties and rarely leaving his home. "I'm not very sociable at all, in fact I'm downright antisocial. I guess I've always been reclusive. I almost never go out of this house." He says that there is nothing debauched about the way he lives. "I tend to be quite prudish. I don't go to nightclubs. I don't have parties. You will never see a nude woman running around this house or in my swimming pool. If I think my girlfriend is showing too much cleavage, I make her change."

 

He even goes so far as to say that he is not the sort of person who would ever buy a copy of Penthouse. "It's not my kind of magazine. I have very esoteric tastes. I'm much more interested in classical literature and poetry."

 

But business is business and among his coups are the publication of the pictures and stories of Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones. He offered Monica Lewinsky $3 million for a similar deal. She never responded. "But I got a phone call from her father. He was interested and very concerned with his daughter's future. He said to me: 'You know, the President did not seduce my daughter. I'm satisfied that my daughter seduced the President.' Those are his own words, exactly as he said them to me."

 

He insists that Penthouse is all part of a plan to improve society, not a gratuitous porn mag. In fact, he says, he looks forward to the day when the magazine eliminates itself by convincing people that sex is natural. "The minute we achieve that state of Nirvana, we will be out of business, because there will be no more need for Penthouse."

as published in The Telegraph, July 30, 1999

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