Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Year with the Guccione Family

When I read that Bob Guccione died yesterday I thought about his family and wondered how a man who chose to live such an unconventional life will be remembered.

I worked as an editorial and personal assistant for the Guccione family during my senior year in college. During that time I learned there was more behind the Guccione name than what most people tend to imagine.

When I arrived at the Omni offices on Broadway for the first time in the mid-80s I assumed that I'd be interviewing for an internship with the science magazine of the same name. When the elevator door opened and I was confronted with an enormous portrait of Bob Guccione sitting in a gilded chair with a nude woman straddling his lap I assumed I'd gone to the wrong floor. It turned out that I was on the right floor but the interview wouldn't be with Omni. It would be for an internship that would expose me to every aspect of the publishing business while I moved from one publication to another within the Guccione empire.

My first assignment at General Media, Inc. was as assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of Penthouse Magazine, Peter Bloch. I was responsible for fact checking a series of long articles on chiropractic medicine while I shivered in a cold, drab cubicle. Opening the mail each day was my only break from boredom. The Dear Penthouse letters that appeared in the mailbag among invoices were either funny or bizarre. They were hardly ever written on ordinary writing paper. I came across letters written on gift wrap, brown paper bags, innersoles, takeout menus, posterboard and even one that arrived written in perfect penmanship on a long stretch of toilet paper.

At the end of that first month of yawns and shivers I was moved to my next assignment, this time at New Look, the first-ever, gear-oriented magazine for men. Bob Guccione invented the format that today is a crowded genre. Critics thought it would fail so there was a gung-ho energy in that office as everyone worked hard to ensure New Look's success. The scene there was active, young and spontaneous.

One morning while I was making calls on a research assignment I was distracted by a sudden flash of movement nearby. I turned to look only to find a kangaroo hopping along the editorial department's grey carpet, it's blue vest emblazoned with the magazine's name. The office broke out into laughter and squeals as the creature was chased around by the wrangler charged with getting him to a promotional event.

I realized after only a few weeks at General Media that the company derided by feminists as being exploitive of women was dominated at every level by bright, powerful women. Later, I discovered that Dawn Steel, of Penthouse's advertising department, had gone on to become head of Paramount Pictures. Editor-in-chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour, launched her career with Bob Guccione as fashion editor of his experimental women's magazine, Viva.

When it was time to leave New Look I was so disappointed to learn that I'd be moving to accounting next. The only compensation was knowing I'd be working with Anthony Guccione Sr., the elder statesman of the family, and Nina, Bob Guccione's quiet, dark-haired sister or daughter - I don't remember exactly. What the experience lacked in thrills it made up for in good company.

During that time I'd walk the halls between dull tasks trying to oxygenate my brain so that I could stay awake. While peeking into offices I found Ori Hofmekler's artist studio and made a good friend. I remember his great stories, many of them fascinating conspiracy theories and the wild political caricatures he painted for the magazine. Every day at some point I would escape to his studio and take a seat on a low stool near a window to visit and watch him paint. He would entertain me with his clever political rants and his tales about his life back in Israel. In return I would make him laugh with my daily observations about the goings-on in the offices below his studio.

Soon my accounting assignment was over and it was onto the next adventure. I learned that I would now be the personal assistant to the formidable Kathy Keeton, co-founder of Penthouse, Omni and Longevity magazines and wife of Bob Guccione. That was exciting yet terrifying news. She was known to all of us lowly assistants as an exacting boss. I was shaking on that first Monday morning as I entered her realm at Longevity Magazine.

The first time I saw Kathy Keeton she was walking down the hall toward her office, accompanied by a chauffer and five Rhodesian ridgebacks. She wore a tiny, pink Chanel suit. I stood to greet her but then sat back down at at my desk with no idea what to do. When she was settled in for the morning she yelled for me with such force that I jumped. I wobbled into her office knowing that dogs sense fear. Her five huge dogs lay by the door looking massive and potentially dangerous so I smiled as I inched past them. I turned to see Kathy Keeton sitting at her desk looking small but equally as intimidating so I smiled even more. I stood at her desk, aware that Rhodesian ridegbacks are trained to take down prey from behind. I tried to focus on my new boss' words rather than on her dogs behind me but it was impossible -they had my full attention.

For the next however-long at Longevity, my responsibilities included participating in the letter writing campaign against the Edwin Meese Commission (the group was attempting to ban Guccione publications from 7-11s) and keeping the Rhodesian ridegbacks well-fed with chopsteaks from a restaurant on Broadway. I also shopped all over Manhattan for Ms. Keeton, picking up holiday gifts for Penthouse Pets. But what I appreciated about my role was seeing the daily life of a publisher - learning how editorial decisions were made, witnessing how major advertisers could be convinced over time to spend their dollars and watching the magazine's founder channel her passion for wellness into a magazine that would not only be successful but generate a new health magazine genre.

After those stressful but fascinating months with Ms. Keeton it was time to change roles again. I moved to the photography and layout department of Penthouse to assist the Director of Photography. My work consisted mostly of administrative tasks and setting photographers and models at ease as they waited to present their portfolios to the director - an easygoing Dean Martin-like man with a great sense of humor. He and his Vice President were best friends. They kept their wives happy by shopping often and genrously for them. They once returned from lunch to tell me about the matching Jaguars they had just ordered for their wives and another time they went out to buy the ladies matching mink coats. I was a struggling student back then and listened to their stories in amazement while eating Cup-A-Soups and eating whatever crackers I could find in empty desks around the office. I think they were the happiest team at General Media.

Next up for me was a brand new magazine called Spin. I'd be assisting the youngest Guccione, Bobby Junior. (The two words were always spoken running together as if they were both his first name.) It was an incredibly busy, exciting time to join the magazine. The only real music magazine then was Rolling Stone and here was this 19-year-old boy ready to take that giant on.

The days at Spin flew by - there were no dull moments like those I experienced in my cubicles in the Traffic or Accounting departments throughout General Media. At Spin there was a constant flow of new ideas, new music and a lot of flirting among the young staff. In the middle of this whirlwind was BobbyJunior, dark curls crowning his head in the style of a young Caesar in his father's empire.

He always had a joke and a friendly remark for everyone even though he was under enormous pressure to prove himself within the publishing industry. At least twice a day he would sit on my desk for a chat but he moved back and forth between casual conversation and actual task-making that I learned to keep pen and paper at the ready at all times. Even during frenetic moments he played the charming host for the staff but the dark circles under his eyes and his intensity made it obvious that this was, above all, serious business.

After Spin I moved to C.B.S. Records to work in publicity for Andy Warhol's protege, Susan Blond but I missed General Media for a long time. I never found out who orchestrated my moves from depratment to department or from Guccione to Guccione throughout that year but whoever did did a fantastic job of showing a journalism student every aspect of publishing.

I never did meet Bob Guccione himself but I was able to learn from the people he loved most at the publications he was most passionate about and from that I have to conclude that he must have been a powerhouse - he ignited tremendous drive in each member of his family and organization. I was in awe of Kathy Keeton. She radiated health, beauty and an incredible focus that made her seem larger-than-life. I hope they will both be remembered as people who lived extraordinary lives.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

That "Old Man Bar"

When cold weather settles upon Manhattan the idea of ducking into a cozy pub becomes especially appealing. Oneal's on the Upper West Side used to be one of my favorite cold weather stops until it shut down last June. Sadly, it was one of many neighborhood landmarks lost to the recession. But drinking establishments where bars have been polished smooth over the years, where the bartenders take pouring seriously, and where conversation is king can still be found throughout New York City. One of those bars is Dublin House.

Other bars in New York have more appeal but somehow a dim hideout, described in an online forum as "an old man bar that smells of old man sweater," inspires love and loyalty in all its patrons. A bit of quick research reveals that countless glowing, personal reviews exist about such an unassuming place.

Years ago, while I was still in high school, friends and I would stop into Dublin House for after-school pitchers of beer. We were newly eighteen at a time when New York's drinking age was lower and anything laminated sufficed as proper identification. We would pool our babysitting money, settle into one of the large booths in the back, and tackle our homework. Tom Petty and Bob Seger blasted from the jukebox as we shouted our conversations, smoking Marlboros bought from a cigarette machine. But the history of Dublin House stretches much further into the past than the lax 1970s.

Shrugging off a damp coat and a chill at Dublin House feels as good today as it probably did to the bar's first patrons more than 80 years ago. Back then sailors would dock at the 79th Street Boat Basin and make their way toward a blinking sign in the distance - the same neon harp that lights the bar's entrance to this day. For many sailors, Dublin House became their first stop in Manhattan the momnet they set foot on land.

Dublin House started operating in 1921 during Prohibition. "Special arrangements" with authorites made it possible for the bar to continue selling alcohol discreetly right through the country's "dry" years. Since then the bar has remained unchanged, doing uninterrupted business through economic downturns and the financial crises that periodically threaten New York. Today it's still the sort of place where anyone - man, woman, sailor, or even a young adult with proper identification - feels welcome. It's a genuine New York neighborhood bar.

Reading online you'll discover that Dublin House often receives compliments garnished with an affectionate put-down. Here are a few of my favorites:

"I can't define it but you can tell a pub has a heart when it's got old geezers and dogs in it. Dublin House has a heart."

"Unfortunately for my Dublin House patronage...when selecting bars...I use my eyes (I like eye candy), my tongue (I like microbrews, nice wine), my ears (I like music), my stomach (I like food), and another organ (see 'my eyes' parenthetical). But if I ever get around to following my heart, I'll find my way back to the Dublin House more. This will probably have to wait, though, until my other organs aren't functioning quite as well as they do today..."

"Now THIS, my friends, is my future. A dark bar with absolutely no frills and a real nice, old school bartender. I'll spend my final afternoons hunched over a table with a beer in hand, chatting to the youngin's who happen in, and hopefully have someone to share old memories with."

"A bar that almost resents you knowing about it."

The next time there's a chill in the air, consider warming up at your favorite New York haunt or find one to love in Best Bars of New York, by Jeff Klein and Cary Hazlegrove. Or just stop by "that old man bar" on West 79th Street. You'll find it under a neon pink harp.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sunday Night at Your Brain on The Internet

It was my first time at The New Yorker Festival. For a moment I felt a wave of pre-quiz jitters, as if I were about to be tested on everything that had appeared in the magazine over the past five years. But I was too content to be worried for long. It was an overcast Sunday in Chelsea where a panel of intellectual luminaries would soon take the stage ready to disect an interesting subject, Your Brain on the Internet.

The seats at SVA seemed enormous. I felt like a third-grader sitting in a high school auditorium, but a happy third grader. I resisted kicking the seats and playing with the arm rests. Many attendees passed the time reading before the event. Everything is Illuminated, The Corrections and Freedom were three titles I spotted. Sections of the Sunday Times found there way out of tote bags. Murmured conversations rose from all around the theater. My sweater from Norway sparked a conversation about knitting that migrated into a discussion about gender issues in Latin America. Then a hush moved through the crowd as a change in lighting signaled the start of the afternoon's program.

Jason Schwartzman opened the event in a funny, two-minute video introducing the new app for The New Yorker. Afterwards the panelists hurried up the aisle toward the stage along the right side of the theater, accompanied by zero fanfare. (It's amazing that celebrities generate screams and applause everywhere they go but people whose thoughts, research and writing directly impact the direction of education and technology walk around unnoticed most of the time.) In moments everyone was seated: Jaron Lanier, who coined the term "virtual reality" and wrote “You Are Not a Gadget”; Nicholson Baker, an acclaimed novelist who examines stream of consciousness; Jonah Lehrer, an editor at Wired, the creator of the blog The Frontal Cortex, and the author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”; Elizabeth Phelps, a professor of psychology and neural science at N.Y.U. who studies how emotions affect memory; and Daniel Zalewski, moderator and features editor at The New Yorker.

Two hours, two out-of-ink pens and a frantic search for a #2 pencil later, the discussion about the Internet's effects on our brains (and our society, productivity, privacy and more) was over. Here are a few paraphrased notes from that lively event:

It can be harder to daydream if instead of staring out of train windows we're looking at three-inch windows.

Rest after learning new information strengthens networks of learning for later retrieval.

When writing a novel, let information pour in, make connections, but then disconnect from digital media for a time to let it all break apart and become part of you.

When you are writing you need at some point to feel like what you are writing is the only thing at that moment. So unplug for awhile.

A random walk through the digital ether is a good thing.

Make time to read without the distraction of hyperlinks, "Under the still umbrella of your own concentration."

"It's always nice to be potentially distractable" so hyperlinks are beneficial.

Hyperlinks may make you jump off one story to another but, "Not all articles merit reading to the end."

People are writing better because they are writing more. The level of fluency has improved.

But writing well may not transfer well to other (non blog, non Twitter) formats.

We're a culture of communal publication.

Go on a wild Google search for fun. "Be like e.e. cummings. Enter three random words to see what Google gives you then follow that thread. Break a few things in your mind and afterwards see if there's any interesting scar tissue left there."

Cities are the engines of productivity. The Internet is a city of minds.

Face Fatigue from walking crowded streets when over-tired happens online too when too much disembodied information comes at you at once. Step away. Come back to it refreshed.

"Put a penny in a jar each time you check your Facebook."

Suggested name change for The New Yorker: Too Long to Read.

Surprise. Most-Twittered New Yorker peices are 16,000 plus words long.

We have to encapsulate in order to be truly ourselves. Unplug.

Creativity doesn't emerge as a product of life hacking strategies but by becoming more truly ourselves. You don't foster creativity by inducing novelty in your brain.

Need to distribute online clout from Empire vs. peasants model before we split into a two-tiered H.G. Wells 'Time Machine' world where those who live close to the computer server dominate.

Regardless of Facebook friend count (10 or 10,000), studies show that people have 4-7friends in real life.

Future apps will have the potential to accelerate conformity. You'll enter a shopping mall and be bombared with purchase recommendations based on what your peer group would like.

One participant equated Steven Jobs to an emperor or guru who seems to have entered into an S&M- like relationship with his supplicants. He's not terribly kind but they love him anyway. Another participant rose to Jobs defense seeing in him a genuine desire to make great strides in technology for the good of all people. All agreed, the majority at the top of the Internet Empire are smart and decent.

The future of science education includes having kids create avatars of the subjects they are studying, for example molecules docking with other molecules.

Anonymity in the blogosphere can create a venomous atmosphere but it's worth it for the "mad cackling joy" of being unknown online.

Loss of online anonymity would prevent the sort of subtrefuge that allows self-invention. If Bob Dylan's high school profile had followed him through life he would still be "The Zimmerman Kid."

We should own our information and our spy profiles (now held by online giants) and sell or ignore them as we wish. "That will happen - it's the only way forward."

Tweeting is good discipline for writers. "We break out of the box by stepping into (140 character)shackles."

The harder something is to process that easier it is to remember. IPad may make reading so easy we may forget how to flex our minds for difficult reading.

Don't be oppressed by any having a fabulous life FB updates you might see. Use it as a mode of seeing how individual people are.

The reward system of the brain/tech addiction is emerging as a science.

Remember, online you are The Product.

Bottom line is we don't know what the effects of the Internet are on the brain in the long run. "We are engaged in a mass experiment."

"We're still enjoying this new experiment despite our wounds."