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.