By John Skow
December 17, 1984 12:00 PM

Male décolletage takes some getting used to, especially for those of us I who were raised in the necktie belt (all of the country except Palm Springs in the old days, but now a shrinking zone of conventionality extending from Toledo, Ohio to Fort Wayne, Ind.). A woman I know offers the opinion that men who wear their shirts unbuttoned to their navels are bravely but foolishly challenging females, and she says with great confidence, “This is a war they cannot win.”

Maybe, but here is Bob Guccione, 54 next week, a tall, narrow fellow who is the founder and publisher of Penthouse and Omni magazines, wearing a short-sleeve black shirt slashed to give a panoramic view of his wishbone, and talking like a man who has won all of his battles so far. He has several gold chains around his neck, as he usually does, and it is said reliably that from one of them dangles a tiny gold penis, the gift of a whimsical former girlfriend. It can be imagined that this is a conversational land mine, as in, “Ooh, what’s that?” followed by, on closer inspection, “Cough, choke, um, yes, I see…” But I can’t attest that the doodad really is there, because where I come from it is considered boorish to stare at a low-cut neckline. The truth is that I am embarrassed.

We talk of other matters as we sit in his vast and classy town house in Manhattan surrounded by superb paintings he has collected. A single blazing perception has paid for all of this baronial dignity: Guccione’s correct guess in the late 1960s that a large part of U.S. society was eager to buy photographs of pretty, naked women with their genitalia prominently displayed. Guccione’s mansion is a monument to pubic hair. Fair enough; the mansion of the late steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick, a few blocks away, now perhaps the finest small art museum in the country, is a monument to union busting, the Homestead strike and U.S. Steel. Frick’s paintings are grander, but not by much. A fine Holbein portrait of Henry VIII is hung on the ancient paneling of one wall of the publisher’s study, and a Gauguin, a Vlaminck and a Pissarro, among others, are propped against the wall, because there is no more space in which to display them.

Guccione, it turns out, has a lot to get off his chest, not all of it gold. He is irked that he is considered to be the heavy in the Vanessa Williams affair, a villain so black-hearted that Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner has taken to scolding him in public on ethics and morals. Guccione says with pity in his voice that he does not blame Hefner, “the creep,” for fuming, “considering that I have stolen an empire out from under him.” He seems to regard Hefner as the King Lear of the skin mags, an enfeebled giant who can no longer cut the mustard. Playboy’s nudes were still relatively demure when Guccione made his historic pubic leap. The older magazine appears to be aimed at a slightly more intelligent reader (a sophomore predental student at Michigan State, perhaps) and still sells a million more copies each month. But Penthouse, whose photos, many of them by Guccione himself, still are more explicitly gynecological, makes more money, says Guccione, because 94 percent of its sales are at newsstands, traditionally more profitable than subscriptions.

About Miss America, however: Students of the absurd will recall that Vanessa Williams was unfrocked, if that is the word, after Guccione got hold of a batch of nude photos of her with another woman. He printed them in the September issue and admits that the resulting clamor pushed up newsstand sales from the usual three million copies, at $3 a throw, to nearly six million at $4 each.

The Miss America Pageant, as Guccione points out with some exasperation, is simply a beauty contest, silly and outdated. This antique jiggle derby is offensive to feminists and a bore to lechers, who much prefer to read Penthouse with the door locked. In any case, Guccione says, he has a release for the pictures of Williams, signed by her and verified by two independent handwriting experts against samples of her signature. “You pose for a photographer, you sign a model release, you’ve consummated a business contract,” he says unsympathetically. Before Williams resigned he offered to pay all her legal fees if she decided to fight the effort to dethrone her, or to double her Miss America salary, paying her roughly $250,000, if she agreed to travel around the country promoting Penthouse. “It would have been dignified,” says Guccione. “She wouldn’t have had to take off her clothes.”

Guccione likes to philosophize, in the kingly manner of successful entrepreneurs, and if Holbein were alive today to do court painting, he might catch the publisher as he sits and delivers his observations, holding the can of Tab that he is seldom without. “The Vanessa Williams experience tends to underscore something particularly American,” he says, “that out of scandal, especially scandal of these proportions, ultimately everyone profits.” The sound of this is wise and just: We hold this sleaze to be self-evident.

Still, an observer cannot help noticing that the Miss America uproar showed a vengeful side to Guccione’s behavior, one that Henry Clay Frick probably would have approved of. After she chose to oppose him, he made plans to run the additional nude shots from Tom Chiapel’s portfolio that appeared in the November issue. Williams has brought suit against Chiapel, and, says Guccione, “our lawyer is defending him.” Undisclosed matters from her past will be brought out, he says, “and she will have a very rough ride.” Further, he is running an entirely different set of nude pictures of Williams in the January issue of Penthouse. They are, he says, “shocking S&M bondage pictures.” He chuckles. “They have to be seen to be believed: Vanessa Williams in chains, handcuffs, leather restraining outfits. She was a very busy girl at the time, far from the innocent Miss Muffet that she purports to be….”

Don’t fool around with Bob Guccione, is the message. The publisher clearly enjoys spending his fortune not just to buy art and to finance scientific research—another of his enthusiasms—but also to get even with his enemies. By his own account, he has been involved in a large number of libel suits and other legal wars. “We have a fight-to-the-end policy,” he says—this despite the fact that “when you take a magazine like Penthouse to court, the jury, the judge are automatically going to be with the plaintiff.” Even so, he says with much satisfaction, Penthouse has won all of these contests.

None of this is surprising. A big sensational magazine like Penthouse will draw legal fire, and if its editors have good advice on libel law, they won’t lose many suits. What is startling is the story Guccione goes on to tell. During the course of one of the lawsuits, he says—he won’t say which one—it became clear to him that the judge in the case, and later an appellate judge, were “paid off by the other side.” The bias “was so blatant,” he goes on to say, that after Penthouse won its case, “I put my own investigators on these judges. I swore that I would see them not only off the bench, but in jail.

“Three or four months ago, we turned over to the FBI a complete file of all the evidence, sworn affidavits, confessions, tapes, a complete case. We know how much money they took, how they took it, when it was given to them. We have signed affidavits by the people who carried the money, by the guy that handed it over to them. All the FBI has to do is corroborate and prosecute.” (Guccione’s lawyer, Roy Grutman, would neither confirm nor deny anything about the case.)

“This is as much a personal act of vengeance as it is wanting to see something wrong put right,” Guccione admits. But, “I’m a great believer in law and order, and in what this country represents fundamentally.”

Here Guccione sounds more like a conventional, self-made, self-pleased millionaire than a onetime art student and movie extra who got rich peddling naughty photographs. He goes on harrumphing like Daddy Warbucks and says that he thinks Ronald Reagan is not tough enough on foreign policy. It is difficult to square this somewhat ponderous-sounding Guccione with stories of the bright young artist, the son of a successful New Jersey accountant, who skipped college to live the bohemian life, first in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and then for a dozen years in Europe. He was a cartoonist, he says, a cook, an actor, a private eye, a humor columnist, a rambling cat who had no trouble landing on his feet.

In 1965 he got the notion of starting a skin mag in London and was lucky enough to be denounced loudly in Parliament. Four years later he was ready to challenge Playboy and Hefner in the U.S. Five years after that, in 1974, one estimate put Penthouse’s annual gross in the U.S. at $40 million and Guccione’s personal yearly take from all his enterprises at $6 million.

Money in such stupefying abundance exerts pressure, not all of it outward. Guccione was changing. Penthouse readers, or oglers, were titillated by what came to be called, snickeringly, Guccione’s “crab shots,” in which his models appeared to be examining their private parts for vermin. They imagined, as they were supposed to, that the publisher lived a life of fantastic self-indulgence. In fact he was putting in 20-hour days editing his magazines and, in the process, sealing himself off from the world. He reveals a goofy sort of innocence when he tells a bizarre story about becoming en-snarled in the Abscam sting operation set up by the FBI a few years ago. Guccione was trying to get financing to build a casino in Atlantic City. Banks were leery of his operation, he says, partly because it is a privately held, one-man show. Eventually he found himself talking to some go-betweens who were, in fact, FBI agents. They told him about “Abdul,” an Arab sheik with bottomless pockets and a high tolerance for profitable crookedness. Abdul loved Penthouse, the phony moneymen told Guccione, and he wanted to dump a lot of money into the casino project. But he needed the assurance that Penthouse would get a casino license. What was needed was a bribe for the head of the casino control commission. They would supply the bribe money, if necessary, but Guccione had to meet with the commission head and set up the details. He says now that he had no idea the brokers were trying to set him up for a bribery conviction. His response, as he recalls it, was “What are you, crazy?”

So Guccione says. It was not until about a year or so ago, he goes on, that he realized what had happened and had the pleasure of learning that a Senate select-committee spokesman had referred to him as a businessman who could not be corrupted. That was fine, but in the meantime the casino project had stalled, after he had put $78 million into it. He claims that the FBI went around to members of a consortium of banks he had put together, whispering that the Bureau was “very interested” in the Penthouse operation. At that, he says, bank enthusiasm cooled.

The casino is still only about 40 percent complete, and he says he has filed papers for a suit to recover “a quantifiable loss as a result of Abscam. We’re not going to settle with them, we’re going to go ahead, come hell or high water.” He plans to sting the government, he says, for some $250 million.

The casino fiasco is a fight now, and Guccione, who calls himself “a very hard loser,” intends to finish his building, get his license and start those slot machines cranking. Okay, but why, originally, did he want a casino? Was it because Playboy had one? He is scornful of this notion and scoffs that people who see a parallel between his character and Hefner’s “don’t know what they’re talking about.” Sure, each man owns a skin magazine, and each controls a large and elaborate mansion. But “I couldn’t possibly live like he does, turning my home into a circus tent. He’s surrounded by parasites and phonies and cronies.”

Life in his own mansion is “austere,” he says. It also sounds airless. He does not set foot outside the splendid Manhattan house “for weeks at a time.” The gold chains and the unbuttoned shirts hint at a swinger’s self-indulgence that he may have known in London 20 years ago, but work and power are his vices now. He is convincing when he says that he despises the fashionable cocaine scene, and he speaks of drug users with an almost Puritanical revulsion.

He has lived with the same woman since he started the magazine—the pretty, 40ish former dancer Kathy Keeton, who has been vice-president of Penthouse for years. His only guests are advertisers and his own extensive family (he has five children by two ex-wives, and his father, Anthony Guccione, works for Penthouse as treasurer). He says, sternly—this is the man who argues that the mores of the American public have left the Miss America Pageant behind—that “no one has ever been in my swimming pool without a bathing suit.”

So, fine, what did he want the casino for? He says, quite believably, that he wanted its income to finance his contributions to scientific research. He has put some $16 or $17 million into a company developing a portable, disposable nuclear-fusion reactor, for example. That project has reached the point where another big chunk of money is needed, he says, and for this the firm, called INESCO, must go public. (High Technology magazine reports that the controversial venture ended with a “financial collapse” in August.) Guccione enjoys the sort of cosmological daydreaming that fills Omni, and in the right mood he likes to talk about mankind achieving wondrous technological marvels and “terra-firming” other worlds. “Art and science,” he says. “I don’t really do anything else.”

Other projects? The first videotape Penthouse “magazine,” a 60-minute cassette, is about to hit the market. Having avoided cable TV because of local censorship, he will begin to beam his own adult TV channel to privately owned satellite dishes “in about a year.” He says he will film a sexually explicit movie about Catherine the Great, with “one of the finest actresses in the English language” playing the lead. It will, he says, be the equal of his film Caligula. The nearly unanimous critical view of Caligula, a soft-porn flick that starred Malcolm McDowell, was that it was a murky horror. Guccione appears to believe that it was a triumph, and no one in the Penthouse mansion is likely to tell him otherwise.

“The mere fact that the odds are against me”—he is talking about the becalmed casino again—does not seem to trouble Guccione. He talks admiringly of “the killer instinct.” “How you play the game, in life, is a meaningless statement,” says Guccione. “It is really winning or losing that matters.” Is winning a struggle with Playboy, for instance, what counts for him? “Absolutely. You have to be a bad loser to be a winner. If you’re a good sport about it, you’re not going to get anywhere.”