Soft Focus, Semi Hard | Crooked Media
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April 06, 2023
Soft Focus, Semi Hard

In This Episode

On the one year anniversary of Viva’s publication, there’s a big, exciting change — a woman is now at the top of the masthead: Bob’s wife and business partner Kathy Keeton. And she’s about to push the magazine in a much more “revealing” direction.





Jennifer Romolini: It’s October 1974, a year since Viva’s first issue hit newsstands. And this issue is significant not just because it’s an anniversary issue, but because at last there is a Viva woman at the top of the masthead. It’s Kathy Keeton. Here’s podcaster and journalist Natalie Robehmed amid reading Kathy’s editor’s letter. She’ll be reading Kathy throughout the series. 


Natalie Robehmed: It’s been quite a year this first year of Viva, full of action and controversy. We must be the first magazine in the world to published a beauty feature on pubic hairstyles. 


Jennifer Romolini: The pubic hair pics, an array of vulva models with hair trimmed to resemble hearts or cut into the shape of flames, are by Paul Mitchell before he goes on to become one of the most famous hairdressers of all time. Kathy continues. 


Natalie Robehmed: In the past, women were supposed to be turned on by sexual suggestion. And yet today we’re discovering that women, frankly, boldly and actively enjoy looking at the male body. 


Jennifer Romolini: By this time, Bob Guccione has taken his gold chains and gone mostly home, placing Kathy Keeton in charge of Viva. And Kathy well, she’s making quick work of putting her stamp on the magazine. In this editor’s letter, she’s announcing a big change. See, Kathy’s on a bit of a crusade. 


Natalie Robehmed: In the coming months, Viva will be exploring men in an infinite variety of ways. Undoubtedly we’ll be called outrageous. We’re not. We just don’t believe in censorship. 


Jennifer Romolini: Kathy’s new directive, which we’ll reveal more fully in this episode, comes just as the Viva editors have found their footing working under Bob. Making their secret magazine within the magazine. But now they’re under new pressure to get with Kathy’s sexy program and also, like with any new boss, sort out who she is and what it is she wants. So who really was Kathy Keeton? This enigma of 70s femininity? And could she put her own successful stamp on Viva and lead the Viva editors in making the smart feminist magazine they desperately want? [music plays] From Crooked Media and iHeartMedia. I’m Jennifer Romolini and this is Stiffed, episode three. Soft Focus Semi Hard. Act one, The Viva Woman. [music plays]


[clip of Arlene Herson]: I’m Arlene Herson and my guest is Kathy Keeton. And we are here in her beautiful townhouse in New York City— 


Jennifer Romolini: That’s journalist Arlene Herson introducing Kathy in an interview for her cable access show. Kathy and Bob were kind of regulars on Arlene’s show. This interview is from the early 80s and takes place in the home Kathy shares with Bob. Kathy is sitting in an Italian Baroque style chair, which looks like a throne. She’s a slim, icy blond, her posture straight. There’s not a hair out of place. 


[clip of Arlene Herson]: You have a wonderful life now, a fulfilling career, a beautiful house. You met Bob Guccione in London. He actually changed your whole life. He had a crazy idea. What made you—


[clip of Kathy Keeton]: Well I said it was a very good idea. I mean, I wasn’t in the publishing industry, so I didn’t [laughs] know from anything. I was a dancer. 


Jennifer Romolini: Now, Kathy might not know much when she first meets Bob, but like him, she has innate business instincts, and she trusts her gut. 


[clip of Kathy Keeton]: And to me, it made a lot of sense. It was very logical. And so I thought, well, I would have nothing to lose anyway. 


Jennifer Romolini: And Kathy didn’t have much to lose. She’d grown up poor in the 1940s on a farm in South Africa. Like Bob, her family was uneducated, working class. Throughout her childhood, Kathy’s parents struggled financially and Kathy struggled too. 


[clip of Arlene Herson]: You had polio as a child. So many people that I know today, unfortunately, there are several that I know of who had polio as children have life lasting effects from it. You’re obviously terrific.  What do you do? 


[clip of Kathy Keeton]: Well, that, I have to thank my mother for that, because she immediately made me start exercising. And that’s how she started me getting interested in ballet. She used to stand there with a stick and make me do it. [laughter] 


Jennifer Romolini: So with her mother’s tough love and what honestly sounds like abuse, Kathy recovers and ballet is her ticket off the farm. When she’s 13, Kathy flees South Africa alone to attend London’s Royal Ballet School on a scholarship. But when she arrives, she discovers her scholarship doesn’t include housing. Kathy is just a kid. She’s in her early teens and she’s forced to live in an adult boarding house in London on her own. 


[clip of Kathy Keeton]: I was very lonely and it was miserable at the time, but it really taught me how to pay bills and appreciate money and to really be very independent, to take care of myself in lots of ways. 


[clip of Arlene Herson]: And maybe [indistinct] such a good business person today. 


[clip of Kathy Keeton]: Well, maybe.


Jennifer Romolini: The Royal Ballet ultimately doesn’t pan out and Kathy becomes an exotic dancer to pay the bills. And an extremely successful one. In fact, an Associated Press story at the time names Kathy, the highest paid stripper in the world. When she meets Bob, she’s in her twenties dancing at the famous London nightclub Pigalle, reading the Financial Times on her breaks. And in less than a decade, through working with Bob and his magazine empire, Kathy will go from being one of the highest paid strippers in the world to one of the highest ranking and highest paid female executives in the world. Though her success is constantly undermined by the press, for her association with Bob. 


[clip of Arlene Herson]: People who have a view of what Penthouse magazine and they will say to you, how can you be married to somebody like Bob Guccione? Now, obviously, you have a different view of him than we so share tell us a little bit. [laughs]


[clip of Kathy Keeton]: The working relationship that we’ve had together has been terrific and Bob has always encouraged me and probably even wrote my first business letters, and he’s always supported me in every single thing I want. Very few men would do that. 


Jennifer Romolini: Kathy is not easy to pin down in this interview or in life. She’s shrewd and business minded, but also kind of tacky, blunt and in-your-face sexy. And that dichotomy between these two identities is something her more buttoned up New York intellectual Viva employees now have to parse. Here’s how Viva writer Annie Gottlieb remembers Kathy. 


Annie Gottlieb: She had this nouveau riche air about her of being a working class girl who’s gotten rich, you know, which was kind of appealing in a way, because she was tough and tough and glamorous in a kind of kind of the way Donald Trump is a, a poor man’s idea of a rich man, somebody said. That’s what Kathy Keeton was like a little bit. 


Jennifer Romolini: And here’s Viva sex advice columnist Dr. Judy. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: She was smart. She was reading Financial Times. She was thinking about economics at the time when other women weren’t thinking about economics. So while I saw that outside, you know, she also had that kind of sleaze or, you know, from the other side of the tracks and trying to look really trashy. And she was intelligent and she wanted to lift women up and show them another way. [music plays]


Jennifer Romolini: But Kathy would do things that made it hard to respect her as a business woman. Remember, all of these Viva women are working in Bob’s Manhattan porn empire with its vulva ashtrays and schlubby pornographers. But Kathy somehow manages to make things even weirder. Here’s Viva editor Pat Lynden. 


Pat Lynden: I remember one day coming to work and Kathy would come to work every every morning in her in a limousine, and somebody was paid to stand outside on the sidewalk and say to anybody passing by. Would you like to meet Kathy Keeton? And, you know, I didn’t stick around, too, to see what the reactions were. I went upstairs to do my job. But I remember we talked about it and, you know, wondering how on earth she could possibly get the nerve to do this. I mean, where’s her pride? [laughs]  


Jennifer Romolini: As a boss, Kathy’s clearly complicated, but she also has a complicated job. The magazine she’s inherited is a mishmash. It needs a lot of work. Now that Bob’s no longer Viva’s editor, Kathy and her staff are trying to quickly make up for lost time, shake off Bob’s man’s stink and make Viva appeal to the new 70s liberated woman. And their mission is extra confusing because remember, both Kathy and Bob hate the word feminist. But Kathy also wants the Viva editors to ramp up the image of the magazine as liberated, progressive, sexually hip. Here’s editor Robin Wolaner. 


Robin Wolaner: We were constantly getting the feedback from Kathy that it wasn’t sexy enough. 


Jennifer Romolini: And in 1974, no one really knows what this modern idea of sexy looks like. Nor can they agree on what a sexually liberated woman actually desires. And the confusion inside Viva is a micro version of what’s happening outside its office doors. Kathy exudes show-offy sexual confidence and she wants her staff to represent the same in the pages of Viva. But they might not be ready for that or comfortable with it. Here’s Viva writer Annie. 


Annie Gottlieb: You know, we were trying to figure out what we wanted and we had really just begun, I would say, in those days. And there was a lot of pressure to get hip and get liberated and get sexy. 


Jennifer Romolini: And what liberated and sexy mean to some people during this time is pretty radical compared to how sex was thought about before the 70s. Here’s Dr. Judy. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: People were experimenting in everything. They were experimenting with their bodies with different partners. Bisexuality, trisexuality, meaning try anything was so common. I mean, group sex was like the thing for people to do, it was no big deal. It was like, if you were cool, you would do it. If you weren’t cool, you were afraid or, you know, whatever, or you weren’t in the scene. 


Jennifer Romolini: But even Dr. Judy admits it was not all freewheeling, free love. Good times. The women of the sexual revolution actually had a lot to overcome. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: Oh, shame was huge. I mean, women were massively ashamed of their bodies. 


Jennifer Romolini: Dr. Judy’s sex therapy, which she writes about in Viva, includes exercises to help women become more comfortable in their bodies. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: The shame about your genitalia was rampant. I mean, they were just every woman I would see would be, you know, oh, my, that’s ugly. That looks so ugly. Why would he want to look at it or lick it or smell it? Oh, I smell bad. I look bad. I taste bad. Eh. I mean, that was what the shame was about. And so, you know, the idea was constantly to reassure women, look, you look beautiful and examine yourself. So this was a very important part of getting over that that shame. 


Jennifer Romolini: And there’s not only shame for women outside the Viva office, but inside of it, too. In fact, with few exceptions, the women we spoke to all now in their seventies and eighties were almost uniformly uncomfortable talking about sex and their own experience of it at the time, which made creating an erotica magazine tricky to say the least. Still, Kathy is about to push a new vision of sexual liberation in the pages of Viva. Here she is in that same editor’s letter from the top of this episode. 


Natalie Robehmed: What intrigues me most, however, about Viva is the terrific response we’ve gotten to our male nude pictorials. There’s been a growing demand for them. 


Jennifer Romolini: And Kathy, she’s going to more than meet this demand. Okay, fine. It’s time to talk about the dicks, but you’re going to have to wait until after the break. Act two, Center The Penis. 


Peter Bloch: What I do remember was boxes of letters that would come in. People still wrote letters in those days from women saying— 


Letter Writer: What a complete disappointment. Not even one penis in view in your first issue. Circumcised or not? / Women are exploited. And that’s why I was excited to see a sex magazine for women. I’m ready to exploit these men and by God, turn them into sex objects. Good for fucking and fixing cabinets. / More cock and balls. / How about some shots of a richly endowed male with a generous penis flopping out of his unzipped pants, gearing up that big, powerful organ for action? [music plays]


Peter Bloch: My impression was it was hundreds. It was probably dozens, I don’t know. But a lot of letters from angry women who said, you promised us a Penthouse for women and you’re cheating us. Show more cock. 


Jennifer Romolini: Remember, for almost the full year, Bob was editor the sex in Viva looked mostly just like Penthouse. And not only because of Bob’s signature soft focus lighting. There’s nudity, but it’s mostly female. Bob’s Viva depicted women and men getting it on in a variety of scenarios. Victorian lady on a picnic. Oh no, my dress fell off, etc. But Bob’s vision of a women’s sex magazine is not what Viva’s readers signed up for, and they’re not quiet about letting the publishers know. Hence these letters. And so a few months after Kathy takes over, she gives the people what they want, maybe even a little more than what they actually want. Suddenly there are penises everywhere in Viva. There are dicks sprinkled with glitter dicks next to high priced stereos, dicks at a rodeo, dicks attached to men in their occupations. Actor, woodsman, boxer’s dick. There are even surprise celebrity dicks. Well, celebrity bulges. But still. Here’s a clip from the Talking Sopranos podcast about one of their cast members, Paulie Walnuts, played by Tony Sirico, who appeared in Viva. 


[clip of Michael Imperioli]: There was a porno magazine called Viva. It was like for women in the 70s and he was a cover star in one of them. He’s wearing like a—


[clip of Steve Schirripa]: A one piece. 


[clip of Michael Imperioli]: —it’s like a Freddie Mercury. 


[clip of Steve Schirripa]: Yeah, yeah. One piece I saw it. He showed me those pictures. 


[clip of Michael Imperioli]: Yeah. Yeah. And he’s like a bodybuilder. He was huge. 


Jennifer Romolini: Yes. According to Steve Schirripa and Michael Imperioli on the Talking Sopranos podcast, Viva even featured at least the outline of Paulie Walnuts’s dick, RIP. It is, in a word, a dick-splosion. Here’s Viva feminist film critic Molly Haskell. 


Molly Haskell: I think there was a kind of playful reversal going on. Oh look at us this way we’ll look at you that way. And I mean, I think some people really were kind of turned on by it. And it was sort of an experiment, I guess, to see if, you know, the reversal worked. 


Jennifer Romolini: All of which seems great, right? Sex positive, even feminist. Especially if you love dick. But—


Robin Wolaner: But Viva was featuring flaccid penises because to get you couldn’t have an erect penis. So then it would have been porn. 


Jennifer Romolini: What Viva editor Robin’s talking about here are the obscenity laws surrounding penises in 1974. The Supreme Court had introduced an obscenity standard called the, quote, “limp dick test.” Limp dick, totally fine. Hard dick, obscene. Also, it was considered illegal to mail obscene materials. So a picture of an erect penis in the mail that challenged federal law. And this is important because Viva was mostly a subscription based magazine. It sold on a few newsstands. It never appeared, for example, in the supermarket checkout line next to Good Housekeeping. And because of all of this, the penises inside Viva were, without exception, soft. 


Robin Wolaner: So you had these pictures of men with flaccid penises. And I personally did not know a woman who would be interested in looking at Viva. 


Annie Gottlieb: [laughs] Flaccid penises. I know it was not a turn on. It wasn’t. I mean, it was. It was a parody. It was almost like a parody of Penthouse, you know? 


Jennifer Romolini: And this is where this whole strange female erotica experiment begins to fall apart. First, because the Dickson Viva are not actually the most carnal, but instead soft and shy. And there’s for sure some shrinkage, but also because while the dicks are being outwardly promoted by Kathy behind the scenes, they’re still all art directed by Bob. They’re still his idea of what women want to see. Bob is the one instructing male photographers to shoot this porn for women even after he’s no longer Viva’s editor. And these male photographers have an interesting point of view when it comes to creating erotica for women. 


Earl Miller: I’ve always [laughs] thought of myself as a lesbian trapped in men’s clothes. 


Jennifer Romolini: That’s Earl Miller. Viva’s staff photographer and the longest running photographer at Penthouse. 


Earl Miller: Because I see women in such a sensitive way, and that’s how I was motivated from deep in my soul to portray them. 


Jennifer Romolini: He was there for 40 years. Earl’s now in his eighties, a porn veteran. But in the early seventies he was a celebrity photographer coming off a five year stint on the road with Sonny and Cher. 


Earl Miller: I was there the official photographer for that Sonny & Cher show and and shooting a lot of talent, you know, actors and actresses and things and some album covers. And I saw my first copy of Penthouse on a newsstand, and I went, oh, my God, look at this. This is this is unbelievable. It’s it’s it’s sensual. It’s it’s. It’s real. It’s engaging. 


Jennifer Romolini: So Earl reaches out to Bob and Bob, who rarely let anyone shoot the pets but himself, takes Earl under his wing. He starts to let Earl in on the photo shoots. 


Earl Miller: And by then, I had shot my first really romantic love story. I actually had shot it with Viva in mind. 


Jennifer Romolini: That first romantic love story was for Penthouse. But Earl was quickly tasked with creating Viva’s images. He now faces the dicks alone. 


Earl Miller: I’m just flying by the seat of my pants and just trusting my creative instincts, you know? And my instincts told me that maybe women see men in a more sensitive way. You know, sometimes a girl wants a good hard fuck, but maybe that same girl sometimes also wants to be caressed gently and softly in all magic places in her body, behind her knees. And, you know, like your neck be under her ear. Where, where the gentle touch is more. I always thought that less is more. 


Jennifer Romolini: To be fair. By today’s porn standards, Viva’s porn is all less is more. The dicks are unaggressive. They’re mostly shot artistically as opposed to erotically. Or at least what the straight female editors at Viva would consider erotic. But unknown to Bob Guccione and Earl Miller, the men spearheading these photo shoots, these flaccid dick pics do, however, have a growing audience. One they didn’t predict.


Bob Guccione Jr: The great, you know rumor plus secret about Viva was it was primarily read by gay guys. 


Jennifer Romolini: That’s Bob Guccione’s son Bob Jr. 


Bob Guccione Jr: During the course of the publication several years it was out, it became a little obvious that there was a great amount of interest from guys in Viva. 


Jennifer Romolini: But maybe it was obvious to at least some of the editors. Here’s Robin on what happened when she left a few Vivas at her boyfriend’s apartment. 


Robin Wolaner: I dated a guy in San Francisco for a while while I was at Viva, and he he was this big, burly guy. And he goes, my landlord keeps hitting on me. Why does he think I’m gay? And I’m like, got Viva on your coffee table. [laughs] 


Jennifer Romolini: So, yeah, some people might be into the dicks. But for the editors at Viva, the dicks, and the way they’re being shot are representative of everything they didn’t want this magazine to be. They’re out of sync with the intellectual high end vibe that the women at Viva are working to create with things like Dr. Judy’s female focused sex advice columns with their thoughtful reported pieces on things like how to be in control of your own orgasm and exploring the world of open marriage. And because Bob’s not really gone, the magazine still has a divided vision, his and theirs. It’s like Bob’s haunting the feminist editors from the sidelines, or even from the looks of some of his stories heckling them. Here’s editor Bette-Jane again.


Bette-Jane Raphael: You know, just this afternoon I had unearthed some tear sheets from this is a January 75 issue. And it’s so incredible because it really shows how it was practically two magazines. 


Jennifer Romolini: The editors are going full feminist in Viva’s editorial, pulling together all star lineups with big second wave names like Betty Friedan and Barbara Seaman, who are talking about serious issues that impact how women think about sex and themselves at the time. 


Bette-Jane Raphael: But I’m looking at this cover line and it says the myth of the female masochism and has all these names and there’s a little line and right under it is crotch watching the only female spectator sport. 


Jennifer Romolini: What she’s talking about here is a Viva story called Crotch Watching, an incredibly in-your-face six page spread of close ups of men’s crotches bulging out of swim trunks, sailor pants, boxing shorts, a thong like banana hammock. 


Bette-Jane Raphael: So that was a layout that that was really had nothing to do with what we the magazine we were producing in some ways, it has split personality. 


Jennifer Romolini: Now a crotch section is, of course, a natural fit for a straight women’s porn magazine, but maybe not these crotches shown in this way. The editors were trying to make a smart, even elite publication, but their work is always juxtaposed next to corny, sometimes even juvenile pictures of dongs. The Viva women, they were trying to make their own version of Esquire. Not a joke magazine with banana hammock schlongs. And while Kathy is in charge of all this, she’s also in a difficult position. She has to right this wrong headed ship. And her number one solution is pushing dick pics the editors hate. But some readers say they, like. Kathy is so determined to make the dicks work that she forces the entire editorial team on a media tour to defend Viva’s male nudity. 


Bette-Jane Raphael: So I had to go on TV shows and radio interviews and things like that and defend this, this idea that women liked to look at male nudity the way men like to look at female nudity. And I just closed my eyes and did it. I don’t think really any of the editors were really interested, you know, in that side of the magazine. 


Jennifer Romolini: It’s another iteration of erotica. The women at Viva again, are never consulted about but feel they have no choice but to accept. Kathy is pushing more and more of her version of sexiness in Viva. But she’s still letting Bob Guccione art direct it. It’s an all in the family one two punch. A leadership force that’s impossible for the editors to break. Viva’s young feminists are left unmoored. They need a leader. They can look up to someone who’s on their side. And they’re about to get it. 


Unidentified Speaker: I didn’t want to be curtailed. And I guess I did break the rules. There’s no question about it. 


Jennifer Romolini: Stiffed is an original podcast from iHeartMedia and Crooked Media. It’s produced by Crooked Media. It’s hosted and written by me, Jennifer Romolini and produced by Megan Donis. Sydney Rapp is our associate producer. Story editing by Mary Knopf. Music, sound design and engineering by Hannis Brown. Our fact checker is Julia Paskin. Additional production support from Nafula Kato and Ines Maza. Thanks to Natalie Robehmed for reading the voice of Kathy Keeton. From Crooked Media our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Katie Long, and Mary Knopf. With special thanks to Alison Falzetta and Lyra Smith. From iHeartMedia our executive producers are Beth Anne Macaluso and Julia Weaver.