In This Episode
After critics skewer Viva’s first issue, Bob Guccione decides to double down on his flawed vision for the magazine. Meanwhile, his feminist editorial staff find a secret window into making the content they actually desire.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: I’m Arlene Herson. We’re back where we have Bob Guccione in his townhouse in New York. Again, thank you for being on the show again. I know how busy you are.
[clip of Bob Guccione]: Pressure’s all mine.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: [laughs] The pressure is, aw, come on you mean the pleasure?
[clip of Bob Guccione]: It is a pleasure.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: [laughs] Okay.
Jennifer Romolini: Here’s the thing. Bob Guccione was a charming dude, and here he is, practically charming the pants off talk show host Arlene Herson in the eighties on the Arlene Herson show.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: I have to say, and to see your success to be here in this fabulous house, I mean, there’s no doubt that you’re a success.
Jennifer Romolini: Arlene is clearly a fan of Bob’s, to say the least. But even she has to admit the Bob has as many detractors as he does fans. And when this relatively light conversation takes a turn towards his critics, Bob tenses up.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: You are worth, as we had mentioned earlier, over $250 million. Penthouse is not the only publication. You also have a Forum, Variations, The Girls of Penthouse, Penthouse Letters. But it all—
[clip of Bob Guccione]: Four Wheeler—
[clip of Arlene Herson]: Okay—
[clip of Bob Guccione]: [indistinct]
[clip of Arlene Herson]: But that’s a different kind of magazine. And—
Jennifer Romolini: Can you feel the defensiveness yet?
[clip of Arlene Herson]: There are other parts too. But there’s a lot to do with sex with people’s sexual problems. You know, you show pictures of women in sexy poses. It’s sex, sex, sex. That’s really how you built your [indistinct], it’s wonderful. But people have said because of that, you’ve been called the king of sleaze. Now, how do you react to something like.
[clip of Bob Guccione]: Well, I just I don’t react to it, really, because I think people who say things like that are stupid, uninformed, because there’s nothing sleazy about sex. Healthy sex is the most wonderful thing in the world. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our mothers and fathers appreciating the value of healthy sex. So people who say things like that are just stupid.
Jennifer Romolini: Arlene’s critiques here are the softest of softballs, but you can tell even mentioning his critics rattles Bob’s cage.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: Now, everybody’s definition of pornography varies. What’s your definition of pornography?
[clip of Bob Guccione]: Well, firstly, when I say pornography, pornography is a word with no legal content it’s just a stupid argument. These magazines are not obscene. We are the victims. These represent healthy sexuality. That’s what they say after the fact.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: How do you respond?
[clip of Bob Guccione]: It’s absolutely untrue.
Jennifer Romolini: This interview took place more than two decades after the launch of Penthouse and more than a decade after the launch of Viva magazine. And even still hearing criticism years later, it fires him up. So you can imagine how bent out of shape Bob must have been after the launch of Viva set off a media firestorm. After the first issue, reporters called Bob’s Viva self-conscious, old hat, stale and even sick. They said the sex in Viva was very, well, unsexy. There’s a particularly rough review in Time magazine that so incensed Bob he addressed it in a full page editor’s letter that runs in Viva’s January 1974 issue. The letter is titled, Time Off for Bad Behavior. Here’s an excerpt.
Alex Pappademas: Whereas Time devoted one paragraph to previous editorial content, they devoted five paragraphs to the credibility content of its publisher. Time goes on to question such disparate non-sequiturs as whether or not the reader could survive, not the editorial content of the magazine, but my own personal pretensions, my ability to judge and handle staff and my right to change pages weeks after the closing deadline.
Jennifer Romolini: Because even though all the reviews are technically about Viva, they’re kind of more about Bob Guccione himself. As Viva’s editor in chief all roads, good or bad, but especially bad, lead back to him. Bob was progressive in so many ways. How he talks about healthy sex and even the fact that he started Viva makes him decades ahead of his time. Bob’s strong opinions got him far. They got him Penthouse and they earned him an empire. But Viva wasn’t Penthouse. It didn’t fit his usual formula. He couldn’t just throw tits and ass and a few gonzo journalists at it and call it a day. From the start, Viva played by different rules. And the more Bob doubled down on his vision, the more he tried to control it, the more out of control it got. [music plays] From Crooked Media and iHeartMedia. I’m Jennifer Romolini, and this is a Stiffed episode two, Time Off For Bad Behavior. [music plays] Act one, Awkward Man Ass. If you pore over these early Bob Guccione edited issues of Viva, you’re left with all sorts of questions. Things like why so many boobs and so much bush? Who finds the little hooker comic funny? But the biggest question you’ll ask if you read these early Bob Guccione Viva magazines is, what kind of life leads a human man to believe he should be in charge of a women’s sex magazine? Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione was born December 17, 1930, in Brooklyn, into a big, middle class Sicilian family.
Bob Guccione Jr: You know, my father was an Italian-American who grew up with strong, strong Italian values.
Jennifer Romolini: Here’s his son, Bob Jr.
Bob Guccione Jr: And what are Italian values founded on? The mother. Respect for the mother. Respect for the matriarch.
Jennifer Romolini: Later in life, Bob Guccione obviously loved women. But according to Bob Jr, this comes from a genuine respect for women that was instilled in him during his youth.
Bob Guccione Jr: My grandmother was a very powerful woman. They had nothing. They grew up in the Depression. But she was powerful and, you know, saw beyond the horizon. And she also, ordained my father as a, you know, son of the universe. Figured he was destined for great things. But she instilled upon him and in him a great respect. That was you know, that was absolutely the foundation.
Jennifer Romolini: It might be hard to believe, but growing up, Guccione was not only a mama’s boy, but actually an altar boy, too. And true story. He later studied for the priesthood briefly, before instead marrying his high school sweetheart with whom he had his first kid, a daughter named Tonina. Here’s Bob on the Arlene Herson show. Again.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: At 18 year old you were married for the first time.
[clip of Bob Guccione]: Yes I got married.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: Why?
[clip of Bob Guccione]: I did everything very quickly.
[clip of Arlene Herson]: [laughs] Okay. But 18 years old, why did you get married?
[clip of Bob Guccione]: I was on a collision course with life. [laughter] I wanted to see and feel and experience everything as quickly as possible.
Jennifer Romolini: That marriage ended quickly. And after this, Bob moved to Europe to be a classical painter. With the story goes $24 in his pocket and a handful of paintbrushes. And newly single Bob wasn’t single for long.
[clip of Bob Guccione]: I immediately married my second wife. I’ve been married almost all my life. [laughter] I married my second wife practically the day that I divorced my first wife. So I’ve always had a life companion.
Jennifer Romolini: He has four more kids, including Bob Jr. He supports the family by briefly managing a chain of British laundromats and working as a cartoonist for the London American. There’s not enough money in painting or cartooning or laundromats. So he sets his sights on something bigger.
Bob Guccione Jr: You know, my father was a great painter, and he grew up studying, you know, European painters. And so he had this natural tendency to think well the naked body the way male or female is art.
Jennifer Romolini: With this apparently innate interest in the naked body. It’s not surprising that Bob sets his sights on an industry which is suddenly, in the sixties, extremely lucrative. Porn. And so in 1965, Penthouse UK is born.
Peter Bloch: Bob cared about art and classiness, even though he was a pornographer.
Jennifer Romolini: That’s Peter Bloch. Peter worked for Bob for nearly 30 years as a copy editor at Viva. And for longer as the editor of Penthouse. Over those years, Peter heard many, many of Bob stories, including the one about how Bob first spotted a woman who would have a great deal of influence over him his third wife slash business partner, Kathy Keeton.
Peter Bloch: Kathy was basically a stripper. And anyway, Bob saw her. I don’t know where and when he went to her dressing room because he was attracted to her. She had a bunch of Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, so things like that, because Ka— She was very smart. And so he again, the official line was he realized that she would be someone who would be very good helping him sell advertising for his new magazine. And that’s how they got together.
Jennifer Romolini: Kathy was a well-paid, exotic dancer with no sales or publishing experience.
[clip of Bob Guccione]: I was very impressed with her, said, I want you to come work at the magazine. And I said, well, I, I can’t pay you as much as you’re making. And she says, well, how much can you pay? I said, £15 a week. And she said, okay.
Jennifer Romolini: Convincing Kathy to help him sell ads for his new magazine may not have looked to the outside world like the smartest business move. Kathy was special and Bob knew it. Here’s editor Peter Bloch again.
Peter Bloch: Oh, she was ambitious. She was very incredibly smart. She was way ahead of her time.
Jennifer Romolini: Hiring Kathy and giving her senior roles shaping the company was one of Bob Guccione’s first and most genius gut instincts. Because, like his son told us earlier, Bob was actually kind of a genius. He was also, like all of us, complicated, full of contradictions. He was arrogant, full of male ego and hubris, but also professionally generous and savvy. And he for sure had an eye for talented people like him who also wanted to push boundaries.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky: I mean, here he is, a guy wearing, you know, open shirts down to his waist and chains, one of which might have had his own penis engraved on it. And Kathy being in, you know, go go boots and being an ex stripper.
Jennifer Romolini: That’s Dr. Judy Kuriansky, Viva sex columnist.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky: But they were intelligent. You know, they they made sense. They wanted to do something different in the world, break all the taboos and, you know, go against society. And and that was his way of doing it because this was the sexual revolution and he was way out there charging in front.
Jennifer Romolini: You might recognize Dr. Judy’s voice from the nationally syndicated column Radio advice show Love Phones, which she hosted from 1992 to 1998 before starting to write for Viva in the 70s, Dr. Judy was a pioneering sex researcher, a more serious academic.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky: Since I was a senior research scientist at Columbia at the Psychiatric Institute, I was the protégé of a number of very senior psychiatrists who were approached by Masters and Johnson, the grandfather and grandmother of sex therapy. So while I was wearing the hat of studying psychiatric disorders, I was also becoming this major known as the sex therapist. And so I was approached to do a column for Viva.
Jennifer Romolini: Dr. Judy is on the fence at first. She’d never done anything like this.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky: It was a big choice. Since I had such a reputation in the professional field, I had to be concerned. How would my my colleagues perceive this? This was a very sensitive time in the world that you were either a proper, respected professional or you were, you know, part of the sleazy, pornographic world.
Jennifer Romolini: But Bob sees something in Dr. Judy, and it maybe helps her see something in herself. She takes the job.
Dr. Judy Kuriansky: He struck me as he was very intelligent. He was very forward thinking. He was highly creative. And I appreciated that in him.
Jennifer Romolini: And that’s the thing about Bob. He knows how to spot talent, but once they join his team, he’s not always great at playing well with others, nor sharing his toys. And Viva, at this moment, it’s Bob’s favorite new toy, and he seems pretty obnoxious about it. But to be charitable, like many founders up to this point, Bob Guccione success had relied heavily on betting on his own unyielding vision.
Bob Guccione Jr: If I back myself ten out of ten times, I’m going to win. And if I doubt myself ten out of ten times, I’m definitely going to lose. So even in the case where he was wrong and I think suspected at the time that he was off center, he still had this thing well if I back myself, ten times out of ten, I will come out ahead.
Jennifer Romolini: Not only did Bob have confidence in his own abilities, but he had confidence in his vision and creative perspective for the time he was very progressive when it came to sex, sex, positivity and the fact that women had erotic inner lives. He just maybe had a bit too much confidence when it came to what those inner lives looked like. So Bob Sr. keeps backing himself, controls most of Viva’s editorial and all of its images. Viva doesn’t even get its own cover shoots. Bob literally reuses outtakes from his Penthouse shoots. So the covers of this erotic women’s magazine are, well, topless Penthouse pets with high hair and come hither looks, cropped from the shoulders up. And inside the magazine things in Bob’s early Viva aren’t any less weird. There’s an ad for a suction cup device called Beauty Breast that’s meant to help increase a woman’s bust size, grow inches in just 14 days. Next to a Q&A with musical theater director Bob Fosse. There’s a wrinkled over tanned man’s ass right next to a profile of actress Anne Bancroft. There’s a five page spread on, I shit you not, erotic pocket watches, including one that’s engraved with an image of a couple engaging in the sex act 69. What woman wears a pocket watch? These were all Bob’s calls. Here’s writer Annie Gottlieb, one of Viva’s first female columnists.
Annie Gottlieb: What women find sexy about men was barely touched on in Viva. You know, men are just so visual and women are much more multi-sensory about what turns us on.
Jennifer Romolini: Annie comes to Viva as a twenty something feminist book critic. She’s part of the young New York intelligentsia of the time, writing for places like The New York Times and the Village Voice. Annie is one of a handful of young, ambitious women now working at Viva. But did Bob rely on any of their expertise to dictate what women wanted from a sexy women’s magazine? No.
Annie Gottlieb: Guccione kept sort of barging in like a bull in a china shop and, you know, and making it weird. It was annoying and it was also funny.
Jennifer Romolini: Truth is, if Bob had been open to feedback, women like Annie may have offered ideas beyond awkward man ass and topless Penthouse pets. Here’s Viva editor Robin Wolaner.
Robin Wolaner: I don’t don’t think he gave a moment’s thought to to what women wanted or needed.
Jennifer Romolini: And it wasn’t just photos. In Viva’s editorial meetings, Bob’s the kind of boss who tells you how it’s going to be. He doesn’t so much reject story ideas at this point as not seem to welcome them in the first place. Now, Bob Guccione is certainly not the first nor last editor in chief to treat his magazine like his own personal fiefdom. This behavior is practically in the job description. As a result, Viva is off the mark in big ways. But Bob’s also wrong about smaller details that have a big impact to. Here’s Robin again.
Robin Wolaner: The term feminist. So we didn’t use it in the magazine, but we all were feminists.
Jennifer Romolini: Yes, Bob. And later Kathy hated the word feminist, and they instruct the staff of their feminist porn magazine not to use it. But like Robin said, the Viva staffers are proud seventies feminists. They’re buoyed by the women’s liberation movement, which is by 1974, in full swing. They have a mission, and when these young feminists find they can’t walk through the front door of the house of Guccione, they go searching for a window. Act two, Vulva Ashtray But Make it Feminist. So it’s not just Bob Guccione the Viva editors needed to work around. The environment they worked in. Could be. Off putting as well. Penthouse and Viva shared everything. Copy editors and art department. And of course, a co-working space. Here’s Viva editor Pat Lynden.
Pat Lynden: There were these disgusting guys, disgustingly slobby guys, and they lived there basically. They had actually drilled holes in the wall and they were they would smoke pot there at night and then they would blow it out to the holes so that it didn’t smell up the building.
Jennifer Romolini: Pat and the entire Viva staff shared an office with all of Guccione’s magazines. And in the seventies that meant mainly Penthouse, but also Penthouse spinoffs like Forum and Penthouse Letters. And they also shared office space with a whole host of characters from Guccione’s family, who Bob Sr. famously employed to help run his empire.
Pat Lynden: Bob Guccione’s sister was in charge of merchandise, right. And so on her desk were a bunch of samples, and there was a blowup doll that was hanging on the walls. It was a doll that men could have sexual intercourse with and had came with a vagina. [laughs] And I guess it came with some sort of cream or something. And and then there was an ashtray shaped like a vulva so that men could stuff, kill their cigars in that. And Bob Guccione’s father had that same ashtray down in his office.
Jennifer Romolini: Bob had hired his father, Anthony Guccione, then an elderly man, to be in charge of the company’s finances. He was billed officially on the masthead as Secretary Treasurer.
Pat Lynden: And he had a rubber breast and pushed the nipple that would summon his secretary.
Jennifer Romolini: Come on. [laughs]
Pat Lynden: It was a bizarre place.
Jennifer Romolini: Here’s Annie.
Annie Gottlieb: I used to have a terrible time getting paid. It would take six weeks to get my check. And I remember Gay Bryant saying to me, Anthony Guccione doesn’t like to sign checks. And he, of course, had to sign the big checks for the printer and the photographers, the color separations and all the advertising and all that. He had to sign those. So he took it out on the $400 people.
Jennifer Romolini: Bob lays out cash for big name male photographers and even big name male writers like John Irving. But Viva’s few female writers and editors have to scrape by with less. They have to fight to get paid. Still, for the most part, they’re just happy to be there, happy for the work. Here’s Bette-Jane Raphael, who joined the Viva staff as senior editor at the beginning of the magazine.
Bette-Jane Raphael: New York was not at its best, everyone knows in the 70s, but for young people in magazines, it was pretty exciting. I mean, at least for women.
Jennifer Romolini: Viva is Bette-Jane’s second job out of college. Before joining Viva, she’d worked as an editor at McCall’s, also in New York City.
Bette-Jane Raphael: And the world opened up in the 60s because, well, the pill came. And so a lot of us good girls didn’t have to be so good anymore. And we lived in the city. We didn’t commute home. And life was pretty exciting, I felt.
Jennifer Romolini: Bette-Jane’s one of only two female editors credited on these early issues of Viva, Bette-Jane and Viva’s few female writers like Annie are putting a little bit of the feminist spirit they’re experiencing outside of the office into the magazine. They’re finding ways to put their own stamp on it, even if they do this mostly in secret. Because guess what? By the third issue of Viva, they found their window in. It’s a section of the magazine called Graffiti, which runs over seven pages, pages 33 to 40 each month. It’s a section devoted to art, music and film and eventually, whatever the hell the Viva editors want.
Annie Gottlieb: It was part of a sort of cultural inset that was on non glossy paper. So everybody knew that was the part you could skip if you were only interested in sexy pictures and fashion. You know, it was kind of like on brown paper, the kind you would wrap a sandwich in.
Jennifer Romolini: Remember, most of Bob’s Viva is luxurious feeling. He’s a snob about production. Only cares about the pages that are high gloss.
Annie Gottlieb: You know, it had a very disposable look to it. But within that setting, we had total freedom to write whatever we wanted. You know, we were we were poorly paid and probably nobody read what we wrote, and that was what set us free.
Jennifer Romolini: And within this literal brown paper bag, secret magazine within the magazine, the smart, progressive feminist vision for Viva begins to come to life. Annie is covering the book world, highlighting feminist poets. She’s writing about Toni Morrison’s Sula and Alice Walker’s Stories of Black Women in Love & Trouble. Each month, the Graffiti section leads with a personal essay on things like sexual pleasure, the pitfalls of marriage and work life balance. And these essays are written by influential writers and artists of the 1970s.
Ashley Ford: I am not an ogre. I just have this unpleasant conflict.
Jennifer Romolini: That’s writer and podcast host Ashley Ford. She’s reading Lorraine O’Grady, the legendary Black conceptual artist and culture critic. O’Grady actually wrote in Viva’s May 1974 Graffiti section. And it’s an essay that honestly could be published today.
Ashley Ford: I want a loving relationship with a man built on mutual respect and reciprocal give and take. But what I really need is someone to make no demands on me as a housewife. Not mind if I write until five or six in the morning and still be there to keep me company when I can no longer stand typing. In other words, though, I may want a husband. What I need is a wife.
Jennifer Romolini: The Graffiti section also included big time writers like Nancy Friday, who wrote the bestselling sex fantasies book My Secret Garden. Here’s Nancy on Tom Snyder’s popular 70s late night talk show, Tomorrow.
[clip of Nancy Friday]: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again women have gone really socially, sexually with men just about as far as we can go right now. And right now, the time is for men to really change.
Jennifer Romolini: Nancy Friday went on to write more than a half dozen books on women and sexuality. She’s widely considered an early sex positivity icon, an important feminist figure in the sexual revolution in the world of media even then, she was a get. The fact that her essay is relegated to Viva’s brown paper bag insert section tells us a lot about who was actually calling Viva’s major shots. And it tells us a lot about how much this middle aged male pornographer in chief had yet to catch up to and adapt to the times. And it also tells us a lot about the lengths to which in these early days, the women at Viva fought to execute their vision and work around him. Here’s Bette-Jane again.
Bette-Jane Raphael: We knew who we were working for and we did not let it stifle us. I would just go after people I wanted to see in the magazine. And usually it would be based on some book that was coming out or recognitions. We just did our stories, our articles, and then had them put together with, you know, photo layouts of soft porn.
Jennifer Romolini: And by ignoring Bob’s porn and lending their own big name writers like Simone de Beauvoir, an important up and comers like Nikki Giovanni. Sometimes they managed to pull their vision off.
Bette-Jane Raphael: I guess we all felt that we were like working against the tide and actually kind of working under the radar because I don’t think he ever read much of the magazine.
Jennifer Romolini: And this this was a shift because with the exception of the Graffiti pages, Bob initially read most everything in Viva. It was a big part of his job. And if Bob didn’t read the magazine anymore, what was he doing? Well, after months of criticism and bad reviews pointed directly at him, he’s possibly rethinking the Viva formula after all.
Bob Guccione Jr: You know, the thing to understand about my dad is he was incredibly brilliant, but he couldn’t be a woman. He could be [laughs] many things. But he couldn’t be a woman, and therefore he couldn’t perceive how complex a woman’s approach to sex is.
Jennifer Romolini: After a few months, the criticism may have just become too much for Bob, and he starts to lose interest in his shiny new toy. Because of the issues following that January 1974 editor’s letter at the beginning of this episode, the one where Bob rails against Time magazine for criticizing his role as editor of Viva. Bob never writes an editor’s letter again. In fact, by July of 1974, there’s an even bigger shift in the magazine. Bob’s name is no longer on the masthead. He’s officially taken his editor in chief ball and gone home.
Peter Bloch: He never I mean, he would come into the office maybe once a month. He was like a New York celebrity who never wanted to leave the house.
Pat Lynden: His father came into the office, his sisters, his children. Lots of Guccione’s in the office, but not Bob.
Jennifer Romolini: And the new editor. Well, she’s about to push the magazine in a new direction and potentially give Viva’s readership what they actually want.
Peter Bloch: What I do remember was boxes of letters that would come in from angry women who said show more cock.
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 Alex Pappademas for reading the voice of Bob Guccione and to Ashley Ford for reading Lorraine O’Grady. 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.