Wednesday, June 3, 2015

My Penthouse Life: I was ambivalent about the view 'down below'

Publisher Bob Guccione died one year ago today.
For some real stimulation, try reading the articles.

    (11/26/11) New York was a place where magic happened all around me. One day, I was walking along Madison Avenue, when I passed an idling city bus. On its side was a huge ad, citing all of the writers for Penthouse Magazine who had won Pulitzer prizes, Nobel prizes and National Book Awards. It was a stunning list.
    I walked right over to a pay phone (remember pay phones?) and called the magazine, asking to speak with the editor (remember when you -- a young nobody -- could call out of the blue and get to speak with an editor?). When I told him I had written an article I thought might interest him, he said, "Meet me at the Oak Room bar in fifteen minutes." 
    Thus began an excellent adventure.
     My article had already taken me on one excellent adventure. On another magical day several weeks earlier, I had literally run into one of my greatest journalistic idols, the incredible Murray Kempton, when I was taking a walk near Columbia University. 
    I had read his brilliant, humane newspaper columns for years, and his book, "The Briar Patch," was arguably one of the most striking reportorial works ever published. It had won the 1974 National Book Award for Contemporary Affairs. 


    I introduced myself, and we walked down Broadway together. I felt exultant to be chatting amiably with one of my most cherished ideological heroes, but in New York at that time, you had to be ready to crash into a famous person at any moment. That meant you had to look your best all the time, which was an arduous burden for a fundamentally homely girl. (I was certain that if I ever failed to get "dolled up" before leaving my apartment, I would encounter Robert Redford or Woody Allen, scouting the streets for their next big star. All I wanted was the lead role in one unforgettable film, which would live on as a "deeply moving American classic.")
Murray Kempton was a spectacular human being. I loved him.
    It turned out that Mr. Kempton's wife, Beverly, was the New York "finder" for Playboy Magazine, which was based in Chicago. I described my article to him, and he told me to leave it with his doorman on West End Avenue whenever it was convenient. A few days later, Beverly called me and said, "I love it. I'm sending it in."
    Within a week, I got a call from articles editor Geoff Normen, inviting me to come to Chicago (all expenses paid -- I love that) and elaborate on a few points while also helping him trim my article by about ten percent. After a day of work in Playboy's pleasant but ordinary offices, Geoff took me out for drinks at The Playboy Club. He said we'd be joined by another writer in an hour or so, who also was submitting an article.


    The Playboy club was dark -- I like dark bars -- and modern, although its design and decor were quite generic. The presence of all those "bunnies" in their little satin costumes and floppy ears wasn't as gross as I had expected. It was just silly. And the atmosphere wasn't bawdy; it was surprisingly staid. The men were acting as if the bunnies weren't bunnies at all, but rather just nice, respectable waitresses. I thought that was very sporting of them. I expected to feel embarrassed in there, but I wasn't
    The top part of the bunny outfit was pointy and pushed up, and the girls had to wear those itchy fishnet hose and a choker thing around their necks. It all looked so uncomfortable -- not sexy! I think most of the attention they got was from me, as I tried to imagine how it would feel to parade around in that getup night after night.
    Before long, we were joined by "the other writer." It was yet another hero of mine, Edward Abbey, the great environmental novelist who had written the iconic book, "The Monkey Wrench Gang."
    We sat there and drank all evening while the snow poured down outside the club's huge windows. Mr. Abbey was the decent, gentle, modest man that his readers would expect him to be. (Years later, when I was editor of a brand-new magazine in Denver, I had the audacity to call and ask him if he'd write something for us, free of charge. He said, "Be glad to." What a doll!)
    After I got back to New York, Geoff called with some disappointing news. "The people upstairs" had decided to decline my article because it was "too New York-centric," he said.
     And that's why I wound up drinking martinis in the middle of the morning (as good a time as any!) with the editor of Penthouse Magazine.
The Oak Room Bar at the Plaza Hotel. You could get drunk on its beauty.

     I expected the editor of Penthouse to be a Fabio sort of dude -- big, vain and throbbing with macho vitality -- but in fact, he was a nerdy, eager, scrawny guy with glasses. He looked very much like my father did at age 30, and I imagined that they would have had a lot in common as children: Studious, pale and awkward Jewish kids who were anything but "all-American boys."  They both loved classical music and poetry -- not very cool! They were knobby-kneed guys with slightly strange overbites, but each had ultimately been triumphant, in his own way, over the fair-haired hunks of the world. 
    My father beat out a line of dashing, prosperous suitors to win the hand of a beautiful gentile woman. 
    Peter had achieved a dream job, getting paid very well to work for a sexy-hot magazine. All those virile football stars, who had taken the most darling girls to the prom, would kill to have this job -- but Peter got it. Ha-ha, you stupid lugs! 
    And it wasn't just sexy. As editor, he attracted, befriended and collaborated with some of the best writers in the country. The magazine was becoming widely regarded for its groundbreaking journalism, so he had achieved a mainstream prestige as well. He got to have drinks and shoot the breeze with famous people, and now he was here with ME.


    We hit it off from the start. We both loved the life of the mind -- he was a true intellectual, and I wanted to be one -- and we both loved free booze in lavish surroundings. For the next several years, we would use Peter's expense account to great advantage.
    He called me the next day to say my article -- a colorful, investigative profile of the swaggering men who presided over New York's nine correctional facilities -- would be a cover story in a forthcoming issue. (Here is the article, updated slightly:
    I had spent more than 18 months working on Rikers Island as a prisoner advocate in what was often referred to as "one of the most notorious jails in the country." I had also spent hours probing the psyches of the wardens at several other New York City institutions to illustrate the differences in background, attitudes and leadership styles among them.
The House of Detention for Men has been substantially upgraded since I worked there.
    Peter invited me to a celebratory lunch, and for the first time, I visited the Penthouse offices, which comprised the top three floors of a tall, modern midtown building. Like those at Playboy, they were modest and fairly drab. No flash, no boobs, no gorgeous people or throbbing Muzak. Perhaps the upstairs suites were all glamorous and colorful and pouring forth with all manner of NAKED NUDITY, but the editorial offices were as bland as they could be. 
    Peter took me to the fabled Four Seasons restaurant. We had Champagne, bouillabaisse soup, abalone in truffle sauce (I had never had truffles before. What's the big deal?), and spinach/radicchio salad with candied walnuts and blood oranges. Then, chocolate souffle.  In other words, a typical American lunch, except that it lasted about three hours. (Yes, I remember many meals in this much detail, and I recall what I was wearing as well.)
    Over the next couple of years, I would spend lots of time with Peter, always in lovely surroundings, and always with an endless onslaught of frosty alcoholic beverages. We chain-smoked too, of course. It was a dream come true! He was a complex man, a connoisseur of personalities, a gentleman and a compassionate friend. I will never forget his kindness.


    Everyone who knew me was puzzled (or, in my mother's case, profoundly hurt and horrified)  by my willingness to be associated with Penthouse Magazine. I had still never even seen an issue of it,  but it had a reputation of being a rowdier version of Playboy, offering a rather incongruous blend of "sex, politics and protest." It was visually magnificent, I had heard -- reflecting the artistic sensibilities of its founder. But I assumed that it objectified women, and encouraged men to regard them in a way that would be distasteful to me. 
    I was not a "women's liberation" activist, but I agreed with the movement's principles, and I was repelled by the aspect of male sexuality to which the magazine presumably catered.
    I rationalized by telling myself that the pay -- which was more than ten times what I had been getting from Harper's, The Nation, Village Voice, and other prestigious journals -- would underwrite my future work for those very outlets. I could live for about nine months on what I was being paid for one article. 
    I also reminded myself that Penthouse's circulation was about twelve times those of my preferred outlets, and that it was considered required reading in many sectors, including the federal government, because of its constant exposes of corruption, botched FBI and CIA operations and military adventurism. So my writing would reach a large and diverse audience.

    There was another rationale, one that was less clear to me at the time. I had been reared in a very puritanical home, in which sex -- and men in general -- were depicted as "disgusting." We moral women, I was taught, were continually threatened by the "tramps" of the world, who were out to steal our men. 
    The telltale signs of this ubiquitous "trampiness" were dirty bra straps, cheap perfume, a "painted face," unnecessary eye contact and immodest clothing. Even if they were simply beautiful, through no fault of their own, women were to be regarded as adversaries.
    My decision to write for Penthouse was -- I now realize -- an understandable but ill-conceived rebellion. I was demonstrating that I had "risen above" (or perhaps plunged below) my upbringing. It was my declaration of independence. I was proving that something I was taught to despise and fear didn't bother me in the least.
    Even so, I would certainly have had no interest in a man who subscribed to Penthouse, unless he gave it, unopened, to a trusted friend, and said, "Rip out all the photos. I just want to read the articles."


    The "lead time" was about three months for Penthouse, as it was then for most national magazines, so it would be awhile before my article hit the newsstands. In the meantime, Peter put me on the "free subscription" mailing list, and I received my first issue -- which included an interview with Oliver Stone and an expose about Bill Moyers -- within days after meeting him. As I mentioned earlier, I had never actually seen a copy of the magazine -- only the impressive ads about its journalistic offerings. 
    I must admit, I was shocked. I mean, I was TOTALLY shocked. Even my blood felt as if an unpleasant electrical current were flashing through it. My eyes must have popped out at least as far as any boy who is seeing a naked woman for the first time.
This is the Oliver Stone, Bill Moyers issue.
     I had assumed that Penthouse was merely a more artistic and slightly edgier copycat of Playboy -- pretty, half-naked girls with lots of lace and sunlight -- surrounded by excellent journalism and fiction.
    But Penthouse shoved -- right in my face -- the aspect of the good lord's Creation known as "female genitalia." 
    Believe it or not, I had never seen this alien but rather interesting terrain before. In "the olden days," the only sex education we got in school was about menstruation, from an oddly anguished pamphlet called, "How Do I Tell My Daughter?" provided by Kotex sanitary napkins. 
    I had never examined my own privates  -- even if I'd had the time and the interest, my vision really isn't good enough to see that far. It honestly hadn't occurred to me.
    So there I was, 25 years old, sitting outside on my little balcony overlooking Riverside Park, as stunned as can be.
Oh my heck, do I have one of those?
     I was having quite a monumental experience, visiting this wonderland of shapes, colors and configurations. It took awhile for my skin to return to its normal color and my heart rate to slow down and my jaw to resume its preferred position of high-minded composure.  


    But once I got past the initial horror of this grotesquely intrusive masturbatory aid for men, I had a revelation that has served me well ever since, and that I doubt I would otherwise have had: 
    It's pretty down there. 
    I had always assumed it was a really ugly, embarrassing jungle of icky folds and flaps and unimaginable protuberances, all hairy and kind of shiny, like a raw chunk of veal.
    But now I could very clearly see that it was a reasonably appealing little invention. If I had been the Good Lord's assistant, I would have modestly suggested some revisions in its design and functionality, but considering that He was a man, I guess he handled it, so to speak, quite well.
    My Italian boyfriend told me that in his home country, the word for female genitalia is "farfalla" -- the same as the word for butterfly.  Isn't that sweet?
    And they did look like butterflies.
Do you get the picture?
     But the context would forever repulse me. It was pathetic, infantile, degrading. Those stupid girls! Why were they showing off their butterflies? Why did they have those absurd expressions on their faces? Why were they sucking on lollipops, or anything else they could find, and why were they pulling themselves so totally OPEN with their long, clawlike red fingernails? Didn't they have any dignity?
    They made me sick. The men who spent their time getting off on this shit made me sick.
    But it made me feel better about myself to realize that I had one of those butterflies. A lovely secret in my pants. We should all keep them in our pants, you sluts!
    Is it ironic, coincidental, paradoxical or just the Wrath of God that 40 years later I seem to have acquired a disease that is characterized by a "butterfly rash" across the cheeks and the bridge of the nose?


    I dashed toward the express elevator that would whoosh me, nonstop, way, way up (ears popping) to Penthouse's offices. I was startled to find Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and his girlfriend, Kathy Keeton, inside. I had been here many times by now, mostly to go out for drinks with Peter, but I had never seen the couple, except in pictures. Bob rarely came in, preferring to work in solitude (and satin pajamas) from his mansion.
This picture of Guccione was taken  in 1975, the year I met him
    They were both deeply (too deeply) tanned. Bob was handsome, but he wasn't attractive. He seemed like a gangster: callous and calculating. He was wearing the legendary silk shirt, unbuttoned nearly to the waist, exposing furry, well-developed pecs and gold medallions. Kathy had bleached the hell out of her already-blonde hair, and was gaudily made up (although I'm sure some people would have said the same of me). In my memory, Kathy consists of major cleavage, thigh-high boots and bright red lips. 
    The first thing Bob said to me, as the elevator hurtled upward, was, "If you're here to audition for a shoot, don't waste your time. You're too much of a girl-next-door type for us. Playboy material, if anything."
    I told him I was a writer, and that my article, titled "The Wardens," would appear in his next issue. 
    "You wrote that?" Kathy asked, lighting a cigarette. "We think it's fantastic. We've already ordered 10,000 reprints."  
    (Remember when you could light a cigarette in an elevator, a subway car, a movie theater, an office building? The young people of today will never have such pleasant memories. It's sad.)
Together they built the most profitable magazine in U.S. history.

    As I got off the elevator (they were headed two floors higher), Bob said, "We like to use the biggest names we can get to do our articles, but I dig the idea of grooming you."
    Something about the concept of being groomed by him made me queasy. Actually, I was probably associating his remark with the fact that he was known to comb and snip his models' pubic hair before a shoot. Grooming it! Yuck!
    But that was in the primitive early years of Penthouse, when the "Pets" were allowed to have pubic hair. Bob kept "pushing harder" in his contest with Playboy to attract the greatest number of readers. By July 1977, Penthouse had drawn even with Playboy, both magazines posting circulations of 4.5 million. That month, Guccione was pictured in Time magazine, grinning (which he never did in real life) and sketching a tearful Playboy bunny
    Soon, Penthouse declared, "Off with the pubic hair," thus launching another stage in America's glorious sexual evolution. Over the years (long after I'd left the city), the magazine became more explicit -- depicting intercourse and lesbianism and things I won't describe -- and it ultimately became so perverse and fetishistic that even his sons, his staff and his advertisers said he had gone too far. He disagreed, and he would pay the price. His magazine had earned him $4 billion, making him one of the richest men in the country, but his hubris would not serve him well in the ensuing years.
     To be honest, Bob and Kathy gave me the creeps. Perhaps this was unjustified.  I felt that I was a commodity to them -- just as their naked girls were -- and although they treated me very well for the next couple of years, I was never able to muster any affection for them.


    In London -- after considering going into the priesthood -- Bob Guccione launched Penthouse Magazine in 1965 and moved it to New York in 1969.  It "arguably, did more to liberate puritan America from its deepest sexual taboos than any magazine before or since," according to Rolling Stone
Bob at his light table, scrutinizing photos. He almost always worked from home.
     Bob's original ambition had been to become a serious artist. He tried everything to support himself in the meantime -- from managing a dry-cleaning operation to producing commercial art -- before noticing the robust market for "nudie" magazines in England. Even after he launched one of his own, all he wanted was to finance his serious artistic projects. But when Penthouse took off, it apparently took some of Bob's higher aspirations with it. 
    It seemed to me that Bob had a split personality, both personally and professionally. The people who worked for him told me he could be quite warm and supportive one minute, and utterly contemptuous the next. It was generally accepted that he was a fine artist, who brought a painter's sensibilities to his photo shoots.
    If you can ignore the pandering, exploitative subject matter of his early pictorials, they are indeed beautiful compositions of color, lighting, texture and mood. His paintings, which I would soon get the rare opportunity to see, were somewhat derivative, but to me they indicated that he had some elements of awe, pathos and joy in his psyche that I never saw expressed otherwise.


    The money poured in, and Bob was able to afford the best-known writers in the country.
    In 1975, the year in which my first article appeared, Bob was named "Publisher of the Year" by Brandeis University for a series on the treatment of Vietnam veterans.
    The two issues in which my articles appeared also contained short stories by Philip Roth and Stephen King, and journalism by Jimmy Breslin, Kingsley Amis, Abbie Hoffman,  Craig Karpel (Wall Street Journal contributor and author most recently of "The Retirement Myth"), Ben Stein, who has managed to remain in the spotlight all these years as an actor and financial columnist, and even Jimmy the Greek. 
Nobel laureate Philip Roth contributed edgy short stories.
    Other regular contributors included the great Joe Flaherty, Joyce Carol Oates, Roger Greenspun, Jeff Greenfield (now a CBS political correspondent), Nicholas von Hoffman, John Irving ("The World According to Garp"), the doomed rocker Robert Palmer ("Addicted to Love"), activist Abbie Hoffman, the great jazz critic and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff (whom I knew from the Village Voice), Nobel laureate and author of "The Population Bomb," Paul Erhlich, the superbly literate and versatile Paul Theroux and the Harper’s and Esquire contributing writer John Leonard. The magazine also ran interviews with luminaries such as Germaine Greer, Gore Vidal and Issac Asimov.  
    So, writers who were more talented, richer, more famous and more mature than I felt it was worthwhile to have their work appear in  Penthouse. Does that help my case a little bit?
Abbie Hoffman's educated radicalism was an inspiration to me.
      Penthouse's monthly column by "The Happy Hooker," Xaviera Hollander, was said to be the most-read column of any kind in the country. 
    Before I had any idea who she was, I had chatted with her several times in the elevator and in the staff break room. People called her "Holly." I was shocked to learn that she was the famous "happy hooker" who had been a prostitute and a very successful "madam," and whose book was an all-time best-seller (at 20 million copies) that had been made into a movie and a Broadway play. 
    She seemed to be a modest, ordinary person to me, but when I expressed that opinion to one of the editors, he laughed and showed me a few pictures of her. Good golly, Miss Holly! She really was a whore!
Doesn't "Holly" look nice? She was naughty! Very naughty!

     The writer whom my editor seemed to revere most was Tad Szulc (pronounced "Shultz"). Peter was awed by this Polish-born writer's courage, historical perspective and persistence. 
    On the same morning that I ran into Bob and Kathy on the elevator, I was headed down the hall when I saw Tad emerge from Peter's office. I had never met him, either, but I had seen his picture. 
    "Peter's not here," he said. "They told me he'll be back in an hour. How about some coffee?" 
    We went to one of those great Greek places where a full breakfast cost 79 cents and the immigrant employees were wonderfully warm, proud and hard-working. 
    I said, "I love these people."
    Tad replied, "So do I. They remind me of my countrymen. So much passion for life, for just living every day."
    I was drawn to Tad's courtliness and to the richly eventful life he had led as a journalist.
Tad Szulc was charming and fearless.
   He had been a foreign and Washington correspondent for The New York Times from 1953 to 1972. Nine days before the CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, he wrote a Times article stating that an invasion of Cuba was "imminent." It was radically censored, thanks to the very aggressive intervention of President John F. Kennedy. 
    Tad had also written a 704-page portrait of Castro, and biographies of Pope John Paul II and Chopin, among many other books. 
    I asked him why he was writing for Penthouse. He told me that when he was with the Times, he had always been gratified by the fact that his work was reaching lots of influential and well-educated people. At Penthouse, though, he reached not only "the corridors of power," but also the blue-collar demographic and the young male demographic and the convicted-felon demographic. He said he felt that to enrich the minds of these other "tiers" was very important, and he had no doubt that after they'd spent some time with the "ladies," they did read and respond to his articles.
   He also said that Peter was "the most respectful and responsive editor with whom I've ever worked." 
    Tad died in 2001. His New York Times obituary said, "Possessing nerve, the obligatory trench coat and a supply of cigarettes, Mr. Szulc traveled around, pulling off one feat after another....(he had) a charmed way of being in the right part of the world just as the plot thickened."


    I was dismayed when Peter said they needed a picture of me for the "contributors page." He had scheduled an appointment for me with a staff photographer, who would get "a whole roll of film" emblazoned with my stupid face, so they would have plenty of varied poses from which to choose.
    I have always hated having my picture taken. I dreaded being stuck in the studio with some guy who would be scrutinizing my every imperfection, trying desperately to figure out how to get one decent-looking portrait.
    What happened instead was both better and worse. The better part was that my photographer was a vigorous, stomp-around girl, about my age, who put me at ease with her upbeat attitude, until she told me we would be doing the shoot outside. Pat preferred natural light "to the artificiality of the studio." She loaded herself up with a bunch of gear, and we headed out to the street, where the sidewalks were jammed with lunchtime traffic.
They're saying. "Who is she?" I'm muttering "Nobody!!"
    It's bad enough to have one person peering at you while you pose for the camera, but in my case, literally hundreds of people passed by as Pat leaned me against various architectural features and doorways on Madison Avenue, and had me turn my head this way and that, and smile mysteriously, flirtatiously, and joyfully. 
    Please let this be over!
    Then she had me hold my finger to my chin and look upward (as in some silent-movie representation of deep thought). She had me hold back my hair as it fluttered in the breeze. 
    "Lick your lips!" she ordered me. 
    "Lick your own!" I felt like retorting.
    Shoulders back! Chin up! (then down) Lips parted! (then pouty) Eyes averted! Eyes straight on, as if saying "come and get it."
    Worst of all, she had me put my hand behind my head, as if in some 1940s glamor-girl pose. All these people are walking by, gawking. They must have been saying, "She thinks she's really some hot stuff." I felt like such a self-important fool. (And it was the silly, vain-looking glamor pose that they ran in the magazine, without even warning me! Oh my god  -- it really was embarrassing.)
They used this one for the press release -- not as embarrassing.
     But the real adventure of the afternoon was yet to come.


The scenes of depravity in Bob's ill-fated movie, "Caligula," might well have been filmed in his home.
    Pat was supposed to deliver a large and heavy manila envelope of page proofs to Guccione at his mansion within the hour, but our shoot had taken so long, she would be unable to get there and be back at the office in time for an important studio session with some famous "Pet" I'd never heard of (Pat was never in charge of these naked extravaganzas -- that was a man's job -- but she played an important and rather arduous role as assistant. She thought the whole enterprise was idiotic, she confided. She was doing it for the  money -- to pay for a Master's of Fine Arts degree -- and she tried to focus on the aesthetic aspects of what she was doing rather than the degrading ones).
    I asked her if I could deliver the proofs for her. I had been wanting to see Bob's house ever since various editorial underlings had described it to me. None of them had ever been there, so I don't know where all the details came from, but it sounded grotesquely lavish and grandiose. It was known to be the largest private residence in Manhattan.
    Pat was thrilled to hand over the proofs so she could dash back to the office. She hailed a cab, gave me a twenty dollar bill for the fare, and sent me on my way. I shouldn't expect to see Bob, she said (thank goodness!). He generally cloistered himself away on the third floor with his five Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs and worked relentlessly, most of the day and most of the night. 
    "He's a wreck, and he's getting worse," Pat said. "There's bound to be a meltdown at some point."
He had his moments of pretty-boy serenity, but most staffers agreed he was half mad.
    The address of the infamous residence was 14-16 67th Street. Bob had bought the two adjacent townhouses, gutted them both, and spent years transforming the property into an extravaganza of pomp and fabulosity. It was 22,000 square feet and consisted of 27 rooms. Someone had told me that it cost $5 million a year to maintain. It had a grand ballroom, walls custom-made of Byzantine bricks, sweeping marble staircases, a glorious roof garden, eight fireplaces and $150 million worth of art by such masters as Matisse, Botticelli, van Gogh, Renoir, Degas, Chagall, Dali and Picasso. There were imported classical statues and decorative details everywhere, I was told.
This is the mansion after Guccione moved out during bankuptcy proceedings. It sold for $50 million. 
    When I rang the buzzer, a British-sounding female said, "Good afternoon. Please identify yourself."
    When I did so, she opened the huge, heavy front door and welcomed me inside, identifying herself as "Pet."

    "You must be kidding, right? Or does everyone who's been a Penthouse pet change her name to 'Pet'?" I asked, hoping it wasn't the case.
    She laughed. She was so pretty, with long, curly red hair and green eyes and pink cheeks. She wore a sort of daytime tuxedo: a mannish, dressy suit that was very becoming on her. Not at all Penthousy!
    "Well, I was a 'Pet' years ago, when Bobbie started the magazine in England. I was allowed to keep my knickers on, of course, and even my bosom had a lovely piece of chiffon across it. But all my friends started calling me 'Pet' after my photo shoot. I decided to keep the name, which is ever so much nicer than "Margaret'."
    I asked her if she still did any modeling for the magazine.
    "God, I'm way over the hill for that," she said. "I'm 28 years old -- that's ancient in this world. But Bobbie kept me on to run his household. It's a nice life. I wish I could show you my quarters -- they're really a bit too fabulous, actually -- but Bobbie would throw a hissy fit if I gave a grand tour."
    I asked her if I could have a limited tour. The foyer in which we were standing seemed almost big enough to be the famous ballroom, but she laughingly said that was upstairs and "so much more huge that you would think you were in some ancient Roman hall of governance. Every footstep echoes like mad!"
    She said Bob was currently engrossed in his gut-wrenching weight-training session. It would probably be OK if we sneaked around a bit so I could take a peek at a few rooms.


    The Roman-style inlaid-mosaic indoor swimming pool was breathtaking. Two lead sphinxes, each with the head of Marie Antoinette, were at one end, on each side of a Roman statue of Bacchus. It was vast and quiet, with the faint scent of eucalyptus. Tiny underwater lights and a massive chandelier created a delicate shimmer in the water. Imported antique bas reliefs lined the walls. The picture above doesn't do it justice. It was magical and otherworldly.
    We sneaked up the staircase so I could peer into the fabulous ballroom, but we didn't venture in. There were great works of art all over the walls. I would love to have spent an hour or two viewing them. A gold piano was at the far end, and there were busts of classical luminaries, as well as a massive fireplace. I asked Pet if Bob and Kathy had ever hosted a ball, and she said, "Never. Bob really is very antisocial. He's not interested in chatting. Honestly, I don't think he's interested in people at all. On top of that, he is somewhat shy. Even when they do have a little gathering, mainly for business purposes, Bob spends most of his time in the kitchen making little hor d'oeuvres. It's rather sweet, actually. Then he goes back upstairs to work or go to sleep." 

    The courtyard was actually the roof of one of the two townhouses that Bob had merged. When Pet and I stepped out onto it, flowers were everywhere -- climbing up, cascading down, and overflowing from ornate planters. There were two nicely arranged  seating areas. The sunroom was stunning. Several paintings by Bob himself were on the walls. I had been told that he was a skilled artist, and I agreed. I didn't see any mind-blowing originality, but he was technically proficient.
   Bob wasn't in the room pictured below when we strolled in, but it was plenty full without him. A sort of "piling on" had apparently occurred as he acquired ever more classical artifacts from overseas.
This photo was taken nearly 20 years after I met Bob, but the room seems unchanged.
     I had been a guest in several vast and beautiful residences since I'd moved to New York, and each one had made me yearn to live in such a place. I always pictured myself dancing from room to room, ecstatic at having so much space, after having lived in studio apartments for four years. I didn't feel that way here. Despite the aspects of beauty, it all seemed morbid and oddly menacing to me.
    "I've got to get you out of here," Pet said. "I shouldn't be doing this. Bobbie wouldn't fire me or anything, but his cold shoulder would be punishment enough." 

    By now we were walking arm-in-arm. She was really a blast -- funny and adorable. I felt as if we were schoolgirl chums, having a conspiratorial adventure. But how could she tolerate being cooped up here? 
Bob owned lots of breathtaking art by the masters, but this one, "Earth Angel," is by him
 As we were proceeding back to the entryway, I looked down a hall and saw that it was lined with artwork. I knew that most of the most renowned pieces were in the ballroom, including the pink-period Picasso and the Modigliani nude, but I had to see these gems that were just yards away, beautifully lit. I disentangled myself from Pet and scooted down the vast expanse, thrilled to the core to be seeing these masterworks in person. I screeched to a halt at one particularly beautiful painting. I stood there, taking it in. 
   "God, I love Renoir," I said, assuming Pet was right behind me.
    I heard a growl. When I turned around, there was Bob -- in his trademark satin bathrobe -- with two huge dogs. "He really is brilliant, the way he uses color," Bob said. "It's Sylphie, isn't it?"
    "Sylvia," I said. "I'm sorry for the trespass. It's not Pet's fault. I got into the front door and dashed past her to look around at your famous wonderland."
    "No problem, babe," Bob said. This was our second encounter, and I had yet to see him smile. He proceeded down the hall. "Give Kathy a ring, would you, love? She's been trying to reach you all week."
He loved Kathy, but that didn't stop him from flagrantly screwing around.
    When I got home, I was too tired to "ring" Kathy. I was supposed to meet Mitch Oprea -- a beautifully poetic and soulful Romanian emigre who died of cancer last year -- for drinks, but I called him and rescheduled.  

    Then, Kathy called me. She told me that Penthouse was mailing a letter to its advertisers declaring that my article was "the finest work of journalism we've ever published," and enclosing an advance copy.
    I don't know whether Kathy really believed that or not, but I am absolutely certain that it wasn't true. I liked my article, but it was no masterpiece. It was both entertaining and informative, in my humble opinion, but I have to assume that there were many, many articles by Penthouse's eminent writers that were of far greater substance and import than mine. 
    I had been told that Kathy was no dummy -- in fact some people believed she was the driving force behind the magazine -- and that she was well versed in both financial and scientific affairs. Maybe she felt that my article had the virtue of being more accessible to the typical Penthouse reader. It was kind of fun to read. I had been told that it was also the first work of journalism by a woman that Penthouse had published.
    In any case, she was calling to make me a startling offer: Penthouse wanted to send me on a 12-city media tour, during which I would appear on radio and television news and talk shows in major markets, and be interviewed by print reporters as well. Penthouse would get great free publicity -- and some mainstream respectability -- and I would have an opportunity to advocate prison reform to a wide and diverse audience. 
    Kathy sweetened the offer by saying I would be paid $500 per day for my time; I would be flying first class and staying in some of the most luxurious hotels in the country; and I would have a blank-check expense account as well as a generous clothing allowance. I asked if I could stop over in Salt Lake City to see my parents and friends, and she said sure.


    Like Bob, Kathy seemed cold and distant, even when she was being complimentary or proposing an exciting idea. I doubt that she had always been that way. Just ten years ago, she had been a sweet-faced exotic dancer in London, having moved there from her birthplace in South Africa.
    Offstage, without her makeup, she looked like a wholesome teenager. I can't understand why Hustler publisher Larry Flynt would call her "the ugliest broad I've ever seen," but when he did, Kathy took him to court, claiming he had irreparably tarnished her image. The suit was thrown out, of course. Thanks to her association with Penthouse, Kathy didn't have much of an image to maintain, except that of a sort of Dragon Lady.
Kathy was a "Gidget" type until she became a porn executive.
     But she had been with Bob for so long that perhaps his icy style had rubbed off on her. I think they liked being formidable and inscrutable. They would occasionally smile for the camera, but that apparently was about it.
    They lived together, and would eventually marry in 1990, but Bob messed around with other women incessantly, most if not all of it inside the mansion. According to Bob's daughter, everyone was aware of it, but it wasn't discussed. This surely was painful to Kathy, and that probably contributed to her steely demeanor.
    I told her I would love to do the tour, but wouldn't it be a good idea for me to have a few sessions with a media expert? Surely I had a lot to learn about how to make the most of my appearances, particularly on TV talk shows.
    "We like you how you are -- unspoiled, impassioned," Kathy said. "You'll do fine."


    I would eventually do two extended media tours for the magazine, which were glamorous, ridiculous and thoroughly exhausting -- broadening my horizons, giving me a valuable platform, and providing me with yet another dispiriting look into the inner workings of the news media. Pathetic! 
    After my second media tour, to promote an article I wrote in 1977 about Mormon polygamy, Kathy called me with yet another surprising proposition. 
    "We want you to do the 'Pet' copy for us each month," she said. "We need a fresh voice. If that doesn't suit you, we'd like to find you an ongoing role with the magazine. Maybe you have some ideas."
   I had no clue what "Pet copy" was, but it didn't sound appealing so far. Neither did the idea of an ongoing role. I had already moved on.
    Kathy explained that Pet copy accompanies the pictorials, and is purportedly quotations from the girls who are spreading their eagles, so to speak, for the betterment of mankind. 
    I had always assumed that the remarks attributed to these models were real. They seemed absurdly silly and vain enough to be straight out of the pouty bimbo lips of those shameless fools. They said things like, "I love to stand in the surf, the sunlight tickling my breasts and the waves licking me between my legs."


    "Sorry Kathy, that's not my thing," I said.
    "The pay is outstanding," she said. 
    And I replied, "I don't care." 
    I wasn't unappreciative. I was just through with this brief, strange phase of my life. As compromising as it may have seemed to others, and even sometimes to me, I had no regrets about having had this experience. I had learned a lot during my immersion in Penthouse's strange, sick world. I had made some good friends. My writing had gotten wide exposure, and had been anthologized, entered into the Congressional Record, and even reprinted in college textbooks. The tours gave me the kind of adventure that few people, except for bona fide celebrities, get to experience.
    Kathy and I never had the opportunity to speak again.
    Within a few years, Penthouse would begin its inexorable downhill slide.

Despite all the vitamins and weight training, Bob didn't age well.
      Long after I had "left the building," Bob launched Viva, Vibe, and Omni magazines, each of which had merit, but all of which ultimately failed. He created Longevity in 1988, as he and Kathy entered middle age. Omni was a particularly serious venture; both he and Kathy were very interested in science and science fiction.  He invested millions of dollars in cold-fusion research, cryogenics and in the development of an Atlantic City casino (which he had to abandon when he was denied a license). He paid $45 million to the IRS in back taxes. His X-rated $17.5 million extravaganza of truly disgusting depravity, "Caligula," (which starred such luminaries as Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole and Helen Mirren) (what were they thinking?) (maybe the same thing I was thinking?) was a thudding failure among critics and in the few theaters that would show it. It did, though,  ultimately become his company's best-selling video of all time. 
    Bob's certainty that ever-more-twisted depictions of "sexuality" -- if you can even call it that -- would boost sales was (thank goodness) proven wrong. 


    After declaring bankruptcy in 2003, he was forced to sell his beloved Manhattan mansion -- and all of its contents, including his art collection -- to pay creditors. He also had to sell his 75-acre Hudson River estate, which included 2,000 feet of riverfront property (two beaches, plus deep-water mooring), nine bedrooms, nine baths, a swimming pool and a tennis court. The buyer paid $4 million in a foreclosure sale and immediately put it on the market for $6 million.
A nice little getaway: Bob's Hudson River estate.
    Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Bob's empire was a casualty of the Internet, Bob did confront the threat by launching his own web site, which immediately became the 25th most-visited site online, but it wasn't enough to halt the collapse of his conglomerate. He even ran a story on celibacy as "the new, hot lifestyle" to expand his appeal, and got a little boost when the Unabomber named Penthouse, after The New York Times and the Washington Post, for publication of his anti-technology tirade.
    Kathy died of cancer in 1997. She and Bob had developed quite an obsession with health and longevity years earlier, and had adopted an array of age-defying strategies -- some reasonably mainstream, some not -- to keep themselves vibrant, sexy and alive as long as possible. 
    Bob's associates say he never recovered from her death. He left her name on the masthead of the magazine as president. He became even darker and more broody and more sexually transgressive than before.
     In 2006, he married April Dawn Warren. Like Kathy, she had entered the work force as an exotic dancer. Her aspiration was to be a recording artist, but she somehow wound up on the masthead at Penthouse as "creative director," after having briefly written a regular column for the magazine. The couple moved to Texas in 2009.
April Dawn Warren was Bob's fourth wife.
Bob fought lung cancer for several years, after having recovered from throat cancer. Most of his tongue, soft palate and epiglottis had been removed during that first bout with the disease, and of course his speech was drastically impaired. He took in liquid nourishment through a feeding tube.
    He died at the age of 79 on October 20, 2010.
    I bid you and Kathy peace, Bob. Thanks for the memories.
Bob's son Robert Jr., April Dawn and Bob, who painted the background artwork.
     In  "Fully Dressed, but Overexposed," I describe the whirlwind craziness of being on a nationwide media tour for the magazine.