Exclusive Interview: Barry Avrich & Bob Guccione Jr. on Filthy Gorgeous
Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story played at the Toronto International Film Festival, but you can see it on Epix starting Friday. Filmmaker Barry Avrich chronicles the life of the late Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione, and highlights some real social milestones Guccione achieved, his personal art as a painter, as well as the ground broken in erotica. We sat down with Avrich and Guccione’s son, Bob Jr., in Toronto to discuss the life of Bob Sr.
CraveOnline: Was Bob Sr. a pioneer for hiring women in publishing?
Bob Guccione, Jr.: He was. He absolutely was. It was almost unheard of in 1974 I think when he started bringing women into the sales force, the advertising sales force. That was the tail end of the era that “Mad Men” really mythologizes. The early ‘70s were the end of the martini lunch and all boys club. This little army of women my father unleashed on the advertising world, I mean literally, was a phenomenon.
Barry Avrich: It was brilliant if you think about it because it used to be a guy showed up at your door of an ad agency and said, “Do you want to buy a page in this magazine?” Now you had a gorgeous woman, and they sold like crazy. As I heard it, my own research, there were two places to go to in New York if you wanted a job in publishing. It was Ms. magazine or Penthouse. Those that were smart enough, went to Penthouse. You had Anna Wintour starting her career at Viva magazine and that’s pretty amazing.
Does the feminist movement give him any credit for that?
Bob Guccione, Jr.: You know, I don’t think it comes easy for them to give us credit for anything. It did get lost and drowned out in the fact that it became the norm after that. It wasn’t just that they were pretty, because some of them weren’t, by the way. I remember, I worked at the magazine then. They weren’t all pretty but they were all hard working and they had to try harder to break into a male monopoly.
Barry Avrich: And dedicated to him.
Bob Guccione, Jr.: And they were very much dedicated to him, and to Kathy Keeton. Some were to Kathy, some weren’t. Quickly the other publishers realized this is brilliant, this little army was working harder than anybody else, getting more ads. Some of them were very attractive. One or two of them were ex-pets who now wanted to go out and do something more stable in their careers. Of course Kathy Keeton was the main salesperson right from the beginning in 1965. That was my father’s girlfriend. So he did pioneer that. He had a very high proportion of executives that were women, the top executives.
Funny enough, my first publisher at Spin was one of the ad sales people who was in that Penthouse army. We called them the cadets or something. It was very cute, the cadets, but they were like a little army literally. They were there first in the morning. One of the women, Felice Arden, later on went to launch Ms. Then she came to work for me in 1985.
Barry Avrich: Well, Patti Adcroft. I mean, there are some serious people.
Bob Guccione, Jr.: Oh yeah, Patti Adcroft is one of the greatest editors of the last 40 years, recognized generally.
Barry Avrich: Edited Omni magazine.
Bob Guccione, Jr.: And she was the editor of Seventeen, launch editor of In Style.
I also learned from the documentary that Penthouse was one of the first magazines to cover returning Vietnam vets. Did that continue through the Iraq war?
Bob Guccione, Jr.: It went on for I think decades, literally. I lost track of when they eventually stopped it I guess, but in the ‘90s I think. Certainly for at least 20 plus years there was this column that exposed the injustices done to returning veterans. I think, perhaps more than anything else, for an entire generation turned that ship around where Vietnam veterans were despised and looked down upon and then forgotten.
Barry Avrich: I saw interview footage with your dad, not in the film, but when he did leave the house would see these guys on the streets of New York begging and said, “Wait a minute, they fought a war for us. What’s this about?” I’ve never seen any other publisher open up an office in Washington for the soul purpose of campaigning for the rights of veterans.
Bob Guccione, Jr.: And it’s never happened since.
Barry Avrich: Exactly. And again for Brandeis University to give an award to a “pornographer” for journalism, pretty phenomenal.
Those are all the socially significant things in the documentary. Now let’s talk about boobies.
Bob Guccione, Jr.: [Laughs]
Barry Avrich: Okay.
Bob Guccione, Jr.: My man Barry’s the expert in boobies.
Barry Avrich: Yes, yes, made a career in watching them and looking at them, yes.
Was it important to talk about the first pubes to appear in the magazine?
Barry Avrich: Of course, because that’s really only reflective of Bob’s own view of sexuality to begin with. When you look at the paintings and the artists that he loved, they didn’t shy away from that. The masters didn’t shy away from that. I don’t think this was a marketing tactic on Bob’s part. I think ultimately, he wasn’t showing off. Let’s look at a natural woman. The women in Playboy were airbrushed. These were real women. I had to definitely chronicle that in the film because that was a distinctive different, I think pushed the magazine further ahead. It’s ironic today because it’s hard to find a woman with pubic hair.
It made me nostalgic.
Bob Guccione, Jr.: Bring back pubic hair and the Cold War.
By the time I saw Penthouse, it was even more graphic than just showing pubic hair, so it was really informative to see it started as a fluke to see that.
Bob Guccione, Jr.: It wasn’t a fluke. It was very much like let’s just test the waters, just show a glimpse as if by accident. It wasn’t a central part of the picture. Once it was allowed then the law had been circumvented that made it obscene because precedence kicked in. That was deliberate, but what’s really important is it was never dirty.
At the end I agree with you, the last years of Penthouse under my father, he’d lost his way. He’d lost interest. I don’t think he was watching. He certainly wasn’t doing the layouts anymore. It did get too hardcore because he erroneously believed that was the direction to go in to compete with the internet, and in actual fact the direction to go in was to become softer and gentler and put clothes on women, because magazines like Maxim and FHM have shown that.
Before that, before he lost his way, post his wife Kathy dying, post his own cancer problems, he was always very aesthetic and a romantic. It was one of the bonding things we did as father and son. We’d sit with him while he did the pictorials, which didn’t involve a lot of talking funny enough but it involved me mostly sitting very still and just watching him. He’d go over pictures for hours, and he’d go over almost the exact same chrome.
It was like a “spot the difference” between the two pictures. It would take 10, 15 minutes to look at it and go, “What do you like better?” I’d go, “Well, I don’t see the difference.” He taught me there was a difference. It could be an angle, it could be lighting. He was very much compelled by what was aesthetic. That also tended to be more sexy and tended to be more real which is more sexy. Of course the readership responded. They weren’t responding to a sort of core, crass, profoundly pornographic image. They were responding to the woman looking more real and in a sense more gentle.
Barry Avrich: I mean, they’re all shot naturally. Now if you think about the work that went into trying to cover it up. You’re trying to pose a woman in a shot in Playboy trying to cover pubic hair, there’s more work involved in that. I think Bob Sr. looked at it as what am I doing here? I’m going to shoot a woman naturally. He’s not saying, “Hey, open your legs wide.” He’s shooting it beautifully and tastefully versus trying to cover it up, and that’s not what men wanted anyway.