Never mind those telefictional clans rolling in money and mayhem in Dallas and Denver; what we have here is a real-life dynasty, the House of Guccione.
We have a powerful paterfamilias, the walls of his East Side town house hung with Renoirs and Matisses bought with a fortune generated by skin magazines.
We have an impetuous eldest son, launching his cutting-edge music magazine, determined to prove to the world and "the Old Man," as he calls him, that he can run his own shop.
In the latest plot developments in the House of Guccione saga, we have Bob Sr., founder and chairman of Penthouse International, filing suit against the U.S. attorney general and the members of the Meese pornography commission, charging them with "unlawful acts amounting to censorship." We hear Bob Sr.'s gravelly voice on radio commercials urging consumers to buy Penthouse -- or even archrival Playboy -- to "show you resent the fact that the attorney general is trying to set up camp in our bedrooms." We have serious conflict, the wounded publisher mounting an angry counterattack against his tormentors.
Then we have Bob Jr., publisher of Spin, the flashy rock magazine that's attracting a lot of attention -- most recently with its July issue attacking the Live Aid philanthropists -- but not yet much in the way of profits. We have a roller coaster year in which the boy publisher celebrates the magazine's first anniversary with a bash for 5,000, the Piper-Heidsieck flowing and the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing, then over the next few weeks presides over the firing or resignation of about 20 percent of his small staff. We have Bob Jr., known around the office as Bobby, joking about how he dealt with the resulting morale problem -- "I threatened anyone who looked depressed with firing." We have people calling him charismatic, visionary, pampered and egomaniacal, all at the same time.
We have a supporting cast of other siblings, Spin staffers with Walkpersons semipermanently clipped to the waistbands of their black denims, civil liberties lawyers and a Pet of the Year testifying before the Meese commission. We have drama, money, sex.
Somebody call Lorimar.
They look alike, the Gucciones pe re et fils, with strong faces and dark eyes. But there are, as you might expect, differences in style between the 54-year-old who publishes Penthouse, Forum, Omni, Variations and Newlook (Penthouse for yuppies) and the 30-year-old whose magazine thumbs its nose at Rolling Stone.
Bobby holds court in a small office amid the David Lee Roth posters and ratty-haired staffers at Spin, in the West Side building that's home to the Penthouse publications. He sports beat-up sneakers, sweat shirts and a modified Prince Valiant haircut that appears to have been styled with a bowl. One friend remembers being charmed, when he first met Bobby Guccione, by how unlike a rich man's son he seemed.
Bob Sr., on the other hand, is a mogul with a capital M, who favors silk suits and heavy gold chains. Returning by limo from a televised debate in which he branded the Rev. Jerry Falwell an anti-Semite and a racist (more privately, Guccione merely calls Falwell a "politically motivated, self-serving hypocrite"), he and a small entourage dash through the limestone portals of the town house that is both home and headquarters. He jogs up the marble staircase, passes the salon with the gilt piano and looming Modigliani and enters his paneled study. He takes out his files and takes aim.
The Meese commission, whose report is expected next month, is "nonobjective and nonscientific," he charges.
The attorney general, by empaneling the commission, is engaging in "a real blatant abuse of the powers of his office."
Falwell -- along with other televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson -- is "using his religious platform to impose his personal philosophy . . . on the American people," claiming to speak for America but only representing "a small percentage of fanatic fundamentalists."
It is nothing new, of course, for Guccione to rail against his critics, or for them to brand him a pornographer ("a tragic misnomer," he says). But the fight grew notably more intense this spring when several drug and convenience store chains, including 7-Eleven, Rite-Aid and Peoples, announced they would stop selling Penthouse and Playboy. The Penthouse lawsuit filed last month (Playboy and the American Booksellers Association have filed a similar suit) charges that the Meese commission "improperly influenced" the retailers by sending a letter offering them a chance to respond -- before the commission drafted its final report on "identified distributors" -- to allegations that they were involved in the sale or distribution of pornography. The allegations were in testimony from the Rev. Donald Wildmon, of the National Federation for Decency, who called 7-Eleven stores "the leading retailers of porn magazines in America."
Guccione says that Southland Corp., 7-Eleven's parent company, had resisted picketing and mail threats "for a long time, for years . . . All of a sudden they collapse around the same time the attorney general's letter arrives threatening to list them as pornography distributors." He calls this blacklisting and says he's coordinating "a serious and major countercampaign." He also says, grimacing, that he's mad as hell. "I'd be insulted and infuriated whether I published Penthouse or Birdseed Monthly," he says.
The weapons for the counteroffensive, in addition to the suit, include a series of debates, a stream of letters and press kits sent to retailers, articles "exposing" television evangelists and faith healers, a 20-minute video ("We're going to try to show it in every single cable market in the country") and the entire print and radio ad budget for Penthouse magazine for an undetermined duration, now earmarked for anticensorship messages. "We're prepared to divert several millions of dollars . . . to this cause," Guccione says.
There is a financial motive for Guccione's crusade, of course: 7-Eleven was, in fact, the largest retailer of Penthouse and Playboy, and Guccione estimates that the chain accounted for about 4 percent of its 3 million-plus circulation. Penthouse (and Spin) rely almost entirely on newsstand rather than subscription sales. About half those lost sales will be recovered as readers switch to other retailers, Guccione believes. "It's going to hurt us financially, but it'll be a wound. It won't do us any terminal damage."
Terminal damage or no, however, Guccione is shopping for allies among everyone from feminists (who "love our constitutional freedoms . . . more than they dislike magazines like Penthouse") to the Magazine Publishers Association (which has also filed a lawsuit against the Meese commission). He thinks acquiring them will be a struggle. "It's very easy to attack 'porn' . . . because few people will stand up and defend it," he acknowledges, with some frustration. "We're a guilt-ridden nation when it comes to sex." Guccione carries files of clippings and studies proving, he says, that there's no link between exposure to pornography and antisocial behavior. But he recognizes that when his critics "use pornography to demonstrate how the family unit is being destroyed, how children are being abused, how women are being criminally assaulted, the public, which knows little of the dynamics of these things, is prepared to believe it."
Among the people most willing to stand up and defend Guccione Sr., though, are members of his own family unit. Daughter Nina says that the censors' next target might be Reader's Digest, if it dared to run an article like "I Am Joe's Prostate." Bob Jr. has editorialized against censorship, particularly attacks on rock lyrics, in his "TopSpin" column in the front of Spin.
"It's cost him more to defend himself and fight this than it would to cut the print order and say, 'That's the market today,' " says Bob Jr., throwing up his hands in the way he imagines another publisher might. "I'm incredibly proud."
Bob Jr. is also incredibly proud, of course, of Spin, the monthly he launched last spring with what he describes as complete editorial autonomy and about a million and a half dollars -- to date -- of his father's money. He was inspired, he says, by hearing Cyndi Lauper sing "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" on the radio and reflecting on how seriously certain rock 'n' roll publications treat their subject. "My magazine would take its readers seriously and itself never," he told potential advertisers last year, and it would zero in on "what was exciting in music -- which was invariably what was new in music."
Privately, he may have had slightly grander notions. "His big idea was, it would be the voice of this generation, as Rolling Stone was in the '60s," recalls James Truman, who recently and amicably resigned as a Spin editor to return to writing. "He used the buzzwords he's always used: 'irreverent,' 'controversial,' 'a sense of humor about itself.' "
Spin launched with a rate base of 100,000 circulation (since raised to 150,000), a cadre of under-40 staffers, a striking design (Bobby shows up on the masthead as design director as well as editor and publisher), and a willingness to run stories about the Screamin' Sirens ("an all-girl cowpunk band") and an independent Boston label called Throbbing Lobster Records.
Spin scored a couple of coups early on, finding and interviewing Ike Turner when everyone else was obsessed with Tina, breaking the story of David Crosby's descent into drugs and prison. In both cases, Spin beat Rolling Stone by at least a few weeks, which scoops it then ballyhooed in ads in trade publications. If the cover stories weren't always as avant as Bob Jr.'s pledges -- the first year's included Pat Benatar, Keith Richards and Bob Dylan -- and if the writing was uneven, the magazine nonetheless had a punchy verve.
"I'm rooting for it," comments Village Voice music editor Doug Simmons. "There is no first-rate national forum for rock criticism any more. Rolling Stone has largely yielded its position. It's much broader. Hollywood personalities."
Indeed, the younger Guccione and company customarily look at the latest Rolling Stone "and say, 'Dull again,' " says Bob Jr. "Bruce Willis on the cover? It's like People magazine; it's not rock 'n' roll. Bruce Willis will never be on our cover; we're a music magazine. We'd no more do an article on John Travolta," he adds with loathing, "than we'd publish the magazine in Greek."
Despite the bravado, however, Spin has problems Rolling Stone outgrew long ago. When the magazine made its debut, Bob Jr. was telling reporters he'd have a circulation of 400,000 a year later; instead he had much less than half of that (RS sells more than a million). Bob Jr. now says that Spin almost breaks even on each issue but still faces accumulated start-up debts of $1.5 million, a loan from Penthouse International he says he intends to repay. He predicts that Spin will turn a profit in three to five years.
It's his desire to repay his father (and thereby keep control of his magazine) that leads to his "great frugality," Bob Jr. says. "I look at it all as my money." Some staffers and ex-staffers believe that Bob Jr.'s recent cost-consciousness was ordered by Penthouse executives, who approve Spin budgets and who were worrying about the financial impact of the 7-Eleven problem. Both Gucciones deny that Penthouse's fight with the Meese commission bears any relationship to Spin's streamlining.
In any case, Bob Jr. says, the decision this spring to fire a senior editor, the art director and at least one advertising and promotion person (staffers think several of the other people who officially resigned had also feared for their jobs) was only partly an economic one. "I felt we'd begun to get a little complacent," he says. The pink-slipped "really just weren't cutting it -- they didn't have that spirit anymore." But outside the magazine, music writers talked about "the purge."
Predictably, morale suffered. Even people who stuck with Spin worried about Bob Jr.'s penchant for trying to handle everything at the magazine himself, from art directing to editorializing to line-editing stories. The anniversary fete -- with partygoers flocking to open bars while Spin free-lancers were watching their mailboxes for checks that are habitually slow to arrive and never very large anyway -- caused more grumbling.
*Bob Jr. thinks his unwillingness to disengage from Spin's day-to-day operations probably does cause conflict. "In the beginning, no one really noticed," he muses, sneakers on desk. "We were all doing everything. Nobody knew much about publishing. I did" -- he'd been circulation director of Penthouse at 24 -- "so people were glad to have me take things on. Now I do feel a little resentment, maybe unexpressed, that I'm too involved.
"But there's no debate on that question," says the editor-publisher-design director. "If I had more time, I'd be more involved." Once he decided to publish a music magazine, he remembers, he felt, " 'This is it, the vocation. I've been called.' I'm not going to give up doing what I'm doing just because some people aren't getting full ego satisfaction."
Future scriptwriters for the House of Guccione saga will notice a certain convergence of personalities here; if this were a musical, either Guccione might burst into a chorus of "My Way." Bobs Sr. and Jr. often think of the same thing at the same time, says Jr. Of the four children in the family, "I'm the most like him. The collision of two similar sensibilities."
The younger Guccione was born in New York, where Bob Sr. was a struggling painter, but grew up in London when the family moved there in search of a less-expensive life. It was still a struggle; Bobby was an adult before he realized that the family's constant moving was a way of beating the rent. Later, after Guccione Sr. founded Penthouse in 1965, the landlords he'd slipped away from demanded -- and got -- their back rent.
Bob Jr. and Nina (listed on the Spin masthead, just below "Assistant to Publisher," as "A Sister to Publisher") both retain working-class Cockney accents, diluted somewhat by their years in New Jersey after the Gucciones returned in 1969.
Their parents are divorced. Bob Sr., who also has a daughter from a previous marriage, has lived for more than 20 years with Kathy Keeton, vice chairman of Penthouse International and president of Omni. (Keeton does not appear to object when Guccione personally photographs Pet of the Year pictorials, such as January's feature on the 1986 titleholder, "Captivating Cody Carmack.")
But unlike some wealthy clans on screen and off, the Gucciones have managed to stay downright cordial. Bobby, Nina and youngest brother Nick, all go to karate classes together. The kids see their mother Muriel on weekends and pop into the Old Man's town house when they're in the neighborhood.
All this chumminess will come in handy as the House of Guccione brings the new generation into the dynasty. Nina, 26, already has her eye on Viva, a defunct Guccione project she would like to resurrect as "a post-feminist magazine." Tony, 25, will be coming into the business side of Penthouse International; Nina calls him "our Harvard graduate, magna cum laude; we're very proud of him." Nick, 21, still works on what's called hereabouts "the outside," for a video and film company. "We expect him to come in and run the film business," Nina says. (This is the family, remember, that gave the world "Caligula.")
Life wasn't always so cozy. "We had fights left and right, about anything and everything," Bob Jr. says, grinning. "He's a tough, stubborn father; I'm an individualistic son." At the sensible age of 30, Jr. can say that he has "nothing but gratitude for the fact that my father never listened to my bellyaching when I was 21 or 22. He just slammed me back, said, 'Be a man.' "
"You don't get a free ride here; nobody does," agrees Nina. Bob Sr. "hasn't coddled us as far as money goes; we've had to earn it." She was once fired from Penthouse for coming in late; so was Bobby, who got the sack another time when he was a 17-year-old mailroom clerk who dared to date a Penthouse receptionist.
Both Bobs now emphasize that Bob Jr. has earned his shot at magazine publishing. "We were prepared to treat Spin like any other magazine," says Bob Sr. "As long as it showed promise we'd give it a chance to succeed." His son, he says "has a real flair for the business."
But most would-be publishers, however gifted, are not bankrolled by their parents. This Bobby was destined for magazines as surely as the other Bobby (along with J.R.) was born into oil. The Gucciones fulfil for each other the functions of most dynasties: Sr. provides a start, Jr. provides continuity for the family business, and everyone circles the wagons when under attack.
Thus it was not surprising, though some Spin staffers squirmed, that Bob Jr.'s column in April's first anniversary issue contained a tribute to Bob Sr. He wrote nostalgically of his father's taking him, when he was 9, to the Penthouse printing plant in London. "If, someday, my kids feel about me the way I feel about him, I will consider my life a great success," wrote Bob Jr. "Thanks, Dad, I love you."