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Bob Guccione, Vanessa, and Me

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My late and legendary "porn boss" is in the news today, as FBI details emerge about the life of Bob Guccione:

"Before he rose to notoriety as the founder of Penthouse magazine, Guccione allegedly wrote letters soliciting customers to buy his dirty photos at the bargain rate of 10 photos for $2 under the pseudonym of "Robert Gucci ..."

The story is continued here at Talking Points Memo, with great relish... detailing Bob's connections to the Mob, his exacting devotion to nude photography, and so forth!

It's fascinating to learn personal history of my first mainstream publisher. I had mainly written for underground newspapers when I got my life-changing phone call from Penthouse. Guccione was the first publisher to send me a paycheck for my work.

I wrote the first feminist erotic film column -- that's an understatement -- at Penthouse Forum from '86-'89, when their magazine empire was flourishing. It was called "The Erotic Screen." Later I added a Q&A called "The X-Rated Advisor." (Here's one of my old columns from back then, about the surprising world of "fat fetish" video).

Many, many of the editors you know at NYC magazine offices once worked for Guccione, at any of his many publications. "Omni," for example, was huge at the time I worked for Forum, and every sci-fi author of note contributed erotic fiction to both sides. I remember first writing to the irrepressible Robert Silverberg back then, about some of his clever sexy short stories that I later published in Best American Erotica.

A couple insights: 

The classic photo layout for cheesecake that you see in every modern periodical, with a photo bleeding 2/3 on the left, a column of white, and then two photos, also full bleeds on the right -- that's the "Penthouse Layout." -- Lots of white space, very clean, little or no type, bleeding the photos out to the edge of the paper.

That design influenced ALL the erotic and fashion mags, every men's magazine, even if they were showing off stereos or cars. It was different from Playboy's old layoutwhich had traditional, Esquire-type design, the kind of thing you see on "Mad Men."

As for "organized crime" and its relationship to Guccione, that makes me laugh. Not because it isn't true, but because the entire magazine distribution business, like the record business, was all about trucking and "organized crime" -- it was hardly limited to sexy periodicals. 

I published an independent women's erotic magazine (On Our Backs) in the late 80s, and we had a hell of time breaking INTO this magazine distribution world, because it was so corrupt. The bigwigs didn't give a hoot about your content as long as you paid them off.

The FBI, meanwhile, was perpetually annoyed with porn businessmen AND the Teamsters because of the unreported income involved -- all those quarters in peepshow machines! They used "blue laws" as the excuse to investigate when they could.  

The morality of everyone on both sides of the law was irrelevant. Most of these guys who ran the business were old-school male chauvinists who would never want their daughters to be involved in either trucking, or porn. They kept telling us to be a "nice girls, go home." Lesbian feminist sex magazines? It blew their circuits.

Forum was a huge break for me at the time -- it was the beginning of my career as a full time writer. It also subsidized all my "free time" to edit On Our Backs. I had total creative freedom at Forum, which is amazing to recall. I got expertly copy edited and patted on the head. Now that process is all but extinct.

The only time I was "censored" was when the MacKinnon-Dworkin anti-porn legal efforts passed into Canadian Customs controls... which brought about  a whole list of things we couldn't "say" anymore at PH, such as "anal sex," any arguing between men and women (could be seen as "degrading to women"), and of course, even the most innocuous of S/M jargon. You also had to make sure every character, even in fantasy, was at least a "junior" in college, to prove their maturity. Oh, those were the days! -- EXTREMELY irritating.

Ultimately, the Canadian customs rules were only enforced against publications who endured a sexual stigma -- the New York Times could print the word "bondage" all day if they wanted to.

The customs rules took a far greater toll on small lesbian and gay presses than they did on Penthouse. I remember smuggling On Our Backs in the back of a car to Vancouver's "Little Sisters" queer bookshop, who has fought these laws through the Queen's Court all these decades.

Everyone asks me about the "Penthouse Letters," which became an beloved cliché of breathless erotic confession. A typical opening went like this: "Needless to say, when I answered the door in my negligee to greet the Pizza Delivery boy..."

Many people wondered who "really" wrote these letters. Why did they all sound like the same voice with slight content differences? 

Original letters truly did arrive by the basketful every week at PH offices. There was no need to make them up! However, they were carefully edited for style by editor LaVada Nahon, who was also my editor for many years. (You an listen to our interview here).  Nahon's editing is why the letters were so "consistent" in their tone. As the editing style became ubiquitous, the letter-writers started adopting the same voice in their mail... everyone who read a "letter" knew how to imitate the Forum style!

Finally, a note about one of PH's most notorious moments: the black-and-white erotic pictorial of then-ingenue Vanessa Williams,  circa 1984. She had just won the Miss America contest, and a photographer from her past, who had shot this very pretty little "girl-girl" series, sold his photos to PH, which in turn prompted the Miss America pageant to take back Williams' crown.

I was SO HAPPY that Williams triumphed and became massively famous, in spite of the pageant's shaming. I remember gold-framing one of the best photos from the spread, where Vanessa is wearing a very old-school gay leather harness, looking dead glamourous.

What's so funny is that on the opposite side of the thin magazine centerfold is ANOTHER picture, of then practically-unknown Traci Lords! It's a terrible photo of her.

At the time, it annoyed me; I thought PH included this mediocre shot of a  "white chick" because they were so afraid to "merely" offer a black woman as a centerforld... what idiots. The "men's magazine" business is notoriously backward on racial stereotypes; perhaps worse than the fashion industry, if that can be imagined.

Later, this same edition was pulled from circulation because it turned out Traci was underage during her porn career heyday.  Vanessa Williams fans, meanwhile -- who had no interest in Lords -- were outraged because their beloved centerfold became a taboo collector's item! Thank goodness I got mine framed in time.

Susie Bright is the author of Big Sex Little Death, A Memoir.