Revealing Bob Guccione, the Man Behind the Penthouse Empire
One man's trash is another man's treasure.
Cover by Hank Londoner.
On a dark February evening, Jeremy Frommer, a former Wall Street trader turned entrepreneur and financier, spent the day overseeing a successful storage locker auction with his daughter, a fan of the show "Storage Wars". They bought every unit except for one. Then, he drove to a sketchy warehouse on Long Island – alone – to meet a Russian contractor who'd outbid him for that final unit.
When Jeremy arrived at the warehouse, he saw the contents of the storage unit the Russian had bought spread out: household stuff, junk and pottery. For a moment he was disappointed. He'd hoped the contents of this unit might hold something of immense value: the rest of a unique collection Jeremy had discovered in the neighbouring unit. But it wasn't there.
Then he spotted the boxes, piled up near the trashcans. The boxes were filled with slides. The Russian contractor "thought the slides were garbage and didn't give a shit about them," Jeremy told me. In a hasty negotiation, he bought the entire storage unit for $2,000 cash, loaded the contents into his SUV, and drove breathlessly to the nearest gas station to dig through the boxes. It was the treasure he had been hoping for: the personal photographs of Bob Guccione, publishing magnate and kingpin of the Penthouse empire.
The combined total of Jeremy's purchases that day amounted to a substantial portion of Guccione's abandoned stuff: hundreds of slides, photographs and personal letters. Rarities from the annals of Penthouse. A Japanese film reel of Caligula, the bloated Dionysian-porno-biopic Guccione produced against great odds in 1976. The final piece was the phone numbers, which led Jeremy to the real jackpot lingering with a creditor in Phoenix: the entire Guccione estate.
In time, Jeremy bought that too.
Today, Jeremy and his business partner and film producer Rick Schwartz own of one of the most unique media artefacts in the world – the Guccione Collection. It's the life's work of an artist-pornographer, a misunderstood millionaire who towered over the publishing industry for 30 years before his company General Media Inc went bankrupt in 2003.
Bob Guccione may be best known for Penthouse, but he was a Renaissance man. Among his lesser-touted accomplishments was publishing and designing Omni, a canonical science-fiction magazine, producing films, collecting fine art, fighting for free speech, muckraking, painting and patronising hundreds of writers and artists. He once owned the largest private residence in Manhattan – a 27,000 square-foot property on East 67th Street outfitted with, among other lush appointments, a 12-foot tall marble column carved with his own likeness.
Guccione hobnobbed with some of the most interesting minds of the 20th century, but, despite his public image as an open-shirted lothario draped in gold chains, was a nearly pathological recluse. Unlike his more famous peers in porn publishing, Guccione wasn't a public man; his home, far from being a party-filled set piece like the Playboy mansion, was by all accounts an empty kingdom.
Penthouse started out as a classy magazine. Its nude spreads, many of which were shot by Guccione himself in the early days, were romantic, cast with Carravagian shadows and light, diffuse as the pantyhose strapped over its photographers' lenses. This is because Guccione appreciated photography, fetishised design and considered himself an artist. He painted, and he spent his money on paintings – Modiglianis, Picassos and ample Impressionist masterworks.
In the 1990s, sexy photos and magazines became harder to sell to a public accustomed to free online smut. Penthouse was forced to pull the pantyhose off the lens. The lighting changed; as the sex acts became more explicit, the light got brighter, harder, more akin to the lurid fluorescence of a sex shop than the painterly, soft-focus look that was once the trademark of the magazine's pictorials. The models began to show more. The photographers "forgot what it was like to work with film", Guccione's longtime assistant Jane Homlisch told me. "It was all really hard, crass, cold... we couldn't maintain the standard of artistic beauty."
Just as his once-booming magazine sales began to take a beating from the ascendance of online porn, Guccione sank millions of dollars into failed investments – everything from nuclear fusion to a doomed Penthouse casino in Atlantic City. His business never recovered. When Bob Guccione died of lung cancer in 2010, his wealth had already vanished. His 75-acre estate on the Hudson in Rhinebeck, New York, was foreclosed upon; he was evicted from his infamous residence in Manhattan. Even his family had basically turned on him. The remnants of Guccione's material existence were scattered to the wind, abandoned and repossessed by creditors. By the time Jeremy Frommer purchased his fateful storage locker, the reclusive magnate was well on his way to obscurity.
He may well still be, had the circumstances fallen differently. Perhaps if Frommer had never noticed the boxes of slides lingering by the trashcan on Long Island that night, there would be no Guccione Collection. Or it might look very different, because ultimately this kind of archive can never be complete – or objective. It might be possible to buy every baseball card, to proudly stack up rows of completed action figure sets, but when the object of your interest is a person, there's no end to the search and no right way to look for what you're seeking. Anything that Bob Guccione ever touched is game to Jeremy and Rick. Collecting Guccione is like zooming in on a fractal: an insane, never-ending quest for nudie slides, cocktail napkins, bank statements and stories. How many objects does it take to define a person's life? To understand the essence of a person known by so few but who produced so much?
A few months ago, I visited the Guccione Collection, which is housed in a warehouse behind a medical supply sales office in Englewood, New Jersey and Jane Homlisch, Guccione's former right-hand woman and assistant for over 30 years, turned up while I was elbow deep in a file cabinet of artwork slides. A pleasant-faced sexagenarian in practical sneakers, she lights up when discussing her unusual career as Bob's confidant, collaborator and assistant. For the duration of his publishing career, Jane managed Guccione's affairs, kept his hours, organised photo shoots, weathered his moods and babysat the Pets who flowed, nubile and ageless, through the pages of Penthouse.
Plucked from the General Media Incorporated offices as a 20-year-old receptionist and thrown into a reality of landed estates, all-night editorial meetings and dinners with Frank Sinatra, she was the cult of Guccione's first member and is still, it seems, its most fervent evangelist.
"He had a very complex mind, a very interesting mind," Jane told me. "There was nobody like him. Nobody. I never would have worked with him for over 30 years if I didn't find him just absolutely fascinating." They worked hard, arranging each Penthouse shoot according to Guccione's erotic sensibilities, choosing every picture, writing the cover lines, choosing the colours, even rewriting the cartoons – but he was no tyrant. To break the tedium, they'd play hide-and-seek in the mansion, laughing, and as the sun rose, Guccione would make her a giant bowl of spaghetti.
"We would talk profoundly," Jane said of their relationship. "When he first hired me, his first questions were 'Do you believe in God? What is your real goal in life? Have you thought about our existence?'" Because of this connection, Jane was fiercely loyal. When the internet finally brought Penthouse to its knees, it was Jane who had to painfully remove the paintings off the walls and sell them. And when Guccione died, she was set completely adrift, as though she'd woken from a life-long dream. "After working with Guccione, from his home, until four or five in the morning, seven days a week, making it my life," Jane said, "it was like living in the outside world. I had a really hard time adjusting."
Jeremy and Rick found Jane somewhere along the way – her handwriting was all over the collection – and took her out to dinner. The value of her insights and personal connections were immediate. Jeremy hired her on the spot, as the de facto curator of his treasure and her former livelihood. When she came into the warehouse and witnessed an overwhelming chunk of her past laid out in boxes, the floodgates tore open. "I was like a baby when I came here," she told me. "I couldn't stop crying. I was apologising to everybody because I was sobbing uncontrollably."
Rick, who started his career in film working as Harvey Weinstein's assistant at Miramax, sees Jane as a kindred spirit. "I recognised in her eyes and in her anecdotes the idea of working for a famous person, and all that entails," he said. "The hours, the devotion, the loyalty, all the craziness. She did all that, and then it all ended horribly, for him and for her." By the time Jeremy and Rick hired her away from the horse ranch where she was working in New Jersey, "she thought the story was over. She thought that was the third act – but it turns out it was the second act."
Recovered from the initial shock, Jane has now fallen into what seems to be her natural role: the matriarch of all things Bob Guccione. It's almost as though she came with the estate. She sits with Jeremy, Rick and their team as they sort through the endless stream of slides, letters, photographs and ephemera, putting everything in its proper place in the history. Jane looks like a normal middle-aged woman, but she has an impeccable memory for even the most lurid details of Penthouse's production. Combined with Guccione's neurotic record-keeping (he was a meticulously organised packrat) the Guccione legacy is writing itself. "We had all this raw stuff," Rick said, "and it all went through Jane's prism, and it came out the other end archived."
Rick and Jeremy each have their own rationales for investing in and closely participating in this undertaking. Of course, there's money to be made, but the Guccione Collection has become something of a personal cause for its owners, and the man himself their white whale in leather pants and a halfway buttoned shirt.
For Rick, who has forged his career in film out of an inherent fascination with other people's stories, the notion of unearthing a story like Bob Guccione's – the glamour, the secrecy, the impact, the milieu – and bringing it to a new generation is a compelling challenge. "I'm interested in Guccione," he told me, "but I'm more interested in the legacy." Rick has collaborated with director Barry Avrich on an upcoming documentary about Guccione's life, Filthy Gorgeous, and is developing a TV show about Jane's experiences as a young woman in the centre of an erotic empire.
Jeremy, on the other hand, has leapt into the archives headfirst. "We fully expect him to break out the medallions and the chest hair," Rick confided in me. This is partially because Guccione, with his eye for creative talent and larger-than-life paternal image, reminds Jeremy of his own dad, who passed away 12 years ago. "Exploring the Guccione world," Jeremy told me, "I've also looked back to my own life with my father."
When you immerse yourself so completely in someone else's life – when you touch their things, champion their legacy and work with the people they loved – it's difficult not to get attached. There are those who believe the objects left behind by the dead hold a certain residual power. That they speak. In any case, Jeremy has started to channel the Guccione ghost. And he's also part of the story now. The third act.
The Guccione Collection is bursting with titillating things – unpublished nude photographs of celebrities, strange cultural artefacts, opulent science-fiction illustrations and bonkers correspondence – but it's all ultimately meaningless as a cohesive story, or a brand, without its central character. Without Bob Guccione, or a robust mythos of the man, it's just stuff. Which is why it's so important, to Jeremy, to Rick, and above all to Jane, that the man take precedence above all else.
In life, Bob lacked a cohesive group of people around him to protect his interests. Infamously, he never left the house. He rarely graced the General Media offices, and insisted on creating his magazine layouts – and, often, the Penthouse shoots themselves – from a workroom at his estate or from the city house. He confided in few people. The net result is a general public misunderstanding of the man, borne from the disconnect between his public image and his very private life. As the stewards of his legacy, Jeremy and Rick see their multi-dimensional project as an opportunity to rectify the silence, to crack open Guccione's lifelong reclusiveness and monomania. Whether or not it's what he would have wanted for the afterlife, they believe in a Guccione renaissance. And whether or not it's what the world wants now, it's coming.
"In his death," Jeremy said, "I will surround him with people."
The super special September issue of VICE was exclusively culled from the archives of Bob Guccione Sr. – the legendary magazine publisher who built a media empire that started with Penthouse. Visit our magazine page to check out the Guccione Archives Issue.
For even more unpublished archival material, please visit The Guccione Collection website, which is devoted to illuminating all the varied corners of Bob's legacy and creating new content in the spirit of the Guccione empire.