Diane Meier

Diane Meier

Welcome to Diane’s Blog!

I’ll use this spot to chart what I enjoy and endorse, as we attempt to live a life of style in a culture of business and writing and art. And I hope you join me; share your own stories, insights and ideas about living a creatively expressive life.

My Dinner At Bob Guccione’s

Monday, November 01, 2010

Bob Guccione’s death might not seem like the most likely topic on which I might alight. But nearly thirty years ago, I shared a meal with Guccione and his wife and co-publisher, Kathy Keeton, at their townhouse on East 67th Street. His death last week brought that memory so vividly back to me, and with it came a few things to consider.

While the worlds of magazine publishing and advertising are much aligned for me, I had few reasons to be hobnobbing with the publishers of centerfold magazines on behalf of clients or the agency. But through friends in Los Angeles, I came to know the family of Frederic Mullally – the wacky, witty creator of Oh Wicked Wanda, Penthouse’s answer to Playboy’s adult comic-strip, Little Annie Fannie.

While Annie was less a libertine than a loopy, good-natured victim, Wanda was always in command. Her whip and her whims struck images of the powerful and mighty, from Kissinger and Nixon to Teddy Kennedy, Mohammad Ali and Frank Sinatra. It might be said that Annie’s positioning defined misogynistic humor, aspiring to nothing more, while Freddy Mullally, a British journalist and novelist of proven wit and intellect, fully intended to poke fun at the political and corporate empire of the United States; and used, with great style, a sexy dominatrix hell-bent on world domination, as his barb.

And so it came to be, as they used to say in bible stories, that Mr. Mullally, from his home in Gibraltar, and a team of producers in Hollywood, wanted to create a movie based on Wanda. It made sense in the moment of Myra Breckenridge and Superman. It might even make sense today.

At their request, I found Freddy an entertainment lawyer in New York, the marvelous (and now much missed), Michael Collyer. And because there was no representative of the family in New York, the Mullallys asked me to tag along with Michael to a few meetings, and to report back to their side of the table. I was only too happy to get an insider’s look at the goings-on behind the scenes of movie politics. Getting Mr. Guccione’s permissions on ownership of Wanda was only part of the tasks at hand. But Bob Guccione wanted to do this in person, and off we toddled to one of the great homes in New York. This was the neighborhood in which I’d grown up, but I had no idea that there were houses sheltering grotto-like swimming pools, plunge-perfect, off their entrance foyers. Needless to say, Madison Avenue poodles notwithstanding, I had no idea that there were homes filled with Pets, either.

On the evening we were summoned to chez Guccione, a magazine event was just breaking up, and the pool, garden and staircase were lavishly draped with said Penthouse Pets wearing togas of a translucent sleeze that reminded me of the sheer under-curtains in motels. While their nearly undressed breasts were much in evidence, they wore pantyhose with reinforced toes and tacky, high-heeled sandals. It was almost too much to take in. In this glorious home, with a pool designed for a Roman emperor, there was a chorus line of girls, decked-out like participants of a Halloween party in a trailer park. I must have looked shocked, and Michael took my arm, protectively, as though I were an innocent child or an old auntie.

I created ads for Revlon, Arden, Pierre Balmain and Maximilian. I came from a world that dressed models in designer clothes and Harry Winston diamonds. From the tops of their heads to the soles of their shoes, we wouldn’t have presumed to show our public anything that wasn’t polished to perfection. For me, this display of Pets was far more shocking for the choices and details of hair, makeup and apparel, than the fact that the Pets appeared to be offering themselves as gift-with-purchase to advertisers and vendors. I could hardly speak; and it occurs to me now that Michael must have thought I was stunned by the sexual display of the Penthouse Pets, not their choices of hairspray, metallic shoes or the synthetic fiber of their togas. But feminist or not, sheltered little Upper East Side girl or otherwise, it was the lack of discernment, not the lack of decorum that got to me.

Kathy Keeton greeted us. Dressed like the Pets in a nylon toga, her hair was braided down one side of her head, with bobbie-pins visible at the ear. Her skin was coarse and she wore bright blue eye-shadow, which no one I knew had worn for more than a decade. But at her gracious and slightly accented welcome, we followed her like children up the curve of the staircase to Bob’s study, where she deposited us with her husband, and left to change her clothes.

Bob Guccione was small. His hips and waist seemed narrow as a girl’s, his shirt, cut to display that feature, was open deep at the throat. He wore boots with high heels and pants that were tight at the thigh. His jewelry glittered from hand and wrist, and nestled in the hair on his chest. If Dorothy, in Oz, was overheard to say, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas,” I was not far behind.

But the study was lovely and tasteful. The reception room at the top of the stairs was hung with important paintings, and while I can’t recall the details of the dining room or the meal, I remember clearly that while Guccione displayed precious little humor, he was soft-spoken with exceptionally good manners. Kathy Keeton, now wearing a terrycloth tracksuit, offered to show me their art collection. Each treasure was noted with a little plaque on the frame, as in a museum, on which the name of the artist and the title of the work were engraved. While homes with important art were not new to me, I’d never seen these little tags used in a domestic setting. As we went around the room, and though I thought it was clear that I knew exactly what I was looking at, Kathy pronounced the name of each artist and said something like, “This is a Modigliani. It’s worth sixty-four thousand dollars”. My tour was conducted like a display of assets set for an accountant. And for years after, I would note, as some story about the sale or theft of an Impressionist or Modernist painting would be written up in the Times or the Journal, that this or that artist had appreciated nicely since my dinner at the Guccione’s.

The irony of a card-carrying-feminist, touring the home of the creator of Penthouse, was not lost on me; and many of my friends hooted with the story of the tacky girls in their nylon-curtain togas. But I’ve had nearly thirty years to think about it all, and there are some things to consider, especially now, as we reflect on the death of the man who made that night possible. If he’d worn a tweed jacket and soft gray flannels, or looked like a Harvard-educated cowboy, in jeans and a roll-necked sweater; if he’d been Savilled Rowed or even Ralph Laurened, we might have taken him more seriously. As it was, the American literati flocked to the pipe-smoking, jazz-loving Hugh Hefner, like Lost Boys gathered around Peter Pan. Their good words taught us to respect Hef and his fight for sexual freedom and First Amendment rights, if not his taste in girl-next-door centerfolds. Our literary heroes made Hefner a reasonable hero too, and it became more difficult for feminists, who were on the same side of the line on civil and reproductive rights, to grouse too loudly when it came to the objectifying images of women we saw in the pages of Playboy.

Guccione, in contrast, looked like a pool hustler from New Jersey. We didn’t imagine him sitting around chewing the fat with Saul Bellow. It was easier to think of him as a pornographer. His women were darker, more sultry, and frankly, more openly sexual. But Guccione made Kathy Keeton a true partner in life and work. She was one of the first woman publishers of a major magazine – Viva, a glossy, gorgeous, well-produced erotic magazine for women, that brought the likes of Helmut Newton to our attention, and Omni, a brilliant science magazine supporting world class science-fiction and some of the most lucid and intelligent interviews with twentieth century scientists published anywhere, should go down in history as major milestones in recognizing the mining of niche audiences, and the value of quality in print.

For a number of years, I worked out of an office just north of the Fashion District, on Times Square. As I would run errands at lunch, or leave work in the evening, I passed men who looked much like the men I worked with and for, going in and out of the peep shows and porn movies that spilled onto the streets of my working neighborhood. I wondered, with this narrow but potent presentation of sexualized and often degraded women so very apparent, how my chances of advancement or professional respect might be affected, given that my fate was often in the hands of these very men. I think I may have had a more extreme view of the visual presence of pornography in every day life, but I don’t believe it presented a very slanted look at the culture. And where does pornography end, and good, level judgment begin? And why do I miss the old, familiar sleaze and possibility of Times Square ever so slightly more than I embrace the glossy, light-filled, Ginza commercialization?

It’s difficult for a feminist to admit, but it is clear, at least in retrospect, that Bob Guccione was not the enemy of change. He promoted women, listened to women, supported them in work and deed. His life-partner was a grown up, close to his age, with a head for business; not a bubble headed Playmate younger than his children. And if we look at the difference between Little Annie Fannie and Wicked Wanda, we see the ocean of difference between Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione. And it isn’t in Hef’s favor.

I looked forward to Wanda arriving with each issue, but I didn’t really know why, and I was careful to whom I admitted it. The failures of the Second Wave Feminist Movement are legend. I know. I feel it every day. But right up there with our failure to recognize and mobilize our numbers as a consumer force of change; and our failure to deal with childcare as a cultural and societal issue, rather than an individual ‘problem’; and our failure as we identified “all good” as the things labeled masculine, and “all bad” as the things we identified as domestic, is our failure to grapple with the nature of erotic sexuality at all. In a world where biology is too often destiny, where violence toward women is expressed in rape at every level of class and culture, where even in the most civilized environments, the fact of casual or overt sexual harassment is accepted, or worse, unseen; it is very easy to see how sexuality itself can be demonized. But our generation of feminists did not do ourselves proud in our response to the erotic. We acted, for the most part, like spinsters, pursing our lips at the price of the naughty turn-on.

Guccione tried, I think, to be honest and more even-handed. Not, perhaps with the Pets, although I’m not sure I don’t want to go back and reconsider even that -- but with the totality of his work, the material of his magazines. There was, I think, an attempt to present the erotic point of view as more complex, more sophisticated and challenging than what we saw in Playboy or even the commercial pornography of films like Deep Throat. Even as a young woman, I found Playboy confounding; all those happy cheerleader types watering their plants and doing their dishes in the nude, didn’t connect with my idea of eros. Playboy’s images were so scrubbed, suburban and adolescent; they seemed all the more disrespectful for their insistence on the naïve and the simple.

I wanted glamour and romantic danger, I suppose, but most of all, I longed to see a reflection of the intellectual and psychological minefield I was just beginning to recognize within the erotic atmosphere of my own imagination. The provocative and shocking images of Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, laced as they were, with the spice of fetishism, sexual violence, androgyny and sado-masochism, played with the ideas of power and entitlement that had become the inner arguments of life, playing on a track inside my head during all waking hours. The sexual aggression of those images matched a temperament of professional aggression women were finding more acceptable, if not more available. And the fact that Newton and Bourdin were also wading through waters that sprang from the artificiality of image, was not lost on me. I spent my life creating ads for lipstick. How personally powerful to see the bright and shining mouth, red beyond life, glossed to a patented slickness, and used to mask, and unmask, the hunter and the hunted.

There were other photographers in the pool, but none of them was as powerful. The watery, girly erotica of Sara Moone and David Hamilton was far too tame for me. The opium-laced-dreams of Deborah Turberville were beautiful and fashionable, but not, at least to my eye, truly erotic. I might choose to use them for Balmain, but I was hoping to show the languid quality of a life spent waiting in luxury for something – anything - to happen, not the active power of forcing the issue. If Turberville and Bourdin and Newton went on to Vogue and Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue, so did my career. But my tastes and my temperament were honed by a magazine I wasn’t even aware of reading. I’d never have noted Penthouse or even Viva as an influence on my taste, my psyche or my work. But I’d have been wrong.

Years later, when Helmut Newton and I tried to find a way to work together on a campaign that would have taken us to danger zones all over the world, and he was felled by yet another heart attack, we both talked about our regret. Mine was greater. Of that I’m sure. I didn’t acknowledge Guccione then, I thought I’d always wanted to work with Helmut Newton. But the truth was, I might never have even seen his work, had it not been for Guccione’s sponsorship.

And back to my dinner at Bob’s. Freddy Mullally was paid to deliver Wanda to Bob Guccione in all her ambition, authority and overtly unapologetic, sexual style. And even though I know she was a cartoon, created by men, I wish she were here to talk to us today. I’ll bet she’d have something potent to say about where we’ve been less than effective, and how to begin to make it right. I think she might tell me to start by acknowledging a man it was too easy to dismiss. And I wonder if she might behave, in her sixties and seventies, in willful, courageous and powerful ways that could light the way for me, if not my generation. Something tells me she’d not have mellowed a bit.

Be careful what you wish for, my Nana used to say. And somewhere in the stratosphere, as we try to make sense of all kinds of gifts we should have acknowledged long ago, I can hear Wanda’s whip

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