Saturday, August 15, 2009

Magazine History: A Penthouse Editor in the 1960s

[Note: Bob Guccione obituary is here.]

The August 2009 UK edition of Esquire magazine features two noteworthy articles, each probably aimed at different audiences. The cover story is about cute Harry Potter film star Daniel Radcliffe, and later in the magazine is "A Star Is Porn," the unoriginally titled article by writer Lynn Barber recounting her years as an editor at the original Penthouse magazine in the UK in the 1960s. There's not much titillation in the article -- sorry, boys -- but for magazine geeks, it's a great behind-the-scenes look at how magazines start, growing from shoestring organizations to large staffs, big offices, expense accounts, and world fame.

People who are not in the magazine industry probably labor under the illusion that magazines are published by big companies in skyscrapers and run by normal corporate drones. Some are. But Playboy was started on Hugh Hefner's apartment table, Starlog began as a one-time publication by two publishers who paid the bills by winning at poker and holding private film screenings, and -- Barber tells us -- Penthouse began in a "a tiny terraced house on Ifield Road" in London.

The front room contained a dolly bird receptionist called Maureen and piles and piles of cardboard boxes -- these, I was to learn, were the Penteez Panties "erotic gifts" [the magazine sold to pay the bills in its early days] -- with another room housing the Penthouse Book Club at the back. Upstairs, the back bedroom was Bob [Guccione] and Kathy [Keeton]'s office, and the front was "editorial," a largish room containing the art director Joe Brooks and a very small cubbyhole containing [editor] Harry Fieldhouse.

Barber stumbled upon her job at Penthouse after interviewing the controversial Guccione, during which he off-handedly suggested she come to work for him. Soon, she did, and she became one of the first employees of that young magazine, seeing it through its early years in the UK and helping to launch its U.S. edition, which is where Guccione would really hit the jackpot (at one point amassing a fortune of about a half-billion dollars -- all of it would be frittered away and the company eventually sold in bankruptcy). Along the way, she did a little bit of everything:

I also had to attend some of the Pet shoots, not with Bob [Guccione], but with an American photographer called Philip O. Stearns. My duties at the shoots included putting music on the stereo, squirting scent round the room, and powdering the girls' bottoms. In between, I did The Times crossword.

Her Penthouse editorial duties would also include, at one time or another, begging local shops to let her borrow clothing items (or diving suits) for nude Pet photo shoots, editing sections of the magazine, and smuggling material into the United States to get it to the Milwaukee-based printers of the new American edition of Penthouse. This was definitely not a cubicle job.

Barber doesn't say it in the article, but it sounds like it was a lot of fun to be on the ground floor of a rapidly growing magazine, seeing it add staff, circulation, advertising, spinoffs, and more. She doesn't say how long she stayed at the job or why she left, but the magazine and Guccione would go on to huge success in the United States, spawning a magazine empire (including Omni, a science/science-fiction magazine that reached a circulation of more than a million in the early 1980s, before declining and being canceled in the mid-1990s), only to founder under the intense pressures of the internet and the religious right. Guccione pushed his flagship magazine into hardcore pornography for a few years, but that not only didn't save the title, it reportedly lost him a huge number of distribution outlets. The fact that he kept on with that approach, nonetheless, tells you something about his poor business sense.

When I was in high school in the 1980s, pretty much every boy read Playboy or Penthouse. Yes, even gay folkses like me read one or the other, because, I think, it was a way of getting to know what adults were talking about, what was really going on, what was really happening. (And, for the straight kids, the nekkid folks, of course.) But we Playboy readers thought the Penthouse readers were weird. That's probably because Penthouse itself was weird; almost every article was a conspiracy about some deal or another, and there was an unshakable devotion in that magazine to fetishes and oddities. Nonetheless, both magazines were a part of growing up for millions and millions of American boys, and if most of those readers read their copies because they featured scantily clad (or unclad) women and stories of (as-yet) unexperienced pleasures, they also were probably the first place most of those readers were exposed to the articles and ideas of William F. Buckley Jr., John Updike, and Ayn Rand, or where they actually read articles about politics. That's often used as sort of a punchline, but I think it's true, too.

Barber's article makes the August UK Esquire a must-read for anyone interested in the history of a once-powerful men's magazine, and it's a great look for all of us who are in the magazine industry at just how some magazines are launched and how they grow. None of it's "by the book," because there is no book.
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