Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitch: A personal memory from my 'Penthouse' years

Controversial journalist Christopher Hitchens has finally succumbed to cancer
of the esophagus. I will miss his work, but I still have more than half his
memoir to relish. And I have the memory of my one phone call to him.

Early in my editorial career, I was a managing editor working for a subsidiary of Penthouse magazine; I worked on three pubs, actually: Penthouse Letters and Penthouse Forum (I was a senior editor on both mastheads), and Penthouse Hot Talk (of which I was the managing editor).

We never had to trouble ourselves with the "dirty" stuff -- we simply ran the photographs that Penthouse, for whatever reason, had rejected. If you've ever seen Hot Talk (henceforth to be referred to as HT), you'd never imagine they were "rejects." Bob Guccione made the final selections, so I suppose that women who didn't conform with his opinion of beauty were thrown in the "recycle" pile.

General Media, the parent company of Penthouse and the special publications group of which I was part, owned and operated an eclectic batch of pubs, some of which were quite profitable, at least for a time, such as Omni. GM also owned a large portfolio of several automotive magazine titles.

A year or two before the millennium, things started going seriously wrong for GM, as several troubling trends began converging on Guccione's empire. Wildly unsuccessful investments that Guccione had made years earlier -- including what was to be the Penthouse Boardwalk Hotel and Casino, which in the late 1970s, due to financial and legal difficulties, was never completed and a casino license never issued (the company lost some $160 million -- where was Nucky when they needed him?), and there was also a (never-built) nuclear fusion power plant, yes, a (never-built) nuclear fusion power plant. These "investments" were a key part of the financial woes which were mounting and wreaking havoc on the company's books.

[Please bear with me; I will get to Hitch. As Quentin Tarantino wrote, and said, "It's not reaching the destination, it's the ride that counts," or something like that.]

Also fueling the company's problems was the erosion of Penthouse's readership base due to intense competition from other pubs, plus a new animal that had began pawing at the door --  the Internet. On top of that, some of GM's once-steady revenue generators, such as Omni and Longevity, were losing their juice with readers, probably due to cutbacks, and sales were seriously falling. Ad revenue is usually not far behind, and wasn't.
In mid-2003, GM threw in the towel and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In October 2003, Penthouse magazine was put up for sale as part of a deal with its creditors. On Nov. 13, 2004, Guccione resigned as Chairman and CEO of Penthouse International, the parent of General Media, at the request of, yes, I am not kidding, the U.K. Royal Family -- though why the Q of E would care about what an aging, broke American smut peddler did in Manhattan defies all logic, in my humble opinion. (Guccione was an American of Sicilian descent, although the magazine was founded in 1965 in the United Kingdom.Also worth noting: At the height of his success, Guccione was one of the richest men in the United States, listed in the Forbes 400 ranking of wealthiest people. An April 2002 New York Times article reported Guccione as saying that Penthouse grossed from $3.5 billion to $4 billion over the 30-year life of the company, with net income of almost half a billion dollars.)

Guccione did have friends, we should remember. When it began to look exceedingly possible that he might lose his magnificent Manhattan digs -- which New York magazine described as "one of the biggest private houses in Manhattan, with 30 rooms" and a mere $5 million a year to maintain it -- some hedge fund managers and other financiers rushed to Guccione's aid to try to save it, but ultimately, it was gone, reportedly sold for $49 million -- $10 million below asking price -- to Wall Street financier Philip Falcone, founder of Harbinger Capital and LightSquared.

With his home went most of his famous art collection, as well as his personal fortune.The worst blow of all had already hit Guccione, no stranger to grief. In 1997 his wife/long-time companion Kathy Keeton, 58, a native of South Africa, reportedly died of complications from surgery to remedy an obstruction in her digestive tract.

FriendFinder Network now owns Penthouse. Guccione died of cancer on Oct. 20, 2010, two months before his 80th birthday, at Plano Specialty Hospital in Texas. He had had lung cancer for some time, according to his second wife, April Dawn Warren Guccione, who was reportedly at his side when he died. There is much speculation that April was handpicked for Guccione -- by Kathy Keeton before she died.

Back before these woes, in the heady, early 1990s when I was managing Hot Talk, we put together a formula, the "we" being me and the VP/Editorial Director in charge of this group.

With the recycled pics, we also ran plenty of content written by our readers in the form of the Penthouse letter, as it is classically known. Penthouse Letters also was filled with recycled pics and letters, as was the digest-size Forum, which was once available in supermarkets across the land, until one brilliant marketer/editor put the word "penis" on the cover -- and overnight every single one of those supermarkets dropped the mag. The man responsible for this was also involved with the television quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Imagine how much revenue just ceased at once from flowing into the company's coffers.

Anyway HT also had the pics and letters, but we also wanted to be more Penthouse-like; we had to be careful not to compete with the flagship pub, Penthouse itself, so we basically differentiated HT by filling it with reprints of articles and a lot of original fiction (from some pretty well-known writers, I might add, such as John Shirley, Robert Silverberg and, almost, Harlan Ellison; I actually knew Harlan through my grandfather. We paid him a few thousand to run one of his pieces, but he hadn't known how "dirty" we were. The VP must've soft pedaled that part to the famous writer of science fiction. So, I gave him a break and buried the story -- which means he got paid thousands to write something that never ran. No one on the pub ever even noticed. And from Harlan, I didn't even get a "thanks."

So at the time, in search of content, I was reading every newspaper and magazine I could get my hands on in search of interesting articles to reprint. I also hired writers to belt out sexy fiction, and we'd run all that copy alongside lots of booty pics and readers' letters (and, yes, readers really do write the letters -- whether the events portrayed in them are fact or fiction I of course am not in a position to say).

The VP was an older man, a veteran of Playboy, which didn't hurt when Guccione hired him for the special pubs group, supposedly at a cocktail party. This was the first real boss I ever had, probably the most powerful corporate honcho I ever worked closely with. He was a drunk and a pill popper, which I wouldn't have minded so much save for the fact that he was a nasty drunk and pill popper. His nose was too big for his leathery face, and busted blood vessels made it as colorful as a road map. Despite this, he and I got along pretty well in the two years before he fired me.

He was a wealthy man, as well, not only due to his compensation but from the fortune his wife's family had passed down to them. Yep, this drunk married a wealthy lady, who was also a successful writer of romance novels. But despite the affluence, this VP was a hardcore liberal, and read The Nation every week (I was a lefty at the time as well, and I read The Nation after he finished with the week's copy).

Hitchens was a regular contributor back then; this was years before his "conversion" into a rightwinger. I read one of Hitchens's articles -- it was about Mother Theresa, of all people! Hitchens found she came up short; that something was amiss with this woman, who had been proposed for sainthood. The article was only the first volley from Hitch's cannon over the Mother's bow. He followed her the rest of his life.

"[Mother Theresa] was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions," he would write for Slate.com in 2003.

We wanted to run it -- it was controversial, buried in the little-read Nation, and I had written a great cover line that even put a smile on the VP's face (the cover line has faded from my memory, alas). But would Hitch sell us the rights to reprint it?

Hitchens lived in DC at the time. I dialed information and soon his slight British voice was vibrating in my ear. A short, punchy, honest discussion followed. I broke the ice by bringing up a symposium I had attended about the recently released film JFK at which Hitch had spoken, along with Oliver Stone and Norman Mailer. Eventually I went on to the article on Mother Teresa, expressing my desire to print it.

Now, back in those days, working for Hot Talk, there was always what I called the moment of truth, when I would have to confess the name of the pub I was calling from, as well as describe its contents, at which time I expected most writers to hang up. Many did. But for some reason, I didn't think Hitch would. The VP agreed; we had both believed that Hitch was more than a reporter, he was an advocate -- and wanted his words spread far and wide to influence as many readers as possible.

Turns out me and the VP had called it right. Hitch didn't hang up. Trying to feel him out, I bluntly asked how much he wanted to be paid to let us print it. He said, and I remember this quite clearly, words to the effect of "Ed, I won't haggle with you over price -- I trust you enough to pay me what you consider fair." And our conversation was over.

He signed the contracts we mailed him, and he returned them. We sent his check. (No email back then; no Internet, either, and while we had started using computers -- which served merely as word processors, we saved and transported stories on floppy disks -- we all still had typewriters, one in every office.) We ran the article.

And that was my brush with Hitch.

I have been reading him ever since, and am now reading the memoir he finished before he died, having written it while the cancer slowly, uselessly started the process of removing him from our world forever. I will miss him, but unlike most, I have a small, revealing memory of him, one that puts a smile on my face, though he probably forgot about me a cool minute after the check cleared, if not after the phone call had ended.

One of the final homes for his unique brand of journalism was The Huffington Post, which is running an interesting story and video about him on the site now.

"Less than two years after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, the fiery polemicist and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens died last night, at 62," reports the huffingtonpost.com
.
"His dominance in the age of the internet leaves us with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of in memoriams -- there's Hitchens on "Politically Incorrect," calling Mos Def "Mr. Definitely" as they spar over the ethics of nuclear armament, Hitchens"improving" Joe Scarborough as a host, Hitchens as a natural on "The Daily Show" and a regular on Fox, a Hitch-centric talk beamed to his bedside at the first sign the end could be near, led by Stephen Fry, Sean Pean, Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Buckley, Martin Amis, and the rest of the elite crowd he included among his closest friends, Hitchens drinking while discussing Youtube, Hitchens smoking while discrediting Mother Teresa [See? You thought I was lying about it, I bet!], Hitchens sick and Hitchens well. There is also of course the work Hitchens called "most important" in his life, to the point of nursing cancer-forming habits to support it -- his brilliant, iconoclastic writing, for Vanity FairSlate, and even the Huffington Post.

"It's a bountiful harvest to sort through, even excepting his two dozen books, and we recommend the publisher's trailer below for Hitchens' 2010 memoir "Hitch 22" as a useful grounding point -- a compilation of 22 Hitchens moments that, like all of Hitchens' so-called "moments", represent his life's work and philosophy in miniature. What's remarkable about the long-ranging montage is the consistency of spirit on display since Hitchens' time as a precocious newcomer with less girth and more hair. It appears his devotion to his own high standards did indeed last, as he predicted it would then, "til' he dropped."

WATCH VIDEO: Christopher Hitchens: Remembering Him

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