American Smut
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 9/18/13
7 TOPICS / 8 CONNECTIONS

Porn: It’s as American as unwed moms and fast-food apple pie. Although most self-abusers now seek release online, it was skin mags like Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler and Screw that turned spanking the monkey into a national pastime. This map takes a full-frontal peek at the original porn moguls, the fortunes they made (and sometimes lost) and the sticky situations they occasionally got themselves into.

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1
Bob Guccione  (1930–2010 | American smut mogul)
to  Playboy  (adult magazine | founded 1953)

Bob Guccione’s Penthouse (which debuted in Britain in 1965 and was distributed in the U.S. beginning in 1969) aped Playboy’s formula but upped the older magazine’s ante. While Playboy’s photos of its Playmates hewed to soft-core standards (no genitalia), Penthouse ventured into harder-core territory, displaying its Pets’ pubes—though usually in soft-focus shots that became the magazine’s signature. And while Playboy sought intellectual respectability through its interviews and literary fiction, Penthouse tweaked establishment noses with hard-hitting investigative reporting. (Muckraking journalist Seymour Hersh was one contributor.) Like Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, Guccione wasn’t above winning attention by publishing unauthorized pictures of undressed female celebrities—most notoriously in 1984, when Penthouse’s naughty photo spread of then–Miss America Vanessa Williams caused an uproar that forced Williams to doff her beauty-queen crown. But Guccione proved far better at losing money than Hefner, courting expensive lawsuits and investing in a variety of chancy projects that included other publications (e.g., the innovative but doomed sci-fi glossy Omni); an Atlantic City hotel-casino that was never completed; and the megaflop 1979 film Caligula (directed by Tinto Brass, though Guccione shot some of it himself), an explicitly orgiastic swords-and-sandals epic that turned critics and audiences off.

2
Playboy  (adult magazine | founded 1953)
to  Playgirl  (adult magazine | founded 1973)

Do heterosexual women like beefcake as much as heterosexual men like cheesecake? The suspicion that they might led to the founding—during the heyday of the women’s liberation movement—of Playgirl magazine. Playgirl’s uneven history (it suspended print publication in 2009–2010) and the fact that an estimated 30 to 50 percent of its readers are gay men may cast some doubt on this premise. Playgirl wasn’t the first women’s magazine to print nudie pics of hunky dudes—that ground was plowed by Cosmopolitan, which published a centerfold spread of unclad actor Burt Reynolds in 1972. But Playgirl was the first to model itself on spunk rags like Playboy (which took brief issue with the allusive name, filing but then dropping a trademark-infringement suit) and Penthouse (whose publisher, Bob Guccione, created the short-lived Playgirl competitor Viva). Like Playboy and Penthouse, Playgirl has periodically attempted to boost circulation with shots of birthday-suited celebs: In 1990 it reportedly offered Britain’s Prince Charles $450,000 to appear in a centerfold (huh?), and it set the blogosphere abuzz in 2010, when the first issue of its resurrected print edition featured Bristol Palin’s fiancé-cum-baby-daddy, Levi Johnston, in the buff. (Levi’s johnson, however, was not on view.)

3
Screw  (adult magazine | founded 1968)
to  Playboy  (adult magazine | founded 1953)

Playboy, founded in Chicago in 1953, gave purring voice to the id of middle-class America; Screw magazine, founded on New York City’s Lower East Side in the countercultural climate of 1968, uttered an orgasmic oink. Although Playboy got dirtier over the decades—reflecting liberalizing mores but also, ahem, stiffening competition from other, more explicit stroke books like Penthouse and Hustler—Hugh Hefner’s magazine long strove to maintain a certain level of “tastefulness.” Screw’s publisher, Al Goldstein (b. 1936), knew no such scruples, and the magazine was a raunchfest from the first issue. (Screw’s vetting of the New York sex underground made it an essential guidebook for alley cats on the prowl.) The vast difference in style between the two publisher-editors was on prominent display in the TV shows they created and hosted. Playboy’s Penthouse (1959–1961) and Playboy After Dark (1969–1970), both distributed through syndication, featured a svelte, pipe-smoking, tuxedo-clad Hef interviewing guests and introducing top-shelf performers in a soigné house-party setting. Goldstein’s Midnight Blue, which ran on NYC public-access cable (1975–2002), was a low-rent talk show whose big-bellied, cigar-chomping host, wearing T-shirts and bling, did most of the yapping.

4
The People vs. Larry Flynt  (Miloš Forman (dir.) | film | 1996)
to  Screw  (adult magazine | founded 1968)

The People vs. Larry Flynt—starring Woody Harrelson as Flynt, Courtney Love as his wife and Edward Norton as his indefatigable lawyer—focuses on several legal battles that Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, fought in the 1970s and ’80s. In the movie, those cases culminate in Flynt’s 1988 Supreme Court victory over conservative Christian evangelist Jerry Falwell (portrayed by Richard Paul). The Court unanimously overturned a lower court judgment awarding Falwell $200,000 in damages for the “intentional infliction of emotional distress”—distress resulting, Falwell claimed, from a fake Campari liqueur advertisement published in Hustler, which purported to quote him talking about his first sexual experience. (It involved his mother, the ad said, and took place in an outhouse.) A landmark of First Amendment law, the Hustler Magazine v. Falwell decision essentially prohibits public figures from suing those who parody them. It’s a shame this law wasn’t in place in 1977, when another nationally prominent right-wing bigot, Alabama governor George Wallace, sued Al Goldstein’s Screw over a piece facetiously quoting Wallace as saying he’d learned everything he knew about sex from reading Screw. Although that case never went to court, Screw ponied up $12,500 and printed an apology.

5
Hugh Hefner  (b. 1926 | American smut mogul)
to  The People vs. Larry Flynt  (Miloš Forman (dir.) | film | 1996)

Are Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and Hustler’s Larry Flynt laudable libertarians advancing civil freedoms or damnable libertines rotting the fabric of American life? Charles H. Keating Jr., conservative banker and real estate developer, famously took the latter view. Keating’s pious anti-pornography organization Citizens for Decent Literature began railing in the 1950s against Playboy’s threats to American society—which Keating compared to those presented by communism—and Keating masterminded Flynt’s 1976 trial, in Cincinnati, on charges of pandering obscenity and engaging in organized crime. Flynt was convicted, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. It later turned out that Keating, whose anti-smut crusades are highlighted in Brigitte Berman’s 2009 documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel as well as in The People vs. Larry Flynt (in which he is portrayed by actor James Cromwell), was himself a threat to society. As chairman of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which went belly-up in 1989, Keating was a central villain in the savings and loan scandal that ultimately cost American taxpayers something on the order of $125 billion. Convicted in federal courts on numerous counts of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy, Keating went to jail—though his own convictions were later overturned.

6
Hugh Hefner  (b. 1926 | American smut mogul)
to  Playboy  (adult magazine | founded 1953)

You may think him the devil, but it’s hard not to grant this devil his due. Hugh Marston Hefner—“Hef” to his many friends and innumerable hangers-on—is an American wizard. A descendant of William Bradford, the Puritan governor of the Plymouth Colony who officiated at the first Thanksgiving, Hefner set himself the goal of liberating Americans (well, American men) from puritanical bonds, and many thankfully offered up their semen and simoleons in return. Playboy’s inaugural issue, published in December 1953, demonstrated Hefner’s genius for making a splash: When he learned the rights were available to a nude calendar pic Marilyn Monroe had posed for a few years earlier—when she’d been unknown and broke—he bought and published the photo, naming Monroe Playboy’s first Sweetheart of the Month. (The designation was changed to Playmate of the Month in the second issue, in which Playboy’s bow-tied bunny logo also first appeared.) In ensuing decades, Hefner created an adult-entertainment empire, including TV programs and networks, radio shows, a chain of private Playboy Clubs and a host of online ventures. More important, Hef fashioned himself into his brand’s mascot, a pajama-clad roué living a life most men can only wet-dream of.

7
Hugh Hefner  (b. 1926 | American smut mogul)
to  Bob Guccione  (1930–2010 | American smut mogul)

Bob Guccione, like Hugh Hefner before him, dabbled at other jobs before deciding to create a “gentleman’s” magazine. For Guccione, that move occurred in 1965, when he, an American living in London, borrowed a little cash to start Penthouse. Hefner had likewise borrowed money (including $1,000 from his mother) for Playboy, and both men did whatever it took to get their first issues into print on a G-string budget: Hefner designing the layouts in his living room, Guccione taking Penthouse’s pictures himself. Both Playboy and Penthouse were immediate successes and made their publishers very wealthy men, able to afford fabulous digs (Hefner’s Playboy Mansions in Chicago and, later, Los Angeles; Guccione’s double town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side) and to indulge pricey hobbies (Hefner’s all-night parties and strings of girlfriends; Guccione’s world-class art collection). Perhaps most surprising, both were talented amateur cartoonists. But while Hefner’s media empire sometimes wobbled, Guccione’s crashed and burned during the decade preceding his death. And though Hefner has been married twice, neither wife was the kind of partner Guccione found in Kathy Keeton (1939–1997), who was both his longtime companion (they married in 1988) and trusted executive of his company, General Media.

8
Hugh Hefner  (b. 1926 | American smut mogul)
to  The Girls Next Door  (TV show | 2005–2010)

Playboy’s erotic ideal has always been “the girl next door”—in Hefner’s conception, a naive and guileless (not to mention leggy and chesty) young lady, often (though not always) blonde, who sets aside her dolls in favor of more adult pastimes. Besides displaying them in centerfolds, Hefner has surrounded himself with such confections in his not-so-private life, which became even less private thanks to the E! network reality series The Girls Next Door (2005–2010). The show was created by Hefner and producer Kevin Burns and starred Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson, with whom Hef was shacked up when the series launched. This trio has since been replaced in Hef’s bed and board, but you can—if you can bear it—follow the girls’ subsequent adventures in several spin-offs. For a differently excruciating take on the life of a Hefner protégée, try Bob Fosse’s 1983 film Star 80, which tells the tale of Playboy’s 1980 Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten (played by Mariel Hemingway), who was shot to death by her estranged husband-manager Paul Snider. Eric Roberts amps up the creepiness in his portrayal of psychopathic Snider—incidentally, a cofounder of the Chippendales male strip clubs.