North Country Girl: Chapter 61 — The Flying Fake Penthouse Pet

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chaptersin her serialized memoir.

Some names have been changed.

I had landed my first job in New York: secretary to Kathy Keeton, publisher of on-the-skids Viva magazine, sister publication to the notorious and extremely successful Penthouse. Viva was one of my favorite magazines, and my salary was enough keep the wolf from the door of the Lilliputian Chelsea apartment I shared with my artist boyfriend, Michael.

There was one catch. According to managing editor Bernie Exeter, who had hired me, if I wanted to keep my job I had to sleep with him. Under this threatening black cloud, I was reduced to a wreck of a secretary, concentrating mostly on avoiding Bernie. Thankfully my responsibilities did not go much beyond answering the phone, making cups of tea, and fetching cigarettes for Miss Keeton.

Before my first wretched week at Viva was out, Debby Dichter, the assistant managing editor, who was friendlier to me than anyone else, popped into my cubicle with her usual mass of papers and an “I’ve got a secret” smirk.

“Don’t say anything to anyone else but Bernie’s been fired. I’m the new managing editor.” I swallowed and breathed and croaked out something between a “What?” and a “How?”

“Stephanie Coombs, the editorial assistant, you’ve met her, she’s young and blonde, like you. Bernie told her if she didn’t sleep with him he’d get her fired.” Debby’s eyes widened at such villainy. “Ugh, I mean can you imagine. Stephanie laughed at him and went right in to see Kathy.”

I now remembered: Stephanie had showed up unannounced the day before, saying “Sorry, Miss Keeton. It’s important. Can I shut the door?”

Debby continued, thrilled with her juicy tidbit. “Stephanie told Kathy what Bernie said to her. So Bernie’s fired and Stephanie’s new title is assistant editor.”

My relief was a physical lightening, as if I had been carrying around an incubus who suddenly pulled his teeth from my neck and flew away. Then I was furious, mostly at myself. Could it have been that simple? Did I just miss out on a promotion from secretary into the vacant editorial assistant slot? It was too late now. I couldn’t raise my hand and wail, “Me too, Miss Keeton, me too!”

It took a few hours for my mind to process the most important lesson: It wasn’t my fault. Whatever sick, misbegotten idea I had that when men acted like assholes it was because of something I said or did or how I looked, even as an eight-year-old being molested in Goldfine’s toy department, was wrong. It wasn’t me. It was them. Evil Bernie thought he had the power to bully young blondes into sex until one of them laughed in his face and busted him.

The waves of emotions had wiped me out by the time I got home. I just wanted to sit on our tiny orange couch in our sloping apartment and have Michael hold me. “Is everything okay?” he asked. “You’ve been so strange. Do you hate the job? You can quit. Well, maybe you could find another job and then quit…”

“I’m fine,” I said and made him stop talking with a kiss.

I was fine. I liked Miss Keeton, even if I felt like a combination zookeeper and handmaiden to this glamorous creature from another world. I was slightly in awe of the editorial staff, some of whom treated me like the secretary I was, some of whom acted as if I might be their equal, and one of whom, Debby Dichter, now elevated to the even more frantic managing editor position, seemed to want to be my friend. Debby knew everything that was going on not only at Viva but also at Penthouse magazine; she and her Penthouse counterpart spent hours commiserating on the inability of anyone to ever get anything in on deadline.

Bottle of Frangelico
Frangelico. (Wikimedia Commons)

Debby made Chinese food for Michael and me in her Upper East Side studio; over sesame noodles she dished about the magazine. Debby was not as confident as Bernie Exeter had been about Viva’s future.

“Just look,” she said, opening the current issue. “Other than the cigarettes, there are no paid ads! This,” pointing to an ad for Frangelico liqueur, “was free ‘cause they bought an ad in Penthouse. I have to keep pages and pages of Viva open every month, in case a miracle happens and someone sells an ad. That’s why there’s this,” she said, stabbing a photo of a pouting, bare-breasted woman in a big straw hat and pearls, a full-page ad promoting Penthouse magazine. “And this,” turning to an ad for Penthouse Forum, a Reader’s Digest-sized magazine for material too filthy for Penthouse itself. “Otherwise we’d be running blank pages every month.” Debby closed the magazine in disgust. “Viva could have recipes for apple pie and articles on the joys of motherhood, and we’d still be the penis magazine; we’re losing millions of dollars every year. You’ll be okay, you’re Kathy’s secretary.” I flinched. “But the rest of us?”

As managing editor, Debby was a professional worrier. But Viva was only kept alive because of the cascade of cash generated by Penthouse.

Money poured in faster than it could be spent. Bob bought a museum’s worth of art to fill The House (we were never allowed to call it a mansion, even though it was the largest private residence in Manhattan; mansion smacked too much of the Playboy universe); Miss Keeton bought jewelry and a trio of enormous, hideous, pedigreed Rhodesian Ridgebacks that were prone to attack guests to The House and could only be controlled on their walks to Central Park by Guccione’s mobbed up chauffeur, Guy.

A Rhodesian Ridgeback
Rhodesian Ridgeback. (Wikimedia Commons)

Even though neither Bob nor Kathy ever showed any interest in automobiles unless they were Penthouse advertisers (a tiny contingent of Asian car manufacturers), Penthouse also sponsored a Formula One race car, driven by the International Motorsports Hall of Famer, Stirling Moss.

Photo of Stirling Moss disembarking a plane.
Stirling Moss (Wikimedia Commons)

One Friday, a few weeks after my escape from the lustful, lubricious Bernie Exeter, Miss Keeton called me into her office.

“Gay, I need you to work on Sunday.”

“Yes Miss Keeton.” I didn’t mind. I was even a bit excited. I imagined that working on Sunday meant that I would finally get to see the inside of The Guccione House (if I didn’t get my throat ripped out by Ridgebacks) and its fabled masterpieces, including, according to Debby Dichter, a Picasso hanging above the basement swimming pool.

“Guy will pick you up, very early I’m afraid, to get you to the airport on time.”

Wait, what? “Yes, ah Miss Keeton?”

She waved a hand at me, her version of “Shut up.”

“Wear that…that ‘outfit’ you had on the first day.” She was alluding to the fatal Kenzo tunic and harem pants I wore when I met Bernie Exeter, an outfit that laid crumpled on my closet floor, a painful reminder of my stupidity. “And,” here Kathy wrinkled her elegant nose as she looked down it at my ankle boots, “Nice shoes. Something with a heel.” Kathy, who never had to race down subway stairs to catch a train, lived in strappy, glittery stilettos.

I was mystified, stunned into silence. Kathy sighed, and deigned to explain.

“Shonna Lynne is sick. Well, she claims she’s sick. You’re going to take her place.” Shonna Lynne, who went on to star in I Need 2 Black Men and Deep Throat Girls 11 was April’s Pet of the Month; she had two large assets I did not. Kathy seemed to have the same thought and her eyes briefly rested on my chest. She said, “You’ll be fine, that other blonde girl is going too,” and I was dismissed.

I was going to be a Fake Pet. Shonna Lynne and a dozen other real Pets were kept around to pretty up The House, promote Penthouse, and amuse (in many ways) advertisers. These girls, despite their sultry, wide open photos in the magazine, always started off eager to please; they still believed that they had just gotten their first big break and did everything they were told, sweet obedient puppies.

As the months passed, and Hollywood kept refusing to call, sadder but wiser Pets would clue the newbies in that their real future was not on the big screen, but on the small stage at strip joints, where they could earn $1,000 a night. Once the Pets were raking in the dough, when their presence was requested at a trade show or dinner with a potential advertiser, Shonna and her ilk were no longer available. One would think that being a Pet meant having sixteen near-fatal periods a year, a stomach highly susceptive to food poisoning, and at least eight deathly-ill grandmas.

I had not realized that posing as a Penthouse Pet was part of my job description; I can’t imagine that the sullen brunette I replaced as Miss Keeton’s secretary was ever asked to don the “Penthouse Pet” sash Cy Preston, Penthouse’s PR guy, handed to me as I scrambled into the limo at six in the morning on that freezing cold, pouring rainy Sunday.

Along with the gnomish Cy, who I knew from his weekly meetings with Kathy on the “Viva Problem,” there were six girls, all as gloomy as the weather; one of them, a blonde with a chest as unimpressive as my own, I recognized; she worked in the opposite end of the office from me.

“Mr. Preston,” I ventured. “Where are we going?”

“The race,” he answered, then realized that Kathy had told me nothing. “Elmira. Watkins Glen.” I blinked blankly. “Stirling Moss. Formula One. We’re hosting a big party, flew a bunch of advertisers and circulation guys up there yesterday, all you have to do is walk around, look pretty, act nice. And if you don’t get too drunk, you might get to wave a flag, but we’re counting on Vicki.” Here Cy waved at a dozing redhead; she was Penthouse royalty, The Pet of the Year, Vicki Johnson.

Race cars on a track.
Watkins Glen. (Pstark1 / Wikimedia Commons)

I had only a rudimentary grasp of New York geography, but I knew, as I looked out the limo’s dark tinted windows through the now Noah’s Ark level downpour, that we were leaving Manhattan, headed for New Jersey. The other girls in the car were asleep, with the exception of the sullen blonde from the office who was smoking a cigarette as if she hated it. I was about to introduce myself, when she scowled at me through the menthol smoke.

We pulled into a small airfield, the limo drove right up to a plane, and Cy Preston escorted us one by one on board, shielding our (well, everyone else’s) elaborately styled hairdos and carefully applied cosmetics under his umbrella. We took off, headed north into even more rain, and within the hour, descended through the dark grey clouds to an even smaller airfield, where we were decanted into a pair of Lincolns under a monsoon that flattened everyone’s hair and washed away the layers of makeup and turned Cy’s umbrella inside out.

“It looks like you girls will have time to get pretty again,” said Cy, looking out ahead at an endless queue of motionless cars; we were as deadlocked as any traffic jam in Lagos or New Delhi. In the time it took to drive half a mile, we girls could have gone through a dozen different wardrobe changes. Cy kept looking at his watch, rolling down the window to stick his head out, to the shrieks of those of us getting soaked in the back seat, and muttering to himself.

I don’t know why the Pets weren’t brought in the night before; money could not have been an issue. But now, despite the blast of chilly air every time he opened the window, Cy Preston was sweating bullets. At this rate, we’d be lucky to make it to the track in time for Vicki to wave the checkered flag signaling the end of the race.

“I gotta get to a phone,” Cy instructed the driver, who pulled out of the endless line of traffic and into a gas station. Fifteen minutes passed before Cy reappeared, drenched to the skin.

“You know where the high school is?” Cy asked the driver, who nodded and headed back the way we had come, followed by the second car. We ended up by the school’s football field, in the parking lot behind the bleachers. Everyone but me smoked as we waited for something.

This is where I cue “Ride of the Valkyries” in my inner movie, accompanied by a “whump whump whump,” first barely heard over the pitchfork rain that became louder and louder, until from out of the leaden sky onto the football field descended an Army helicopter. Cy had called in the troops.

Army helicopter in flight.
Army helicopter. (Pixabay)

Out of the helicopter jumped a man in uniform and helmet, who dashed over to our car, crouching close to the ground. Cy rolled down the window. “Mr. Preston?” the soldier asked, while getting a good look at the Pets huddled in the back seat. “We’ll get you to Watkins Glen in a jiffy. Now y’all gotta be real careful when you run to the copter, hunch over so the blades don’t hit ya.”

With this encouragement, I followed Cy out of the car and immediately sunk up to my ankles in mud, my high heels vanishing beneath the sodden grass. I leaned on a thrilled soldier to extricate my feet from the mire, took off my ruined shoes, and ran barefoot to the helicopter.

When we were all on board, the pilot turned around with a mile-wide grin and said, “Wowee, who’s gonna believe this!” as excited with his cargo of Pets as if we were bare-assed naked.

The Army was all it could be. We flew over that unmoving, endless line of cars and within minutes set down in the relatively dry center of the racetrack. Cy shook hands with the pilots, crowed “Pet of the Year, guys!” and made Vicki kiss them, which she did damply and graciously. He then hustled us across the race course to where several large tents sagged sadly in the rain.

One of those tents was festooned with a drooping “Penthouse Formula One” banner; despite the crappy planning someone had actually thought to partition off a small changing area inside. “Fix yourself up, girls,” ordered Cy.

I watched the other girls whip out hot curlers, blow dryers, and makeup kits bigger than my grandfather’s tackle box. I had a lipgloss, ruined shoes, and mud-spattered white pants I would never wear again. My “Penthouse Pet” sash had somehow gotten ripped. I was too intimidated to ask to borrow a comb.

When we emerged half an hour later, the wet chicks were transformed into a bevy of (mostly) busty beauties, ready to charm the crowd — except for me. Cy sighed, took me aside, said, “I won’t tell,” and relieved me of my sash. I did not get to wave a flag and managed to avoid talking to anyone. I did position myself right by the extensive buffet table and ate so many shrimp I came up in a rash the next day.

North Country Girl: Chapter 60 — Me Too

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chaptersin her serialized memoir.

Some names have been changed.

With ridiculously unfounded optimism, I had sent off my resume to Viva magazine (notorious sister publication to Penthouse), and had been miraculously summoned to an interview with Bernie Exeter, the managing editor, who ever more miraculously, offered me a job. I just had no idea what the job was.

“Oh, I thought I told you. The job is secretary to Kathy Keeton, Viva’s publisher,” Bernie said.

I squeezed out a smile to hide my disappointment: I had expected to be offered at least editorial assistant. I had not a single secretarial skill and no idea of what a publisher did, but it was a job at a magazine, a magazine I loved. And my artist boyfriend Michael and I were stone broke, with no idea of where next month’s $400 rent would come from.

“Sure, yes, when do I start?”

“Right away. Let’s meet Kathy first.” Bernie hauled me up by my arm and my head swam. What was happening? Bernie seemed nonchalant about hiring me to work for someone else. What if this woman hated me on sight? We headed down the hallway, Bernie clasping my elbow as if I were a reluctant three-year-old. A glass enclosed cubicle held a sullen brunette woman who waved us into a large corner office.

The gray industrial hall carpet ended at the door of this office, and a thick swath of white shag, soft as fleece, began. The office was lit by little gilded lamps set on little gilded tables. Before a white and gold brocade loveseat was a low gilded coffee table and a silver tea service. Behind a white and gilt spindly-legged French Provincial desk sat an older blonde, her long hair held back in what looked like a painfully tight pony tail. She was dressed in an outfit that made my own inappropriate garb (sleeveless tunic, harem pants) seem as conservative as a lawyer; she wore leg-hugging ivory silk pants and a plunging halter top that looked like two scarves tied together, showcasing breasts that had no visible means of support despite their impressive size. I had often read the phrase “dripping with gold and diamonds;” now I got to see it in real life.

“Gay Haubner, this is Miss Keeton, the publisher of Viva.” I flinched at Bernie Exeter’s faux pas, as Miss Keeton, without rising or acknowledging the slight, offered me a jewel-encrusted, perfectly manicured hand.

“Miss Keeton, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said, trying to will saliva into my mouth.

Ad featuring VIVA publisher Kathy Keeton
An ad featuring Kathy Keeton. (VIVA magazine)

“She’ll be great as your new secretary,” Bernie said, as he passed her my portfolio. Kathy glanced at it, asked me several questions about Oui’s circulation and ad sales, none of which I could answer, and handed the portfolio back to me.

She said, “I hope you can start right away, ah, Gay?” I nodded confirmation that was my name. Bernie Exeter, bowing and scraping, dragged me off by my elbow again, and I spent the next hour in a small interior office covered on every surface with files and papers, added my own filled-out forms to those piles, and found out that I would make $12,500 a year, and have health insurance and two weeks’ vacation. I was a grown-up.

I spent the next day smashed in with the sullen woman in the secretarial fishbowl, who took me though my duties, the most important of which was to always address my new boss as Miss Keeton.

Miss Keeton rarely wrote letters. My bad dream the night before of having to take dictation in shorthand, which I did not know, and then losing my pencil and then discovering I had no pants on, thankfully was not a premonition.

Because of her other job title, Miss Keeton did, however, receive a lot of mail, letters with “Kathy Keton, Penthouse Associte Pubisher,” written in block letters or childish scrawls on envelopes stamped with a prison or army base as the return address. Hundreds of strange lonely men just picked her name off the Penthouse masthead and assumed that she could arrange dates for them with Penthouse Pets or that that Kathy would become their pen pal.

And there were the phone calls. Back in those days when even a professional office phone system was only a slight improvement over two tin cans and a string, there was no voice mail, no direct numbers. The airhead at the switchboard, who had her job solely because she was the girlfriend of the Penthouse treasurer, automatically put through all the calls to Kathy Keeton, even the collect ones from penitentiaries.

“But you have to answer every call,” the sullen woman instructed. “And,” she added with a shudder, “you have to be nice to them.”

A pink memo slip.

“Also,” she said, “the religious nuts who call threatening to kill Miss Keeton or blow the place up? Don’t worry about it. Nothing’s happened yet. Those guys, though, yeah you can hang up on them.”

I was given a few additional instructions that did not have to do with dealing with crank calls and letters. By noon I was on my own. Miss Keeton was out that day, so all I had to do was keep track of the few legitimate callers, writing down their name, phone number, and message on a small pink “While You Were Out” slip and skewering the paper onto a wicked looking spindle, an oddly satisfying action.

In the afternoon, a few members of Viva’s staff who passed by my enclosure stopped to introduce themselves. I met the “smart cookie” new senior editor, Gini Kopecki, who was dressed in non-designer jeans, wore not a lick of makeup, and had long hair of an indeterminate color parted down the middle. I met Debby Dichter, the assistant managing editor, diminutive and dark and frantic, who came by every hour with her arms full of loose glossy magazine page proofs for Miss Keeton. I met the art director, Rowan Johnson, a shaggy South African, who showed up roaring drunk at 3:30 under the impression that he had a lunch date with Kathy.

At five, I picked up my purse to go home, infinitely pleased with myself for landing this job and already wondering how long it would take me to be promoted to editor.

Bernie Exeter blocked my exit.

“Let’s go for a drink and you can tell me about your first day,” he said. I wanted to go home and celebrate with Michael in our new apartment, a minuscule one-bedroom hidden away in a Chelsea mews, the second floor of a carriage house, with six-foot ceilings and a floor that slanted so much a dropped orange would roll from kitchen to living room.

“Sure,” I said, “That would be great.”

We went around the corner to Bill’s Gay Ninties, a below-sidewalk-level bar that was weirdly outdated even in 1977. Bill’s Gay Nineties was decorated like a phony saloon at a Colorado tourist attraction, a really down-on-its-luck tourist attraction that only survived because it happened to be up the road from the Cave of the Winds or Estes Park. It was a maze of small rooms, with dingy red-flocked wallpaper and dusty chandeliers, staffed by bored waiters in striped shirts, suspenders, and sleeve garters. The bartender had muttonchops and a handlebar mustache.

The inside of a bar.
Bill’s Gay Nineties. (Copyright Bills NYC)

One drink, I thought, and some gushing about how grateful I am, and I can go home. Bernie let me rattle on and on, and even though I didn’t want it, a second drink appeared before me. I was struggling to get to goodbye, see you tomorrow, to escape from this creepy place, where gray businessmen drank alone and “Sweet Georgia Brown” crackled out of a shitty speaker.

“So,” said Bernie Exeter, “You like the job.” I thought I had made that clear over the past half hour.

“Oh, yes I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you…”

“You can show me.”

I knew what was coming.

“Why do you think I hired you, Gay?”

Because I can write? Because I put down good money, month after month, to read Viva? Because I dress like Miss Keeton’s poor relation?

Somehow my second drink had disappeared and a third one had taken its place.

“I hired you because I want to go to bed with you. So if you like your job and want to keep it, you know what to do.” Bernie Exeter sat back and looked at me, a raven eying a semi-squashed bug.

This was not the first time I had received a tit-for-tat offer, though never so explicitly. I couldn’t even flutter my eyelashes or act as if I didn’t understand what was going on, my usual response.

“But…but…I have a boyfriend!” was the only thing I could come up with. This got a laugh and a reprieve.

“Okay,” said Bernie Exeter, finishing his drink and then mine. “Maybe not tonight. I’ll give you a few days. Remember, there are plenty of other girls who want this job.”

I stumbled out of Bill’s Gay Nineties and found my way to the subway and the sweet Chelsea apartment that had claimed all of our savings. Michael threw open the door, beer in hand, and swept me up in a ridiculously happy hug. “How was it? Is it great?”

“Yeah it’s really, ah, good.”

I tried desperately to think of something amusing or interesting that had happened, but all I could visualize was an image of that message spindle, with me impaled between pink paper slips. “Kathy — Miss Keeton — wasn’t there. I met some nice people. The guy who hired me took me out, I think I drank too much. I have to go to bed.”

All night I lay in bed like a plank of wood reliving the past two days and wondering what I had done wrong. That stupid outfit. I should have worn a business-like skirt and a white blouse with a peter pan collar, like the brunette I replaced. With a bra underneath! I had to go buy a bra. No. That wasn’t it. It was because my writing portfolio was full of nude photos from my Oui magazine gigs; Bernie Exeter must have thought I was coming on to him. Maybe it was something I said? I looked up at the ceiling, which was a few feet about my head, and tried to recall every word I had spoken to Bernie Exeter. I felt guilty and ashamed.

But I went back to the Viva office the next day, back to my little fishbowl. I had decided that when Bernie Exeter came by, twirling his mustachios and demanding his droit de seigneur, I would clutch my bosom and shout no, no, a thousand times no. I figured they’d have to pay me for two days anyway, and did long division on a scrap of paper to see how much that would be. At ten, Miss Keeton showed up and requested a cup of tea and a pack of Virginia Slims. At noon, Bernie Exeter appeared and glowered at me as I handed him the tower of magazine pages Miss Keeton had spent the morning marking up with red pen. At five, I checked the halls to see if the coast was clear and skedaddled home, where I lay awake a second night.

A few days passed. I tried to avoid Bernie Exeter. If I heard his voice in the corridor, I picked the phone and held a one-way conversation while scribbling “crap crap crap” on a message slip.

Somehow I still had a job. I met the other editors and the extremely well-dressed and desperate Viva advertising saleswomen, and a sweaty, unhappy circulation manager. Rowan Johnson, the drunken art director, introduced himself to me several times. I spent a few frantic minutes searching for Miss Keeton when Bob Guccione called, and then was mortified to finally find her in a stall in the ladies. I opened sticky letters from Joliet and waited for one long-winded dirty phone caller to run out of steam so I could say, “Thank you for calling!” and hang up. I reminded Miss Keeton of appointments with her hair dresser, dermatologist, astrologer, interior decorator, and jeweler. I fetched packs of Virginia Slims and made cups of tea. After Miss Keeton left for the day, I went into her office to remove and file every paper from her desk; she liked to start fresh every morning. I looked at that empty white desk and wished my mind were as blank.

North Country Girl: Chapter 59 — Of Magazines and (Naked) Men

Formore about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country,read the other chaptersin her serialized memoir. 

Some names have been changed.

My artist lover, Michael, and I were broke newcomers to New York City, about to move into an apartment we weren’t sure we could afford. I thought I could go back to waitressing — the most lucrative job I had ever had — but not a single restaurant would hire someone who had no experience in the hectic New York dining scene. Even McDonald’s probably would have shown me the door. My resumes and cover letters to magazines got the same non-response. I had swallowed hard, screwed up my courage, and cold-called a name I had gotten from the editor of Oui, Gerald Sussman. Now I had an appointment with Gordon Lish at Esquire.

As a freelance writer of fripperies and pornography for Oui, a second-tier men’s magazine, I knew as much about magazine publishing as I did about the oil industry. I had no idea that struggling Esquire had just been bought by Clay Felker, who had made a huge success of New York magazine. Everyone in New York but me knew that big changes were coming to Esquire, and it was probably the world’s worst timing to pursue a job there. I also had no idea who Gordon Lish was: the pre-eminent fiction editor of the day, the man who invented Raymond Carver and discovered Richard Ford, Don DeLillo, and Cynthia Ozick.

The Esquire offices in midtown were a dim, dusty, rambling warren. There was none of the bustle and laughter and loud coarse jokes of the Oui offices, just murmurs behind closed doors. The carpet, the walls, and the torn leather chairs in the reception area were uniformly brown. Translucent glass fixtures tried to dispel the gloom, but the only thing that reflected light was the gilt lettering that read “Gordon Lish Fiction Editor” on the glass panel of his door. Mr. Lish ushered me into his small office, which like our sublet apartment, overlooked an airshaft. Crammed on shelves and across his desk and covering the floor were hundreds of books, interspersed with magazines, newspapers, and typed manuscripts held together with brass paper fasteners.

I thought Gordon Lish looked incredibly old; he had pale longish hair and deep parentheses around his mouth and a sweetish scent that reminded me of my grandfather. We shook hands, I shifted a few books off a chair and sat down, and passed him my resume and my writing, née modeling, portfolio.

Mr. Lish turned the crackling acetate pages slowly, looking thoughtful and taking intermittent swigs from a silver flask.

“Ah, the female body has truly unending variations of beauty,” he sighed. He gently touched the tip of his index finger to one photo of an especially pretty girl with especially large breasts. Wait, I thought, he isn’t reading a word of my copy, he’s just looking at the photos!

I suddenly realized that even at Esquire, the birthplace of the Vargas girl, my writing clips featuring nude women playing volleyball, making spaghetti sauce, and riding unicycles were highly inappropriate and, even worse, unlikely to get me a job. But if I threw out all the nudes and made my writing portfolio G-rated, I would be left with five or six paragraph-length captions to funny news photos and a handful of 150-word book and album reviews.

A woman in lingerie sitting.
A Vargas painting. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mr. Lish closed my portfolio with another sigh. “So Gerald Sussman sent you. Pompous twit. I never could stand that man. Would you care for a drink?” Mr. Lish passed me his flask. I took a small sip of what I recognized as Scotch whiskey, trying not to choke on its doused campfire taste.

“Let’s get out of here before I have to hear any more dreadful news. A lunch interview, hmm?”

There was no interview and there was no lunch at the Spanish restaurant Mr. Lish took me to. There was a small half-moon bar, where Mr. Lish and I sat for three hours, and there was a dark, silent bartender in a white jacket who refilled our drinks without asking. There was also a Chivas-fueled monologue from Mr. Lish on the perfidy and consummate evil of Clay Felker, the disgusting decline of magazine and book publishing, the idiocy and ineptitude of all publishers and most executive editors, and the ingratitude of the writers he had made famous, none of whose names I recognized.

By some miracle, the Spanish restaurant Mr. Lish and I got drunk at was on Greenwich Avenue, a few blocks from my miniature apartment. When I realized it would be death if I had another drink, I thanked Mr. Lish, who waved me off, and I staggered home.

A bar's façade.
(Pedro Lozano)

The next day at noon, the apartment phone rang.

“Gay, it’s Gordon Lish,” whispered Michael as he handed me the phone.

Oh my gosh, I thought. He’s going to offer me a job!

“I’m at La Casa des Borrachos. Come have a drink with me.” And nitwit that I am, I met him at the bar of that Spanish restaurant. At least this time I covered my glass with my hand when the bartender approached, but I still had to listen to pretty much the exact same litany of injustices Mr. Lish had related the day before. Because I am a slow learner, I met him there a third day, before I finally realized that there was no job for me, and there probably would be no job for Mr. Lish either if he kept spending his days drinking at a bar. On the fourth day I made Michael answer the phone and say that I wasn’t there.

The next phone call for me came from Bernie Exeter, the managing editor of Viva magazine; he had read my resume and asked me to come in for an interview.

I was excited, but not surprised. Mindy, my clairvoyant friend, had predicted my move to New York and reunion with Michael and that I would get a job at Viva magazine. And I knew that I still had my best good fairy gift, my incredible luck. An interview at my favorite magazine seemed like nothing more than my fair due, what the world owed me just for showing up.

Like Mindy I was a big fan of Viva, the sister magazine to Penthouse, created to appeal to an imaginary female counterpart to the male Penthouse reader: a woman who was worldly, curious, sexually liberated, independent, adventurous, fashion crazy, and a drinker and smoker with a sizable disposable income. “The world’s most sophisticated erotic magazine for women” was Viva’s claim, which, when translated meant “We think women like to look at pornography too.”

Cover of VIVA magazine.
Viva Magazine. (Amazon)

I had been a faithful reader for years, gazing at clothes I couldn’t afford and admiring makeup I had no idea how to apply. There was lots of erotica; Anaïs Nin and her racy diaries managed to make it into every other issue. I appreciated Viva’s almost realistic attitude to sex, as opposed to the coy tips offered by Cosmopolitan, or the way Glamour and Mademoiselle magazines approached sex, which was hardly at all. But I shuffled through Viva’s pages and pages of steamy photos of amorous couples that were supposed to be titillating with barely a glance. It was hard not to laugh at those buff, handsome men and pretty, large-breasted women in tender embraces, lips pouted, limbs entwined, eyes rolled upward, everything screaming fake, fake, fake. To me the photos were not erotic at all; the only thing that crossed my mind was, “I wonder how much the models were paid?”

The morning of my interview, I pored through that month’s Viva and tried to commit the articles and writers to memory; I was going to wow Bernie Exeter with my knowledge of the magazine. Then I tore through my still packed suitcases for interview attire that said erotic sophisticate. I stupidly chose a Kenzo ensemble purchased back in Chicago from the car trunk clothes dealer: a lavender tunic that tied at the shoulders, worn without a bra but with white harem pants.

Bernie Exeter seemed a bit taken aback at me and my louche outfit when he came to fetch me from the Penthouse lobby, which except for the oversized posters of Penthouse covers, was as grey and anonymous as any insurance or accounting firm.

Bernie Exeter looked like a mustachioed, homelier Chuck Barris. He was wearing a short-sleeved polyester shirt, yellow knit tie, and pleated pants. He led me to his office overlooking the Roosevelt Island tramway, and I handed him my unexpurgated portfolio. I wasn’t worried that I would shock him with my R-rated writing samples; Viva was full of breasts, as well as other body parts. Bernie flipped through the pages for all of ten seconds then slapped the portfolio closed and looked at me. I had no idea what kind of questions he would ask; my last job interview had landed me in the coat check.

City skyline with a bridge.
The Roosevelt Island Tramway. (Wikimedia Commons)

“What do you know about the magazine?” he asked, and then, before I had even opened my mouth, he started in on the rise and fall of Viva.

Viva was officially the brainchild of Penthouse owner Bob Guccione and his girlfriend, Kathy Keeton. (Whenever Bob was not around, Kathy insisted that she had thought up the idea for Viva all by herself, which was probably true; Kathy was the fox to Bob’s hedgehog). Bob Guccione was busy lying to, seducing, and taking nude photos of silly young girls and buying Old Masters, Impressionist, and Modern paintings by the crate with the deluge of cash generated by Penthouse magazine. This left Kathy in charge of the new-born Viva, as publisher and executive editor. Under her guidance, and with Bob’s money, Viva enjoyed a few years of success. Write a big enough check and you can get Helmut Newton photographs and Joyce Carol Oates stories to run alongside of shots of bare-chested, smoldering firemen stroking their hoses. A few daring advertisers bought pages and a few desperate starlets posed for the cover, despite Viva’s association with the beyond-the-pale Penthouse. Thousands of young women signed up for subscriptions; a lot more, like me, with my constant lack of a fixed address, bought our copies on the newsstand. Viva’s first print run was a record-breaking 1,002,000 issues.

Kathy Keeton would never have called herself a feminist, but she was a firm believer that women had as much right as men to look at naked photos of the opposite sex. When Bob’s camera started focusing in closer between the spread legs of those silly girls, Kathy set her sights lower too. She decided that the Viva reader was entitled to look at the Full Monty. Kathy was going beyond Viva’s coquettish “love sets” where the male member was always coyly covered by a feather boa or chiffon scarf, beyond the teasing photos, like those of Joe Namath and Burt Reynolds in Cosmopolitan magazine, where the men had one leg demurely cocked forward, as unsexed as a Ken doll.

I was familiar with this part of the story, having bought the issue of Viva that proclaimed “First Penises Ever!” though not for that reason. Maybe Kathy Keeton enjoyed looking at photos of penises. I didn’t especially, and I thought of myself as the epitome of the sophisticated Viva reader. I continued to buy the magazine, flipping quickly past the beefcake with their strangely flaccid penises to get to an article about the world’s sexiest perfumes or a short story by Tom Wolfe.

I was alone in my nonchalance about male nudity. Viva, Bernie Exeter told me, went from overnight success to being on life-support, a pariah among publications. Readers canceled their subscriptions in droves. Newsstands refused to carry Viva, even if the offending magazine was safely swaddled in plain brown paper and hidden away under the counter. Those companies that had been okay advertising in a magazine that ran stories such as “My First Orgy” and “The Good News about Rape” blanched at penises; the only advertisers that had stuck with Viva were cigarettes and a few brave liquor companies, most of whom had gotten their ads highly discounted or free with their purchase of exorbitantly expensive pages in booming Penthouse magazine.

For a few months, Kathy Keeton clung to her X-rated vision of Viva, until the head of advertising sales, Beverly Wardale, a booming Brit in the Margaret Thatcher-She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed mold, informed her that either the penises went or she did. Kathy Keeton would have brushed off a threat from a lesser mortal, but Beverly was also her best friend. The penises went with zero fanfare, but Viva could not shake its bad reputation.

“’Cause what are you going do?” asked Bernie, “Run a cover line that says, ‘No more penises?’” I shrugged, not knowing the answer; I was busy trying to figure out where this was going and if there was a job for me at the end of it.

“But that’s all changing,” said Bernie, rubbing his hands together. “We’ve got a new editor, she’s a smart cookie, and you’re going to see some feminist articles, and the subscription department’s come up with some neat umbrellas and t-shirts to give away — here, take one.“ Bernie tossed me a tiny white tee with a hot pink “Viva” printed in a hideous fake Art Deco font. Within a year, every other bag lady in New York City would be wearing one of those shirts.

“Well,” said Bernie Exeter, “Do you want the job?”

“I do, I do.…Um, what is the job?”