For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
I was now the editorial assistant at Penthouse magazine, foisted on their staff by my old boss Kathy Keeton.
My new boss was Jim Goode, the executive editor, a scraggly 6’3” man with a bloodhound face who wore the same uniform of Levi’s, faded chambray shirt, and work boots every day, as if it were painted on him. Jim bore an unsettling resemblance to Lurch, the Addams Family butler, and laughed about as much, which was a good thing, as his gravely guffaw was blood-chilling, like the clanking of rusty chains.
My first task at Penthouse was to introduce Jim Goode to his newest, and probably unwanted, staff member.
I poked my head into his office. “Mr. Goode?” He looked up from the papers on his desk, fixing me with a blood-shot, Medusa glare.
“What do you want?” rumbled forth like an early warning vibration from a thundercloud.
I sidled into his office, hugging the wall. “I’m Gay Haubner, ah, I was the assistant editor at Viva, and ah, Kathy Keeton thought I might fit in better at Penthouse.”
Jim did not think this worthy of a reply but kept staring at me.
I was pretty sure any talent I had at being charming would fall on stony ground but I had to try; I knew Jim had been fired at least once from both Penthouse and Playboy, so I was hoping for a sympathetic ear.
“Ah, Mr. Goode…”
“Jim.” I took this as permission to approach.
“Ah, I heard you met Marilyn Monroe?” I thought this was an excellent conversation starter. As a reporter, Jim had covered the set of The Misfits for Life magazine, and I had been a fan of Marilyn since I was ten, when I saw Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on Saturday Night at the Movies.
“She was pasty and white, like a loaf of bread dough. If you took her arm,” here Jim grasped my wrist with his huge paw, “there would be deep indentations in her skin that lasted for days.” He released me with a shake. “Get out of here, Haubner.”
From that day forth, Jim never called me by my first name. “HAAAUUUBBNEER” he would boom out, summoning me from my lean-to in the back of the secretarial pool.
No one had clued me into what my responsibilities at Penthouse would be, but I quickly found out that the most important part of my job was taking Jim Goode to lunch, a chore I shared with the rest of the editorial staff.
Cruising on Penthouse’s oceans of cash, all the editors, even the lowly, just-hired editorial assistant, enjoyed a generous expense account. Jim was not about to use his own expense account on anything so unnecessary as a meal (he ate almost nothing, getting through the day on three lunchtime vodka martinis).
He had other things to pay for: his pampered mutts, his almost as cosseted dancer boyfriend, Kevin (who looked like a Ganymede come to life from a Renaissance painting), and French advertising posters from the early 1900s. Jim owned so many of these framed posters that there was no room to hang another in his Greenwich Village townhouse. They rested in stacks against the wall, the target of the occasional raised leg of an underwalked dog.
I’m not sure Jim Goode and I became friends. I can’t even say that he had friends. We did spend a lot of time together, at midtown restaurants, in the office, and at his place. I amused him, like a misplaced Pomeranian he picked up at the Bide-a-Wee animal shelter.
By the end of my first week at Penthouse I had taken Jim out to lunch once for crepes and martinis at The Magic Pan and twice at Mary’s, a bare-bones, fluorescent-lit joint that served unseasoned food and oversized, very strong drinks, and I still had no idea of what my editorial duties would be. I was tottering back from one of these lunches when I was stopped in the hall by a handsome young man who stuck out his hand.
“Hi, I’m Robert Hofler. You’re the new editorial assistant, right? Come into my office.”
Robert placed on his desk a bulging manila envelope and that month’s issue of Penthouse, open to the letters to the editor.
Robert Hofler beamed as if he were about to give me a Major Award. “You’re going to be taking over the Penthouse letters!”
Robert had thoughtfully selected and marked up the next issue’s letters; using the tip of his thumb and index finger, and trying not to make a face, he fastidiously pulled out a few letters from the envelope to show me what to do. After that, I was on my own.
Penthouse Letters was the editorial staff’s least favorite section and (according to market research, which was squashed as did nothing to help ad sales) the most favorite of the Penthouse readers (that they actually read, as opposed to just gaping at photos of nude women). Bob Guccione, with his love of all things pseudo-Roman, titled the readers’ letters “Penthouse Forum.”
In a normal magazine, letters to the editor express the writers’ agreement or disagreement on articles in previous issues. In men’s magazines, they also include comments on the hotness of Playmates or Pets or Vixens or what have you. At some point in Penthouse history, readers began sending in letters hot-dogging their wild sexual experiences, always starting with “I know you won’t believe this but it’s true.” An extremely profitable spin-off, the Reader’s Digest-size Penthouse Forum was nothing more than letters too filthy to run in the magazine, accompanied by cheaply reproduced black and white photos of past Pets who had signed away all their rights in perpetuity.
Editing the letters section was the scut work of Penthouse, a task that had plagued almost every editor (even the gay ones, who must have looked on these letters as missives from Mars), and which was dumped as rapidly as possible on someone else. Low woman on the editorial totem pole, that was now me.
Every day, a Santa-sized bag was dragged through the secretarial pool and dumped on my desk. I was supposed to read through all the letters, looking for those gems that would titillate readers, which I typed up, correcting grammar and spelling, and embellished if the letter wasn’t detailed enough. I soon learned to recognize and dispose of letters that came in envelopes with odd red stamps. These were from prison inmates; their sexual adventures, real or made up, too often came to violent ends. After opening one letter and having what appeared to be pubic hair drift onto my desk and lap, I started squeezing each envelope before I opened it; if it felt like it contained anything besides paper, it went right in the garbage.
I can’t imagine who found this amateur pornography arousing. Letter after letter, usually scribbled in pencil on stained paper torn out of a loose leaf notebook, lovingly described encounters with randy next-door neighbors, lonely widows, incestuous sisters and aunts, vacuum cleaners and fish tanks; of adventures that occurred outdoors, in stuck elevators, bus station bathrooms, and office supply closets.
After a few months, I started casting about for anyone else I could dump this nasty hot potato of an assignment on. Each day’s mail delivery left me feeling queasy. I developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder, scrubbing my hands a dozen times a day and taking a half hour steaming hot shower as soon as I got home. I turned my back and scooted away from my boyfriend Michael in bed, claiming I was too tired or in the middle of a fascinating book. Penthouse Letters was killing my sex drive.
I could not find anyone to take this discouraging smut off my hands. I approached my first friend at Penthouse, Kathy Lowry, the on-staff writer for girl copy, responsible for transforming big-breasted, small town girls into exotic women of the world. (She was especially good at names: ho-hum Dottie Meyers became the exotic Dominque Mauré.) Kathy and I had become pals when she was suffering from writer’s block, brought on by the daily tumult of her love life.
“I’ll do it, I’ll write the copy for ‘It Takes Two to Tango,’” I volunteered, relieving her from the task of coming up with a backstory to explained why two dark haired beauties had decided to shed their flamenco dresses to engage in the forbidden dance.
Now when I asked her to return the favor, she said “Uh-uh.” Kathy turned me down with a “You can’t fool me” look. “I did those letters for a while. I have enough problems with Larry as it is.”
Kathy was a blonde Texan, lanky and wide-eyed with a slow drawl that disguised how whip smart she really was, and Larry was Larry L. King, a writer who was raking it in from his Tony-nominated musical “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Larry had a reserved seat every night at Joe Allen’s while Kathy was churning out the deep thoughts of a Penthouse Pet who had one hand between her legs and the other clenching a fake pearl necklace. Kathy was convinced that Larry’s meteoric New York success meant that she would lose him. My work days began in Kathy’s tiny windowless office, listening to her whoop over what she and Larry had done the night before, or if she had spent the evening alone waiting for the phone to ring, tending to her crying jags, patting her on the back and handing her Kleenex. (After “Whorehouse” closed, a stinker of a sequel, “The Second Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” ran for all of a week. Kathy dragged me to opening night, where I sat goggled-eyed and opened-mouth with the rest of the non-paying audience, gobsmacked that such a piece of shit could actually be staged on Broadway.)
I tried to return Forum to Robert Hofler, who laughed at my presumption. “Are you kidding? I’m not taking Letters back. I’m already stuck with Xaviera; she refuses to work with anyone but me.” Robert was officially the entertainment editor; I guess entertainment encompassed the dubious sex advice doled out by Xaviera Hollander in her Ask the Happy Hooker column.
I went crying into the office of my second friend at Penthouse, Senior Editor Peter Bloch. Peter usually welcomed any interruption from his job, which was to maintain a delicate balance between Jim Goode’s insanity and Bob Guccione’s insanity. Jim was rabidly anti-government, which, considering he owed thousands of dollars to the IRS, was not surprising. Convinced that the CIA had a file on him, Jim ordered Peter to find investigative reporters who would uncover their dastardly deeds and secrets; many of these writers did ground-breaking work that was almost always ignored by the media establishment and probably by the average Penthouse reader as well.
Guccione wanted Peter to find reputable science writers who could blow the lid off the medical establishment’s suppression of dubious cures for cancer. (Guccione succumbed to cancer of the tongue a few years after Kathy Keeton died of breast cancer.)
The Jim Goode/Bob Guccione Venn diagram met with their shared obsession with the mysterious Trilateral Commission; in their eyes, these shadow men were the modern day Illuminati, bent on world domination, as evil as any comic book cabal. I think Penthouse did a twenty-part series on them.
“I can’t edit the letters anymore, Peter,” I wailed. “I’ll end up with no boyfriend and no skin on the palms of my hands.”
Peter rescued me. “We’ll give the letters to my secretary,” a woman who was gasping for her own promotion to editorial assistant.
This was great news but left open the question of what my job would be, outside of picking up Jim Goode’s three-martini lunches. I regarded these lunches as on-the-job editorial training, prepping me for whatever my real job at Penthouse would be. Jim spent lunch lecturing me on the evils of Guccione, Hefner, and the entire Penthouse advertising staff, and almost convinced me that if it were left up to him, Penthouse would have the editorial integrity of The New Republic.
These two-hour, well-lubricated lunches also taught me to do all my work in the morning. Between nine and one I was a beaver of an editor: if Frank Gilbreth had stood over me with a stopwatch, he would have been floored by my efficiency.