For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
Some names have been changed.
As editorial assistant at Penthouse magazine, my duties were editing the vile Letters section, a daily dose of saltpeter to my own sex life (a task I finally ditched on someone else), and taking my boss out to three-martini lunches (slugging back a few glasses of life-and-sanity-saving white wine myself).
Now that I was sprung from my smutty epistolary prison, the question was what I would do for those six hours a day I was not at lunch.
I was sent off to talk to Paul Bresnick, who had the competing titles of fiction and service editor.
Paul had literary taste of the first water backed by the deep pockets of Penthouse, which let him purchase stories and book excerpts by Gore Vidal, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Paul Theroux, and other high flyers.
By rights a fiction editor who worked with five-star authors should be above dealing with humdrum service articles. Service supposedly meant consumer services, as if we were doing the readers a favor by running reviews of cars, motorcycles, electronics, and cameras. In reality the service we provided was for the advertisers, plugging their products in glowing terms. It didn’t matter if what you produced was a lemon; purchase a full-page ad in Penthouse and your Isuzu or Yugo would be written about and photographed as lovingly as if it were a Pet of the Month.
Paul was as eager to dump his unwanted editorial task as I had been.
“I’m flying to London tomorrow to meet with J.P. Donleavy and I’m stuck editing an article on radar detectors,” he groused.
My short stint at Viva had been all about coming up with punning headlines and appeasing advertisers. I was the woman for the job of service editor. I just couldn’t believe Paul would willingly give up such a plum, especially to someone who could barely drive a car, had no idea how a stereo worked, and had trouble focusing a camera. Despite my shortcomings, I was bequeathed the lofty title of service editor of Penthouse magazine, the best job in the world.
My favorite perks of this new gig were free meals at lavish press parties, thrown by PR agencies that seemed to be wallowing in money. In 1980 it was après moi le deluge for the automotive industry; a company couldn’t bring out as much as a new spark plug without a press conference, always held at a suitably masculine restaurant with plenty to eat and drink to sweeten their spiel.
A short-lived competitor to STP took over the top floor of the 21 Club to hype their doomed product to the car press, which was 99.9% male and then me. In between the mountainous wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with a glacier of blue cheese dressing and the Flintstone-sized T-bone, we were served a palate-cleansing consommé. The already drunken Car & Driver editor next to me nudged me in the side with his elbow and asked “Is your soup empty too?”
There were also invitations to test drive cars, sometimes at day-long events out of the city and sometimes really out of the city, at bashes thrown at the Greenbrier or in Palm Desert, all expenses paid. These invitations I was required to turn over to my boss, Jim Goode, the executive editor. I didn’t mind; I knew that if I were plopped behind the wheel of a souped-up car with a helmet smashed on my head I would immediately drive into a ditch.
Instead of being greeted every morning with a bag of dirty letters, I now found on my desk packages addressed to “Service Editor, Penthouse:” bottles of booze, walkie talkies, cameras and lenses, turntables and speakers and pre-amps, and yes, a Fuzzbuster radar detector, which I turned over to Jim Goode so he could speed his pups out to Shelter Island in his Lincoln Continental without being pulled over by the man. For the new service editor of the best-selling men’s magazine in the world, every day was Christmas.
Besides all the free stuff and never having to pay for a meal I could now parcel out gold-bricking service articles to my writer friends, which meant I could take them out to one lunch to give them the assignment (five minutes spent listing the companies the ad staff was pitching or pacifying, an hour and fifty-five minutes getting drunk), another follow-up lunch to go over edits (what the ad department wanted changed, then getting drunk), and cut them a nice check.
My old pal Michael VerMeulen, now relocated to New York, on his way to London and an early death, became the Penthouse liquor writer and the main beneficiary of my splurgey expense account lunches.
One day VerMeulen dropped by to pick up his money for nothing. I fetched his check and was walking him out of the office when we passed another Penthouse editor. VerMeulen’s head swiveled 180 degrees and he smashed into a wall.
“Who was that?” he gasped.
That was Zelda Fleming, our femme fatale and least-likely Penthouse editor even among our staff of misfit toys. Zelda came from a patrician New England family, had attended Miss Porter’s School for Girls, and dressed in the upper-crusty style Ralph Lauren stole.
Zelda’s purview was the Penthouse Profile. Playboy had their famous Interview; because Penthouse had to be almost but not quite like Playboy, instead of Q&As we published celebrity profiles, which ranged from Marty Feldman to L. Ron Hubbard to the Ayatollah Khomeini to Robert Redford, whomever a writer could lasso into the magazine.
She was rail-thin, with big eyes and a doll face and an uncanny effect on guys: they wanted to protect Zelda from all the other rapacious men while ravishing her themselves. The only man I knew who was immune to her charms was my own boyfriend, Michael, who said to me those words every woman longs to hear: “She’s too skinny.”
Zelda merely had to waft by for VerMeulen to be smitten.
“I know someone who knows Bob Fosse. He’d make a great Penthouse profile,” pitched VerMeulen, straining his neck for another glimpse of the Lorelei who had captured his heart.
I had my doubts whether the Penthouse reader would be interested in a Broadway choreographer, no matter how famous or heterosexual, but ignored all my misgivings and wrangled a meeting for VerMeulen with Zelda.
Even though Zelda turned down his profile idea, VerMeulen came back to my little editorial pit with gaga hearts throbbing in his eyes. “I’m leaving my wife. I’m in love with Zelda,” he announced, as seriously as if he were discussing his next meal.
I marched VerMeulen over to the closest bar, P.J. Clarke’s, bought him a large drink, and gave him an earful of the Legends of Zelda, apocryphal gossip that we swapped gleefully about the Penthouse office. It was like a risqué game of Telephone; by the time a salacious Zelda story came back to me, the details were even more outlandish.
Among Zelda’s alleged suitors were:
- A Mafia capo, who enjoyed hanging her by the wrists and stubbing cigarettes out on her body.
- A European diplomat who bought her a wardrobe of handmade Belgian shoes and got his kicks by removing one pair of thousand dollar flats from her long, narrow feet and lovingly replacing it with another.
- My personal favorite, a television executive, the famed producer of 1960s game shows featuring celebrity panels. According to legend, in order to talk to his beloved the TV executive insisted on dragging his wife’s Pekinese out for an unwanted walk every evening at nine so he could duck into a street corner phone booth until one steamy conversation with Zelda proved to be too much for his dicky heart.
None of this dowsed VerMeulen’s ardor; from then on I never allowed him back in the office, always claiming that I had already popped his check in the mail.
When pressed for the facts, Zelda always laughed off every racy rumor; I was tempted to push up the sleeve of her cashmere twin set and check for cigarette burns. She wasn’t unaware of her power over men, but she didn’t consciously turn it off and on; it was magic, a gift from her own good fairy.
I was gleefully tearing open a day’s offerings to the service editor — an underwater camera! A bottle of Bacardi rum! An electric wok from some PR company who was not doing its research! — when Zelda’s tiny head popped over the side of my slanted cubicle. I hoped Zelda wouldn’t lean on the partition as her ninety-five pounds was enough to topple it.
“Hi Gay. Are you busy?”
I had unwrapped all my goodies. “Ah, no, what’s going on?”
Zelda glanced behind her and then scooted in to stand by my desk; I couldn’t offer her a seat as there was barely room for my own chair amid my towers of consumer loot.
“I have a huge favor to ask you. You know I share an office with Annie.”
That would be Annie O’Hare, the associate editor and the other fake Penthouse Pet besides me on the Watkins Glen junket of disaster.
“Could you switch offices with me?” if by office Zelda meant the two flimsy fabric-covered boards precariously perched around my desk.
“I can’t take her anymore. Her papers are all over the whole office, she never throws anything away or even files it. She is on the phone from the minute she comes in. I have to hear every detail of the bars and parties she was at the night before seven times a day! When she’s not on the phone she’s complaining and when she’s not complaining she’s smoking. Actually she smokes and complains at the same time.”
If I had been a man, Zelda would have had me at “Could you?” But I was suspicious. Zelda had an office — with a door! — and her desk faced a window, a window with an uninspiring view of Midtown but still a window, with daylight and weather. How horrible must Annie be if Zelda were willing to move into my doorless, windowless hovel at the back of the secretarial pool?
“Let me think about it,” I said.
I consulted with my pal, Senior Editor Peter Bloch, to see how bad the Trojan was in this gift horse. He shrugged. “I adore Annie, she’s smart and funny, but I don’t have to share an office with her. She can be…difficult.”
Difficult was okay, considering that even squirreled away in my back cubicle I was within earshot of Annie’s daily tirades, screeds that reverberated around the office, curse words echoing through the hallways. I could put up with difficult.
And I was still the newbie, grateful that Penthouse had rescued my fired ass and bestowed on me the best job ever. I would have taken my chances with Squeaky Fromme as an officemate to stay in the good graces of the other editors.
Under cover of darkness (5:05 pm when everyone else was already at the bar), Zelda and I switched offices.
At ten the next morning I was hunched over page proofs, my back to the door of my new office, when I felt a displacement of air and caught a whiff of menthol cigarette smoke. I swiveled, unable to hide my guilty expression as I realized Zelda or I should have said something to Annie; I couldn’t have been a pleasant surprise.
“Hi Annie…Zelda asked me to switch offices…and I…she…”
Annie marched by me and added a cigarette to the twenty-three others crushed out in her ashtray.
“So…Gay…I’m such an awful person that Zelda couldn’t stand to be around me.”
“Nobody said you were awful,” I blurted out, leaving unsaid what adjectives had been used to describe Annie.
Annie rolled her eyes, lit a Newport, and grabbed her telephone. I picked up my red pen and tried to will myself invisible and/or deaf.
Reader, I married her.
Not quite. She did become my best friend.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.