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.