The Last Word | Crooked Media
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May 11, 2023
The Last Word

In This Episode

As the 1970’s come to a close, so does Viva’s run as one of America’s first feminist porn magazines. We explore what the legacy of Viva magazine tells us about issues of female sexuality and sexual autonomy, and how many of these battles are still being fought today.





Dr. Judy Kuriansky: So I’m reading I’m reading from this Viva issue, the international magazine for women. 


Jennifer Romolini: It’s been a minute since Viva sex advice columnist Dr. Judy has seen a physical copy of Viva magazine since she could actually look at and reflect on her work. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: First thing I open is I’m captured by this photograph opposite my column with a naked woman just on her top naked. There’s a pincer on her nipple. 


Jennifer Romolini: Truth is, unless you held on to them since the 1970s, issues of Viva, they’re extremely hard to find. It’s like the work of Viva’s women. Like most all work, if you think about it, has just, poof, disappeared. But I have all the issues. I’ve been collecting them for years. I brought them to every editor and writer I met in person, including Dr. Judy. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: So I’m fascinated with this photograph. And then opposite it is my column. Sexual Fantasies. A study of erotic fantasies. Their meaning, significance and contribution to the human sexual condition, which is really kind of cool because it’s not just the fantasy, but my analysis of it, which comes from intelligence and a lot of experience and some scientific understanding and analytic understanding. 


Jennifer Romolini: When Bob first launched Viva the Sex Fantasies column was written by a man, but when Dr. Judy took over, she blew this other guy’s work out of the water. Just listen to one of her pieces. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: Fantasy nourishes our sexual psyches and charges our sexual energies it adds the luster of the unexplored to our sexual experiences and experiments. Nearly every individual fosters some secret erotic fantasy. [laughs] The range of these is as wide as the range of humanity. So true. And that is why, like humanity, they are infinitely interesting. Yes. This month, Viva continues exploring the complex, fascinating world of sexual fantasy. 


Jennifer Romolini: For just a second in our interview. Dr. Judy gets lost in the work. In her work, she’d forgotten. She’s proud. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: Oh, I love this. Okay. It was always my thought. Your fantasy is you are the. I love this. I would always tell people this. You are the producer, the director, and all the actors in your fantasy. You are not just you. You created them. So you are the guy or the girl or whatever. Whatever else is in your fantasy, you made them up, and you’re the one who’s directing the show. So all of it belongs to you. You create the whole thing. So that was my favorite lesson, and I loved it. 


Jennifer Romolini: The women I talked to for this podcast were almost all in their seventies and eighties. They were decades away from their time at Viva, but they remembered it often vividly. When Viva shuttered in January of 1979. It wasn’t just the end of a magazine. It was the end of an era. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: So all of a sudden, all the openness about sex publicly stopped and so people didn’t have an outlet anymore, whereas things were going upwards to being more educated on different levels. All of that was cut off. 


Jennifer Romolini: So what happened? Why did Bob pull the rug out from under everyone? And what can Viva’s legacy reveal to us about sex and feminism today? From Crooked Media and iHeartMedia. I’m Jennifer Romolini and this is the final episode of Stiffed, episode eight. The Last Word. [music plays] Act one, The Light Bulb Does Not Want to Change. 


Gay Bryant: The formula should have worked. And to this day, I really don’t know why it didn’t. 


Jennifer Romolini: That’s Gay Bryant, who you may remember had the original idea for Viva. Gay’s still a bit flummoxed over why her idea didn’t succeed. And so are some of Viva’s editors, like Robin Wolaner. 


Robin Wolaner: The editorial vision. I think absolutely could have worked. I think the vision for it could have succeeded. 


Jennifer Romolini: Now, some of the editors I talked to thought Viva’s failure had nothing to do with content or vision or execution, but something much bigger, something systemic. Here’s Viva and Penthouse editor Peter Bloch.


Peter Bloch: I think the main reason Viva failed is that I can’t think of a good, intelligent women’s magazine that succeeded ever. I mean, one after the other. There’s been some great magazines and they all go by the wayside. None of them succeeded. 


Jennifer Romolini: But most people I interviewed for this series hung Viva’s downfall on one fatal misstep. Here’s Viva writer Annie Gottlieb. 


Annie Gottlieb: The very same pictures failed to attract women. I mean, I think they missed the target of female sexuality you know by a mile, at least in the visuals. 


Jennifer Romolini: And here’s Bob Guccione Jr explaining. 


Bob Guccione Jr: You know, women would disdain it, the average woman on the street. If they knew about it. Just thought it was a magazine with men’s genitalia showing. 


Jennifer Romolini: And even if some of Viva’s readers claimed they wanted, quote, “more cock.”


Bob Guccione Jr: It lacked the sort of subtlety and imagination and fantasy element that women wanted in the magazine, that it was too in-your-face too blunt. And they didn’t want to necessarily see this much naked male flesh. And it was just a different perception, the way the way a man gets excited versus the way a woman gets excited. 


Jennifer Romolini: Even Gay seconds this sentiment. 


Gay Bryant: If I had to put it in a sentence. I think that the physical turns men on and the emotional turns women on. 


Jennifer Romolini: Okay, Since the beginning of reporting this series, I’ve wondered a lot about this. Every Viva editor I talked to repeated this line. Women just aren’t turned on visually. Women who are into men don’t actually like looking at men’s bodies, and especially not their dicks. Women need subtlety and softness. The male nudes could never work. Evil was doomed from the start. Blah, blah, blah. And this line about women not liking porn is not limited to this story. It’s a line used by cis white heterosexual men for decades as the reason not to fund female pornographers. It’s a big part of why the porn industry still doesn’t cater to women in a meaningful way, anywhere near the same way it caters to men. And here’s the thing. It’s just not true. 


Cindy Gallop: You know, it’s absolute bollocks that women are not visually stimulated. You fucking bet we are. 


Jennifer Romolini: That’s Cindy Gallop. She’s the founder of Make Love, Not Porn, a feminist sex site. There’s a little bit social network, a little bit Pornhub, except ethically curated and without the copious misogyny. 


Cindy Gallop: You know, and research that’s been done that show. Show us porn. Show us men’s naked bodies. You bet we get wet. You know, that’s a load of crap that we need emotion. I mean, women absolutely enjoy looking at men’s naked bodies. You bloody bet we do. 


Jennifer Romolini: Cindy says the challenge of being a feminist in the porn business comes down to one very, very obvious thing. 


Cindy Gallop: The patriarchy. We as women have never been allowed to bring our lens to bear on human sexuality and the world is a poorer place for it. The world makes it fucking difficult to innovate and disrupt social narratives around sex. 


Jennifer Romolini: And this tracks with the Viva story too. With Bob and the male photographer’s art directing photoshoots, deciding what women desire without ever asking the women themselves. And as much as things have changed for women in the decades since Viva launched, this hasn’t. It’s an American societal norm that seems for a variety of reasons, immovable. We’re stuck. 


Cindy Gallop: And so here’s what has not changed since the seventies and is still enormously problematic today. Any industry that is male dominated at the top inevitably produces output that is objectifying and offensive and objectionable to women. 


Jennifer Romolini: But what about feminism gains? More women in boardrooms. Hell, all those female Penthouse executives Bob loved talking about. Kathy Keeton at the top of Viva’s masthead. Cindy’s not hearing it. 


Cindy Gallop: It’s like the old joke about the light bulb. How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one. But the light bulb has to really want to change. And in every single industry and popular culture that informs our views on everything, including the role of men, the role of women, the role of sexuality. What makes you sexual desirable? What doesn’t? The light bulb does not want to change. 


Jennifer Romolini: And so maybe it wasn’t that women didn’t like looking at dicks in Viva. It’s more that the men in charge the gatekeeping dicks themselves hold on tight to well, the dicks. They didn’t actually ask the question, what do women want? Instead, they just asked, what would I do if I were a woman? But we kind of knew all this, right? Over the last eight episodes, we’ve covered all the iterations that Viva went through during its brief existence. And there were a lot. Naked women. Naked men. No dicks, flaccid dicks. Back to no dicks again. Cool, smart, feminist writing, weird anti-feminist writing, lowbrow humor, highbrow fashion, etc., etc.. And the thing is that even though the editors tried a bunch of different things, none of them were commercially successful. Though it’s hard to quantify how much of this was tied to Bob and the controversy that surrounded him. His reputation was, for sure, at least a small factor, especially when it came to making money through ads. Here’s editor Robin Wolaner again. 


Robin Wolaner: Viva had the problem of coming out of the Penthouse organization that didn’t give any comfort to advertisers, and nobody was ever going to give Viva the benefit of the doubt on advertising. 


Jennifer Romolini: Magazines need advertising money, period. And mainstream advertisers of all stripes, especially those who advertise in women’s magazines like cosmetics brands, are today and have always been wary to be publicly aligned with porn and pornographers like Bob. And if Viva was unable to get ads, this would be reason enough to shutter it. But Viva also struggled on newsstands. It was never in, say, the supermarket checkout line, but instead it was relegated to the dirty magazine section where only men shopped. But even beyond the dearth of ad or newsstand money, Bob and Kathy often made big, expensive, not entirely thought out bets with Viva’s budget. I mean, just think about Anna Wintour’s extravagant photoshoots or even basic things like paper. Here’s Peter again. 


Peter Bloch: He was printing it on thick, beautiful paper. It was, you know, just for for a commercial magazine. It just cost too much. 


Jennifer Romolini: But Viva had always lost money. Bob had been bleeding buckets of money into it from the beginning, since 1973. And it hadn’t mattered to him much before. 


Bob Guccione Jr: He could afford it. It was. That wasn’t the issue. Penthouse was so successful, that was probably a very efficient tax write off. 


Jennifer Romolini: Wait, a tax write off? Was Viva, just an elaborate scheme for one man to pay less than his fair share in taxes? When trying to pinpoint why Viva shut down, it’s easy to get lost in the content of the magazine. What worked? What didn’t? But a lot of times these things are more just straight up, ruthless gaming of capitalism than you’d think. Because what we know is that from the beginning of Viva, Bob was able to use his women’s magazine failure to offset his men’s magazine Penthouse’s success. 


Robin Wolaner: I mean, it’s always been my understanding that they kept Viva going until Bob could no longer use the losses to offset income from Penthouse. You know. But my understanding was that if you kept funding a losing business venture like Viva was past seven years, the IRS no longer considered that an investment. They considered it a hobby. So I always heard that that timing, whatever that was, whether it was seven years or nine years, was correlated to Bob’s inability to write off the losses. 


Jennifer Romolini: With the tax write off, it’s fair to question what level of urgency, if any, Bob had to improve Viva’s numbers. And like what Cindy Gallop said. The light bulb really has to want to change. And in many ways, change wasn’t exactly in Bob’s nature either. Here’s Peter again. 


Peter Bloch: And he said, Peter, let me tell you something. When somebody tells me I’m wrong, I know I’m right. So [laughs] if you have that belief and you follow through on it, it’s a prescription for disaster, because you can be cause he remembered, at least in his mind, that people had told him he was wrong. He wasn’t going to succeed with Penthouse. And of course, he succeeded. But he you know, if he hired a lot of terrific people, but ultimately, he didn’t take any of their advice on things. 


Jennifer Romolini: It’s late 1978 when Bob decides to shut it all down. Viva’s a full five years old. Here’s Peter again. Only this time he’s not on the phone. 


Peter Bloch: Well, look, this is what I heard working there. As the years were going on was definitely people. People said a lot of things. So, you know, but people would say, well, Bob can take this as a tax write off for five years. But then he’s you know, he’s just not going to keep doing it because it’s just losing money. And I think it did end after five years. 


Jennifer Romolini: And for me, this timing is just a little too coincidental. So was Viva just a tax write off a quote, “hobby” for Bob Guccione? Was he ever invested in its success? Or was it actually better for him the whole time if it failed? 


Peter Bloch: Just knowing, Bob, he certainly didn’t start this thing as a tax write off. He would never do anything for the money, which is why he ended up dying without a cent. But at some point, if the magazine was failing after years and just not working and his accountant said, look, after five years you’re going to have to start paying real money. It’s no longer a tax write off. I could see him listening because, I mean, he stopped other magazines, too, but I there’s no way he started this magazine as a tax write off or as an experiment or I think he really believed that this was something that could work. Bob Guccione was a stubborn, cisgender white man of the 20th century. He was a product of his time, the early seventies sexual revolution, which by the time Viva ultimately fails, is coming to an end. Here’s Viva writer Annie. 


Annie Gottlieb: The late sixties were like this rocket that propelled us into the seventies with all that hope and energy and exploration. And but then there was there was also inflation, as we have now. As the seventies progressed. And so it became harder to live on a little bit. You know, you couldn’t just live this kind of gypsy life and this exploratory life. You had to work. You had to, you know, you had to make more money. And that brought people down, of course. So that’s part part of what happened was economic. 


Jennifer Romolini: When Viva finally folds. The seventies are all but over. No matter if Bob fumbled Viva or not, the brief window where a mainstream audience would have embraced a feminist porn magazine is closing. Porno chic is dead. In just a few months, Ronald Reagan will announce his presidential bid. Everything’s changing. 


Annie Gottlieb: This whole feeling that it’s a new morning in America. It’s morning in America, right? The party, the stale party, you know, all of the crack files and the condoms and the cocaine dust that’s been lying around has all been swept out and everything is clean. 


Jennifer Romolini: Because once the eighties are ushered in. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: Well, we went backwards. Society went backwards, and I watched it happen. What happened was that society stopped being open about sex. 


Jennifer Romolini: So where did that leave the Viva editors and other talented women who worked at the magazine? We’ll get to that after the break. [music plays] Act two, Afterglow. Viva magazine was Robin and Gay’s and Anna Wintour’s and dozens of women’s first big job, a place where they learned how to do their work. And it was all because of Bob Guccione, a flawed, difficult pain in the ass of a man who also happened to do a lot of good. Here’s Bob’s head of PR, Leslie Jay. 


Leslie Jay Gould: He definitely empowered me. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, I really I really think I came alive in that office doing what I did. I was able to reach my potential and go beyond even, you know, I loved my job. 


Jennifer Romolini: Because Bob did give all these women opportunities when a lot of the world was not. 


Peter Bloch: I mean, he’d call you honey, but he’d make you editor in chief. 


Jennifer Romolini: And many of them still admire both Bob and Kathy. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: I just saw that they were a team and that they always were into something new and what was coming. I personally resonated with that because that was how I lived my life. Like what’s coming next? Where is the world going? How can we be on the edge of discovery? 


Jennifer Romolini: After Viva, Bob and Kathy continue on their path of professional discovery. They try to start a casino in Atlantic City. 


[clip of Bob Guccione]: I was the second person to buy land in Atlantic City. I beat everybody [?]. 


Jennifer Romolini: They dapple in animation. 


[clip of Bob Guccione]: We’ve done a dozen Shakespearean plays that have been animated and sold all over the world. 


Jennifer Romolini: They’re years ahead of predicting virtual reality and cybersex, though they never implement it. Here’s Kathy on Phil Donahue Show in 1994. 


[clip of Kathy Keeton]: The interesting thing about this is you do not have to appear in virtual reality as you. You can appear as a fantasy creation of yourself. 


Jennifer Romolini: But their biggest success comes from the new magazines they launched together. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: I totally loved when they got into the Omni magazine. I mean, they made this commitment to live 100 years and Longevity. And sadly, both of them died of cancer you know, way young. 


Jennifer Romolini: In 1997, Kathy Keeton, by then, one of the wealthiest and highest ranking publishing executives in the world, dies of complications from breast cancer. She was 58. 


Robin Wolaner: She reached out to me while she was dying of breast cancer and was in a real state of denial about about her chances. And I went to New York to see her before she died. And it was really, you know, quite moving because she was hooked up to morphine. But wearing one of those outfits that she was always known for, you know, the skintight tank top with her bra showing and, you know, leopard skin or snakeskin leggings. The idea of getting into an outfit like that when you’re sick enough to be hooked up to morphine is mind boggling to me. But Kathy had tremendous self-discipline. 


Jennifer Romolini: Bob’s never the same without Kathy. Here’s his longtime friend, the photographer Earl Miller, who shot many of Viva’s nudes. 


Earl Miller: When Kathy died. He lost his own touch. He became a recluse afterwards. And his story is like a Greek tragedy. The story from rags to riches, back to rags to one of the richest men in the world. And he went broke. 


Jennifer Romolini: Bob had started Penthouse with Kathy, and truth is, he doesn’t know how to run it without her. Penthouse is the linchpin of Bob’s company, and he fails to evolve it at pace with the digital times is too slow to bring Penthouse online. By the early 2000s, the company, which was such a product of the seventies, collapses, and with it, so does Bob. He leverages everything to save his empire. He’s forced to sell his Manhattan mansion and even his beloved art collection. He fights to the end. 


Earl Miller: And then, of course, he got his own cancer. And one of the profound impacts that he had with his own physical presence was that incredibly easy, relaxed, baritone voice. The surgery in his throat changed his voice [speaks gibberish] it became a high pitched. Almost inaudible, yet I had to put my ear up to his mouth to understand what he was saying. 


Jennifer Romolini: Bob Guccione, the proud lion of porn publishing, goes out not with a roar, but a whisper. He died in 2010. He was 79. Bob may have died with nothing. But he left a lot behind. Here’s his son, Bob Jr. 


Bob Guccione Jr: I say his legacy as a great visionary, great artist, great painter, a great editor, you know, believes and fought for the First Amendment like unlike any other publishers ever done, frankly. Viva, I think his legacy is strong. I think it was very powerful, wonderfully flawed, brilliant genius. 


Jennifer Romolini: Bob and Kathy aside, some of Viva’s biggest legacies are the women who worked there. Here’s editor Bette-Jane. 


Bette-Jane Raphael: I’m proud of what we did. And I look at the stuff sometimes and I look at what’s surprisingly not dated. I look if something is still funny or if something is still prescient or hits the nail on the head or whatever. And some of it I’m not happy about, but but most of it, I am. I think it stands up. Okay. I mean, I look back and I have such fond feelings about that period of my life. You know, freedom, choices. 


Jennifer Romolini: After losing her job at Viva. Bette-Jane went on to be a columnist at dozens of magazines and newspapers. She built a tight, professional community at Viva and collaborated with her former Viva colleagues for the rest of her career. 


Bette-Jane Raphael: We may not have had the power. Look, I lost my job because I you know, because we didn’t have any power, but we had each other. 


Jennifer Romolini: The people they worked with were meaningful, and so was the time they were working in. 


Robin Wolaner: And the resilience that we had in the seventies, where the expectations were so low for us that whenever we did something that was better, it was like, Whoa. Everything that we achieved was sort of like, whoa. I you know, I did that. I could do that. 


Jennifer Romolini: After Viva, Robin went on to be the publisher of Mother Jones, the founder and CEO of Parenting magazine and a vice president at CNET. Today, she’s an adviser to tech startups and author of a book of Business Advice for Women and for the women of Viva. The sense of achievement that Robin just talked about, it meant everything. 


Gay Bryant: I sometimes wonder if that was a a period of of plenty when we were allowed to blossom and move ahead. We were in a business that was a bit frontier, you know, Wild West. And we picked it up and ran with it. If you were determined and you were good at it, you could go anywhere. 


Jennifer Romolini: Post Viva, Gay went lots of places. She was the editor in chief of Working Woman, of Mirabella. She was a vice president at the New York Times. 


Gay Bryant: I didn’t seem to want to get involved in the sexual freedoms of the time. But I did get very, very much turned on by the freedoms that women were achieving. To have your own money, to decide your own life and so on. Those freedoms to me were and are so huge. [music plays]


Jennifer Romolini: And even for all its misfires, the ridiculous flaccid dicks, the gender caricature bosses, the feminist contradictions, Viva still meant something. It was a step forward. Like all the best kinds of failures, Viva was an ambitious one, borne out of hopes. It’s a hopefulness many of us have in the beginning of our careers, if we’re lucky. This feeling that what we do has or will soon have meaning, no matter how small. But it’s a feeling that’s hard to hold on to as we’re burned out and screwed over professionally as cynicism creeps in. And maybe that’s why I was attracted to Viva in the first place. That first time I saw it when I was sitting at a desk at a women’s magazine, feeling disillusioned myself. I could feel the hope and urgency in its pages. How the editors felt. Everything could change. It could all be different. And they could be part of how. They were planting a flag. They were planting a flag. It might not have worked, but I think they were. They were really trying to do something. 


Annie Gottlieb: Yeah. Or at least to put a marker down so that you could come back and do what you’re doing. Like, let’s carry it on. 


Jennifer Romolini: Viva came out of a culture of risk taking, of progression, of flawed people using their power to give others at least a bit more freedom to try something innovative and new, even if it too was flawed. 


Dr. Judy Kuriansky: What I really admired about Bob and Kathy is that they were brave. They went where other people did not dare to go, but fantasized about going and they took risks. And that was tremendous because it allowed all the rest of us to go further and further towards that without fear. Thank you, Bob. Thank you, Kathy. [music plays]


Jennifer Romolini: Stiffed is an original podcast from iHeartMedia and Crooked Media. It’s produced by Crooked Media. It’s hosted and written by me, Jennifer Romolini and produced by Megan Donis. Sydney Rapp is our associate producer. Story editing by Mary Knopf. Music, sound design and engineering by Hannis Brown. Our fact checker is Julia Paskin. Additional production support from Nafula Kato and Ines Maza. From Crooked Media our executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Katie Long, and Mary Knopf. With special thanks to Alison Falzetta and Lyra Smith. From iHeartMedia our executive producers are Beth Anne Macaluso and Julia Weaver.