'A Felony Just to Own': The Sleazy Story Behind Penthouse’s Most Controversial Issue
Because my mind is in the past (the mid-eighties) and in the gutter (the porn biz) for reasons that will become clear, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the September 1984 issue of Penthouse. How to convey the magnitude of the frenzy?
Maybe this does it. Peter Bloch, Penthouse's then-executive editor: "It was the best-selling issue of Penthouse of all time. Hands down. A complete sellout in, like, two days. You couldn't get a copy. So there were guys paying—and this is something I saw with my own eyes—a dollar for a peek. A peek!"
Or this. Richard Bleiweiss, Penthouse's then-art director: "The thing about this issue is, it became the biggest news story in the world. Somebody in the press got an advance copy, and released it to the New York Post or the Daily News, one of those, the same exact day that Walter Mondale announced he was picking Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. The front page of that paper was our story. The most important news in the history of our country, having a woman vice presidential nominee, was overshadowed by the fact that we had…well, that we had what we had."
"You couldn't get a copy. There were guys paying—a dollar for a peek. A peek!"
Or this. Bloch again: "I mean, People magazine would do stories on Jackie Kennedy or whoever, and it would be a big story and the issue would sell. But the media could report on those stories. You'd read about them in newspapers, or watch them covered on TV. But the media couldn't really cover the Penthouse story because the pictures we had were just too scandalous. The media couldn't show them. Which meant you had to see the fucking magazine."
Or this. Leslie Jay-Gould, Penthouse's then-vice president and director of public relations: "The issue was beyond huge, was beyond anything. When it hit stands, I was fielding over a hundred calls a day. And then, two years later, the FBI came to the offices and took away all the issues. Yeah, it was a felony just to own."
If this doesn’t do it, nothing will. A queen was dethroned because of the issue.
No, if this doesn’t do it, nothing will. A porn star—an underage one at that—was born because of the issue.
Vanessa Williams being crowned as Miss America 1984.
We'll start with the dethroning.
In 1984, Vanessa Williams was the reigning Miss America. Miss America isn't a big thing now, is barely a thing at all, but it certainly was when Williams, 20 at the time, a junior at Syracuse University, took the title on September 17, 1983. The pageant then was compulsory viewing for much of the public, and winning it was atop many a little girl's to-do list. And, yeah, OK, sure, those second-wave feminists, the ones who called it a "degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol," did kind of have a point. (Making the participants strut across the stage in itsy-bitsy-teeny-weenies and high heels was different from a bikini contest exactly how?) And it was mostly boring and more than a little dumb, plus deeply, profoundly, uncool. Bagging on it, though, was like bagging on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a national institution!
Williams wasn't just the reigning Miss America, she was also the first Black Miss America. And for a Black woman to take the prize, be chosen as the country's official—"official," at the time, being code for "white"—feminine ideal, was a milestone. Black women had only been allowed to compete since 1971. "Thank God I have lived long enough that this nation has been able to select the beautiful young woman of color to be Miss America," said Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, who took William's victory as a sign that "the inherent racism in America must be diluting itself."
"Thank God I have lived long enough," said Rep. Shirley Chisholm, "that this nation has been able to select the beautiful young woman of color to be Miss America."
It was a milestone, however, not everyone was happy Williams had reached. In You Have No Idea, Williams' 2012 memoir, co-authored by her mother, she writes about the hate mail she received ("You're all black scum"); the threats to kill ("YOU'RE DEAD, BITCH"); the threats to maim (acid in the face). About the sharpshooters installed on rooftops for her parade in Millwood, New York, the predominantly white suburb of Westchester County where she'd grown up with her parents, both teachers, and younger brother. About being the butt of a quote-unquote joke by Johnny Carson."Did you hear we have the first Black Miss America?" he asked the crowd during a Tonight Show monologue. "I bet you didn't know that Mr. T was one of the judges."
Williams had already been through the wringer and then some by the time she found out, in mid-July 1984, via a New York Post reporter, that she was about to become Penthouse's cover girl, an honor she neither asked for nor wanted. The cover boy was George Burns, the beloved geriatric actor who'd played the All Mighty in the recent hit comedy Oh God! "Miss America: Oh, God, She's Nude!" the headline would read.
Williams later described the moment thusly: "I felt… like I had been raped."
The backstory to the cover story. In 1982, when Williams was 19 and home for the summer after her freshman year of college, she took a job as a receptionist/makeup artist with a local photographer considerably older than she named Tom Chiapel. One day, Chiapel asked her to model for him. Naked. He assured her that he wanted only her silhouette, that her face wouldn't be visible. Williams said yes. In her memoir, she wrote, "Tom was my employer but also had become my friend. I'd met his wife and kids. He paid me on time and was respectful. Why shouldn't I trust him?"
There were fifty thousand reasons not to trust him. Only she wouldn't learn them until it was too late.
Vanessa Williams, Miss America 1984.
Let's talk about the photos. Or, rather, let's let Albert Marks, "the unflappable Albert Marks" as he liked to call himself, the non-salaried chairman of the Miss America pageant, a stockbroker when he wasn't presiding over young lovelies, talk about the photos: "As a man, a father, a grandfather, as a human being, I have never seen anything like these photographs. Ugh. I can't even show them to my wife."
Well, the photos aren't quite all that, but they aren't just your standard-issue nudes either. They featured Williams and another model miming the act of love in a variety of attitudes and positions. Oh, and that other model happened to be a woman.
Now let's talk about where the photos ended up. Not in Playboy, because Hugh Hefner turned them down. "Vanessa Williams is a beautiful woman. There was never any question of our interest in the photos," he told one reporter. "But because they clearly weren't authorized and because they would be the source of considerable embarrassment to her, we decided not to publish them." Bob Guccione, founder, editor, and publisher of Penthouse, wasn't troubled by her lack of consent. He bought the photos from Chiapel for a cool $50,000.
Albert Marks, the chairman of the Miss America pageant.
That Guccione zigged where Hefner zagged is no surprise. Out-Hefnering Hefner had, after all, been his goal from the start. When he brought Penthouse from England to America in 1969, he placed an ad in the New York Times depicting the Playboy logo, the bunny, in the crosshairs of a gun, the caption reading, "We’re going rabbit hunting." And Guccione shot to kill. To wit: the Pubic Wars (an actual coined phrase, appearing in such august publications as the Wall Street Journal), which he won by showing short-and-curlies in the February 1970 Penthouse, a full eleven months before Playboy.
If Hefner, polished and urbane in his smoking jacket and pipe, was the socially acceptable pornographer, a pornographer to bring home to mother; Guccione was the renegade pornographer, and several steps beyond the pale. He wore silk shirts open to the navel, his chest so waxed you could read by its shine and adorned with multiple chains, from one of which dangled a phallus of solid gold. He sent to prospective interviewers a press kit that included an eight-by-ten glossy of himself as well as a clipping from Forbes naming him as one of the 400 wealthiest individuals in America. According to Leslie Jay-Gould, it didn't even occur to him to pass on the Williams photos: "Bob didn't see it the way Hefner saw it. He thought Hefner missed out on making a lot of money. Bob's way of thinking was that if he didn't publish the photos, someone else would."
Bob Guccione, the founder, editor, and publisher of Penthouse.
On July 20, 1984, Mr. Unflappable, Albert Marks, appeared on camera, waving around a Penthouse and demanding that Williams resign within seventy-two hours. The "hardcore" nature of the photos was what offended him he would say later, not having the wit—or the self-awareness—to recognize that his pageant was was, like Guccione’s magazine, pornographic, just a different kind of pornographic—the softcore kind. Or that his pageant's insistence on contestants looking like sex symbols but acting like virgins (only women who had never been married or pregnant were eligible) was the very definition of hypocrisy.
Seventy-two hours later, practically to the minute, Williams became a Miss America first for a second time when she resigned. She was allowed to keep her crown (rhinestone) and the $30,000 she'd made from appearances. Here's what she lost: opening two live shows for Bob Hope; singing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; her gig as spokesperson for the Gillette Company. She lost, as well, her reputation. ("Vanessa the Undressa" was the tabloids' new nickname for her.) And very nearly her mind. "I've let other women down and I've let the whole black community down," she told People, sounding almost beside herself. "I made a terrible error in judgment and I know I'll have to pay for it as long as I live."
Williams announcing her resignation as Miss America, July 1984.
Hefner emerged from the scandal looking like the Not-So-Bad guy. He certainly said all the correct things about respecting a woman's sovereignty over her body and image, her right to say no.
Only, not so fast: Hefner started Playboy by doing just what Guccione had done. He'd secured the rights to nude photos of Marilyn Monroe without securing her consent. And while he may well have sent Chiapel packing out of deference to Williams, he had another reason. As Time reported, "[Playboy] does not use what spokesperson Dave Salyers called 'lesbian material.'"
"I felt," Williams said of the moment she learned that she'd appear in Penthouse, "like I had been raped."
And if Guccione was the Bad Guy, at least he wasn't pretending otherwise. Unlike the pageant. So prim and prissy was it, so Victorian in its attitudes and values, that it was unable to handle a winner who was sexual and complicated, who had a mind of her own. And it couldn't expel Williams from the fold quickly enough, lest she taint it. A move not lost on Guccione. He said, "The Miss America pageant is out of step with reality. To equate morality with nudity is unrealistic in this day and age." Hard to disagree with his assessment, even if he seems like the last person who should be commenting on somebody else’s morality. Says Bloch, "A lot of people despised Bob as the world's worst piece of garbage for publishing the photos. But he was truly incensed that the Miss America people pulled the crown from Vanessa, and he offered to underwrite 100% of her legal expenses should she choose to sue." A former Penthouse lawyer confirmed Bloch's memory. (Williams declined a request for comment.)
But if Guccione did in fact offer to finance her suit against the pageant, she didn't take him up on it. She sued him—or, rather, his magazine—instead.
Hugh Hefner, the Not-So-Bad Guy. In this case, anyway.
Now for Williams. She was undoubtedly a victim. Of a deceitful photographer. Of an exploitative publisher. Of a society that imagined it had attained enlightenment when it was as backwards as ever. Says journalist Cassie da Costa, "Williams was supposed to be shining proof of the idea that Black people could be tidy, respectable, intelligent beauty queens, palatable to white audiences and institutions. The photos blew that image up. That very premise is, of course, a racist one, and so for me it's hard to see things happening so quickly and reactively if she weren't Black."
Williams, though, was also, at some level, a victim of herself. As it turns out, she didn't put up much of a fight for her title in part because there was a second set of photos, this set shot with a different photographer and with her in bondage gear. "People can forgive one mistake," Williams told Rolling Stone, in 1985, "but if the other pictures come out, everyone will say, 'This girl took us for a ride.'" (Guccione, incidentally, would get his hot little hands on those photos, too. He ran them a few months later, in the January '85 issue, the cover once more featuring Williams and George Burns, and this time reading "Oh, God, I Did It Again!")
Beloved geriatric actor George Burns, who shared the cover of Penthouse with Williams. Twice.
If Williams was a victim, however, she turned herself, through sheer force of will and strength of character—not to mention natural talent—into a winner. Guccione wasn't wrong when he asserted that her Penthouse appearance "made her by far the most famous Miss America that ever lived." It did make her by far the most famous Miss America that ever lived. Yet it also, paradoxically, allowed her to break free of Miss America. To win that pageant was to lose your identity. You were no longer you; you were Miss America. But because of Penthouse, the entire country, the entire world, knew who Vanessa Williams was.
And she made the most of that recognition. Her comeback included Tony, Grammy and Emmy nominations, seven NAACP Image Awards, two hit TV series and an Academy Award–winning song. Also, in 2016, an appointment as head judge of the Miss America Pageant. That year, Sam Haskell, then-Miss America CEO, took the stage with her and said, "I want to apologize for anything that was said or done that made you feel any less than the Miss America you are and the Miss America you always will be." Obviously the pageant came crawling back to her. As she's thrived, it's languished. (Roughly 17 million people watched her get crowned in 1983; roughly 3.6 million people watched Camille Schrier get crowned in 2019.) Now it needed her.
As Guccione was prophetic about Williams, so Williams was prophetic about Guccione. She'd drop that suit against Penthouse less than two years after she filed it. At the time, her manager and then fiancé Ramon Hervey gave this as the reason: Williams accepted that the signature on the model release form was indeed hers and that while "she always believed the photographs were meant to be private and that Penthouse was ill-advised to publish them, she now recognizes that Penthouse had an absolute right to have done so." But in 2014, on Oprah's Master Class, Williams gave this as the reason: when she was ten, an older female friend had molested her. Her lawyer informed her that this would come out at trial. Not wanting to put herself or her family through anymore public ugliness, she let the matter go. In 1989, a philosophical-sounding Williams told a reporter that revenge against Penthouse would ultimately be hers: "So many people have gotten burned by those people that I think they'll eventually get it in the end and die a slow, painful death."
Which is, more or less, exactly what happened. Guccione would forfeit his magazine in 2003, his fortune in 2006, and his life in 2010, when he died in Plano, TX, after a protracted battle with throat cancer.
Bob Guccione and his longtime assistant, Jane Homlish, watch Williams announce her resignation.
Actually, Williams would get her revenge on Penthouse, if only a taste of it and indirectly, a lot sooner than 2010. In July 1986, the very same month she abandoned her suit against the magazine, it was revealed that the most famous adult actress in the world, Traci Lords, had been underage for nearly her entire career. Guess where that career started? That's right, in the September 1984 Penthouse. She was its Pet. Sure, she'd nude-modeled for other publications—Velvet, Juggs—but it was in Penthouse that she began calling herself Traci Lords (though Penthouse got it wrong, spelled "Traci" with a "y"). Given that the issue's popularity was through the roof, the demand for her was likewise. Weeks later, she starred in her first X-rated movie.
Lords was just 15 when a Penthouse photographer shot her. But, thanks to a fake ID that was all too real, the magazine believed that she was 21. (Lords, born Nora Kuzma, had taken an older friend's birth certificate and parlayed it into a driver's license issued by the state of California.) If Williams was a teenage girl hoodwinked by a dirty old man, then Lords was a teenage girl hoodwinking the dirty old men. And the very people who had terrorized Williams, were now themselves terrified. Remembers Bloch, "The lawyers started running around the office with their hair on fire."
In the end, Lords didn't really hurt Penthouse, even if she made their most popular issue a crime to own. Bloch again: "The paperwork was in order, the photo ID was there, so everyone calmed down. We couldn't sell back issues and that was about it."
Lords, however, did hurt the adult industry. Really, really hurt it. Almost destroyed it, in fact. Came this close to wiping it off the face of the planet. But that's another story. It's also a podcast. Mine. A real-life unsolved mystery and noir thriller set in the porn world of the 1980s. (I told you my reasons would become clear.) It's called Once Upon a Time… in the Valley, and it's co-hosted by Ashley West. Here's a link to the entire show.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.