Thom Gautier

Life in the Penthouse

April 1983

I was fifteen. I am fifteen. It was spring. It is spring. Before targeting the mission as my own, I’d begged and bribed older boys to buy Penthouse magazine for me, without success. Now, my impending purchase feels like the wait before a bank heist. A sophomore, I’ve spent the long day in school, my cock hard with innocent anticipation.

I get off the crowded bus miles away from my own neighborhood, and stroll into the shop, pretend to browse music and sports magazines and then stare down at the two stacks of thick magazines.

One stack is Playboy: bleach blondes with beaming smiles. Playboy seems somehow “acceptable” or “safe” porn, vaguely Hollywood, somehow false.

The other stack is Penthouse. Even from its covers, Penthouse seemed like High Culture, featuring sophisticated models decked out in European-style boudoirs. Or posed unadorned, hippy-like, nude, gazing over flower fields.

This month’s issue, May 1983, features a cover model––whose name I came to know––is Linda Kenton. She’s a Grace Kelly ringer––blonde coif, a red dress pulled back, a long leg lifted, a shoeless foot raised, a backward glance. As I bring the magazine up to the counter, my young hands tremble self-consciously. My schoolbag heavy at my side, I am fired up by a vague knowledge that a new kind of homework awaits, and I hand over rumpled dollars and take my change, still shaking. The store owner feels like a co-conspirator.

Safely at home I peel open the magazine like it is a sacred and forbidden text.  The pictorial inside knocks me backwards on my bed. I feel flush. It’s not just the female nudity that draws me in. I shiver, sensing an erotic danger even in simple details. Close eyelids and smoky eyeliner. Or a woman’s knowing glance over a teacup. The path of sunlight from a window to a flowerpot to a naked arm to her nose. What a lithe limb encased in black hosiery looks like peeking from under a tulle dress. I am turned on by these simplest details and by the electric force of her finger posed there, pressed between her parted legs. She invites me to do likewise, and these are my first truly deliberate acts of self-pleasuring, confused strokes, a crazed sensation like swimming without knowing what “water” is.  The magazine opened on my bed, for the first time, I willfully bring myself to orgasm.

December 1986

It is years later and, my Penthouse fat Holiday issue is confiscated by household authorities. What if my much younger siblings had found it? I am grilled by my father.  Compliant but outraged, a day or two later, I head to the newsagent to buy that very same fat, hefty Holiday issue again. I stand at the counter. The store’s register is unmanned. I wait. No one appears. I wait some more, growing bitterly aware that I already paid my hard earned cash for this very issue a week before, before the “authorities” snatched it from me. So without a second thought, I walk out of the store without paying, the free issue under my arm. Free. I am sure I came more than once that afternoon.

January 1988

Coming off a bad run of luck the previous year—I have just turned twenty. Already I am feeling a tad old to be doing this. I double park in the frigid cold and run in to buy Penthouse from the local shop. The annual Pet of the Year issue is just out.  Her name is “Patty Mullen.” When I take “her” home, her beauty bowls me over. An auburn haired woman posed in streaming sunlight, her head crowned with a fedora. The pictorial informs me she is a local gal (“how far a drive is Staten Island from my house,” I wonder?). For the first time, a Penthouse model is exactly my age. Her taste is eclectic and impeccable. She loves “scallops and white wine and chocolate, Woody Allen and white Harley Davidson’s.”  She wears ruffled Queens Anne lace and hooded blouses. Her smiling green eyes burn through me. Patty Mullen is a great omen. The new year turns out to be an annus mirabilis.

October 1990
Away at grad school, exiled in God’s country, I receive an unexpected care package from home. My current girlfriend has shipped me my Penthouse stash.  She enjoyed perusing my back issues. She included a note saying which issue was her favorite. On top of the magazines, she has left a pair of her black lace panties.

January 1994

I am happily engaged. My girlfriend and I are enjoying a prolific sex life, and yet I find myself home alone, midwinter, and bored. In our gentrified neighborhood’s magazine shop, I scope out Penthouse, like old times. The cover model’s name is Sasha Vinni. Eyes like ink, dark, deep as a Russian novel. And a body out of Ovid’s poetry. Sasha, extolling her Russian upbringing, Sasha strolling among an island’s yew trees and kicking in its foamy shore. Sasha seated in sunlight, Sasha hugging her black stocking legs, the trim of her stockings graced by tiny white bows. Sah-sha.

June 1998

I woke up fifteen hours earlier in Prague. Now I am back in New York. Things at home have been stale. If it’s not over between us now it will be soon enough. Everyone knows the unspoken and slow fade-out of a relationship. It happens.  Jet-lagged, horny, I pull off the highway and stop at the newsagent on the way back to the ‘burbs from the airport. I recall it is the same store where I’d shoplifted that issue some twelve years earlier. This time I wait patiently and pay for Penthouse––I’m a good bourgeois boy by now––and taking the magazine under my arm, I actually don’t expect much from it. The few issues I’ve bought in the 1990s are thinner than they used to be, both in content and in quality.  The couple’s pictorials, once a voyeuristic favorite, have become a parade of silicone boobs and steroid biceps and all-too-graphic anatomical close-ups.

Yet that jet-lagged afternoon at home, I am wowed by that month’s model. Kelly Havel. Talk about sexual healing! Unlike my girlfriend at the time, Kelly actually smiles, laughs. An authentic laughter. Her eyes suggest a compelling mix of self-conscious giddiness and a grown-up playfulness. Her black gown is stunning. Her breasts are small, natural. Her ass is small, full. Her legs are long. Her lips against her own lips on the mirror glass. Her tight blouse is painted with Asian flourishes. A dragon. Fire. Tongue. Flame. Relief.

Epilogue: March 2010

Penthouse back then, was not porn as it is in 2010. Those were hard copies, indeed. I don’t regret a minute of it. Or a dollar of it. Lost and found gazing at the pages of Penthouse, I was somehow included and excluded from sex.

I savored that contradiction.

My memories are like those of someone who lived in an Eastern Bloc country, waiting for the trucks to deliver the latest issue to the local pick up point, then smuggling this underground magazine from one location to another. I even persuaded myself that it wasn’t porn, but high art. I treated the issue with delicacy. I stored the magazines safely and variously. I smelled and touched the glossy pages. I studied the pictorials’ foregrounds and backgrounds. I envied those coupling couples, and I was struck dumb by the transgressive photos of threesomes. I knew each of the photographers by name and by their styles. I read subtexts and stories into the settings. If Penthouse’s photographers aspired to be like painters like Renoir and Klimt, they also knew porn was part irony, and even camp. I was disappointed when the magazine punctured my dream-world of sex with nude photo spreads of “real” celebrities: Madonna, Vanessa Williams, Gennifer Flowers. Once or twice, I actually bought an issue for the articles and interviews. Andy Warhol and Pete Townshend and Martin Scorsese. In more literary moods, I often got off to the (always fake) Forum letters.

Secure, alone in my room with the latest issue, I was not put upon by social expectations: teachers, parents, friends, siblings. In Penthouse, I didn’t have to think about “my future” or “responsibilities.”  I got off in the company of beautiful, silent strangers. Their allure was so vivid that I can recall their first names as if they are ex’s of mine, which, in a way, they are. Linda, Patty, Sasha, Kelly. These were women who seemed beyond men: worldly, artistic, independent. Penthouse-living women. That was part of founder Bob Guccione’s goal, his magazine’s sweet illusion. I have often wondered what became of these women in “real” life.

Real-life: how irrelevant is that phrase, especially when applied to the pursuit of pleasure. I think sex is forever intertwined with the unreal, the tangible mirage.

Playing among those phantasms in Penthouse and finding my pleasure between what could be and what is, I gave as much as I got.

While Thom Gautier no longer buys Penthouse magazine, he does write erotica, which has appeared in Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 9 (Running Press), and in the forthcoming Sex in the City: New York Sex (Accent Press).  His stories have also been in Lucrezia Magazine, Sliptongue, Cleansheets, and Oysters & Chocolate.

14 Responses to “Thom Gautier”

  1. I found this so compelling and gorgeously written. And wow, what a fascinating account of a personal journey with the consistent companion of Penthouse. I loved the relating of specific times in personal experience in the context of the steady companionship of the magazine, and how both changed, and the pleasant surprise of that later issue. I in fact found the account poignant somehow, reading the ongoing relationship with Penthouse almost like one with a person, growing and shifting and moving. The poignancy seemed increased for me in the way that relationship was there alongside and through various ones with other people, and also by the change you saw in the later issues.

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Thom.

  2. Greetings, Thom.

    I found a great deal to relate to in your excellent essay. Our times were a few years apart (I reached fifteen in 1975) and the object of our desires was different. Yes, I got a few Penthouses, a Oui or two and even a Gallery, but I was more committed to the Playboys. I lived for the “Sex in Cinema” issues and I especially enjoyed the spreads where they went to college campuses and the like.

    My voyage of discovery was very similar to what you expressed. I always had a mature and worldly feeling as a teen, just possessing them. There was a certain rush from purchasing them (or trying to) when I was underage.

    Thanks for joining in at F-stop!

  3. Hi Thom,
    First, let me say, welcome to F-stop and thank you for your poignant, and gorgeously written essay.

    You’ve touched upon many exposing layers here – One that resonates with me is the simple fact that I’ve never been a man (at least not in the life time), thus my fascination to read the male’s perspective on the topic of sex. I do however remember at a tender age having/feeling sexual curiosity of women. I wanted to know what they looked like naked and maybe even slightly more than what the boys/men looked like naked…maybe that was because looking at naked women would be less intimidating, or I’d get into less trouble if caught. I dunno. I do know for certain looking at girlie magazines was not condoned in our household – the mantra was as follows: “suppress sexual desire; squash it down to a pulp – use religion to replace those feelings” Nice American suppression, eh? It’s no wonder why I enjoy the genre of eroticism – it’s so damn liberating!

    “Real-life: how irrelevant is that phrase, especially when applied to the pursuit of pleasure. I think sex is forever intertwined with the unreal, the tangible mirage.” This was an Aha! for me.

    Thank you, again Thom, this was wonderful!

  4. James Storey Says:

    Thom,

    Thanks for a trip down memory lane. I’d expect almost any male over the age of 30 would find this very familiar. I wonder if there is nearly the same appeal, in particular the rush of the forbidden, for young men today, when they can probably find and download just about any images they’d like without having to leave the comfort of their own rooms. But, maybe some of them can appreciate the full sensual impact of the feel of the glossy pages and the lingering paper and ink scent enhancing the visual images, and the tension of having to actually interact with someone in order to buy the goods in the first place. I just don’t think the Kindle has the same kick.

    I find it somewhat amusing that now the stash in our house belongs to Donna – for research purposes, really. Also, at the risk of sounding like an old dude, I agree that the quality has slipped considerably since the 70s and 80s. We recently got a copy of Penthouse for the articles (Donna was fortunate enough to get one of her stories picked up by them). We both found the women to seem very artificial. Part of the allure back then was that while they were wilder than the women I ever seemed to meet, there was that sense of a possibility at least that one could drive up to Staten Island and try to have a cup of coffee with Patty. I sure didn’t get that from the current issues, with its surgically and photographically enhanced women in poses that would make Marilyn Chambers blush.

    Which, for me, also applies to good erotica – it is wild but not beyond belief. I suppose there are different tastes out there, so someone is welcome to enjoy the current style of magazine and absolute fantasy erotica, but I’m thankful for those of you writers that can keep it real.

    James

  5. Read this earlier, when not coherent enough to type a reply – but I found this very moving. I’m out-the-door right now, but I’ll be back later to comment more.

  6. Hi Thom,

    Thank you so much for this rich and revealing piece. I also enjoyed the personal journey in the company of Penthouse and just now realized for me the true ending is your bio–because this is also the story of the making of an erotica writer. Especially in the sensitivity to evocative/provocative detail, even as a teenager, and to the ways fantasy is created and translated into “real life.”

    Like Neve, I immediately connected with this line: sex is forever intertwined with the unreal, the tangible mirage–so true–but fortunately my hippie sister fought back the forces of religion with her fortifying supply of Viva’s, Penthouse’s counterpart for the ladies in the 1970s. Quite the education! I did occasionally buy my own issues of Penthouse–I remember braving the local tobacco and magazine shop to get my hands on an article on Bruce Lee whose famous poster hung over my bed in college. (I remember the models pretty clearly, too).

    I also appreciated the contradictions you identified in your experience, lost and found, included and excluded. Savoring the tension of that in-between place strikes me as the source of erotic art for all of us.

    So much to think about and enjoy in this. Many thanks!

  7. hey all. I am so grateful and humbled and relieved by the wonderfully suppoetive and thought provoking feedback. Thanks! Craig, I admit I “cheated” on Penthouse a time or two back in the day but always felt guilty and went running back to Penthouse. Neve, I am glad to know my home wasn’t the only one where this material was outlawed and I am glad my piece gave some insight into at least one male’s perspective on this, which is probably a more complicated perspective than the word “porn” might lead people to believe. To James’ excellent point, why has porn given into the silicon mentality today? Maybe the thinking is “if we make sex plastic-perfect and homogeneous then it’s as if true sex doesn’t exist whereas if we show individuals as individuals flaws and all, it makes sex too uncomfortably real.” The pervasiveness of porn these days doesn’t seem t have come with a more liberated cultural attitude about sex. I might be naive but I think magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, in their heyday, owed a lot to the free-love sexual revolution even if those magazines became something else later. It must cheapen the porn experience (sounds like a redundancy, I realize, “cheapening the porn”) but, the easy access issue James raises, there’s no longer that start of the month waiting for the new issue and the curious shopper having to leave home to go get the magazine in a public space. I am glad Donna invited me to put myself out there and am grateful to be part of this F Stop community, enjoying all the weekly posts and the company of supportive writers and sensitive, smart readers.

  8. Excellent essay on a rite of passage and the deep roots of our interest in erotic writing and imagery. Thanks Thom. (and Neve, Donna and Shanna )

    xx

  9. Hi, Thom. I love this series of personal recollections, both for the carefully chosen details that make each pocket-sized episode so vivid and meaningful, and for the artful manner in which you’ve orchestrated them into a cohesive and epic whole.

    After reading your piece, I spent some time reminiscing about my own early forays into the world of glossy “men’s magazines.” I remember acquiring a Playboy the summer I was almost 15, and another one a year later. (The era was the late 1970s.) I think my relationship to them was more superficial than yours to your Penthouses, but the thrill was undeniable. And, female flesh aside, the glossiness–and staple-straining thickness–of these mags was indeed seductive. The tactile appeal of such objects, as objects, even lured me into one or two Omni purchases!

  10. Back. I loved how you were able to convey the mindset of each age so we could see the progression. And feel it. I loved the details. This may be my favorite line – “The path of sunlight from a window to a flowerpot to a naked arm to her nose.”

    Your nervousness with your first purchase took me back to my first purchase of erotica – I think I was a ripe old 18 or 19. But carrying that book up to the counter and handing over my money was definitely a rite of passage in a way. There were Playboys and Penthouses around the house I grew up in, and I took every opportunity I could to peruse them (unbeknownst to anybody). And though that was a number of years before those mentioned here, I do remember the ‘style’ of those days.

    Thank you for coming and sharing with us.

  11. Interesting Erobintica how indirectly these magazines find their way — or used to find their way–to even casual readers as I heard that experience shared by others. Jeremy, love your line “staple straining thickness” made me smile I know exactly what you’re talking about. Those holiday issues were massive. I remember when Penthouse switched to non staple binding. Staples made magazines feel home-made.

  12. I thought this was lovely and deeply evocative. Women so often assume that men’s experience of porn is completely shallow, and it’s great to see another side.
    Brings back memories of how earthshakingly important it felt to access sexual imagery at that age, too!

  13. Yes to what Janine said. This is so sweet, and dare I say it … touching!

  14. Great essay, Thom! Sorry I’m late to the party, but I’m glad I didn’t miss this. I love how Penthouse was a companion of sorts to you over the years and how you marked how you grew up and changed through and with it.

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