Bob Guccione's Abscam American Hustle
Sheik Abdul met with Bob Guccione in the Abscam American Hustle.
American Hustle, the movie starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner, chronicles the misadventures of Bale’s pot-bellied, bad-combover con man in the late 1970s. He’s got issues, this guy, largely with the people in his life: his kooky shut-in wife, his partner-in-crime lover who sports a fake English accent too frequently, an FBI agent who’s caught him dead to rights and is forcing him and his girl to scam for the government, and the Jersey politico he’s supposed to set up, but of whom he’s grown kind of fond. “Some of this actually happened,” a title card announces at the beginning of the movie. That’s one way of putting it. American Hustle is a VERY fictionalized (to the point of pretty much every real name being changed) recounting of the “Abscam” investigations conducted by the Bureau, which themselves were investigated after it became manifestly clear that the Feds had overstepped their bounds in setting up sting operations to trap corrupt politicos. Bob Guccione's Abscam American Hustle, though was no fiction at all.
According to Robert W. Greene’s 1981 book The Sting Man: Inside Abscam (recently reissued with the front cover blurb “The true story behind the film American Hustle”), famed Penthouse Magazine founder Bob Guccione was an early target of the Abscam (then short for “Arab Scam”) sting team. This force that brought convicted con man Mel Weinberg together with Federal agent Jack McCarthy, and a host of other players, including an entirely invented figure known as Sheik Abdul. The germ of their entrapment plan was a simple one—Weinberg and McCarthy would act as representatives of this fake sheik who, according to their story, was prepared to put up a huge amount of investment money for casinos in the new open city of Atlantic City, new Jersey. And they would ensnare criminals coming both ways. For would-be casino owners who needed to grease the wheels for a license from the gaming commission, they’d lay out a scheme by which these guys could bribe their way to a license. Only there’d be no license, just an arrest. To the officials and lawmakers who could make things happen for the would-be casino owners, Weinberg and McCarthy would offer the bribes. Most of the negotiations and transactions were videotaped, so once a Congressman left a hotel suite with a briefcase full of cash, the boom was lowered and the corrupt politico arrested.
Why was Guccione an early target? He was an early opportunity-seeker. He had tried his hand at the casino game before; once, in London, where he began Penthouse magazine. The Penthouse International casino came under Scotland Yard investigation in the very heavily regulated early ‘70s revival of legal casino gambling in Great Britain. The issue reportedly had to do more with a “criminal element” visiting the casino than specific illegal business practices. Given that Guccione staffed the joint with gorgeous Pets and would-be Pets, the place’s attraction for any male element, criminal or otherwise, was only natural. Guccione’s next casino was in Yugoslavia. It takes a visionary businessman to put a gambling den in a Soviet bloc country. Here, too, Guccione was prescient, staffing the house with the sort of Eastern European beauties that would reinvigorate the porn world after the Iron Curtain fell in the late ‘80s. And then, of course, there was the publicity-friendly combination of his unique brand of swagger and that Italian surname.
But these adventures in gambling made Guccione a kind of problem case as far as getting a license was concerned. According to Greene’s book, late ‘70s Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti, a key figure in the Abscam cases, told Weinberg and McCarthy that he’d arranged for Tony Tarcasio, a friend of his, to manage Guccione’s casino once it had obtained financing from this Sheik—a Sheik that Errichetti did not know at the time was a non-existent figure. (As the entrapment got deeper still, Tarcasio boasted of his profit-skimming scheme to fleece Guccione once the deal was done.)
With these players, both real and fictional, in place, Weinberg and company were ready to get Guccione. Despite the hard-hitting investigative journalism that Penthouse had published against Mob interest—journalism that Guccione spent a lot of money defending in the courts—the feds were convinced that Guccione was mobbed up. Guccione not only needed financing to achieve his Atlantic City casino dream, he needed a license before the first spade got to even break ground on whatever lot Guccione wanted to build it on. Weinberg gave Guccione a proposition that was not unlike the loan scams he had been perpetrating and had gotten busted for prior to Abscam. The “sheik” would put up $150 million in financing for the Penthouse casino once Guccione was licensed, but in order to get the license, Guccione was asked, by Weinberg, to cough up $300,000. According to John Heidenry’s book What Wild Ecstasy, Guccione met this request with a simple question of his own: “Are you out of your mind?”
Years later, upon learning that the proposition he had turned down was one that had been intended to entrap him, an utterly outraged Guccione, still unable to obtain a casino license, sued the federal government.
For whatever entertainment value it has, American Hustle sugarcoats the Abscam saga to a degree that anyone even partially familiar with the facts of the case would call egregious. The fairy-tale ending of the movie neglects to inform the audience that the real-life version of one of its “eccentric” characters committed suicide. Life’s not as simple as the most ingratiating movies we see would have us believe. Similarly, the deep-dish story of how Bob Guccione’s business was consumed and ultimately destroyed by his obsession with creating a casino—how his tenacious, street-fighter nature was both his greatest asset and his deepest flaw—is a complex one that this particular anecdote shows only one part of. (There’s still a delicious irony that one of the true moral compasses in this whole sorry episode of American crime belongs to a fellow whose obituaries routinely referred to as a crusading pornographer.) But the fact remains that, at this one moment when a certain push came to shove, Bob Guccione was too street smart to fall for an American Hustle.