Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse magazine, died yesterday of lung cancer. He was 79. Guccione, a former seminary student, launched Penthouse in 1965 in the UK and 1969 in the U.S. as a racier, “regular guy” alternative to Playboy, with more nudity in its photos, an emphasis on voyeurism, naughty letters, and tabloid journalism.
Where Playboy strove to be the companion to the upscale, swinging modern man, Penthouse wasn’t afraid to lie down in the gutter—as when it published nude photos of Vanessa Williams in 1984, causing a national uproar and costing her the Miss America crown. In that same issue, Guccione ran a centerfold featuring new adult film star Traci Lords; it was later revealed that Lords was only 15 at the time.
But aside from the smut and the scandal, Penthouse also found room for fiction from authors ranging from Joyce Carol Oates to Isaac Asimov to Stephen King, and even though many feminists and Moral Majority leaders hated the magazine—with Edwin Meese’s 1986 Commission on Pornography landing the biggest blows, resulting in many newsstands and convenience stores pulling Penthouse from their shelves—it remained one of the most successful and well-known publications in the nation for many years, with Guccione at one time ranking among the world’s richest people.
Guccione lost much of that fortune over the years through bad investments, most famously the 1979 X-rated film Caligula with Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud. Although easily the most prestigious cast ever assembled for a porno, distributors refused to carry it, and Guccione lost around $17.5 million. (The film later became, and remains, a popular DVD.) He also suffered hits from lawsuits filed by Jerry Falwell, a resort that the magazine had once claimed was a playground for the mob, and a former Penthouse Pet who said that Guccione had forced her to perform sexual favors for his colleagues.
He also lost $17 million hiring a massive team of scientists to develop a small nuclear reactor as a viable low-cost energy source (it didn’t work), sunk millions into an Atlantic City casino that never got off the ground, and gave huge chunks of his fortune to the IRS. However, he still managed to invest wisely in print, launching the popular Penthouse Forum spin-off and the science and science-fiction magazine Omni. In 1985, his son, Bob Guccione Jr., started Spin magazine with the help of his father—although they had a falling out two years later, with Guccione quickly pulling his funds and leaving his son twisting in the wind looking for new investors.
Then, of course, the Internet came along and offered up more readily available nudity than Guccione could have ever dreamed of when he took his first nude photo. Guccione responded by attempting to transform Penthouse into a hardcore sex mag—including photos of actual penetration and women urinating and the like—but of course, the breadth and depth of porn available online, when added to the widespread proliferation of pornographic DVDs and untold numbers of print competitors, all but killed Penthouse’s circulation. Guccione’s General Media filed for bankruptcy and sold the company to social networking firm FriendFinder Networks Inc. in 2004, which quickly went back to Penthouse’s more softcore roots, although this did not do much to improve its numbers.
After selling his company, Guccione spent most of his time auctioning off his massive art collection and, eventually, his gaudy Manhattan mansion, then relocated from New York to Plano, Texas in 2009, where he lived out the rest of his days painting, a career he had briefly pursued as a young man wandering Europe before pornography got hold of him.
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