Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione died on Wednesday after a long battle with cancer, according to The Associated Press. While the pipe-smoking, velvet-pajama-wearing Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner was the mainstream face of men’s magazines in America, Guccione cultivated a more outrageous reputation, constantly pushing the envelope of good taste and seeking to outgun his lifelong rival in the skin trade with outrageous layouts and stunts.
Hefner sought to portray the suave, sophisticated man of leisure, but Guccione cut a rougher figure, wearing wide-open disco shirts and gold chains and running more explicit photo spreads and tabloid journalistic investigations in his magazine. The Brooklyn native went from nearly entering the priesthood to running a mainstream adult magazine that showed America more skin than any previous publication at the time and becoming one of the richest men in America.
Guccione was born Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione on December 17, 1930 in Brooklyn. While the target="blank">New York Times reported that at one point the Roman Catholic Guccione considered entering the priesthood, life had other things in store for him. After years of living in London and running a dry-cleaning business while drawing cartoons for newspapers, Guccione decided to launch a rival to Playboy at the height of the feminist movement in 1969.
With risqué images he often shot himself, the magazine became an instant hit and reportedly brought in nearly $4 billion over 30 years. At one point, his fortune estimated at $400 million, Guccione landed on the Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest Americans. A lifelong art fanatic, Guccione spent that money on filling his 17,000-square foot Manhattan home with original artworks by Picasso, Matisse, Dali and Renoir. His empire included 15 other magazines at its height, among them titles on photography, health, bodybuilding and computers.
Penthouse reached its pop culture zenith in 1984, when it published photos of the first black Miss America, actress/singer Vanessa Williams, who was later forced to give up her crown following an outcry over the explicit shots. In addition to also running nude photos of a pre-fame Madonna, Penthouse also ran work by high-profile writers like Stephen King, Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates.
Guccione also poured $17 million into the X-rated epic “Caligula.” The Gore Vidal-penned 1979 film was a sex-filled flick about the Roman emperor starring Sir John Gielgud, Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren.
But as quickly as Guccione amassed his fortune, his empire began to crumble. He lost millions in investments, was socked with massive back tax bills from the Internal Revenue Service and saw circulation plummet for this signature magazine as free content on the Internet began to sap the allure of his company’s projects.
In 1998, while battling cancer and mounting debts, he began selling some of his beloved artwork and media properties. He was finally forced to file for bankruptcy in 2003 on behalf of his company, General Media. He resigned as CEO of Penthouse International in 2003 and creditors foreclosed on his beloved Guccione mansion in 2006, forcing him to move out. The contents were sold for fire-sale prices in 2009.
Guccione was 79.