Penthouse's Bob Guccione: The Dark Prince of Porn

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Marty Lederhandler / AP

Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione in 1982

With his oily good looks, unbuttoned silk shirts and enough wrist and neck jewelry to fill a Vatican vault, he looked like a high-class pornographer — probably the director, possibly the star. Like Penthouse, the magazine he founded, edited and frequently shot photo-essays for, Bob Guccione radiated a sleazy, erotic charisma. His rival Hugh Hefner, for all his Playboy Playmates, was still a Midwestern Methodist in his careful speech and shrewd business practices. Guccione, who died of cancer on Oct. 20 at the age of 79 at the Plano Specialty Hospital in Texas, lent a Mediterranean sensuality to his public persona and to his magazine. Its blend of the luscious and the lascivious built Guccione an empire and made him millions, which he lost when his ambitions ran wild just as his readers were discovering other ways to get the sexual satisfaction that Penthouse offered.

Born in Brooklyn in 1930 and raised in Bergenfield, N.J., Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione had dreams of being an artist. After a failed teenage marriage (the first of four) that produced a daughter, Tonia, he wandered around Europe and North Africa, sketching patrons at cafés and illustrating greeting cards. A second marriage, to the English singer Muriel Hudson, resulted in four children: Bob Jr., Nina, Anthony and Nick. Guccione founded Penthouse as a British magazine in 1965, and brought it to the U.S. four years later. By the 1980s, he had a $300 million publishing empire, General Media, and owned a double townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a mansion in upstate New York and an estimated worth of $400 million, including a $150 million art collection featuring the likes of Degas, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall — in large part because he had dared to move the focus of male readers' attention from a woman's breasts to her pubis.

He conceived Penthouse not just as another Playboy but as its daring, next-generation edition. Hefner's genius, when he started his magazine in 1953, was to streamline and sanitize sex. He sold the image of American womanhood as the smiling, beguiling girl next door — a coed, a stenographer, a saleslady — but with her clothes off. Guccione had a clever counter-inspiration: to restore the sin to skin. Instead of nice girls, he chose naughty ones. Instead of Playboy's gleamingly bright photography, which made a bedroom look like a sitcom set, he favored sultry tones: a noir palette for lust in the shadows. Whereas Playmates sent their frank, friendly gazes straight into the camera, Penthouse models, especially in the photo spreads of erotic twosomes, would go about their exertions seemingly unaware they were being watched ("We followed the philosophy of voyeurism," Guccione told the Independent newspaper in 2004). The furtive, the forbidden: that was Guccione's recipe for success.

Penthouse, like Playboy, published the less notable work of notable authors (Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates), and made headlines in the '80s with early nude photos of Madonna and then Miss America Vanessa Williams, who had to relinquish her crown in light of the edition, which sold nearly 6 million copies in 1984. But Guccione's way of trumping Hefner was to push Penthouse further than Playboy in its depiction of the female form. By the late '60s, he had introduced full-frontal nudity to mainstream magazines (a breakthrough Playboy tentatively followed in 1972), and then photography that showed an almost gynecological fascination with women's labia. Hefner was slower to embrace this innovation. In a 1977 Saturday Night Live episode he hosted, Hef, as the Playboy philosopher in ancient Greece, pondered the Hamlet-like question "To go pink, or not to go pink?" On such dilemmas, publishing franchises in the '70s could rise or fall.

Playboy hit its peak circulation in 1972, at 7 million. Penthouse, by the '80s, was selling 4.7 million copies across 16 editions worldwide. Guccione said his company grossed perhaps $4 billion in its 30-year existence. He also launched several other magazines: Omni, a glossy journal of science and science fiction; Viva, an erotic monthly for women, with his third wife, Kathy Keeton, serving as publisher, Patricia Bosworth as editor, the young Anna Wintour as fashion editor and Helmut Newton as staff photographer; and Spin, a music magazine edited by Bob Jr., who later became estranged from his father and found his own investors. (Only Spin is still published today.) But Guccione's most notorious stab at multimedia moguldom was his late-'70s film farrago, Caligula.

The movie had pedigree to spare: it was written by Gore Vidal, produced by Roberto Rossellini's nephew Franco, and designed by Danilo Donati, who had created the sets for Federico Fellini's Satyricon, Amarcord and Roma and eight films by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The star, Malcolm McDowell, was supported by the cream of British acting royalty: John Gielgud, Helen Mirren and Peter O'Toole. Vidal thought he had found the perfect patron: "Just think of Bob Guccione as one of the Warner brothers," he told McDowell. The novelist, who had worked on the script of the 1959 blockbuster Ben-Hur, conceived the film as an epic of imperial decadence. Guccione thought of it as Satyricon, with lots, lots more sex. Modern viewers — those who can sit through the full 2-hr. 50-min. version on DVD — might think of it as an X-rated version of HBO's Rome, with all the orotund airs and none of the craft.

But everything went wrong. Vidal got fed up and demanded his name be removed from the movie. Guccione and the director, Tinto Brass, engaged in daily battles as the budget ballooned. "In my own mind," Brass later said, "the film should have been a film on the orgy of power. In their version, it became the power of the orgy." Production costs eventually reached $17.5 million (close to $70 million today). Guccione threw Brass off the film and interpolated six minutes of hard-core sex he had shot into the final cut. Caligula opened in 1979 as the most expensive porno film ever made. Roger Ebert gave it no stars, calling it "sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash." Only Gielgud "absolutely loved the film," according to McDowell on the DVD. "I've seen it three times," he quotes Sir John as saying. "It's frightfully good. And I paid twice!"

How many other people paid even once to see Caligula is a matter of dispute. One (probably fanciful) estimate of the film's worldwide earnings is $200 million. If that number were accurate, Guccione would surely have made a Caligula II. But he had other claims on his time and his purse. His grandest venture, the Penthouse Boardwalk Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, planned in 1978, never opened and cost him $160 million. In the early '80s, Guccione, Hefner and the porno-film industry faced a more systemic calamity: the rise of home video. With that new marvel, VHS, men could sit in their dens and watch naked women doing dirty things. No more centerfold staples; no more raincoats. Smutty pictures that moved had an immediacy that Guccione's artful erotic tableaux lacked. He lived for nearly another three decades, but much of that period was consumed in lawsuits, bankruptcy hearings and the selling off of his art collection.

So home video killed the labia czar. Hefner soldiers on (Playboy now sells about 2.7 million copies, a third as many as it did in 1972), but Penthouse, despite or because of going hard-core in some of its photos, saw its circulation plummet below 350,000. Indeed, in 2004, a private-equity investor from Florida acquired Penthouse in a bankruptcy sale with that company now offering social networking and online adult entertainment, including some with the famed Penthouse brand. The girlie-magazine empire declined and fell; and with it ended the reign of one of the publishing world's two monarchs of flesh. For if Hugh Hefner was the Caesar of magazine sex, Bob Guccione was surely its Caligula.