Bob Guccione: Magazine publisher whose 'Penthouse'' fortune disappeared when his soft-porn empire crumbled

At one stage he seemed destined for the priesthood – which may explain why Bob Guccione later poured $17.5m of his pornography-generated fortune into surely the only X-rated film in history that started with a quotation from the Bible. But there were no decorous adornments to Penthouse, his defining contribution to western sexual liberation in the second half of the 20th century. Pubic hair, full-frontal female and male nudes, close-ups of the clitoris, lesbian scenes, urination, fetishism fantasies and much, much more – all appeared for the first time at your friendly neighbourhood newsstand in the men's magazine he launched in 1965, and in Viva, a counterpart of Penthouse for women that followed a few years later.

Such trailblazing paid off handsomely. By the early 1980s, Guccione's estimated personal fortune of $400m secured him a place on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans. He lived in what was said to be the largest townhouse in Manhattan, costing $5m a year to run, with 30 rooms and a Roman-style swimming pool on the ground floor, and where he put together an art collection to die for.

In the end however those first words of his 1975 porn–epic Caligula – "What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" – came to sum up his life. The erstwhile monarch of porn spent his final years in the desert retirement resort of Palm Springs, alone and far from the action. He was mostly estranged from his children. And after gaining the world, Bob Guccione lost it. His publishing and business empire was long since bankrupt, and his last remaining jewel, the mansion at 14-16 67th Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side, was mortgaged to creditors and finally sold to a hedge-fund operator.

In fact, however glitzy the trappings, Guccione was never a relentless pursuer of style and celebrity in the fashion of Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy with whom he was often compared. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to parents of Sicilian ancestry. As a child he loved painting. But as an altar boy and briefly a seminarian, Guccione appeared destined for the cloth – until more fleshly desires intervened. He married at 18 and fathered a daughter. But the union did not last and he departed for Europe, living in France, Italy and Morocco before falling for an English girl, Muriel Hudson, who would become his second wife, and accompanying her to London.

There his first job was as an editor for an expatriate weekly, the London American. He then ran his own mail-order business before conceiving the idea of Penthouse, as a raunchier version of Playboy. "If there's room for one, there's room for two," Guccione often said of his brainchild. Its first issue was confiscated by the British Post Office on the grounds that he was using the mail to distribute pornography. Guccione appealed and won and, helped by this windfall of free publicity, never looked back.

Success did not come withouteffort. Guccione might have beenarrogant verging on megalomaniac. He was often cruel to his staff. Butin those early days at least, he led by example, working round the clock and personally taking the photos of his models. In the process he created the soft-focus style that became aPenthouse hallmark. The magazine flourished, and from its London base established a niche in the US. By 1969 Guccione launched an American edition, a mix of cartoons, investigative journalism and, of course, much naked female flesh.

A year later, and probably inevitably, he moved his headquarters to the US, and acquired the house in Manhattan. However this was no Playboy mansion à la Hefner. The only big gatherings there were twice-yearly "Sabatini" family reunions, named in honour of Guccione's favourite uncle, Edward Sabatini. His competition with Hefner was not measured by parties but by products, matching Penthouse Pets against Playboy Bunnies.

To the most risqué went the spoils. In 1967, Penthouse became the first men's magazine to display pubic hair in its pictorial spreads. Playboy soon followed suit in what were soon dubbed the "pubic wars". Six years later Guccione pushed the envelope further with Viva, a women's counterpart to Penthouse edited by Kathy Keeton, his long-time partner who would become his third wife. Viva touted itself as "a new generation of magazine for a new generation of women". Quickly, thanks to its spreads of male hulks with not a figleaf in sight, it was unofficially christened "the first superwomen's magazine with balls".

To the end, Guccione was proud of his achievements. "Everything new in men's magazines – everything! – was started by us," he told New York magazine in 2004 as his empire was crashing around him. "We made a very serious contribution to the liberalisation of laws and attitudes. Much that has happened now in the western world with respect to sexual advances is directly due to steps we took."

Those steps were not confined to the printed page. In 1979 Guccione bankrolled Caligula. "Sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash," one leading film critic labelled the steamy, star-laden epic, which featured Malcolm McDowell in the title role, as well as Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud, and a screenplay by Gore Vidal (to his bitter regret).

The movie, unshowable on general release, was a financial as well as a critical bust, though it retains a cult following to this day. But who cared? By then Penthouse was a cash cow, selling over 3m copies a month. In 1984 that figure hit 5m for the issue that featured a naked Vanessa Williams, the reigning Miss America. All the while, the mansion on 67th street steadily filled with works by Picasso, Dali andMatisse, even an El Greco. Famousfor his faded T-shirts and the heavy gold medallion chains he wore around his neck, Guccione was at the height of his success.

But not for much longer. Viva had already ceased publication in 1980. Baring all to Penthouse soon forced Ms Williams to resign her crown, while the US Internal Revenue went after Guccione for $45m of back taxes. A clampdown on pornography by the Reagan administration cut into the sales of the magazine.

At the same time, Guccione's personal life grew increasingly troubled, above all by a feud with his son Bob Junior, an executive at Penthouse when he launched a music magazine, Spin in 1985. The father put up the money but withdrew his backing after three tricky years. Angry and resentful, Guccione did not speak to his son again for decades. Bob Jr however persisted and found new backing, making Spin so successful that he sold it in 1997 for $43m. That same year, Kathy died.

On the financial front, things went from bad to worse. By the late 1990s Guccione's wider business empirewas submerged in debt, as real-estate ventures foundered, his attempt to launch a casino in Atlantic City failed, and money lavished on scientific ventures, including the magazine Omni, was lost. Penthouse itself – for whom Monica Lewinsky turned down a $2m tell-all offer – fared no better as the internet, now teeming with free porn, ate into its market.

Sales of the flagship magazine had dropped to barely 500,000 a month, a tenth of what they were 15 years earlier, and in 2003 General Media, the company that published Penthouse, went bankrupt. The Manhattan mansion went, too, although for a while Guccione, by now recovering from throat cancerm continued to live there, a virtual recluse whose closest companions were a pack of Rhodesian Ridgeback hounds. In early 2008 it was finally sold to hedge-fund titan Philip Falcone for a reported $49m.

Rupert Cornwell

Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione, adult-magazine publisher: born Brooklyn, New York 17 December 1930; married 1949 Lillian Abrams (one daughter, marriage dissolved), 1956 Muriel Hudson (three sons, one daughter, marriage dissolved), 1988 Kathy Keeton (died 1997); died Plano, Texas 20 October 2010.

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