The naked ambition of Bob Guccione

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The founder of 'Penthouse' has died aged 79. Andy McSmith tells the story of the man who brought pornography to the masses

Bob Guccione had unusual ideas about what was or was not private. A newly-wed couple having sex on their wedding night would, in most people's view, be about as private an activity as any. But if there was a chance for Guccione to make a killing, privacy did not get a look in.

Tonya Harding was one of the greatest and most unpredictable competitive ice skaters of her time, whose life story has since been made into a television drama. In 1990, when she was 19, she married a dubious character called Jeff Gillooly. Their marriage broke up in 1993. The following year, one of Harding's rivals was brutally assaulted by a man who, it transpired, had been hired by Gillooly.

Then pictures taken on their wedding night turned up in Penthouse magazine, founded and owned by Bob Guccione, who died on Wednesday at the age of 79. Because she was over 18 when they were taken, the graphic photographs did not contravene US law, but by any normal standards they were a shocking intrusion into a young woman's privacy.

Unabashed, Guccione went on the Larry King show on CNN, appearing surprised that anyone should think there was a problem. His argument was that the US Constitution gave him the right to publish almost anything he could lay his hands on if it involved people who were famous – and anyway the publicity was good for their careers.

"We published the first Madonna nudes," he boasted. "I can assure you, at the time she didn't want to see those nudes published. They were taken of her before she became a star. However, there was nothing she could do about it."

When it was put to him that neither Harding nor her ex-husband wanted the pictures to appear, Guccione seemed to have a problem understanding why he should care about the feelings of a couple of people whose names were mired in scandal.

"Amazing, isn't it? Amazing. It's the wonder of the world we live in," he said. "If Tonya Harding's privacy has genuinely been invaded, and if she wants to do something about it, she has the right of recourse. Let her do what she wants. The fact she is, per se, newsworthy, means you can publish."

Looked at in a certain light, Guccione is the publisher who took the Duke of Wellington's famous advice – "publish and be damned" – and used it in a way that nobody had ever done before. He launched Penthouse in Britain in 1965, when he was a frustrated artist who needed a sideline to bring in money.

The sensibilities of the British public were protected by a thick blanket of censorship laws. Books, films, and television programmes which contained sex or violence risked falling foul of the law. Anyone wanting to put on a play, for example, had to apply to the Lord Chamberlain for permission, under a law dating back to Shakespeare's time. Nudity on stage was allowed, provided the person stayed perfectly still.

But times were beginning to change. In November 1965, the artistic director of the National Theatre, Kenneth Tynan, was asked on a late night television show about his attitude to sex on stage. In his reply he uttered the word "fuck", which had never been heard on British television before. There were protests in Parliament, and the BBC had to apologise.

At this dawn of a more permissive era, the raciest magazine available on the mass market was Playboy, founded in the US in the 1950s by Hugh Hefner, in which erotic photographs appeared amid serious features expressing a generally liberal philosophy, allowing the publication's male readers to kid themselves that they were buying serious reading matter which reflected their world view – rather than an aid to masturbation.

But Guccione took advantage of the loosening censorship laws to provide something closer to hardcore pornography, including full frontal nudity never previously seen except in seedy little shops in Soho. And yet his masterstroke was managing to give the magazine a sufficiently glossy and upmarket look so it was accepted in high street shops. When Penthouse expanded into the American market in 1969, Hefner was faced with his first serious rival.

Guccione, of course, claimed it was the superior artistic quality of Penthouse's photography which led to it overtaking its rival. "We followed the philosophy of voyeurism," he said in 2004. "To see [the woman being photographed] as if she doesn't know she's being seen. That was the sexy part. That was the part that none of our competition understood."

The contrasting attitudes of the two proprietors was shown up by the experience of Vanessa Williams, the first African American to be crowned Miss America. No sooner had she won, in 1984, than salacious photos of her were doing the rounds against her wishes. Hefner was offered them but turned them down "because they would be the source of considerable embarrassment to her... [and we] were also mindful that she was the first black Miss America."

A few days later, Guccione said the pictures would appear in the September 1984 issue of Penthouse. Amid a storm of publicity, Williams resigned her Miss America title and the issue sold six million copies, for a reputed profit – for one issue – of $14m.

Guccione's justification was a variant of his usual theme that there was no such thing as bad publicity. "You can't tell me today who the present Miss America is, or nine out of 10 people can't," he said, some years later. "When she [Williams] was Miss America, and she was published in Penthouse – and they were lesbian pictures, they were not pictures that she would normally be happy with – she made her name."

Despite making millions as Penthouse's publisher, Guccione discovered that it was possible to lose money by misjudging public taste. He tried his hand as a filmmaker in the late 1970s, apparently thinking he would succeed if he took a superficially serious subject, hired good actors, and delivered the most violent and obscene movie ever offered to mainstream cinemas.

The result was a turkey called Caligula, with Malcolm McDowell and a supporting cast that included John Gielgud and Helen Mirren.

The Boards of Censors in South Africa, where it was banned, noted: "The film is riddled with lengthy and explicit scenes of rape, masturbation, oral sex and ejaculation (showing penetration), cunnilingus, fellatio, voyeurism, necrophilia, homosexuality, full frontal nudity, close-ups of genitals (male and female), a female urinating while another fondles her, plus murder and torture."

Despite trying so hard to make his film as disgusting as possible, Guccione lost a fortune on it. His notoriety also counted against him during several run-ins with the US government and with civil litigants. Ironically, the loosening of censorship which he had helped to bring about, contributed to his undoing, when other magazines pushed their way into the market he had created.

Penthouse's circulation dipped below one million in the late 1990s. By 2003 it was down to 463,000, at which point Guccione's company, General Media Inc, filed for bankruptcy. During the first six months of 2010, circulation was barely 178,000.

After all, why spend money on a glossy magazine full of pornographic photos when you can get them free on the internet?

Penthouse vs Playboy

Playboy

Founded in Chicago in 1953 by Hugh Hefner, it was funded in part by a $1,000 loan from his mother. The first issue featuring Marilyn Monroe sold out in weeks, with circulation nearing 54,000 copies. By 1972, circulation had reached a peak of 7.1 million copies. Playboy has a long history of publishing short stories, with contributors from Arthur C Clarke, Ian Fleming and Margaret Atwood.

Penthouse

Launched in the UK in 1965 by Bob Guccione, it arrived in the US four years later. Regarded in terms of circulation as Playboy's main competitor, it combined urban lifestyle articles with softcore porn pictorials. Although aimed at more middle-brow readers than its rival, its stories were considered more sensational. At its peak, circulation was in the region of 5 million.

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