Bob Guccione, the man known for taking skin magazines to a new frontier and freeing uptight Americans to a more authentic vision of their own carnal imaginations, began his venture as a way to fund a more genteel pursuit: he wanted to buy time and supplies for painting.
Guccione, born Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione in 1930 to devoted parents and a close family, had come a long way from his native Brooklyn and a briefly pursued course of study for the priesthood. It was the early 1960s. Guccione was in his early 30s, well into establishing his second family, living in England and having failed at managing a dry cleaning business was working as managing editor of the weekly newspaper London American. The paper was sinking fast and Guccione had to pull a dove out of his sleeve. Again.
Guccione had married Lilyan Becker at 18, abandoning his religious studies and following instead his other dream of becoming an artist, a pursuit that led him and his wife to Europe. There he and Lilyan had a child but shortly afterward she returned with the boy to California. Guccione painted around Europe, subsisting on money sent from his parents and on income from an employment pastiche ranging from cook to columnist, actor to cartoonist to private eye. He went to North Africa, where he fell in with a group of expatriates that included British singer Muriel Hudson, who in 1956 became Guccione's second wife.
Guccione and Hudson moved to London. There Guccione managed a dry-cleaning chain to support his wife and the three children they'd had. Never the social lion, Guccione soon found himself at odds with his employers and looking for work. He joined the London American's staff, but didn't set about making friends—in fact it's been reported that upon Guccione's promotion to managing editor the staff decided as one to work elsewhere. New staff were brought on board, but the ailing weekly soon shut down.
Guccione, with an infusion of cash from his father, began selling pinups and magazines. He kept an eye on the newsstands, and soon noticed that men's magazines sold the fastest—in particular, a racy yet coy American publication called Playboy. Guccione determined to best the softcore giant, and he began looking for backers. None stepped forward. Three years later the already deeply indebted Guccione decided to scare up the money himself. He produced a brochure to promote subscriptions, designing it himself, shooting the photos, and obtaining credit to print the mailer, which he posted to addresses from an outdated mailing list.
Britain did not look kindly on Guccione for sending indecent material to its pensioners, children and members of Parliament. He was briefly barricaded inside his home by police, was eventually fined 110 pounds, and was raked bloody by the tabloids--but the invaluable publicity prompted a tide of subscriptions. Guccione published his first Penthouse in March of 1965, with a cover photo he shot himself of a girl wearing only a sweater. The 120,000 issues of the inaugural edition sold out before the week was up.
The frustrated painter had launched his dream vehicle—but the responsibilities of running the magazine left him no time for his art. Guccione was publisher, editor, writer, cartoonist and ad salesman. He was also the magazine's photographer. He styled his models' hair and makeup, then posed them looking away from the camera as if it didn't exist.
"We followed the philosophy of voyeurism," Guccione told John Colapinto of Independent UK in July of 2004. "To see her 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."
Guccione's second wife had trouble understanding his reportedly intense association with the Penthouse "Pets," and eventually that tension was more than the marriage could bear. Muriel left him and took their children with her. Guccione kept working 20-hour days, pouring his energy into the pages.
But Guccione couldn't keep up that breakneck pace forever. He started looking for someone to take over ad sales. One of Penthouse's first issues had featured a scathing review of a London nightclub dancer named Kathy Keeton, whose agent called and lambasted the publisher. Guccione decided to see Keeton's performance himself and went to meet her. Impressed with her intellect, financial knowledge and drive, Guccione offered Keeton the ad sales job. The post paid nearly 100 percent less than what Keeton was making on stage. But the business-savvy South African jumped at what she saw as an opportunity. Within a few short years Keeton had built a sturdy financial foundation for the magazine. And she and Guccione had become inseparable.
When Penthouse was three years old, Guccione decided it was time to challenge Playboy on its own soil. Guccione and Keeton moved to New York, set up shop, and sent the first formal shot over Playboy's bow with an ad in the New York Times that featured the bunny logo centered in a rifle sight, accompanied by the caption "We're going rabbit hunting." An epic softcore circulation war followed.
Guccione's war strategy was to publish increasingly revealing photos and then wait to see if he got his wrist slapped. When he didn't, he'd step over the line again. Finally, in April 1970, Guccione published a photo of a nude woman walking a shoreline—a photo that featured the merest glimpse of pubic hair, a definitive step into that era's definition of obscenity. There was still no legal backlash, and by 1971 Penthouse's circulation passed the 1 million mark. Six years later it pulled even with Playboy at 4.5 million—and Guccione's fortune had grown to $5 million and was being borne ever upward by his magazine's pioneering explicitness. Eventually Guccione would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
For all his financial competitiveness with Playboy, Guccione refused to ape publisher Hugh Hefner in the social arena. Where Hefner surrounded himself with flash and glitter and satin-covered excess, Guccione invested in art for his 30-room mansion, in which he held low profile parties for business associates, favored Pets and close friends.
The 1970s saw Guccione and Keeton branching into other magazine titles—Viva (the women's equivalent of Penthouse), the award-winning Omni, Longevity, and digests of Penthouse including Forum and Variations. Guccione watched as Hefner began making movies, and soon followed suit, investing in The Day of the Locust, The Longest Yard and Chinatown before sinking $17.5 million into his own effort, the X-rated Caligula, which flopped.
Guccione hired his family to help run his publishing empire, General Media—but over the years he ostracized nearly all of his children, in some cases in disputes over financial decisions. Guccione and Keeton pumped Penthouse profits into new and ultimately money-losing magazine and film ventures, funding for crackpot medical and health schemes, a small-scale nuclear fusion reactor endeavor that failed, and another infamous failure, his attempt to build an Atlantic City casino. Guccione was squandering his wealth. And meanwhile, Penthouse's circulation was falling.
A number of factors influenced the magazine's flagging popularity: increasingly anti-pornography feminism in the 1980s, the advent of porn on video, the Internet, cable and pay-per-view, and the entry into the magazine market of lighter-weight "lads" magazines, which teased its readers rather than giving them what they could increasingly find on screen or online. Guccione responded according to what had worked before, taking Penthouse ever deeper into hardcore themes. The strategy failed. Adding to Guccione's worries was a growing mountain of tax debt. Then in 1995, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, which quickly spread to her stomach and liver. Keeton survived until September of 1997. She and Guccione had been together more than 30 years. The grief-stricken publisher obtained permission to inter his wife on the grounds of his estate, and he left her name on Penthouse's masthead.
A year after Keeton's death, Guccione began experiencing head and neck pain. Rounds of scans and MRIs turned up nothing—but a dental exam revealed cancer on his tongue. Guccione underwent laser surgery and six weeks' radiation treatment, which left him with slightly slurred speech and unable to eat conventionally; he must take nutrition through a tube.
Fighting the cancer, fighting his creditors and fighting the failing circulation war finally took its toll on Guccione. In August of 2003, General Media declared bankruptcy, and in December of that year Guccione relinquished the helm of Penthouse. He was broke, and fighting to remain in his beloved East 67th Street home, which through 11th-hour maneuvering he managed to keep—but only as a tenant. Still, thanks to a dental exam and prompt treatment, he survived oral cancer. For the next 10 years he will be publisher emeritus of Penthouse, whatever its new direction may be, and he will remain the magazine's editorial consultant with a half million dollar annual salary.