Bob Guccione, 79; publisher guided Penthouse empire
DALLAS — Bob Guccione, who founded Penthouse magazine and created an erotic corporate empire around it, only to see it crumble as his investments soured and the world of pornography turned toward video and the Internet, died yesterday. He was 79.
A statement issued by the Guccione family said he died at a hospital in Plano, Texas. He had battled lung cancer for several years.
Penthouse reached the pinnacle of its popularity in September 1984, when it published nude pictures of Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America. Williams, now a singer and actress, was forced to relinquish her crown after the release of the issue, which sold nearly 6 million copies.
A frustrated artist who attended a Catholic seminary, Mr. Guccione started Penthouse in 1965 in England to subsidize his art career and was the magazine’s first photographer. He introduced the magazine to the US public in 1969 at the height of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution.
Penthouse quickly posed a challenge to Hugh Hefner’s
“We followed the philosophy of voyeurism,’’ Mr. Guccione told The Independent newspaper in London in 2004. He added that he attained a stylized eroticism in his photography by posing his models looking away.
“To see her as if she doesn’t know she’s being seen,’’ he said. “That was the sexy part. That was the part that none of our competition understood.’’
Mr. Guccione estimated that Penthouse earned $4 billion during his reign. He was listed in the Forbes 400 ranking of wealthiest people with a net worth of about $400 million in 1982.
He built a corporate empire under the General Media Inc. umbrella that included book publishing and merchandising divisions and Viva, a magazine featuring male nudes. He also created Penthouse Forum, the pocket-size magazine that played off the success of the racy letters to the editor that often began, “Dear Penthouse, I never thought I’d be writing you . . .’’
Mr. Guccione and longtime business collaborator Kathy Keeton, who became his third wife, also published more mainstream fare, such as Omni magazine, which focused on science and science fiction, and Longevity, a health advice magazine. Keeton died of cancer in 1997 following surgery, but Mr. Guccione continued to list her on the Penthouse masthead as president.
Mr. Guccione lost much of his personal fortune on bad investments and risky ventures.
Probably his best-known business failure was a $17.5 million investment in the 1979 production of the X-rated film “Caligula.’’ Malcolm McDowell was cast as the decadent emperor of the title, and the supporting cast included John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole.
Distributors shunned the film, with its graphic scenes of lesbianism and incest. However, it became General Media’s most popular DVD.
Mr. Guccione also lost millions on a proposed casino.
In 1985, Guccione had to pay $45 million in delinquent taxes.
Circulation dropped and years later took another hit with the proliferation of X-rated videos and Websites.
“The future has definitely migrated to electronic media,’’ Mr. Guccione acknowledged in a 2002 New York Times interview.
Penthouse and related properties are now owned by FriendFinder Networks Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla.-based company.