After a long battle with cancer Bob Guccione founder of Penthouse has died in Texas at the age of 79. We have covered much of his early life and inspiration for creating Penthouse magazine in our series of posts on The Pubic Wars on our other site: Venus Observations. Starting and finishing his career as a painter Guccione had a vision of a men's magazine for the common man in London in the mid 1960s to counter Playboy.
The first issue of Penthouse: September 1965
Launching in London in 1965 on the back of a storm of (welcome) publicity and questions in parliament he eventually took his magazine to the US and a battle with Playboy in 1969.
Margueite Cordier by Bob Guccione
A talented photographer (as even Playboy had to admit) he took many of the photographs for Penthouse (initially because he couldn't afford to employ a photographer); especially in the first twenty years of the magazine. Using his painter's eye for colour and composition he developed a soft-focus, impressionist approach to his photographs of naked women which enabled him to portray them in an increasingly explicit manner without, at least initially, crossing the boundaries of bad taste. While The Pubic Wars with Playboy and, later, Hustler eventually led to the genitally focussed photographs that dominate pornography today initially he was trying to create an atmosphere of genuine sensuality and eroticism in his pictorials. His greatest contribution to the photography of naked women being the idea that the model was being observed unawares rather than presenting herself to the viewer, a la Playboy.
Despite the sterling work of his third wife, Kathy Keeton, in building a good business foundation for the magazine a series of disastrous financial deals put paid to his Empire. Penthouse, Guccione estimated, earned $4 billion over the years and his personal wealth amounted to over $400 million in the nineteen eighties. The high watermark of the magazine was the September 1984 issue which featured (and brought down) the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams. It sold 6 million copies and generated $14 million in revenue. Incidentally, because that month's Pet of the Month, Traci Lords, turned out to be fifteen when her pictures were taken it is now almost impossible to buy a copy. 1984, however, perhaps appropriately, saw a huge change in the market for pornography with the increasing availability of cheap, pre-recorded video cassettes. The advent of the internet, much of the compression technology for which was driven by the porn industry, hit print magazines even further.
Guccione, wrongly, thought that the only way to compete was for the magazine to go hard-core in the mid nineties. However, this limited the retail outlets the magazine was available from and when the company went bankrupt in 2003 the magazine was taken over in October 2004 and the hardcore content was removed. Penthouse, unlike Playboy never made much revenue from advertising and the loss of retail outlets saw circulation drop by 33% from 1997 to 2001. Today it has a circulation of just 178,000 a month, down from its 1984 high of 6 million.
Poorly performing investments, including a proposed casino in Atlantic City and huge amounts of money spent on fusion power research further eroded Guccione's fortune. In the end he had to sell his 30 room new York City mansion for $49m to Wall Street financier Philip Falcone to pay his debts. Oddly, although his 1979 film Caligula is often touted as a financial disaster it was actually the most successful independent film of all time.