More than 50 years ago, a struggling American painter living in London decided to compete with a popular American men’s magazine called Playboy.
His name was Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione, and by the time his venture began to match his bold vision, he was on a fast track to becoming one of America’s richest men, with a taste for opulent living, priceless art, and beautiful women.
It was the early sixties, and Bob Guccione — Brooklyn-born son of first-generation Sicilian-American parents, raised in suburban New Jersey — had recently been hired by a little-known weekly newspaper, the London American. The paper had published some of his cartoons and humor pieces and thought enough of his talents to take him on as editor.
Diligently scouting London newsstands to see what papers and magazines were selling, he noticed a certain American publication featuring photographs of topless women, along with articles, interviews, fiction, and cartoons. Guccione had been living in London with his second wife, British cabaret singer Muriel Hudson, since 1960, and before that had spent much of his twenties wandering Europe and North Africa, painting, cartooning, sketching tourists, even playing some bit roles in Italian movies. He’d managed to miss the ascent of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine, which debuted in December 1953, back home.
An idea-machine his entire life, Guccione saw an opportunity. The thriving English magazine market had room, he suspected, for a London-based publication taking a cue from this American men’s magazine. Put out a mag like that — maybe call it “Penthouse” — and Guccione could imagine it flying off the shelves, collecting subscribers left and right.
Except for three years he was pretty much alone in his faith. That’s how long he tried to get outside investors for his venture. Rarely lacking for confidence, Guccione, once possessed of an idea, was relentlessly driven to see it take shape. And he knew this was a good idea. At this stage, the future resident of a palatial double-townhouse Manhattan mansion, filled with Picassos, Renoirs, and Botticellis, was still dreaming of a life as a painter. And though he was glad for the London Weekly gig (which was closer to his passions than his previous job, manager of a city dry-cleaning firm), it didn’t pay much, and he had a wife and three young children to support (with a fourth child, a daughter, back in California with his first wife Lilyann). If “Penthouse” hit the way he knew it would, he’d make enough to bankroll his art and give his family a more comfortable life.
It was time to bootstrap the mag himself. Calling on that self-belief, that sense he was destined for bigger things, he started touting the “Penthouse” enterprise to London newspapers and trade publications. He shared his vision so richly and persuasively — down to the newsstand cost and huge number of first-issue copies he would print — that people in and around Fleet Street paid attention. One of those was Joseph Brooks, a young art director for a London newspaper chain. Impressed by this hip, charismatic, gold-chain-wearing American when they met in 1965, Brooks signed on to what was then still…just an idea.