With his love of beautiful women combined with artistic genius, Bob Guccione created what Rolling Stone called “the greatest adult magazine in history.” We mark his passing and honor his memory with this special collection of photos.
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Like most big ideas, Penthouse had small beginnings in the mind of one extraordinarily complicated man — a 34-year-old Brooklyn-born artist and cartoonist named Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione. Although Vanity Fair called Penthouse “among the greatest success stories in the history of magazines,” it was far from a sure thing. As an article in Fortune magazine noted in 1975, “Financing the magazine’s debut [in London in 1965] was a nerve-racking business, for Guccione was unable to raise any capital, apart from a few thousand dollars contributed by his devoted father[…].
“An action was started against him under Section 11 of the Post Office Act for sending indecent matter through the post. He contrived, however, to avoid the summonses until the mailing was completed. He simply remained holed up in his house for a fortnight while two police officers awaited him on the street. All the while he received the proofs of his magazine through the letter box and consulted with his tiny staff over the phone. Then he emerged, stood trial, and was fined. The publicity was a great boon, and the first issue of the magazine, which had a press run of 120,000 copies, sold out within a few days of its appearance.”
Four years later, in September 1969, with a cover price of 75 cents and a print run of 225,000, financed entirely by high debt and higher hopes, the first U.S. issue of Penthouse sold out in a matter of days. But it wasn’t just a public-relations stunt that created a magazine that became a global brand name recognized in every country in the world. In many ways, Penthouse not only reflected its times perfectly but anticipated them as well. Because of the magazine’s reach, longevity, and uncompromising attitudes, it can be said that Penthouse has to this day influenced Americans’ sexual tastes.
When it came to the selection of models, Guccione — who, as Rolling Stone described him, “carrie[d] himself with an imperial swagger, shoulders back, head high: a Roman ruler sauntering to the lip of a balcony to survey his subjects” — had a more cosmopolitan taste than Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, preferring natural over surgically enhanced sex appeal, giving Penthouse an artistic edge and pictorial versatility. Joe Brooks, Guccione’s first art director, told Rolling Stone that “Bob used light like a master painter, but he has an incredibly dirty mind. It’s a beautiful combination.”
At the end of his career, Guccione elaborated on this: “We followed the true philosophy of voyeurism. To invade privacy. To see [a woman] 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.”
In the early seventies, Guccione pioneered full frontal nudity, although the spirit of the laid-back, pot-smoking high times was reflected in the sensual, soft-lens look of his. famous photographs of casually clad models languidly looking away from the camera. The early eighties brought bolder, sharper focus to the pictorials, and as American women continued to shed their inhibitions (and their pubic hair) and claim their right to sexual satisfaction, Penthouse was the first erotic magazine to expose the clitoris.
The models no longer looked lost in reverie or naively unaware of the camera’s presence — they flaunted their sexuality with unprecedented exhibitionism, actively engaging the consumer in the erotic-fantasy encounter. And Bob gloried in his readers’ obsession with his Guccione photos. For many years, he’d unveil each new Pet of the Year with a photo of the girl sitting on his lap. “Nice work if you can get it!” he’d gloat, quoting the old Gershwin song. And millions of readers loved it.
Guccione capitalized on the magazine’s success and notoriety by going into the movie business. In 1979, Caligula — to this day, the world’s most extravagant X-rated film — opened in New York. Starring Helen Mirren, Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, and Peter O’Toole, the film was based on a Gore Vidal screenplay, took almost two years to shoot, and cost upward of $17 million. In true Guccione fashion, the film engendered litigation with almost everyone connected to it — especially the director, Tinto Brass, who resented, among other things, that Guccione inserted a long lesbian scene into his film. Despite almost universal critical condemnation, the movie, opening with a record-high $7.50 ticket price, had lines around the block and continued to sell well over the next 30 years — in VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray incarnations.
Guccione’s boldness often paid off with headline-making publishing coups. The September 1984 anniversary issue with nude photos of Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, sold out a print run of 5,643,370 almost immediately. In 1992, an eager American audience snapped up millions of copies of an issue featuring a nude photo layout of Gennifer Flowers, Bill Clinton’s onetime mistress. Other best-selling issues included nudes of a young