Bob Guccione tried the seminary and spent years trying to make it as an artist before he found the niche Hugh Hefner left for him in the late 1960s. Where Hefner's Playboy magazine strove to surround its pinups with an upscale image, Guccione aimed for something a little more direct with Penthouse.
More explicit nudes. Sensational stories. Even more sensational letters that began, "Dear Penthouse, I never thought I'd be writing you … "
It worked for decades for Guccione, who died Wednesday in Texas at the age of 79. He estimated that Penthouse earned $4 billion during his reign as publisher.
HIS START: Guccione was born in Brooklyn and attended prep school in New Jersey. He spent several months in a Catholic seminary before dropping out to pursue a career in art. He wandered Europe as a painter for several years. With the help of a $1,170 loan, Guccione started Penthouse in 1965 in England to subsidize his art career and was the magazine's first photographer. Featuring photos that left little to the imagination, the magazine "did more to liberate puritan America from its deepest sexual taboos than any magazine before or since," Rolling Stone wrote in 2004.
THE BIG NAMES: Penthouse occasionally ran nude layouts of well-known women, including Madonna. In 1984, sexually explicit photos of Vanessa Williams, taken two years before she became the first black Miss America, appeared in Penthouse. Williams would lose her crown, but Penthouse reported a $14 million newsstand windfall. The magazine also published fiction and celebrity articles from the likes of Alan Dershowitz, Stephen King, Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates.
THE FALL: Despite once being listed among the richest Americans, Guccione would slowly watch his empire decline. A Penthouse casino in Atlantic City never materialized. His investment in the hard-core sex film Caligula didn't pan out when distributors shunned the movie. After high-profile wars with the Internal Revenue Service over back taxes, his company, his world-class art collection, his huge Manhattan mansion — all of it ultimately was sold off.
IN THE END: Tanned and often showing gold chains on a hairy chest, Guccione looked but rarely acted like a pornographer. He did not drink, smoke or use drugs. "He was a mass of contradictions," Patricia Bosworth, former executive editor of Guccione's Viva magazine, wrote in Vanity Fair in 2005. Guccione's family said in a statement that he died at Plano Specialty Hospital in Texas after battling lung cancer. His wife, April Dawn Warren Guccione, and two of his children were by his side.
This report contains information from the Associated Press, New York Times, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.