Penthouse Founder Bob Guccione Dies At 79

Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse magazine, has died at age 79.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine, has died. He built a multi-million dollar empire by pushing the limits of porn. But ultimately saw his magazine sink under weight of Internet competition and family squabbles.

A warning, this obituary from NPR's Robert Smith's addresses things featured in Penthouse magazine.

ROBERT SMITH: Penthouse went where Playboy wouldn't go; often in very graphic close-up. And the magazine was known for its embellished letters to the editor.

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Unidentified Man: Dear Penthouse, I always thought these letters were fake, and I never thought it would happen to me, but the other day...

SMITH: Cue the next door neighbor and her twin and the pizza delivery girl or some other teenage fantasy. But the most unbelievable letter could have come from Guccione himself, something like: Dear Penthouse, I never thought it could happen to a Brooklyn boy born Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione, a boy who dreamed of becoming a priest and then a painter.

Mr. BOB GUCCIONE (Founder, Penthouse) I originally saw Penthouse as a way to create an income stream for me so that I could continue on as a painter. I was a very serious and very devoted painter.

SMITH: Bob Guccione talking to Charlie Rose in 1996. He often told the story about how the young man as an artist took on Hugh Heffner and Playboy in the late 1960s. He would photograph the women himself, using a gauzy, almost impressionistic style. But he needed a hook. And that was to include something unseen at the time. He went pubic in 1967.

Ms. MARIANNA BECK (Teacher, Art Institute of Chicago): I think he explored sexual in a way that was more embracing in some ways than Heffner.

SMITH: Marianna Beck teaches The Material Culture of Sex at the Art Institute of Chicago. Many feminists, she says, had problems with Guccione pushing the limits of porn. But Beck always admired that the women in Penthouse seemed in control.

Ms. BECK: It still seem to be embracing this whole idea of women as being very sexual and possibly even voracious, or certainly as desirable and also desirous of sex as much as men were. And I think you didn't get that tone in Playboy.

SMITH: But Guccione was running a race to the bottom that he couldn't win. He had to keep getting edgier. He was the first of these kinds of publications, he claimed, to feature male genitalia, three-ways, and bondage.

When those didn't seem shocking anymore, Penthouse plunged into the world of celebrity expose. He published early nude photos of Madonna, and in 1984 then-Miss America Vanessa Williams. Guccione told NPR at the time that he wasn't to blame for Williams losing her crown.

Mr. GUCCIONE: It's the pageant, and it's the pageant's perception. They believe in the Tooth Fairy myth, the myth of the vestal virgin.

SMITH: And Guccione did everything possible to explode that myth, promoting himself and his magazine at the forefront of First Amendment freedoms, like when he debated Jerry Falwell on "Good Morning America" in 1986.

Mr. GUCCIONE: What we're seeing here is the beginning of a new age of religious tyranny in the United States, an age that is grotesquely reminiscent of McCarthyism, only instead of blacklisting writers and artists, we're going to start blacklisting books and magazines. And we're not going to stand for it this time.

SMITH: But Bob Guccione's fantasy was cut short, not by fundamentalists or feminists, but by the marketplace. Penthouse's millions of readers drifted away to the Internet.

Guccione lost a ton of money trying to build a casino. And he had to declare bankruptcy and sell the magazine. He died of cancer Wednesday in Plano, Texas. He was 79 years old.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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