Bob Guccione, who founded Penthouse magazine and created a corporate empire around it, only to see it crumble as his investments soured and the world of pornography turned toward video and the Internet, died Wednesday at a hospital in Plano, Texas. He was 79.
His wife, April Dawn Warren Guccione, said he had battled lung cancer for several years.
Penthouse reached the pinnacle of its popularity in September 1984, when it published nude pictures of Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America. Williams, now a singer and actress, was forced to relinquish her crown after the release of the issue, which sold nearly 6 million copies and reportedly made $14 million.
A frustrated artist who once attended a Catholic seminary, Guccione started Penthouse in 1965 in England to subsidize his art career and was the magazine's first photographer. He introduced the magazine to the American public in 1969 at the height of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution.
Penthouse quickly posed a challenge to Hugh Hefner's Playboy by offering a mix of tabloid journalism with provocative photos of nude women, dubbed Penthouse Pets.
By 1982 Guccione was listed in the Forbes 400 ranking of wealthiest people with a net worth of about $400 million. He built a corporate empire under the General Media Inc. umbrella that included book publishing and merchandising divisions and Viva, a magazine featuring male nudes aimed at a female audience. He also created Penthouse Forum, the pocket-size magazine that played off the success of the racy letters to the editor.
Guccione and longtime business collaborator Kathy Keeton, who later became his third wife, also published more mainstream fare, such as Omni magazine, which focused on science and science fiction, and Longevity, a health advice magazine. Keeton died of cancer in 1997.
Guccione lost much of his personal fortune on bad investments and risky ventures.
Probably his best-known business failure was a $17.5-million investment in the 1979 production of the X-rated film "Caligula." Distributors shunned the film, with its graphic scenes of lesbianism and incest. However, it eventually became General Media's most popular DVD.
Guccione also lost millions on a proposed casino in Atlantic City, N.J. Legal fees further eroded his fortune, and in 1985, Guccione had to pay $45 million in delinquent taxes.
The next year, U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography issued a report attacking the adult entertainment industry. Guccione called the report "disgraceful" and doubted that it would have any effect, but newsstands and convenience stores responded by pulling Penthouse from their magazine racks.
Circulation dropped after the Meese commission report and years later took another hit with the proliferation of X-rated videos and websites.
In 2003, General Media Inc. filed for bankruptcy. Penthouse and related properties are now owned by FriendFinder Networks Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla.-based company that offers social networking and online adult entertainment.
Guccione was born Dec. 17, 1930, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in New Jersey. He spent several months in a Catholic seminary before dropping out to pursue his dream of becoming an artist.
April Guccione said her husband was working as a cartoonist and a manager of self-service laundries in London when he got the idea of starting a magazine more explicit and aimed more squarely at "regular guys" than Playboy, which cultivated an upscale image.
Guccione's staff, which included family members, often described the publisher as mercurial.
His management style even sparked a rift with his own son, Bob Guccione Jr. In 1985, the publisher helped his son launch the music magazine Spin, with Bob Jr. serving as editor and publisher. After just two years, the two clashed over the direction of the magazine and the elder Guccione decided to shut it down, forcing his son to secure outside funding.
Married four times, Guccione had a daughter, Tonina, from his first marriage and three sons, Bob Jr., Tony and Nick, and a daughter, Nina, from his second marriage.