DALLAS – Bob Guccione tried the seminary and spent years trying to make it as an artist before he found the niche that 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. He was listed in the Forbes 400 ranking of wealthiest people with a net worth of about $400 million in 1982.
In 1984 it was the magazine that took down Miss America, publishing nude pictures of Vanessa Williams, the first black woman to hold the title. Williams, who went on to fame as 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.
But Guccione's empire fell apart thanks to several bad investments and changes in the pornography industry, which became flooded with competition as it migrated from print to video and the Internet. His company, his world-class art collection, his huge Manhattan mansion — all of it, sold off.
Guccione's family said in a statement that he died at Plano Specialty Hospital in Plano. His wife, April Dawn Warren Guccione, had said he had battled lung cancer for several years.
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 Playboy by offering a mix of tabloid journalism with provocative photos of nude women. The centerfolds were dubbed Penthouse Pets.
"We followed the philosophy of voyeurism," Guccione told The Independent newspaper in London in 2004. He added that he attained a stylized eroticism in his photography by posing his models looking away from the camera.
"To see her as if she doesn't know she's being seen," he said. "That was the sexy part. That was the part that none of our competition understood."
Guccione 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 following surgery, but Guccione continued to list her on the Penthouse masthead as president.
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." Malcolm McDowell was cast as the decadent emperor of the title, and the supporting cast included Helen Mirren, John Gielgud and Peter O'Toole.
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 Atlantic City casino. He never received a gambling license and construction of the casino stalled.
Legal fees further eroded his fortune. Among those who sued were televangelist Jerry Falwell, a California resort, a former Miss Wyoming and a Penthouse Pet who accused Guccione of forcing her to perform sexual favors for business colleagues.
In 1985, Guccione had to pay $45 million in delinquent taxes.
The next year, U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography issued a report attacking the adult entertainment industry. Guccione called the report "disgraceful" and doubted it would have any impact, but newsstands and convenience stores responded by pulling Penthouse from their magazine racks.
Sales dropped after the Meese commission report and years later took another hit with the proliferation of X-rated videos and Web sites. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Penthouse's circulation dipped below 1 million in the late 1990s and fell to about 463,000 in 2003, the year General Media Inc. filed for bankruptcy. Over the first six months of 2010, Penthouse reported circulation of barely 178,000.
"The future has definitely migrated to electronic media," Guccione acknowledged in a 2002 New York Times interview.
In 2004, a private-equity investor from Florida acquired Penthouse in a bankruptcy sale. 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, including some with the Penthouse brand. FriendFinder made a bid this year for Playboy, which now outsells Penthouse roughly 10 to one, but Hefner has rejected it.
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 his dream of becoming an artist. He wandered Europe as a painter for several years.
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.
"He was a mass of contradictions, engendering fierce loyalty and equally fierce contempt," wrote Patricia Bosworth in a 2005 Vanity Fair article about Guccione, for whom she had worked as executive editor of Viva.
"He hired and fired people — then rehired them. He could be warm and funny one minute and cold and detached the next."
Guccione's 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.
Success as a publisher allowed Guccione to amass an impressive art collection, which included paintings by El Greco, Modigliani, Dali, Degas, Matisse and Picasso. The works adorned his 30-room, 22,000-square-foot mansion in New York City.
Guccione's financial problems forced him to sell his art collection in 2002 at auction. The collection had been appraised by Christie's at $59 million two years earlier. Four years later, he was forced to sell his Manhattan mansion.
Guccione eventually went back to painting, and his works were shown at venues including the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio and the Nassau County Museum of Art in New York, said April Guccione, who married him in 2006. The couple moved from New Jersey to Texas in 2009.
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.
April Guccione said services for her husband will be private.
Former Associated Press Writer Gary Kane in New York contributed to this report.