Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione, born to Italian Catholics right here in Brooklyn, and best known as the more gauche version of Hugh Hefner, has died aged 79 after a long and well-publicized battle with cancer (as well as with bankruptcy).
Hef, with his pajamas, bouncy co-eds, Nabokov excerpts and “Cars, cameras, and hi-fi cabinets. Clothes, cognac, and cigarettes” made Playboy about lifestyle porn as much as actual porn. With Guccione, who often photographed Penthouse pets himself—and was, as the above-linked Times obit notes, “tanned and muscled, and he wore slim pants and silk shirts open to the waist, showing gold chains on a hairy chest”—porn was the lifestyle. His outlook was as frankly libidinous as the photography he ran—in Playboy there’s a partly gentlemanly, partly prudish and infantalizing aversion to the vagina, but Penthouse paved the way for Larry Flynt and all that followed—and his consumption was conspicuous.
Before Guccione lost all his money, he had an art collection stocked with (the Times again) “Degas, Renoir, Picasso, El Greco, Dalí, Matisse and Chagall”, and a taste for grotesquely lavish interior decoration. (Just look at these items auctioned off when he sold his 67th St abode.) An unsuccessful artist in his youth, he stocked Penthouse with a roster of literary contributors to rival Hefner’s, and then turned Penthouse into a hardcore mag in the 80s, rather than be rendered obsolete by the VHS market. Perhaps the pinnacle of Guccione’s smut culture was Caligula, the ill-fated 1979 megaproduction plagued by spats between producer Guccioen, screenwriter Gore Vidal, director Tinto Brass, and starring Malcolm McDowell as a mad Roman emperor who watches fisting orgies.
Guccione was, in a way, more honest than Hefner: ethnic rather than deracinated, tasteless in the nouveau riche fashion, obsessed with pussy. In 1984, Hefner turned down the opportunity to run early explicit photos of Vanessa Williams, rather than humiliate the first black Miss America; when they appeared in Penthouse, the issue sold nearly 6 million copies. Guccione knew what he was.