Guccione moved to London with Murial. They would live together in sin for several years before marrying in 1966 (and remain husband and wife until 1979). During this period, they would have three more children: Nina, Tony and Nicky.
To support a wife and four children, he worked as manager of drycleaners. In his spare time, Guccione continued to pursue his artistic interests, and occasionally was able to earn additional money creating cartoons for Bill Box’s humorous greeting card line, Box Cards. He also submitted cartoons to the London American – a weekly newspaper – leading to his being hired as a cartoonist. In short order, Guccione advanced up the chain at the London American and became managing editor, allowing him to quit the laundry business. During this period, Murial was able to supplement the family’s income by starting a business selling pinup posters.
Still hoping to make his living as a painter, Guccione looked for ways to subsidize his dream. Since he was now working in publishing, he became curious to find out which magazines were selling the best and why. The American magazine Playboy seemed to be doing brisk business in America but was only modestly successful in England, so little so that, while Playboy was into its seventh year of publication, Guccione had not seen a copy until this time. He was immediately intrigued.
Guccione felt that a men’s magazine such as Playboy could be successful in England if it showcased British models. As the Berlin Wall was being constructed, Bob Guccione began thinking of ways to tear down the invisible walls that he felt restricted and limited the evolution of social attitudes and sexual freedoms. He began a prolonged period of looking for investors who might believe as he did – in both the possibilities for a more risqué version of Playboy to be published in England, and his desire to challenge western society’s repressive thinking regarding sex. However, with such radical ideas, Guccione had trouble finding anyone willing to join his cause.
After three years of failing to find backers, Guccione committed himself to self-launching the hybrid magazine he envisioned could combine sex, politics, science, and humor, all the while satisfying his bohemian-artist’s loathing for sexual repression and censorship. First, he needed a title.
Since Guccione’s goal was to top Playboy, it only seemed appropriate that Playboy would provide the inspiration for the magazine he hoped to publish. He came upon an idea for the magazine’s name one night while watching TV.
Beginning in 1959 and lasting into 1961, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner endeavored to expand his brand into television with the late night syndicated series Playboy’s Penthouse. The one-hour variety/talk show, recorded at Chicago station WBKB-TV, was made to appear as if it was a party at Hefner’s penthouse apartment, with numerous Playboy Playmates and bunnies in attendance, and celebrity guests such as Lenny Bruce, Nat “King” Cole and Bob Newhart engaging in conversation with Hefner, and then performing – some doing standup comedy, others singing. The series failed to interest sufficient sponsors and clear enough stations across America and abroad to stay on the air, and it ceased production after 44 episodes. But one person who saw it was Guccione, and, as a tip of the hat toward Hefner, or perhaps merely a wink and inside-joke, he decided to use part of the series’ title as the name of his magazine – Penthouse. Beyond this, Guccione had no intention of watering down his concept by trying to make it palatable to a TV audience. Nor did he want to publish a magazine that would be tame enough for the conservative climate in America of this period, where a former Army General and hardcore Republican named Dwight D. Eisenhower was serving as President, with Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Instead, Guccione would use the ideas hinted at in Playboy as a springboard and then push the envelope beyond the point that American censorship might allow. Guccione later said of Penthouse:
“People said it was pornography, and I argued with them. I said, ‘What’s pornography? Censorship is pornography! Repression is pornography!’ I wasn’t just a businessman rationalizing his business; I was a believer!”
One person who was intrigued by Guccione’s vision was Joe Brooks. He was offered the job of Art Director at a fraction of his current salary. Captivated by Guccione’s “screw-the-world” insouciance and convinced that Penthouse was an idea whose time had come, Brooks found it hard to turn the job down. He said,
“This was the early days of the Beatles, Carnaby Street, the Who,
plus the sexual revolution. You’d meet a girl and basically say,
‘Your place or mine?’ You couldn’t miss with Penthouse.”
Brooks became Guccione’s first Penthouse employee, and he would stay with Guccione and Penthouse longer than anyone else.
To produce a magazine, one needs money, something that Guccione did not have. The Penthouse office was in his London apartment. He used a bathroom door and two milk crates as his desk. In a scheme to raise cash through subscriptions, he produced a brochure featuring photos of half-naked girls and sent it out by direct mail. Brooks said,
“He had bought the mailing lists of priests, convents, members of Parliament, nurses – anyone who would get their nose out of joint.
There was an immediate outcry: ‘This is pornography! Who is this man?!’”
Guccione was denounced in Parliament and dubbed a “sex fiend” on the front pages of the London tabloids. He was also accused of violating a Victorian statute against sending lewd materials through Her Majesty’s post. For the next three days, Guccione found himself holed up inside his house with the police waiting outside with a warrant for his arrest. He barricaded himself in, having been advised by his lawyer to sit tight in order to generate maximum publicity. By the time he emerged, his reputation as “the man who brought pornography to Britain” was secure. He paid a £200 fine. What he got in return was worth far more.
Subscriptions poured in, but money was still tight. Guccione was able to talk writers, cartoonists and artists into working for credit, and deferred or no pay, but photographers wanted payment upfront. Gucionne said,
“I had no choice, I had to take the pictures myself.”
To do this, Guccione used compositions from Degas and other artists for inspiration. Joe Brooks said,
“Bob used light like a master painter, but he has an incredibly dirty mind. It’s a beautiful combination.”
Guccione admitted that many of his finest pictorials were, in effect, acts of foreplay between artist and model, caught on film. He confessed,
“It was very … How to say it? It was very attractive: the setting, the intimacy; It’s very difficult not to submit to; so in most cases in the early days, I would sleep with the girls.”
Guccione’s original idea for the Penthouse logo was to feature a tortoise. He was obsessed with the theme behind the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and further liked the suggestiveness of it in respect to the Playboy Bunny. But, after sketching out some concepts, the tortoise was dropped. The Penthouse Key was used instead.