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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bob Guccione, who brought full-frontal nudity to the newsstands and built a multimillion dollar publishing empire on the success of his flagship Penthouse magazine, died of cancer in Plano, Texas, on Wednesday, his family said. He was 79.
His wife, April Dawn Warren Guccione, and two of his children were at his side, according to a statement emailed to Reuters.
Seen as an upstart rival to Playboy's Hugh Hefner as the leading publisher of skin magazines, Guccione aggressively challenged his rival while trying to keep Penthouse legitimate.
The financial success of Penthouse's mix of racy photographs, investigative reporting, science fiction and sexual advice columns allowed Guccione to launch other magazines, most notably the glossy science publication Omni.
He also published Forum, Variations and Penthouse Letters, pocket-sized magazines based on some of the most popular Penthouse columns.
Guccione also owned one of the largest mansions in Manhattan. But he eventually lost his Penthouse empire due to Reagan-era censorship, a series of extravagant business failures and the Internet onslaught of free pornography.
He earned world headlines and sent Penthouse sales rocketing with publication of nude photographs of Miss America, Vanessa Williams, in 1984 and of rock queen Madonna in 1985.
In July 1988 and again in January 1989, Penthouse rocked the worldwide television ministry of Jimmy Swaggart with "confessions" from women who said they acted out pornographic fantasies for Swaggart. The preacher was defrocked by his denomination.
Guccione portrayed himself as a conservative workaholic, belying the racy reputation inspired by his magazines and his stock uniform of a shirt open to the waist and gold chains draped around his neck.
"No one has ever been in my swimming pool without a bathing suit," he once said.
The son of a successful accountant, Guccione was born in the New York borough of Brooklyn, grew up in suburban New Jersey but left the United States after high school to practice painting first in Rome and, three years later, in London.
While there, he held a variety of jobs, working as a cook, actor and private eye before launching Penthouse in 1965.
With its frontal pictures of naked women, the magazine drew immediate criticism that only spurred its popularity.
In 1969, Penthouse invaded the United States and challenged Playboy with more sexually explicit stories and photographs, many taken by Guccione himself in soft-focus. The magazine also was among the first to run a column for Vietnam veterans.
By 1974, Guccione's annual personal income from Penthouse was estimated at $6 million.
In the mid-1970s, Guccione briefly published Viva, a failed competitor to the popular Cosmopolitan magazine for women. In 1979, Guccione produced the sex-filled, and ill-fated, motion picture "Caligula."
The Williams pictures cost the first black Miss America her crown but made her a household name. The Madonna photos, taken years before when she was a model, sparked a bitter fight between Penthouse and Playboy, each claiming their pictures were sexier and rushed them into print in July of 1985.
In 1984, Guccione pumped an estimated $16 million into a still-born company meant to develop a portable nuclear reactor.
He had five children by two former wives.
Reporting by Philip Barbara; Editing by Doina Chiacu