Hugh Hefner (1926–)

For a time in the middle of the 20th century, Hugh Hefner served as the archetype of a male fantasy–debonair in a velvet smoking jacket and ascot, pipe in his hand, surrounded by a bevy of nubile young women gazing with adoration. He lived in plush surroundings among a harem of plush beauties in a 70-room Chicago residence and later in a 29-room Los Angeles version, each called the Playboy Mansion. What started as Playboy magazine grew into an empire that included resorts, casinos, cable television, and from 1960 to 1968 Playboy Clubs, where affluent males with special keys of privilege could emulate Hefner while served by a staff of long-legged women dubbed bunnies in sheer stockings, satin rabbit ears, and fluffed tails affixed to their abbreviated costumes. Hefner helped initiate the sexual revolution of the 1950s and 1960s and also provided fodder for the feminist movement.

The first issue of Playboy reached the newsstands in December 1953, a photo of a clothed Marilyn Monroe on the cover and glossy interior pages that opened to a centerfold of a 1949 photo of a nude Monroe posed on red velvet. For the first time buyers, almost all men, could view female breasts that were not those of natives in National Geographic justified by anthropological accuracy. Unlike the tawdry-looking g-stringed women photographed in black and white for cheap paper under-the-counter girlie magazines with names like Titter and Eyeful, these women were in full color. Pictures of the Playmate of the Month were accompanied by a brief biographical sketch that emphasized her hobbies and middle-class aspirations. The poses were discrete, photographed by well-known professionals, presented as art objects not unlike the painting of a nude by Peter Paul Rubens.

The hard women in the girlie magazines were anonymous, those in Playboy identified and proud to be displaying themselves, unashamed for appearing without clothes before millions of male eyes. The Playboy models sought the spotlight, coeds from Ivy League and Big Ten universities, representatives of certain occupations like airline hostesses, even celebrities wishing to make a statement, for example, Patty Davis, the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Over the years, many female movie and television, sports, and music stars have posed, including Jayne Mansfield, Ursula Andress, Drew Barrymore, Linda Evans, Farrah Fawcett, Nancy Sinatra, and LaToya Jackson. Being in the magazine was seen as advancing careers.

Hugh Hefner published Playboy magazine and established Playboy clubs around the country, promoting a male fantasy lifestyle that influenced attitudes and behavior.

Hugh Hefner published Playboy magazine and established Playboy clubs around the country, promoting a male fantasy lifestyle that influenced attitudes and behavior. (AP Photo)

While the airbrushed touched-up photos may have given men an idealized expectation of what women really looked like, those on the pages of Playboy were presented as variations of the girl next door and the homecoming queen. If they happily stripped for the world, what else was possible? What other inhibitions would also become relics of false modesty?

In retrospect, when measured against 21st-century norms and those deliberately more transgressive flauntings of competitors like Penthouse and Hustler, Playboy seems rather tame, its nudity minimally erotic, its sexual advice as given by The Playboy Advisor conventional, addressed to an audience of men as healthy and normal as the women they ogled.

Hefner’s own background might be considered a template for the audience he cultivated. He was born on April 9, 1926, to conservative Protestant parents, his mother a descendant of Massachusetts Puritans William Bradford and John Winthrop. In a sense, he rebelled against that heritage without being a wild-eyed radical in the process.

In high school, he became a leader, including a term as student council president, founding a school paper, writing, and drawing cartoons. In the Army from 1944 to 1946, he served as an infantry clerk and drew cartoons. After his discharge, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, continuing to draw cartoons, this time for the Daily Illini, and editing Shaft, the college humor magazine. After graduation, he spent a semester taking graduate sociology courses at Northwestern, where he wrote a term paper on sex laws in the United States.

He wed Mildred Williams in June 1949 for a 10-year marriage that produced his daughter Christine and son David. After an inability to make a living as a cartoonist, he found jobs as an assistant personnel manager and advertising copywriter for a department store. In 1951, he took a position as a promotion copywriter for Esquire but did not follow that magazine when it moved to New York.

After failing in an attempt to start a Chicago magazine, he found work as a news-stand promotion director and then as circulation manager for Children Activities magazine, while pursuing plans for a sophisticated men’s magazine. After locating a printer and distributor, he raised $8,000 from friends and family, contributing $600 borrowed on his apartment furniture. He was in business as an editor-publisher.

Hefner produced the first issue of Playboy in his kitchen and had it printed without a date because he did not know whether the magazine would survive to a second issue. His cofounder, Eldon Sellers, came up with the magazine’s name after Stag Party could not be used because an outdoor magazine called Stag had a trademark for its title. Issue one, with a cover price of 50 cents, sold out quickly with a total circulation of close to 54,000. By the next year, Hefner was so successful that he could serialize Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in three issues. The peak of circulation came with the November 1972 issue, which reached more than seven million.

The magazine had been designed to appeal to an audience of college males and young graduates. Flush with profits from sales and advertising, it could afford to pay many major writers like Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, Nadine Gordimer, and Joyce Carol Oates. That prestige encouraged celebrities to become subjects of in-depth interviews, many regarded as models of the form, including those with Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Joseph Heller. Shortly before a presidential election, candidate Jimmy Carter revealed in November 1976 that he had “lusted in his heart” in one of the most famous interviews. Though that confession became fodder for comedians, it did not cost Carter the presidency. The literate content of Playboy led to the cliché, “I only read it for the articles.”

Hefner considered his publication and its expansion into venues such as the clubs a social movement, not merely a moneymaking venture. In the early 1960s, he began writing as a regular feature in the magazine the Playboy Philosophy, a series that included long editorial statements and transcripts of roundtable discussions. His philosophy rejected puritanism, encouraged hedonism, cosmopolitanism, and freethinking, while opposing sexism and racism.

Playboy preceded by several years the overturning of the censorship of books and films, perhaps the most significant of these being the 1959 court decision to allow the publication and sale of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, novels that had previously been banned in the United States. The ruling opened opportunities for the writing of graphic sexual descriptions by many American authors as well as nudity in films that became almost obligatory for a decade or two.

Starting in the 1970s, international editions of Playboy began appearing throughout North and South America, Europe, and Australia, and in Russia. But it is banned in almost all Muslim countries and in many parts of Asia.

Hefner’s second marriage in 1989, to Kimberly Conrad, that year’s Playmate of the Year, produced two sons, Marston Glenn and Cooper Bradford. The couple separated in the late 1990s and divorced formally in 2010. Of marriage, Hefner has said, “I have been married twice, and those were not the happiest times of my life. Part of the problem, quite frankly, is that when you get married, the romance disappears and the children arrive and the love is transferred. It shouldn’t be that way, but too often it is transferred to the children.”

Hefner turned over control of Playboy Enterprises to his daughter Christine, who became CEO in 1975. She was replaced by Scott Flanders in 2004, with a new mission of focusing on brand management. Hefner himself continues to live in the Playboy Mansion and surrounds himself with young women, admitting to using Viagra to enable sexual performance.

Hugh Hefner and his endorsed lifestyle have become archaic in an edgier time, the stuff of mockery as the man aged and the women around him did not. The Playboy Club folded, the keys opening the doors to vacant premises. The magazine’s circulation plummeted from the high of seven million to one and a half million. The revenue of Playboy Enterprises has fallen significantly, losing more than $200 million in 2008 and 2009. One might conclude that all that Hefner and Playboy represented just did not matter any more. And yet in 2010, there has been a bidding war for Playboy Enterprises. Hefner himself, in his mid-eighties, holding the great majority of stock wanted full control by buying out the others. But a counter offer came from FriendFinder Networks, owner of Penthouse and adult Web sites, which wanted Playboy’s cable television networks, video creation, and logo. Hefner wanted to revitalize the Playboy brand.

It is the brand that Hefner and others who seek control consider more important than the magazine that began it all. In a 2010 interview with Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine, he said, “Certainly in Playboy’s case they [magazines] make money by being in other businesses. To begin with, it was the magazine that carried the brand; now the brand carries the magazine.”

Whatever the future of Playboy, the magazine was instrumental in the radical new attitudes toward sex that changed behavior and expectations for Americans. What seems tame a half century later was considered by many a threatening violation of standards. Considering the aftermath, they were right. Even in the 21st century, the “insidious” Playboy philosophy is blamed for shameless contemporary moral standards, shallow consumerism, and an anything-goes attitude that has resulted in such abuses as pederasty.

Although the young women who posed for Playboy did so willingly and even competed for the privilege, a growing number of other women considered their choice of nudity and that of others who worked as bunnies in the Playboy Clubs submission to the status of being mere sexual objects, passive delicacies for the male gaze. They saw Playboy as one more culprit in the long history of male domination.

Perhaps the best known attack on Playboy’s exploitation of woman was a 1963 two-part article in Show magazine by Gloria Steinem based on firsthand research when she became a costumed bunny in the New York Playboy Club. The article itself can be considered an important step in Steinem’s rise as a leader of the feminist movement and cofounder of Ms magazine.

At the time of the article, Steinem was a freelance journalist in her late twenties. She worked as a bunny for three weeks of research and exposed the long hours, low pay, and poor working conditions suffered by the women who served the affluent males. In 1970, established as a writer and activist, she conducted a long interview with Hefner and debated him on a number of issues, including the Playboy philosophy.

Hefner disputed the accusation that Playboy was sexist in a 2010 interview with Slog News & Arts of Seattle:

It is the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go round. My great problem, quite frankly, when the anti-Playboy feminists attacked me, was that I didn’t know what they were talking about, and I didn’t have the language to respond in that time frame. The Playmates, and my decision to feature beautiful women in the magazine came directly out of my conviction that too many other publications, and society at large, were giving sex a bad name. Playboy was intended to be a men’s magazine, but the focus of it was the romantic connection between the sexes, from a male point of view. I believed this then, and I believe today that this connection is a very positive thing.

In many ways, Hefner prevailed as an agent of culture change. Attitudes considered offensive or immoral before Playboy are now taken for granted as norm by the vast majority. Yet the magazine and its philosophy have become passé, perhaps even quaint to generations that cannot conceive why that first issue was so revolutionary.

—Walter Cummins


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