Hugh Hefner’s 20th century


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Undated handout photo of Hugh Hefner, center, with Ringo Starr, left, and Barbi Benton, right, at the Playboy club in London.

Hugh Hefner is troublesome. He’s a bon vivant with a sense of political responsibility. He’s a champion of both nudie magazines and top-notch writing, of brilliant jazz and bared breasts. Is he an intellectual sexual liberator or an objectifier of women? Can he be both?


The Times’ review of Stephen Watt’s new biography, ‘Mr. Playboy,’ indicates that these questions are not all that important. ‘Hefner’s ideal for living -- marked by his allegiances to Tarzan, Freud, Pepsi-Cola and jazz -- proves to be a kind of gloss on the Protestant work ethic,’ David Cotner writes. ‘And yet ‘Mr. Playboy’ reveals that Hefner essentially inverted that ideal by creating his own ethos, in which hard work also happens in the mind, and its rewards spring from the pursuit of pleasure, not of virtue.’

Protestant work ethic? Virtue? What about the Bunnies? What about the high living and fast cars? What about the Grotto, man?

It should come as no surprise, I suppose, that it’s hard work being Hugh Hefner. He is, after all, a wildly successful businessman (although things have gotten tight lately). Cotner’s review says, ‘Ironically, Hefner’s philosophy that sex occasionally has no point other than the pleasure of the act itself -- a joy borne of craftsmanship, so to speak -- is another example of his alignment with the Protestant ethic of good work being a virtue unto itself.’

This confluence of hard work and pleasure was something Hefner talked about in relation to his TV shows ‘Playboy After Dark’ and ‘Playboy’s Penthouse’ in an interview with Dave Navarro earlier this year. The premise was ‘a variety show that didn’t seem like a variety show,’ Hefner said.’There was a subjective camera that came up the elevator... you appeared to be a guest at a party at my apartment.’ A lot of work went into making those parties seem like real parties, including, Lenny Bruce says in one episode, real booze. More about the show -- including some mindblowing clips of Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown and the Grateful Dead -- after the jump.

The show ‘Playboy’s Penthouse’ was filmed in Chicago and aired from 1959-1960. In this clip, Ella Fitzgerald sings ‘Get Out of Town’ with a live band. Everyone is in formal cocktail wear; Hugh Hefner’s got on his tuxedo. That’s how things started.

The show was revived, in color and in Los Angeles, as ‘Playboy After Dark.’ In this clip -- with the fabled arriving-at-the-party opening -- Hugh Hefner is still wearing his tuxedo, although he’s in the minority. Sammy Davis Jr., a year older than Hefner, is much more hip in his sparkling vest. And wow, can he dance.


In this clip, a roomful of blond ladies sings with James Brown to his ‘Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ Hefner nods along, with pipe and tux.

Tuxedo-clad Hefner chats with a young, serape-clad Jerry Garcia -- worlds don’t collide so much as whiz past each other -- before the Grateful Dead performs ‘Mountains of the Moon.’

Sammy Davis Jr. -- who appeared in both versions of the show -- repeatedly alluded to the fact that the music he was singing to wasn’t coming from the musicians you could see. He joked about Hefner keeping an orchestra in the closet, ostensibly on tape. I think he’s really singing. PS: Yes, that is Bill Cosby with the maracas and the cigar.

The divergent worlds that Hugh Hefner has straddled are hard to imagine, but they can be seen on the ‘Playboy After Dark’ DVDs. Of course, they can be read about in the new biography, too.

-- Carolyn Kellogg