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After 50 years of Playboy, we all live in Hef’s world

Forty years ago or so, someone bought me a gift subscription to Playboy. For reasons as obvious as they are embarrassing, I quite liked the magazine.

Actually, to be fair to my younger self, it wasn’t only the pneumatic nudes that appealed to me. Playboy publishes good prose, both fiction and nonfiction, and as someone who fancies himself as something of an amateur cultural anthropologist, I thought Playboy also did an excellent job of not just inspiring but also chronicling the changing sexual mores of mid-century America.

Indeed, it was with that thought in mind that within a year of receiving my gift subscription, I found myself haunting used magazine stores, trying to track down every issue of Playboy since its December 1953 debut.

I succeeded -- and I continued to read and collect Playboy for the next 25 or 30 years. But about a decade ago, for a variety of reasons, I began to lose interest in the magazine.

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So I let my subscription lapse and sold my collection.

I didn’t look at Playboy again until two weeks ago, after I received an e-mail invitation to “this year’s Playmate of the Year celebration at the Playboy Mansion.”

Playmate of the Year? I thought. Do they still have Playmates? And what’s to celebrate? Although Playboy is still the top-selling men’s magazine, circulation is less than half its 1970s peak of 6.5 million; Maxim outsells it more than 2-1 on the newsstand. And with photos of naked women so ubiquitous on the Internet that they show up on my computer, unbidden and unwanted, several times a day, why would anyone care about Playmates?

But this is Playboy’s 50th anniversary year, a cultural milestone of sorts, so I decided to go.

What a gas.

More than 500 people gathered under a big white tent for the Playmate announcement, and while most were -- surprise -- men, largely advertisers and others in business with Playboy, there were many women. Most of them seemed to feel that the nature of the event compelled them to wear dresses with deeply plunging necklines, their age and the amplitude (or absence) of the relevant assets notwithstanding. Never have I been surrounded by so much cleavage.

Because the luncheon doubled as a kickoff to the 50th anniversary festivities, 50 Playmates from years past attended -- among them, Dolores Del Monte, Miss March 1954, still spry and attractive (and modestly dressed) at 71.

Hugh Hefner, the magazine’s founder and editor in chief, welcomed them all. Hefner -- graying, two weeks past his 77th birthday, clad in a cream-colored, double-breasted suit and a pink, open-neck shirt -- sat front and center, at a table with his seven nubile girlfriends. All were young, all were blond, all had vapid smiles permanently affixed. The local electronic media were out in force, and almost everyone else seemed to have a camera as well. Every time I turned around, someone was asking to have his picture taken, either with Hefner and his harem or with any one of the many other examples of anatomical overspill.

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A ‘victory parade’

Before the brief program began, I asked Hefner if he thought Playboy was an anachronism in today’s world.

“Just the opposite,” he said. “We all now live, to some extent, in a Playboy world. I can see the effects of the magazine ... and its campaign for sexual openness everywhere.

“When George Will was here the other day, interviewing me, he said, ‘You won’ ... and he’s right. It’s nice to have gone through the battles with all those Puritans ... all those forces of repression and hypocrisy, and to live long enough to see the victory parade.”

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Hef -- as everyone calls him, even his daughter, Christie, now the chairman and chief executive of Playboy Enterprises -- quite rightly noted that while Playboy’s circulation is down, its “global brand identification” is strong and growing. Profits from the sale of Playboy licensing and merchandising, video and cable programming, and online services now dwarf the publishing operation. Last year, Playboy magazine accounted for only $94.7 million of the company’s $277.6 million in total revenue.

But the magazine is the heart and soul of Playboy, and Hefner is determined to “keep it relevant for today’s young male.” After all, despite its decline, it still sells 3.2 million copies monthly to 2.5 million for No. 2 Maxim.

The Puritans are still among us, of course, and Playboy continues to be a valuable voice against them. If Playboy, at times, takes itself a bit too seriously, Maxim and its ilk are too silly, too frenetic to have (or even want) any real role in the ongoing struggle against what I think of as the “pleasure police,” those anhedonics who, as H.L. Mencken put it, suffer from “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

When Arthur Kretchmer, Playboy’s editorial director for 36 years, announced his retirement last year, Hefner hired a new editor, James Kaminsky, 42 -- from Maxim.

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“Playboy is still the only men’s magazine with beautiful women, great literature, great journalism and a good, long interview every month,” Kaminsky says, “and I don’t intend to change that. We’ll have an 8,000-word piece of fiction by T.C. Boyle in our August issue, for example.

“But because of ESPN, MTV and the Internet, today’s male, 18 to 34, processes information differently. He wants more access points, more ways to get into stories.”

So the new Playboy, like Maxim and other, newer magazines, has more short pieces and more boxes and illustrations, especially in the front of the book, and it uses these devices to break up longer stories and draw readers into them.

“You might skip the first page of one of our long stories,” Kaminsky says, “but I don’t want you to skip all of it, so I hope these sidebars will catch your attention and hook you.”

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Kaminsky has also hired Playboy’s first “celebrity wrangler” to lure stars into the pages of Playboy, with or without their clothes.

We live, increasingly, in a celebrity culture, but as the magazine that put Marilyn Monroe on the cover -- and nude, inside -- in its first issue, Playboy is no J. Lo-come-lately to this arena. Besides, with all that nudity available online today, readers are no longer satisfied to see just any naked woman; they want to see a naked woman they think they’ve come to know, on television or in the movies, and would like to know better -- even if her celebrity is both artificial and temporary, as in the case of Sarah Kozer of Fox TV’s “Joe Millionaire,” whose body, in various stages of undress, graces 10 pages of the June issue of Playboy.

Playing a vital role

Although Kaminsky edits the magazine from its New York editorial offices, and Christie Hefner runs the company from its headquarters in Chicago, Hefner continues to be directly involved, by phone, fax, modem and memo, from his mansion in Holmby Hills.

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“I don’t do a lot of reading of the text,” he says, “but I still pick all the centerfolds and the cartoons, and I approve all the covers and the photos and the layouts.”

And with that, Hefner went off to introduce the Playmate of the Year -- Christina Santiago, 21, tightly sheathed in a red dress, with a very low-cut back. As he handed her the keys to a new BMW and a check for $100,000, he beamed and said, “She comes from Chicago, my hometown, where all this began.”

Flashbulbs flashed. Peacocks strutted across the lawn. Ducks glided by on the mansion pond. And everyone was given a copy of the magazine and the Playboy merchandise catalog, filled with offers for “barely there” thongs, see-through bras, jars of “potency elixirs,” and videos and DVDs guaranteed to put purchasers on “the path to a better sex life.”

Although I wasn’t interested in any of these products, I left the mansion with newfound appreciation for the Hefner merchandising machine. More important, I had renewed appreciation for the vital role Hefner played in the sexual revolution.

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On this sunny afternoon, with bosoms displayed as far as the eye could see, it was difficult to think of him and his seven personal playmates as revolutionaries -- “Give me libido or give me death”? -- and there is no doubt that in some sense, Playboy has been guilty of both objectifying women and turning them into air-brushed Barbie dolls.

But there is also no doubt that in the buttoned-down, closed-up 1950s, Hefner helped open many Americans to the idea that sex should not be regarded as a dirty little secret.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com


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