Playboy at 50: a man's notes

Times Staff Writer

That first issue, from late 1953, was either an inspired melange or a goofy mixed bag, depending on your tastes. A black-and-white photo of Marilyn Monroe beckoned vivaciously from the cover. An editor's note greeted female readers by flinging down a rhetorical gauntlet: "If you're somebody's sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake," it taunted, "please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion." Inside, the production values were primitive and the illustrations were like something you'd find in a boy's book of adventure stories.

But overall the editorial voice was surprisingly sophisticated -- assured, tongue-in-cheek and vaguely conspiratorial. Readers tempted to flip through the issue for more come-hither shots of Marilyn might've been surprised to find an excerpt from the Decameron, the raunchy 14th century picaresque masterpiece by Giovanni Boccaccio, and Ambrose Bierce's meditative short story "A Horseman in the Sky."

Elsewhere in the slim 44-page magazine, one snappily written feature story honored the jazz world's Dorsey brothers, another offered battle-scarred advice on how to survive an alimony settlement, and a third, "The Men's Shop," touted such essential bachelor-pad props as a stainless steel ice bucket covered in unborn calf skin. Hubba hubba!

It's easy to forget that in the beginning -- before the bunny became a global brand, before Hef became the swingin' godfather to three generations of American men, before anyone had even heard the name Pamela Anderson -- Playboy was simply a magazine. And not the sort that red-blooded all-American guys normally read.

For starters, Playboy was never really about naked women. Seriously. If you wanted to see a bit of skin, there was plenty to ogle in Eisenhower-era girlie mags like Escapade, Caper, Carnival, Night & Day, Bachelor. (Playboy was originally going to be called Stag Party before Hef made a last-minute change.) All sported the same wise-guy, film-noir attitude that seems about as hip today as a headful of Brylcreem. All served up soft-core features with smirky titles like "Minx in Minks" and "The Delicate Problem of Other Men's Wives." It was greasy kid's stuff, Bogart Lite.

What made Playboy stand out from this Rack Pack wasn't its monthly parade of newly minted beauties, as smoothly buffed and well-upholstered as a 1955 Buick Century. It was its unconcealed disdain for the Field & Stream lifestyle, its utter boredom with the macho world of fishing lures, two-man pup tents and Hemingway-style rugged outdoorsmanship.

"The men's magazines were promoting a male-bonding kind of thing that left the women out," Hugh Hefner says. "It was the woman in the home, raising the kids, and you're out there with the guys, playin' poker, huntin', fishin', bowlin'. And these were the things that did not appeal to me."

It's a pale, chilly November afternoon at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, the exclusive Westside enclave where Hefner has spent the better part of three decades living out his male readers' fondest fantasies. At times, he's aware, his reputation as a modern-day pasha has overshadowed the magazine that he first pasted up in his South Side Chicago apartment. The rest, of course, is history: Playboy went on to become a blue-chip corporate empire, Playboy Enterprises International, Inc., now run by Hefner's daughter Christie as chairman and CEO.

But it's Christie's dad, a 77-year-old Viagra enthusiast, who continues to edit the magazine: hand-picking stories, pondering the mix of cartoons and offering well-considered judgments as to whether Miss January's skin tone and pubic hair have the requisite up-market gloss.

Under Hef's half-century of editorial guidance, Playboy has arguably become one of the half-dozen or so most influential magazines in publishing history. The list of writers and artists contributing to its 50th anniversary issue, which goes on sale today, testifies to its continuing clout: Norman Mailer, Jeff Koons, T.C. Boyle, the late George Plimpton, David Mamet, Scott Turow, Hunter S. Thompson.

But what sort of magazine was, and is, Playboy? Once its readers had rifled their way through the monthly menagerie of blonds, brunets and redheads, what else was there to hold their attention? As it turns out, more than you might remember.

When the Bomb was big

Bear in mind that when that first issue of Playboy hit the streets in 1953, the United States had no counterculture to speak of and no recognizable bohemia apart from Greenwich Village. The Beats were still a few years away, and Elvis was driving a truck in Memphis. Toting around a copy of Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" could get you branded a degenerate, maybe even land you on a chain gang busting rocks.

So what was big in those days? Joe McCarthy was big. Hope-Crosby road flicks were still big. The Bomb was very, very big, as Playboy noted in its inaugural issue: "If we are able to give the American male a few extra laughs and a little diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age, we'll feel we've justified our existence."

Like the rest of America, Playboy eventually learned how to mix martinis and drown its existential angst in absurdist humor. But the Bomb's shadow never entirely disappeared from its pages. It lurks there today, most conspicuously in Gahan Wilson's creepy cartoons of bulbous aliens, relentless Grim Reapers and other monstrosities.

By the time Playboy's second issue rolled out, in January 1954, the editorial identity was unmistakable. There were more jazz stories. Bob Hope wrote about golf. A woman fired off a letter in response to the previous issue's alimony story, arguing that ex-husbands "ought to pay, and pay, and pay." Playboy's succinct, if less-than-chivalric, response: "Ah, shaddup!"

Over time, this mock-adversarial tone would be tempered by the debonair approach of the oft-quoted Playboy mantra: "We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion of Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex." Thus spake Hef.

Now imagine such an encounter in those early years, when the typical American male -- a rough-hewn, culturally challenged sort of fellow, freshly returned from some violent overseas dust-up and better versed in the Dodgers' starting lineup than the surreal art of Salvador Dali -- was trying to assimilate back into polite society and deal with the phenomenon of the New American Woman:

Female Acquaintance [lowering the volume on Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue"]: So are you personally persuaded by the critique of Christian ethics that Nietzsche posits in "The Genealogy of Morals"? And by the way, isn't that a lithograph of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" next to your hi-fi?

Swingin' Playboy Bachelor: Um, can you take off your bra now?

Hefner, knowing that his male readers needed a little more spit and polish if they were to triumph in the coming Wars of Sexual Liberation, saw his magazine as a "civilizing influence." Anti-intellectualism, no less than sexism, racism or homophobia, was firmly ingrained in American life. But Playboy went ahead and began publishing serious fiction and serious criticism about art, literature, culture, food, fashion and design. One of its breakthroughs was running "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury's reverberant tale of a brainwashed future society.

Within three years, Playboy was showcasing such esteemed hommes de lettres as Erskine Caldwell, John Steinbeck and Evelyn Waugh, right alongside ads for a $16.95 set of bongo drums. ("Just one thump and you know they're really authentic.") The January 1957 issue, swollen to 80 pages, featured another Bradbury story, "In a Season of Calm Weather," which the magazine described as "about a guy who digs Picasso the most, see" and illustrated with several previously unpublished Picasso drawings.

In Playboy's aesthetically promiscuous pages, the hipster argot of the emerging Beat generation mixed with the Squaresville idiom of mainstream advertising like strangers at a cocktail party. Classy black-and-white woodcuts by John Held, a longtime illustrator for the New Yorker, brushed elbows with gauzy photographs of seminaked women.

By the mid-1960s, the Playmates looked as sleek and streamlined as something out of the Finish Fetish school of California art. Playboy's evolving graphic and pictorial style was indebted not only to Madison Avenue but to the luscious, gleaming Pop Art effusions of James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselman and, of course, Andy Warhol, an occasional contributor.

Commercialism was never a four-letter word at Playboy. Vince Tajiri, its first photo editor, has said that the style he developed for the magazine was "a middle ground between advertising photography and photojournalism. It is rather slick, but we try to bring into it a candid, realistic feeling." In other words, a photo of writhing, interlocked bodies accompanying a 1971 first-person account of "My First Orgy" could be shot with the same chiaroscuro reverence as a state-of-the-art fondue set.

As author-sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich has observed, the magazine's contents added up to a kind of consumer profile of the newly enlightened male: the cars one should drive, the books one should read, the discs one should listen to, the clothes one should wear, even the bachelor pads one should covet, whether a John Lautner space-age domicile perched above the Palm Springs desert or the 21st century townhouse that Frank Gehry sketched out for the 50th anniversary issue. The magazine's "visionary contribution," Ehrenreich wrote, "was to give the means of status to the single man."

Humor as well as hotties

From the outset, transgressive humor defined Playboy as much as any Norman Mailer short story or Helmut Newton photo spread of Wagnerian blonds. Hef was always a big fan of Mad magazine -- he hired away several members of its editorial staff in the early years -- and he wanted Playboy to cast an irreverent eye on politics, art, sports and, of course, sex.

"Jules Feiffer said it very well in his satire, in his cartoons," Hefner says. "He said we didn't have to worry about who the enemy were, because everybody was lying to us -- our parents, our teachers, the police, Washington, the president. They were all lying to us. So our humor was based on that."

Sometimes the jokes were hopelessly obvious or coarse: "We know a modern Cinderella who, at the stroke of midnight, turns into a motel." Some Playboy cartoons defended the caveman. Others spoofed men behaving badly. Man, reading newspaper in chair, to disgruntled woman carrying bags out the door: "That's it for us, huh? How about a quickie before you split?"The magazine aspired to be not only har-har funny but witty, with sly headlines, pun-happy photo captions and trompe l'oeil cover designs. The trademark rabbit would hide on the cover in plain sight, like Alfred Hitchcock in his movies: engraved on a pair of cufflinks, camouflaged as a drinking straw, or outlined on the un-tanned portion of a sunbathing woman's back, as if the hare had been resting its head there and hopped away for a dip in the ocean.

But Playboy also knew when to be serious. It serialized "All the President's Men," the Bob Woodward-Carl Bernstein expose of the Watergate scandal. It coaxed then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter into admitting he had lusted in his heart after women other than his wife. In Playboy, an article on the arrogance of power during the Vietnam War or the hypocrisies of '80s televangelists might jostle with cartoons of sex-starved little old ladies, new poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko or Anson Mount's prescient college and pro football prognostications.

When it came to pop culture, Playboy might've been furry, but it wasn't fluffy. Its critics damned Ken Russell's sexually explicit "The Devils" as "one of the most vulgar movies ever made." A 1974 review of Tony Scaduto's book "Mick Jagger: Everybody's Lucifer" observed that "The results are to Gay Talese what Rod McKuen is to William Blake." Rather than a burlesque review, Playboy was an R-rated variety show, with Hef playing the Ed Sullivan role in black silk pajamas and a red smoking jacket.

Of all the magazine's long-standing features, none has aged more gracefully than the Playboy Forum and Dear Playboy, the monthly readers' exchange. Flipping through back issues, you notice the relative civility of the dialogue, the openness to discussion even about polarizing issues: birth control, abortion, sex education, and the question of how the Sexual Revolution affected women's struggle for equal opportunity in the courts, the workplace, the bedroom.

"I, too, am not 'comfortable with the notion of impersonal sex,' " wrote Deborah Perkins of Toledo, Ohio, in December 1974. "But are men? Or is it, rather, simply unacceptable for men to admit that they aren't?"

Asked what happened to that spirit of civility (did it really exist?), Playboy's founding editor in chief manages a wistful smile. It seems he'd rather talk about the future, eagerly taking up the question of whether Playboy is still relevant. "Oh, I think so," he says immediately. "Well, let's put it this way: Several million people believe so....

"To compare Playboy [today] with Playboy as it existed in the 1960s or early '70s is meaningless. What Playboy accomplished and the meaning that it had in that time frame will never come again.... Quite frankly, the arrival of the laddie books is a very good thing for the men's field, because it has made the men's magazine field hot again. And that was not so true a little while ago. What is Maxim but really a variation on, a slightly downscale version of Playboy?"

And with that, the lord of the manor goes off to peruse his newly arrived copy of a Chinese-language newsweekly featuring a glossy five-page spread on Playboy. Too bad he doesn't speak Chinese. But there's always the pictures.

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