IF HUGH HEFNER hadn’t existed, the 20th century would have had to create him. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the 20th century would have wanted to create him either way. As the postwar era dawned, so too did an array of cheap, limitless entertainments, and in 1953, Hefner launched Playboy magazine. Based in Chicago (later Los Angeles), it offered cosmopolitan pleasures even as America fell prey to a kind of conformity that was, in its own gray way, as psychically crippling as communism.
In Steven Watts’ exhaustive, illuminating biography “Mr. Playboy,” 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. 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.
Partly because of the breakneck pace and passion with which he threw himself into his publishing venture, Hefner’s marriage to Millie Williams ended in March 1959. As spring was sprung, so did Hefner, who fervently embraced with his Playboy colleagues the pleasures so staunchly extolled.
As with any groundbreaking enterprise, the story of Playboy begins with the joy of the raw. Then come the plateaus of success. By 1970, Playboy had become an essential read, tackling substantive political analysis; founding a renowned jazz festival; publishing premier writers such as Alex Haley, James Jones, Ian Fleming and Ray Bradbury; introducing into the lexicon concepts like playmate and centerfold.
Such achievements were tempered by the great tragedies that often accompany great prosperity -- the suicide of Hefner’s beloved aide-de-camp Bobbie Arnstein in 1975 after government agency persecutions that had sought since 1955 to find drug trafficking at Playboy; the 1980 murder of Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten, which sent Hefner into a long period of self-reflection and reevaluation.
In the 1980s, Hefner had to confront the specter of AIDS, as well as the increasing number of outlets through which consumers might access sexual material. He had a breakdown from exhaustion and then a stroke, only to recover and marry Playmate Kimberly Conrad.
Eventually, he reinvented himself through the popular cable program “The Girls Next Door,” which portrays the publisher living happily in his Holmby Hills mansion with three blond girlfriends, introducing polyamory to the public at large. In terms of cultural influence, Hefner has become to some adults what Walt Disney is to many kids.
Watts’ admiring but tastefully framed chapters not only depict Hefner as a Horatio Alger-style success story, but also amplify that homily, framing him as a kind of superhero -- mild-mannered independent publisher by day, supernally supercharged super-male by night. There’s even a secret origin story: the soft pet blanket emblazoned with bunnies that was taken away from Hefner as a child.
Although Watts doesn’t shrink from detailing Hefner’s long battles -- and discourse -- with feminists and the Moral Majority, he rightly pegs the restrictive attitudes Hefner has fought against as Victorian, not Puritan.
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.
Now 82, Hefner is again confronting the need to re-imagine the Playboy brand to keep up with the times -- much as he did when he embraced jazz and television. (The 1959 program “Playboy’s Penthouse” is one of the oddest shows in TV history, with sexuality juxtaposed against a guest appearance by Carl Sandburg.) It will be intriguing to see where he can possibly still go. He’s circled back on himself to become that most venerable of all things: an institution, as established and iconic as the American Dream itself.
David Cotner is a contributing writer to LA Weekly.