Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who shook up American morality with an ideal of swinging singlehood, dies at 91
The first issue of Playboy, in December 1952, featured a nude Marilyn Monroe. (Sept. 28, 2017)
Hugh Hefner, the incurable playboy who built a publishing and entertainment empire on the idea that Americans should shed their puritanical hang-ups and enjoy sex, has died. He was 91.
He died Wednesday of natural causes at his home, the Playboy Mansion, according to Teri Thomerson, a Playboy spokesperson.
Hefner was the founder of Playboy magazine, launched amid the conservatism of the 1950s, when marriage and domesticity conferred social status. Hefner pitched an alternative standard — swinging singlehood — which portrayed the desire for sex as being as normal as craving apple pie. He redefined status for a generation of men, replacing lawn mowers and fishing gear with new symbols: martini glasses, a cashmere sweater and a voluptuous girlfriend, the necessary components of a new lifestyle that melded sex and materialism.
Thus, in Playboy magazine, the upwardly mobile man could ogle pictures of naked women called Playmates, chosen personally by Hefner for their large busts and girl-next-door wholesomeness. Surrounding the titillating visuals were interviews with luminaries from Albert Schweitzer to Malcolm X; short stories by such leading writers as Ernest Hemingway and John Updike; and advice columns on such matters as how to prepare the perfect vodka gimlet or appreciate jazz — all of which lent credence to many men’s claims that they bought the magazine for the articles.
This combination of flesh and intellectuality made Playboy the world’s bestselling men’s magazine and Hefner a millionaire many times over. The venture gave him a pulpit from which to preach the virtues of a postwar revolution in morality and propelled sex into the American mainstream.
“Hefner was the first publisher to see that the sky would not fall and mothers would not march if he published bare bosoms; he realized that the old taboos were going,” Time magazine said in a 1967 cover story. “He took the old-fashioned, shame-thumbed girlie magazines, stripped off the plain wrapper, added gloss, class and culture. It proved to be a sure-fire formula.”
“If you don’t swing, don’t ring,” read a brass doorplate at the original Playboy Mansion in Chicago, a 48-room abode where Hefner reveled with bevies of Playmates on a rotating, circular bed. Later, he moved the party to Playboy Mansion West, a six-acre compound above Beverly Hills with 30 rooms, an underground grotto, a staff of 70 and a round-the-clock kitchen attuned to his unconventional schedule — scrambled eggs at, say, 5 p.m., or fried chicken at midnight.
He shared the fantasy not only through the magazine but through a string of Playboy Clubs, where anyone able to pay a modest membership fee could be served food and drinks by “Bunnies” — well-endowed women costumed in rabbit ears, puffy tails and satin corsets so tight that sneezing burst the seams. The black-and-white Bunny logo that adorned the magazine and all manner of merchandise, from cufflinks to cocktail napkins, became a coveted mark of suavity.
Just what the Bunny really stood for — sexual freedom or sexist oppression — became fodder for the cultural wars of the 1960s and ‘70s. Feminist Gloria Steinem fired one of the first shots when she posed as a Bunny and wrote a scathing expose in Show magazine in 1963. “Reading Playboy,” she later said, “feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.”
Then, in 1985, Hefner had a stroke. Though he made a full recovery, he decided, as he put it, to “put down some luggage.” In 1988, he turned over day-to-day operations of his enterprises to his daughter, Christie, while retaining the editorship of the magazine.
The next year, the Playboy-in-Chief did the unthinkable: He got married and settled into monogamy for the better part of a decade.
When the marriage collapsed in the late 1990s, the king of sybarites was reborn. He entered the new millennium with a harem of blonde, buxom lovelies all young enough to be his granddaughters. The aging swinger seemed delighted, boasting to a reporter that he had sex “one way or another” everyday, but some observers smirked. “He is so pathetic,” Steinem told the New York Observer in 2005. “Now he’s going around with four young women in their 20s instead of just one…. I feel sorry for him.”
Hefner insisted he was just a relentless romantic, the eternal teenager for whom nothing was sweeter than to have a passionate crush on a girl who liked him back.
“Much of my life has been like an adolescent dream of an adult life,” he told The Times in 1992. “If you were still a boy, in almost a Peter Pan kind of way, and could have just the perfect life that you wanted to have, that’s the life I invented for myself.”
As Hefner often told the story, most of the credit — or blame — belonged to his parents, Grace and Glenn Hefner.
Grace, a former schoolteacher, and Glenn, an accountant whose job kept him away from home for long hours, were devout Methodists, morally strict and emotionally reserved. Such restraint was in the bloodline, their son would later point out. For Glenn Hefner was a direct descendant of William Bradford, one of the English Puritan Separatists who sailed to America on the Mayflower in the early 1600s. The irony was not lost on Hugh Hefner, who would routinely cite this lineage when explaining his rebellion.
“Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced. Or hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family,” Hefner told the Chicago Sun Times in 2004.
“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way she was raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn’t have done it any better. And because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.”
Hefner sits for a portrait in Los Angeles in August 2013.()
Hefner with actress Barbi Benton and others at his Playboy Club in London in 1969.(Michael Webb / Getty Images)
Hugh Hefner, lounging in the backyard of his Playboy mansion in 1975.(Jeff Robbins / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Hefner and Barbi Benton with film director Roman Polanski at Le Bourget airport outside Paris in 1970.(AFP/Getty Images)
Hefner and Barbi Benton in his private DC-9 jet in 1970.
Playboy Playmates Claudia Jennings, Monique St. Pierre, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner; Playmates Dorothy Stratten, Connie Kreski, Angela Dorian celebrating Playboy magazine’s 25th anniversary All-Day Saturday Playmate Reunion at the Playboy Mansion in 1979.(NBC)
American millionaire Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire, during a visit to England in 1966.(John Downing / Getty Images)
Hefner and Barbi Benton at Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills in 1970.()
Hugh Hefner at Playboy’s 60th anniversary special event on Jan. 16, 2014 in Los Angeles.(Charley Gallay / Getty Images)
Hugh Hefner at his mansion in Los Angeles.(HECTOR MATA / AFP/Getty Images)
Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner poses with playmates Holly Madison, left, and Bridget Marquardt, right, during a photocall at the 47th Monte Carlo Television Festival in Monaco.(VALERY HACHE / AFP/Getty Images)
Publisher Hugh Hefner poses with a few of the 100 girls vying to be the 50th anniversary Playmate at the Playboy Mansion.(David Klein / Getty Images)
Hugh Hefner in Le Bourget, France, in 1970.(AFP/Getty Images)
Bridget Marquardt, Hugh Hefner and Holly Madison pose with a snake as they arrive at the 10th Annual Safari Brunch at the Playboy Mansion in 2004.(Frazer Harrison / Getty Images)
From left: Melissa Taylor, television personality; model Holly Madison; Playboy founder Hugh Hefner; Crystal Harris; and Anna Berglund appear in Madison’s dressing room after Hefner and his friends attended the adult production, “Peepshow” starring Madison at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
Hugh Hefner arrives at a June 2006 party with friends Bridget Marquardt, left, and Holly Madison to celebrate his 80th birthday at Villa Miani in Rome.(Tiziana Fabi / AFP/Getty Images)
Hugh Hefner receives kisses from Playmates during the 52nd Cannes Film Festival in May 1999.(Laurent Rebours / AP)
Hugh Hefner with friends, from left, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson during the 47th Monte Carlo TV Festival in Monaco, in June 2007.(STR/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock )
Hugh Hefner with (from left) Karissa Shannon, her twin Kristina Shannon and Krystal Harris at the reception for Hefners six volume book at Taschen’s in Beverly Hills.(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
Playboy magazine president Hugh Hefner poses with Playmates on the steps of the Palais des Festivals before the screening of their movie “Entrapment” in Cannes, France.(PASCAL GUYOT / AFP/Getty Images)
Hugh Hefner flashes a smile as he watches the action during the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.(Rchard Hartog / Los Angeles Times)
Publisher Hugh Hefner, second from left, in front of his new DC 9 jet plane in 1970.(ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner on his yacht at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Hugh Hefner and Dr. Joyce Brothers at the New York Hilton Hotel for his New York Friars Club Roast in 2001.(Evan Agostini / Getty Images)
Hugh Hefner and his dates arrive for the 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Paul McCartney in Los Angeles.(Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images)
Hefner answers questions in a Censorship in Media class at USC in 2008.(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
Hefner at the annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in 2001.(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Born in Chicago, Hugh Marston Hefner was an introverted youth who loved to chase butterflies. Fond of drawing and writing, he published his own neighborhood newspaper when he was 8 or 9. He was also a daydreamer and dawdler, which brought complaints from his teachers. His worried mother took him to a psychologist, whose tests showed that young Hefner had an IQ of 152 — far above average — but was emotionally immature. The psychologist told Grace Hefner that she could help her son by acting more warmly and sympathetically toward him.
Hefner’s schoolwork improved and he took to drawing with new vigor. He mainly drew semi-autobiographical cartoons about a boy he called “Goo Heffer” who attended “Stinkmuch High.” At Steinmetz High School, he emerged from his shell to become president of the student council and vice president of the literary club.
After graduating in the top quarter of his class, he was drafted into the Army and served stateside from 1944 to 1946. He attended the University of Illinois on the G.I. Bill and majored in psychology while contributing articles and cartoons to the campus paper. He briefly attended graduate school at Northwestern University.
One of the pieces he wrote for the University of Illinois paper was a review of the Kinsey Report, researcher Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering study of male sexual behavior, published in 1948. Hefner wrote: “Dr. Kinsey’s book disturbs me. Not because I consider the American people overly immoral, but this study makes obvious the lack of understanding and realistic thinking gone into the formation of sex standards and laws. Our moral pretenses, our hypocrisy on matters of sex, have led to incalculable frustration, delinquency and unhappiness.”
In 1949 he married Mildred Williams, a college sweetheart with an appealing wholesomeness, but the union was hobbled from the start. During their engagement she had an affair with another man that devastated Hefner, but he refused to call off the marriage. It lasted 10 years, until their divorce in 1959.
Years later he said the experience set him up for a lifetime of promiscuity because “if you don’t commit,” he told The Times in 1994, “you don’t get hurt.” He said it also showed him what was wrong with traditional attitudes towards sex: “Thinking sex is sacred is the first step toward really turning it into something very ugly,” he said on another occasion.
In 1951, he applied to Esquire magazine and was hired as a promotional copywriter at $40 a week. When Esquire moved most of its operations to New York, he quit and took a sales job at Publisher’s Development Corp., a Skokie, Ill., firm that published a dozen trade and “nudie” magazines. A colleague, Vince Tajiri, who would become Playboy’s photo editor, told Hefner biographer Russell Miller that Hefner “was very immature for his age. He was totally unsophisticated, but he had this obsession with sex. When he had nothing else to do he would draw pornographic cartoons of Blondie and Dagwood.”
Hefner soon advanced to a higher paying position as circulation promotion director of Children’s Activities magazine. By then he had become the father of Christie Ann; his future successor as head of the Playboy empire, who was born in 1952. A second child, David, was born in 1955.
Saddled with family responsibilities and a less-than-thrilling job, Hefner grew depressed. “I remember standing on a bridge, looking out at Lake Michigan and thinking my life was not going anywhere,” he recalled in Time magazine in 2005. “I felt as if I had successfully become my parents. Tears filled my eyes.”
The incident spurred him to start HMH Publishing Co. with $600 borrowed from two banks and $3,000 from friends and family. He was blissfully ignorant of the challenges ahead. “If I had known then what I know now,” he told Brady, “I doubt if I would have even tried. But once I had made up my mind, I worked on the idea with everything I had, and for the first time in my life I felt truly free. It was like a mission — to publish a magazine that would thumb its nose at all the phony puritan values of the world in which I had grown up.”
By then — 1953 — the Kinsey report on female sexuality had come out. With findings that pointed to the prevalence of premarital and extramarital sex, it provided Hefner with confirmation of his growing belief that women were becoming more comfortable with their own sexuality.
Working out of his apartment with a minimal staff — art director Art Paul and sales manager Eldon Sellers — Hefner labored around the clock to assemble the first issue. After considering the name Stag Party, Hefner took Sellers’ suggestion and went with Playboy instead. Hefner proposed a tuxedoed rabbit as a “cute, frisky, and sexy” logo, which Paul designed in half an hour.
Hefner was so unsure of the magazine’s prospects that he did not put a date on the first issue, thinking it might take some time to sell all the copies. He kept his name out of that first issue, too, in case the enterprise flopped. In its tone, however, the magazine oozed confidence. “We want to make clear from the very start, we aren’t a ‘family magazine,'“ Hefner wrote in the first editorial. “If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.”
Playboy, he wrote a short while later, was meant for any sort of man on the rise, from an engineer to a university professor, but the ideal reader “must be an alert man, an aware man, a man of taste, a man sensitive to pleasure, a man who — without acquiring the stigma of the voluptuary or dilettante — can live life to the hilt. This is the sort of man we mean when we use the word playboy.”
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A towering political figure who became the top prosecutor in Los Angeles County and then California before running for governor, Van de Kamp helped institute a revolutionary computerized fingerprint identification program, was instrumental in the push to “fast track” cases stuck in the state’s civil courts and pressed a laundry list of environmental, consumer rights and campaign finance reform cases. He was 81. Full obituary( Los Angeles Times)
Waller’s bestselling, bittersweet 1992 novel “The Bridges of Madison County” was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and a Broadway musical. “Bridges” turned the unknown writer into a multimillionaire and made Madison County, Iowa, an international tourist attraction. He was 77. Full obituary(Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)
The Boxing Hall of Fame trainer and manager handled the careers of 19 champions including heavyweight Evander Holyfield. Duva with his family built the promotional company Main Events into one of boxing’s powerhouses. He was 94. Full obituary(Mike Groll / Associated Press)
As a state legislator and 10-term congressman from Southern California, Beilenson advocated for abortion rights, environmental protection and gun control. Among his proudest achievements was sponsoring the 1978 legislation that created the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, protecting a wilderness that extends from the Hollywood Hills to Point Mugu. He was 84. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The silver-haired and dapper Osborne was a bona fide movie connoisseur who displayed his wide knowledge of films as the genial host on Turner Classic Movies since its launch in 1994. Osborne was a longtime columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and the “official biographer” of the Academy Awards. He was 84. Full obituary(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Preval was the only democratically elected president of Haiti to win and complete two terms. He was elected by a landslide in 1995 as the chosen successor of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. His second term, which started in 2006, was marred by the disastrous earthquake of Jan, 12, 2010. Many Haitians accused him of a fumbling response to the tragedy. He was 74. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Paxton’s career began in B-movies, experimental film and music videos, then moved through bit parts in big pictures and, ultimately, leading roles. His movie successes included “Apollo 13,” “Titanic,” “A Simple Plan,” “Weird Science,” “Twister” and “True Lies,” and among his TV role was that of a polygamist Mormon businessman in the HBO series “Big Love.” He was 61. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge became an unlikely American TV icon. Called the “Solomon of Small Claims,” Wapner presided over “The People’s Court” for 12 years in the 1980s and ’90s. He was 97. Full obituary(Rene Macura)
Arrow was the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for economics. He helped push and pull economics into unexpected arenas — global warming, the electoral process, pay equity and healthcare. His groundbreaking work redefined the world’s understanding of the free marketplace. He was 95. Full obituary(Associated Press)
In a career spanning five decades, thousands of reviews and dozens of books, Schickel chronicled Hollywood’s changing landscape. His piercing critiques made him one of America’s most important film critics in an era when cinema became increasingly ingrained in the cultural consciousness. He was 84. Full obituary(Michael Lionstar / Knopf)
McCorvey was the “Jane Roe” in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade, which struck down many state laws that restricted abortion. Years later, she told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that she would like nothing more than to see Roe vs. Wade overturned. Her statements reflected the journey of a woman who went from being an anonymous plaintiff to a symbol for both sides of the abortion debate. She was 69. Full obituary(Getty Images)
Dubbed the “Acrobat of Scat” for his vocal delivery, Jarreau was admired by fans for his imaginative and improvisational qualities. He is best known for his single “We’re in This Love Together” from 1981. He is the only Grammy vocalist to win in the jazz, pop and R&B categories. He was 76. Full obituary(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)
Mansfield won the Nobel Prize for helping to invent MRI scanners. In 1978, he was the first person to step inside a whole-body MRI scanner so it could be tested on a human subject. His work, alongside chemist Paul Lauterbur, revolutionized the detection of disease by revealing internal organs without the need for surgery. He was 83. Full obituary(David Jones / Associated Press)
The Los Angeles producer, composer and arranger influenced some of the hip-hop era’s biggest hits, most notably Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “The Next Episode.” Among those whose work includes Axelrod productions are A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Shadow, Schoolboy Q, Wu-Tang Clan, Mac Miller, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Earl Sweatshirt and Common. Axelrod was 83. Full obituary(B+ / Stock)
Nakamura, the “Father of ‘Pac-Man,’ ” founded the Japanese video game company behind the hit creature-gobbling game. The company started out as just two mechanical horse rides on a department store rooftop but went on to pioneer game arcades and amusement parks. He was 91. Full obituary(Associated Press)
Riva’s portrayal of an elderly woman in the 2012 end-of-life drama “Amour” earned her international acclaim and the distinction of being the oldest nominee for a lead actress Oscar. She was 89. Full obituary(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
Moore rose to stardom on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the 1960s and went on to headline “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a highly successful sitcom in the 1970s (pictured). The actress and her television character became so entwined that Moore became a role model for women who sought to challenge the conventions of marriage and family. She was 80. Full obituary(CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images)
Cernan, commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, set foot on the moon in December 1972 during his third space flight. He was the last of only a dozen men to walk on the moon. He returned to Earth with a message of “peace and hope for all mankind.” He died at 82. Full obituary(SSPL / Getty Images)
The former California state librarian wrote rich cultural, economic and political histories on the birth, growth and maturation of the Golden State. He captured the state’s rise in influence and its singular hold on the public imagination in his sweeping “Americans and the California Dream” series. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Youguang was a linguist considered to be the father of modern China’s Pinyin Romanization writing system. Adopted by the People’s Republic in 1958, Pinyin has virtually become the global standard because of its simplicity and consistency. He was 111. Full obituary(Wang Zhao / AFP/Getty Images)
Dutton was the owner of Dutton’s Books, a Los Angeles landmark with its overflowing shelves and hard-to-find titles. Dutton’s Books on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, along with sister locations in Burbank and downtown Los Angeles, was at the very center of literary L.A. when it opened in 1961. He was 79. Full obituary(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Kamae was one of the most influential Hawaiian musicians of the last half-century and a filmmaker who painstakingly documented the culture and history of the islands. He had long been the face of the Sons of Hawaii, a popular recording group and a pioneering force in traditional island music. He was 89. Full obituary(Marco Garcia / For The Times)
The British war correspondent was the first journalist to report the Nazi invasion of Poland that marked the beginning of World War II. She won major British journalism awards, and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. She was 105. Full obituary(Mike Clarke / AFP/ Getty Images)
The former Iranian president was an aide to Iran’s revolutionary supreme leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Although Rafsanjani’s legacy was tarnished by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism, his backing helped moderate President Hassan Rouhani win election in 2013, setting the Islamic Republic on a path to ending its disputed nuclear program and easing its isolation from the West. He was 82. Full obituary(Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press)
A scholar of world religions, Smith is best known for his work “The Religions of Man,” first published in 1958. It was reissued as “The World’s Religions” in 1991 and has sold about 2 million copies. His informed yet accessible prose led many laymen to read his books as their introduction to religions of the East and West. He was 97. Full obituary(Tina Fineberg / Associated Press)
A big chunk of Hefner’s meager budget for the first issue was consumed by the pictorial: He paid a Chicago calendar maker $500 for photographs of Marilyn Monroe with “nothing but the radio on.” That first issue, in December 1953, also featured a cartoon by Hefner, party jokes, black-and-white pictures of nude sunbathers in California, articles on football and the Dorsey brothers, and fiction by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Ambrose Bierce, which cost Hefner nothing because they had passed into public domain.
He quickly sold out the complete run of 70,000 copies. By the fourth issue, production had moved from Hefner’s apartment to a rented office across the street from a Catholic cathedral. He moved a bed into the office, a convenience for a man who often worked 36 hours straight (and was having an affair with a nurse from a nearby hospital.) By the first anniversary, Playboy’s circulation was a healthy 175,000 copies. By the fifth anniversary, it had surpassed Esquire, with nearly 900,000 copies sold each month. In the early 1970s circulation would peak to 7 million.
It took more than a year for Hefner to devise the most popular feature of the magazine — the photo layout that would christen 12 women a year Playmates of the Month.
In the first issues he had relied on professional nude models, who exuded a certain world-weariness. For the July 1955 issue, he recruited one of his girlfriends, 20-year-old Playboy subscription department employee Charlaine Karalus. He called her Janet Pilgrim for publication purposes. She was posed at a dressing table wearing a bosom-baring negligee. In the background was the shadowy figure of a tuxedoed man — Hefner himself.
Accompanying the layout was a story that introduced Pilgrim as an office worker who had never before taken off her clothes for the camera. There was also a more demure photo showing her in business attire discussing “the magazine’s rising circulation” with the debonair publisher. The intent was to portray the Playmate as the girl next door, unthreatening but frolicsome, and suggest that the world was full of such appealing women. They could be, Hefner wrote in the magazine, “the new secretary at your office, the doe-eyed beauty who sat opposite you at lunch yesterday, the girl who sells you shirts and ties at your favorite store.”
This conception of the Playmate provided the foundation for the magazine’s enduring success. Hefner became, according to Talese, “the first man to become rich by openly mass marketing masturbatory love through the illusion of an available alluring woman For the price of the magazine, Hefner gave thousands of men access to an assortment of women who in real life would not look at them.”
Hefner would not show everything, believing some modesty would bolster his magazine’s chances for success. Thus, he banned pubic hair and genitalia, airbrushing away all traces. He held to these strictures until 1971, when competition from Bob Guccione’s Penthouse convinced him to allow more graphic poses of Playmates. The field grew more crowded and explicit with Larry Flynt’s Hustler, which began publishing in 1974.
The enterprising Hefner had by then expanded his empire in several directions. He produced and hosted “Playboy’s Penthouse” (1959), a television talk-variety show staged as a party in a sophisticated bachelor pad, where the guests were figures like comic Lenny Bruce and musical legend Nat King Cole. It was followed a decade later by a similar show, “Playboy After Dark” (1969).
A jazz aficionado, Hefner held the first Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago in 1959 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the magazine. Seventy thousand attended the concert at Chicago Stadium, where the lineup included Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Critic Leonard Feather proclaimed it “the greatest single weekend in the history of jazz.”
The second festival was held at the Hollywood Bowl in 1979 to mark Playboy’s 25th anniversary, and it has been an annual event there ever since.
In 1960, the first Playboy Club opened in Chicago. Over the next three decades, the enterprise grew into a chain of 35 clubs and three resorts, including casinos, stretching from Los Angeles to the Bahamas. They became important jazz venues and gave exposure to such comics as Bruce and Dick Gregory, the first black comic to play a white circuit. Hefner insisted on integrating the clubs in the South, buying back franchises whose owners balked at hiring black Bunnies.
But the clubs, like the magazine, became a lightning rod for feminist dissent. Steinem’s 1963 expose portrayed the Bunnies as victims of exploitation, who were poorly paid, required to undergo pre-employment gynecological exams (eliminated in the wake of Steinem’s article), and tailed by private detectives checking for minor costume infractions and other no-no’s, such as failing to laugh when a comic was performing.
In a 1983 postscript to the article, Steinem concluded grimly that “all women are Bunnies.” By the end of the 1980s, there were no more Playboy Clubs in the U.S. (The company resurrected the concept in 2006 with a new Playboy Club at the Palms Casino and Resort, but handed management of the venture to the casino.)
In 2004, when the magazine celebrated its 50th anniversary, its circulation of about 3 million was less than half what it had been in the 1970s, outdone by brasher magazines and Internet porn sites, and the numbers would continue to decline. In 2009, Christie Hefner stepped down as chief executive. In 2010, concerned about the Playboy brand and the magazine’s editorial direction, Hefner, who still owned 70 percent of the company’s Class A stock, attempted to take the company private in partnership with a Michigan private equity firm.
Part of what had set Playboy apart from the competition were its intellectual and social aspirations. It was a skin magazine with a philosophy.
Hefner outlined his lofty ideals in a series of 25 columns in the early 1960s that ran as “The Playboy Philosophy.” With references as various as Caesar, Darwin and Charlie Chaplin, he used the columns to respond to critics who had expressed alarm at Playboy’s growing influence. “Although far too long and maddeningly repetitive,” author Malcolm Boyd wrote in 1970, “the philosophy also has pages that crackle with a concern for human justice and an underlying idealism that cuts against the popular image of the archetypal ‘playboy.'“
Many of the critics were members of the clergy, who wrote letters, articles and sermons on what they had begun to perceive as the Playboy menace. Hefner quoted some of their comments in his columns, such as those of Unitarian minister John A. Crane, who wrote: “Not only does Playboy create a new image of the ideal man, it also creates a slick little universe all its own, creates what you might call an alternative version of reality in which men may live in their minds. It’s a light and jolly kind of universe, a world in which a man can be forever carefree, like Peter Pan, a boy forever and ever. There are no nagging demands and responsibilities, no complexities or complications.”
Hefner’s response summed up the philosophy this way: “Playboy,” he wrote in the first column, “has always dealt with the lighter side of contemporary life, but it has also -- tacitly and continuously -- tried to see modern life in its totality. We hope that Playboy has avoided taking itself too seriously. We know that we have always stressed — in our own way — our conviction of the importance of the individual in an increasingly standardized society, the privilege of all to think differently from one another and to promote new ideas, and the right to hoot irreverently at herders of sacred cows and keepers of stultifying tradition and taboo.”
Thus, during the Cold War Playboy ran controversial profiles of Communist-leaning Chaplin and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Other articles over the decades tackled such sensitive topics as abortion, birth control and sex education. Columns such as the Playboy Advisor frankly addressed readers’ questions about orgasm, masturbation, penis size and other sensitive matters.
Playboy also ran the work of distinguished fiction writers, including Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer. A version of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” first appeared in the pages of Playboy.
The magazine launched the career of “Roots” author Alex Haley, who tackled a number of noteworthy figures for the Playboy Interview, including Miles Davis and Malcolm X. (The latter piece led Haley to write “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the influential 1965 book based on interviews with the Nation of Islam leader, who was assassinated the same year.)
The Playboy Interview often made news, such as in 1976 when Jimmy Carter, on the eve of his victory over then-President Gerald Ford, admitted he had lusted for women other than his wife. Playboy’s serialization of Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men,” their 1974 book about the Watergate investigation, was another milestone.
Hefner, the would-be cartoonist, also gave Jules Feiffer his first national exposure. Feiffer, who became known for his minimalist drawings and edgy urban characters, later said Hefner was the best cartoon editor he’d ever had.
Henry Luce, who founded the Time-Life empire and ran it for more than 40 years, was a giant of magazine journalism, but he did not personify his creations. Hefner did. Inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame in 1998, he was arguably the nation’s most famous magazine editor-publisher, whose lifestyle was the greatest marketing tool Playboy could ever have.
He admitted journalists to his bedroom, central to which was that bed. More than seven feet in diameter, it was, Tom Wolfe once wrote, “the biggest roundest bed in the history of the world.” Strategically installed above it was a $40,000 videotaping system, maintained by a full-time engineer. “Who knows when something very beautiful might happen in this bedroom?” he said by way of explanation to an awestruck Wolfe, who wrote about his visit to the Chicago Playboy mansion in a classic article reprinted in his 1965 book “The Pump House Gang.”
Surrounded by outrageous luxuries — including a bowling alley, a steam room, a dormitory for Bunnies, and refrigerators in nearly every room stocked with his favorite beverage, Pepsi — Hefner hardly left the mansion for several years in the 1960s. He directed his empire from his plushly carpeted bedroom, where the world came to him at his convenience. If he had to leave town, he took the Big Bunny, a $4-million DC-9 with a conspicuous paint job: all black except for a white bunny on the tail. The Big Bunny had a big bed, too, of course, equipped with seat belts. When he deplaned, Mr. Playboy always had a few shapely women close beside him.
In 1988 he married former Playmate Kimberley Conrad and and had two children with her. When they separated a decade later, he jumped again into plural romance (“[I]t was like Elvis Presley had suddenly shown up at a supermarket,” he told Los Angeles magazine in 2010) with a trio of like-named companions — Sandy, Mandy and Brande. They were succeeded by what Hefner’s website described as a “rotating girlfriend supergroup” of three to six young women, who lived at the mansion and accompanied him on the party circuit. He featured three for the 2005 debut of an E! channel reality show called “The Girls Next Door,” which one critic called “a spectacularly brainless excursion” into life at Playboy Mansion West, the Holmby Hills estate where he lived for more than three decades. In 2009 he sold the adjoining estate where Conrad and their two children lived and filed for divorce.
He kept his medicine cabinet stocked with Viagra, the frequent use of which he believed caused some hearing loss. But he apparently regarded that side effect as a small price to pay for the libertine lifestyle he popularized. “I’m one of a handful of people who most represent the sexual revolution,” Hefner once told writer Boyd. “Not that I invented sex, of course, but I’ve done more than almost anyone to promote the idea of sexual freedom.”
He advanced the cause not only through his magazine and group dating practices but through his philanthropy. The Playboy Foundation has distributed more than $15 million since 1965 to support a variety of progressive activities, including early funding for the Masters and Johnson Institute to train sex therapists.
Through the foundation, Hefner also aided feminist causes. It supported the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League as well as cases that led to Roe vs. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
He considered himself a friend of the women’s movement. “Playboy,” he once said, “treats women — and men, too, for that matter — as sexual beings, not as sexual objects. In this sense, I think Playboy has been an effective force in the cause of female emancipation.” It may not be coincidence that Playboy reached its highest circulation in 1972, the year that Ms. Magazine was launched.
Hefner “played an important role in attempting to escort American consciousness out of what was still an embarrassingly puritanical set of publicly expressed, if not privately practiced. attitudes toward sexuality,” Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor and past president of the International Popular Culture Assn., told The Times in 2005. “His impact upon the First Amendment and the women’s movement was substantial.”
But Thompson, along with other critics, said Hefner’s influence was also pernicious: He helped give rise to the consumer culture through Playboy’s linkage of sex with material goods. “One can look back at those old Playboy pictorials and find that they eroticized the products surrounding the women as much as they eroticized the women,” Thompson said.
Journalist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich perceived another aspect of Hefner’s and Playboy’s influence. “Playboy’s visionary contribution,” she wrote in a 1984 essay, “was to give the means of status to the single man: not the power lawn-mower, but the hi-fi set in mahogany console; not the sedate, four-door Buick, but the racy little Triumph; not the well-groomed wife, but the classy companion who could be rented (for the price of drinks and dinner) one night at a time.”
Hefner readily admitted that he was not an emancipated male. After his transformation in the 1950s from married father of two to Playboy-in-Chief, he never dated women his own age or who had their own high-powered careers. “I’m not looking for a female Hugh Hefner,” he said. He may have spearheaded the sexual revolution, but in his private realm, he preferred the status quo.
In December 2010 he became engaged to his girlfriend of two years, Crystal Harris, who at 24 was 60 years his junior, but she called off the wedding six months later.
Hefner will be laid to rest in a Westwood crypt beside Marilyn Monroe, whose nude pictures helped launch Hefner into history. As he told The Times in 2009, “Spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up.”
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