Hugh Hefner, the founder and publisher of Playboy magazine passed away last week at the age of ninety-one. During the latter half of the last century Hef, as he was quite often referred to, became as well-known, and generated as much emotionally charged debate at the mention of the his name, as any American president.
Hefner was viewed with anger and rancour, and despised by a large segment of the American female population who considered the nude centrefold photographs of women, the playmates of the month, as degrading and as a purveyor of soft pornography. Men, on the other hand, saw Hef as the deliverer of the good news, the man they envied for living their dream lifestyle – all night parties with beautiful scantily clad women, half his age.
Hefner was certainly all of the above, and much more. Entrepreneur, innovator, philosopher, social rights activist, sexual revolutionist, writer, publisher. The list of labels that can be attached to his name is as never ending as the images that have been floating around the past week, those of a smiling octogenarian surrounded by playboy bunnies in a jacuzzi or an old guy in silk pajamas.
The fact that Playboy Enterprises, Inc’s logo, of a rabbit head adorned with a bowtie, is today one of the most recognized and popular brands in the world should not be a surprise. Hefner’s entrepreneurial flair was on display as early as his high school days when he started a school newspaper, serving as its editor whilst contributing cartoons and articles. His writing aspirations continued during World War II where he served as a writer for a military newspaper. In 1949, he graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in psychology and a double minor in creative writing and arts.
Hefner left the famous American men’s magazine Esquire, in 1952, and with the backing of 45 investors, including his brother and mother, along with mortgaging his furniture, raised $8,000 and published the first issue of Playboy in December, 1953. It featured, a previously unused nude study of Marilyn Munroe, and sold out the entire run of 53,991 copies, at a cover price of 50 cents, within weeks. The magazine was undated since Hefner wasn’t sure that there would be a second issue.
Playboy magazine became the cornerstone of the Playboy empire which would grow to include a chain of twenty-three Playboy Clubs, resorts, hotels and casinos with over 900,000 members worldwide. Hefner also realized the importance of the relatively new medium television, and between 1959 and 1960 hosted a weekly television variety talk/show, Playboy’s Penthouse, which he cleverly used to promote the magazine and the brand.
Hefner will best be remembered for his role as editor in chief and publisher in the development of the Playboy magazine and the vital role it played in American culture, especially, in the latter half of the last century. The explicit sexual photographs became its calling card, especially among growing lads, but frequently overlooked and quite often forgotten, was the very high standard of editorial content of the monthly publication which was complemented by the highest standards of art, photography, design, layout and print quality.
Hefner was noted for his pride in the attention that he paid to detail, often checking the proofs himself. The content ranged from cartoons, satire, advice columns, interviews with prominent persons, fiction and non-fiction articles and essays penned by the best American writers on a wide range of subjects. Subscribers in the early 1960s would receive their monthly copy and would be confronted with such subjects as the role of hypnosis in surgery, psychoanalysis, persuasion, advertising, crime war and world politics, the growth of the size of the American car before the introduction of compacts, a discussion on business, ethics, and morality, and an unemotional look at marijuana.
In the editorial of the December 1962 issue, Hefner decided to reply to his morality critics of the sexual revolution he was deemed to be promoting. It was intended to be a one off riposte which, however, eventually evolved into The Playboy Philosophy and appeared in every issue over the next two-and-a-half years. Eloquently scribed, Hefner side-stepped nothing and tackled every subject of the day, including the criticism of content, the criticism of concept, religion and free enterprise, Darwin and prohibition, censorship and the press, obscenity and the law, sex and the Church courts, marital excesses and punishment to fit the crime.
Hefner, a defender of individual freedom rights presented the case for everyone ‒ civil rights, gay rights, antiwar movements, liberalization of drug laws and liberal feminism. A controversial figure for sure, he was not afraid to express his opinion on any subject, ranging from politics to religion, and defend it. Of course, there was the now famous 1966 television interview with William F Buckley on ‘Firing line’ on which the host demanded to know how Hefner earned the qualifications to issue codes of his own. Under pressure from the Catholic Buckley, Hefner withstood the barrage and quietly lit up his signature pipe.
Oft forgotten is Hefner’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Dick Gregory, the famous stand-up comedian got his break on Hef’s television show, as did several jazz musicians. Earlier, Playboy had hosted the first Playboy Jazz Festival at Chicago Stadium, in 1959. A young writer experimenting with a new format showed the work in progress to the editor in chief who gave his encouragement to develop the concept. The result was the birth of the famous Playboy interview, an extensive discussion between a well-known individual and interviewer. The new format first appeared in the September 1962 issue, and featured jazz musician Miles Davies discussing what it was like to be black in America. The writer, Alex Haley, later interviewed Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, before becoming a household name with the publication of Roots in 1976, which was first serialized in the magazine.