The naked women were supposed to be temporary.
Just until Hugh Hefner’s new magazine got off the ground and could afford to hire top writers.
“Later, with some money in the bank, we’d begin increasing the quality and reducing the girlie features,” Hefner said in one of the countless newspaper interviews he gave in his more than 60 years in the public eye.
That never happened. Instead Hefner, 91, who died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles, kept the erotic photos and the literary quality.
In the process he became an important 20th century cultural icon: a successful businessman whose business just happened to be built around pornography. Hefner was a vigorous advocate for the First Amendment, civil and gay rights, who yet had difficulty including real women in his vision of dynamic equality, a champion celebrating unembarrassed consumerism and the female form, albeit idealized, airbrushed and safely naked or nearly.
As Hefner once described it: “pretty girls, nightlife, food and drink, sports cars, travel, hi-fi music with emphasis on jazz.”
Like a boys’ secret clubhouse, girls were not welcome, something Hefner was upfront about in the magazine’s first issue.
“If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you,” Hefner wrote in the undated first issue, assembled in his South Side kitchen. “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.”
Such pats on the head did not go down well with increasingly outspoken women.
“Hugh Hefner is my enemy,” Susan Brownmiller said, sitting near him on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970. “The Walt Disney of misogyny,” Kevin Coval concluded in a poem.
GalleryStill, it worked. Playboy moved racy magazines from under the mattress to the coffee table. Its vision of sexual liberation broke from the lockstep monogamy of the Eisenhower years and served as counterpoint to increasing feminism, which grew alongside Playboy, sometimes with a direct boost from the fantasy Hefner was peddling. Gloria Steinem was an obscure freelancer before she went under cover as a Playboy Bunny in 1963 and wrote a scathing critique, “A Bunny’s Tale,” that led to notoriety (a double-edged sword since, for a while, nobody would hire her to write since she had been a Playboy Bunny).
Hefner’s influence was built not just on a widely read magazine but by his marketing success. The magazine was quickly joined by an international chain of nightclubs and casinos. The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960. Comedian Dick Gregory credits it for giving him his big break in 1961. Called to replace a sick comic, Gregory took the wrong bus, ran 20 blocks, talked his way past a manager reluctant to put a black performer in front of an audience of drunk Southern conventioneers. Hefner caught the second show and gave him a three-year contract.
“After Hefner hired me, all sorts of things started to happen,” Gregory wrote in his autobiography.
By then Hefner was a cultural force in the city where he was born. Ten years before there was a Chicago Jazz Festival, there was a Playboy Jazz Festival at Soldier Field.
Playboy was politically influential for its lengthy interviews with everyone from Fidel Castro to Muhammad Ali. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter famously admitted in 1976 to having “committed adultery in my heart many times.” Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin wrote for the magazine.
Though his biggest find was the one that launched Playboy so dramatically. How did an unemployed 27-year-old whose biggest investor was his mother get the greatest sex goddess and movie star of the mid 20th century to grace the cover of his first issue and pose in the buff for his first centerfold “Sweetheart of the Month?” (“Playmate” wouldn’t come until the second issue.)
The answer is: he got lucky, by noticing a news story about a suburban Chicago calendar company with photos of Marilyn Monroe.
“At that point the MM calendar was very, very famous, but almost no one had seen it,” Hefner told U.S. Camera magazine for its April 1962 issue. “It had received all kinds of publicity, but it never appeared anywhere.” Hefner paid $300 for use of the Monroe shots and 11 other sets of cheesecake photos.
“This was our Playmate for the first year,” said Hefner. “Simply straight calendar nudes from the Baumgarth Calendar Co.”
Playboy began taking its own photographs and stumbled upon the concept of the girl next door.
“The notion that a nice girl, a girl who might be an airline stewardess the next time we get on a plane, or the girl who sells us our shirts at Marshall Field’s, or the legal secretary,” Hefner said. “The fact that this girl once, just once, for Playboy, will pose for this special pinup feature — this is a very personal and exciting kind of concept.”
Sometimes the model was literally a girl. In 1958, Hefner found himself facing charges for contributing to the delinquency of a minor for allowing nude photographs to be taken of Elizabeth Ann Roberts, then 16. She was sentenced to 15 days in jail while charges against Hefner were dropped, a reminder that Hefner didn’t invent our culture’s sexism, he just capitalized on it.
Many admired Hefner. Many viewed him with scorn. The Chicago Daily News’ John Justin Smith wrote a column criticizing Playboy’s sponsorship of a police softball tournament and dismissing the magazine as “dirty.” Hefner wrote a 900-word letter to the newsman, defending himself.
“I was born and raised in Chicago. I love the city,” Hefner wrote. “Aren’t you concerned with the national and international view of Chicago as being a town of Midwestern hicks and farmers, sprinkled lightly with gangsters? Almost single-handed, we’ve managed to bring to this town an unparalleled amount of glamor, sophistication and creative excitement. Isn’t this very worthwhile and something to be applauded?”
“Glamor, sophistication and creative excitement” — quite the claim for a magazine that was, at heart, a glorified masturbatory aid. Some rejected the fantasy but enough enthusiastically embraced it that Hefner grew rich and famous living a lifestyle that many envied while others found it, ultimately, sad and shallow.