Right about now, Hugh Hefner should be pleading his case for admission to Heaven. It should be an interesting conversation.
Hefner, who died Wednesday at 91, created one of the two major publishing innovations of the post-World War II era. Playboy magazine, which he launched in 1953, taught adolescent males of all ages (like Hefner himself) to realize their masturbatory fantasies by projecting a veneer of suave sophistication that women (supposedly) would find irresistible.
As Hefner described the formula in Playboy’s inaugural issue: “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” Unlike the older Esquire magazine — which targeted genuinely sophisticated men — Playboy instructed its readers in how to be sophisticated: how to dress, eat, entertain, behave, and think.
In the process, Hefner convinced two generations of horny men to liberate themselves from the sexual priggishness and racial intolerance of the ‘50s and engage with progressive political and social ideas, even if their underlying motive was getting laid. Playboy was always about the façade of sophistication, not the substance.
By contrast, the second major postwar publishing phenomenon — MAD magazine — inspired adolescents like me to lampoon the materialistic, advertising-driven culture of the ’50s, Playboy especially included.
To expand his libertarian vision from the printed page to real life, in the ‘60s Hefner launched the private Playboy Club chain, located in major cities and promoted as the essence of hip urbanity. At that time, I lived in a small Indiana town where the half-dozen hip local young men all owned Playboy Club keys and often regaled us with tales of the swinging times they had while visiting Hefner’s clubs in Cincinnati or Chicago. Imagine my astonishment when, upon moving to Chicago in 1968, I discovered that the entire clientele of the Chicago Playboy Club consisted of small-town rubes like my Indiana neighbors. No Chicagoan would be caught dead in a Playboy Club — not even Hefner himself.
When a Playboy Club franchise was proposed for Philadelphia in 1969, those testifying in its favor included such alleged sophisticates as city councilmen Thacher Longstreth and Jack Kelly, as well as the manager of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel and the head of the Convention and Tourist Bureau. All argued that a Playboy Club was vital to erasing Philadelphia’s image as a stodgy city that rolled up its sidewalks at 8pm. Philadelphia resisted a Playboy Club for the wrong reasons — Mayor Jim Tate and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo thought it would be a den of iniquity — but the city emerged in the long run looking fine nonetheless. (Philadelphia’s night life blossomed in the ‘70s to such an extent that the food-service industry’s trade paper pronounced Philadelphia “one of America’s great restaurant towns.”)
Hefner’s Playboy Foundation courageously supported many worthy but controversial causes: free speech, racial tolerance, birth control, abortion. He lost some sponsors by inviting black guests to his televised parties at a time when many states still practiced racial segregation. On the other hand, a woman I know once applied to the Playboy Foundation for a grant for her worthy cause; she was told she could have the grant if she posed nude for Playboy. (She declined.)
Hefner once estimated that he had slept with more than a thousand women; he apparently never kept track of the number with whom he achieved any degree of intimacy. By championing a “healthy sex life,” Hefner believed he liberated millions of men and women alike from sexual hangups without pausing to consider that a “healthy sex life,” at least as he defined it, might be an oxymoron.
Although Hefner promoted himself as the embodiment of a liberated lifestyle, that lifestyle did not include personal growth. After divorcing his first wife in 1959, Hefner remained stuck in the routine of a 20-something bachelor for three decades. He didn’t remarry until he was 63, and then married a former Playmate of the Year, Kimberly Conrad, 38 years his junior — that is, someone who exactly matched his emotional age. The writer Ralph Keyes was once hired to perform a single specific task in the Playboy Mansion: maintaining Hefner’s personal scrapbooks. Hefner remained an adolescent to his dying day.
A son’s verdict
Did he leave the world a better place than he found it — the ultimate test for admission to Heaven? I suppose so. On the other hand, on the most important social development of his lifetime — the emancipation of women — Hefner boxed himself into irrelevance at best and was on the wrong side of history at worst.
Perhaps the verdict on Hefner was already delivered decades ago by his eldest son David, who opted out of the family business, leaving America’s best-known male avatar to bequeath his empire to a woman: Hefner’s daughter, Christie.