Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Hugh Hefner 9 April 1926 - 27 September 2017
That Hefner was a divisive character, is an understatement. The publisher carefully cultivated his image and enjoyed a lifestyle of obscene wealth and sexual conquest, often making him enemy number 1 for some feminist campaigners.
Hefner was born in prohibition era Chicago, the oldest of two sons to Grace & Glenn Hefner, a teacher and an accountant. His upbringing was a strict Methodist lifestyle.
He served in the US army from 1944-46. He earned a bachelor degree in 1949 the same year he married his wife Mildred Williams and spent a semester studying the research of Alfred Kinsey and his work on sexual psychology. Hefner was to confess that he married as a virgin and when his wife admitted to a pre marital affair, he is said to have commented that it was the single most devastating event of his life.
His story as we know it, a publishing tycoon, began a few years later. He quit his post as a copy editor at Esquire in 1952 after being refused a $5 raise. It has been said that he had wrestled with the monotony of 50's life and was unhappy in his marriage. His determination to try something different in a world of beige spurred by suicidal considerations on a rain sodden Chicago bridge. The first issue of Playboy was published in December 1953. He had raised funds from various small investors including his mother and ploughed his own money into the project. Originally, he planned to name the magazine "Stag Party" but this raised conflicts with existing "Stag Magazine". A friend suggested "Playboy" after a defunct car company. The key to the success of the issue was the rights to a Marilyn Monroe naked calendar shoot from 1949, which he had purchased for $500. Within 5 years the magazine was generating an annual profit of $4million.
While it is true that Playboy always aimed for a more overtly sexual imagery than contemporary men's magazines, the centrefolds were not the focus for the publication. Playboy has carried articles and interviews from and with a host of significant thinkers, journalists and activists on a wide variety of topics and genres. Early indications of Hefner's commitment to free speech in all it's forms (a stance that earned him a Civil Liberties Award) could be seen from early stages of the publication. In 1955 he published "The Crooked Man" by Charles Beaumont, a short sic-fi story about a straight man persecuted in a homosexual society. The decision drew heavy criticism to which he responded. "If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society then the reverse was wrong, too"
In 1966, Hefner sent interviewer and journalist Alex Haley to interview George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi party. Rockwell was somewhat surprised when the black Haley turned up. He granted the interview upon assurances that Haley was not Jewish yet kept a handgun on the table throughout. Haley also interviewed Martin Luther King for the magazine, in what was to be the longest interview ever granted by the activist.
Through the sixties Hefner penned a series of statements for the magazine that were to become known as the "Playboy Philosophy". He advocated abortion rights (filing an amicus curia brief in Roe v Wade), same sex marriage, civil rights and was scathing on the puritanical culture of post World War 2 America. He commissioned significant writers in his magazine. A glance at a short list is impressive. John Updike, Jack Kerouac, Roald Dahl, Margaret Attwood, Ian Fleming, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Vladamir Nabokov, Germain Greer, Kurt Vonnegut & Joseoph Heller to name but a few.
The Playboy brand expanded into various markets and rapidly. The Playboy bunnies were born out of the waitress uniforms in the wildly successful chain of Playboy clubs. One such bunny turned out to be undercover journalist Gloria Steinem. Her resultant article, complaining of chaffing costumes, padded bras and leering customers began a long running battle between Hefner and militant feminism. He felt the attitude was openly hostile to the concept of straight romantic lifestyles and launched hit pieces in his magazine. Hefner had apparently endorsed and agreed with the 1963 work The Feminine Mystic by Betty Frieden, commenting that the book paralleled his feelings that society did not make sense. His daughter holds the record as longest serving female CEO of a public traded company in US history, a fact that seems often overlooked when the debate for more women in the board room wages on.
There is no escaping the tawdry reality of his personal life. The Playboy mansion is often considered a modern equivalent to Caligulan decadence. Spending multiple decades well into his advanced years, surrounded by scantily clad, readily available young women and openly confessing to having slept with over a thousand women, Hefner is unsurprisingly, the propaganda poster boy for toxic patriarchy. Adult consent seems to have been dismissed as a fly in the ointment for his critics, claiming Hefner has not enabled liberation, just presented another form of control to choose from.
After his first marriage ended in 1959 he did not marry again until 1989. He had suffered a stroke in 1985 and the shock had served as a wake up call for him. He quit smoking and toned down his work hard play hard lifestyle. He had two sons with Kimberly Conrad who is believed to have been responsible for bringing conservative decorum to the Playboy Mansion. They separated but remained married for their children, Conrad living next door. Divorce was filed when their youngest son turned 18.
Hefner married again, with Crystal Harris, 60 years his junior, in 2012. The magazine had long since lost it's allure, and had even made the editorial decision to no longer publish nudes in 2015. The company is now in the hands of his son Cooper. The sale of the Playboy mansion went ahead against Cooper's wishes but he has fought to give the Playboy brand a resurgence. Whilst all forms of human sexual behaviour are click away on any internet device, it seems the publication will need to find a different direction to be able to thrive.
Hefner was interred in the mausoleum draw next to Marilyn Monroe, after he had purchased the plot, despite never actually having met her in person. His Will had a clear message to his beneficiaries. If any are to become “physically or psychologically” dependent on drugs or alcohol, to the point where they struggled to care for themselves, then trustees of the inheritance had the power to suspend their payments.
A man with a complicated legacy, in more ways than one.