One of the only reasons to get into magazine publishing was the glamour associated with it. There is no real glamour, really, because a large part of the job is wading through words and pictures, most likely in a dusty office in suburbia.
But the man who made me and others believe that it is the best life you could live—because that’s what he created for himself—was Hugh M. Hefner. The legendary founder of Playboy wasn’t all play, as news reports would have you believe. He changed mainstream media, survived attempts to embarrass him, and inspired countless publishers to create their own legacies, including Felix Dennis, Maxim’s founder.
The Hef will be immortalised in pop culture through his larger-than-life but amenable persona, through the women who have become legends in their own right and through his supposedly insatiable libido. What went behind this visage was a keen mind that wasn’t afraid to break rules, a near-genius understanding of the tenets of good salesmanship and, above all, the vision to give readers what they needed.
Whether it was putting Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Playboy’s first issue in 1953 or making the word “playmate” synonymous with sexiness, Hefner’s life wasn’t always sitting back in the Playboy Mansion surrounded by blonde beauties. Building Playboy into a billion dollar business (according to Playboy Enterprises, the magazine is today published in more than 20 countries, apart from successful digital and merchandising divisions) meant taking on serious criticism, the feminist movement and stiff competition from purveyors of erotica. The main among these were Bob Guccione and Penthouse magazine, which featured more elaborate spreads and scandals; and Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine, which became known for its sexually-explicit content and hardcore political authority-baiting.
Playboy, as controversial as it was, stuck to the straight and narrow in print, and always wanted to impress upon the reader that it wasn’t only about photos of beautiful nude women. It was Hefner’s progressive approach, packaged with gloss and humour, that made Playboy what it was. The “Playboy Interview”—which debuted in 1962 and featured legends such as Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Jawaharlal Nehru and Steve Jobs—was an example of excellent journalism and showcased the changing social commentary and prevalent thought.
In fact, back in the 1960s and ’70s, Playboy reached the Indian market, and was revered as much for its taboo value as its window to a changing America... not to mention the illegally printed posters of its centrefolds and cartoons.
Hefner was an exceptional editor and publisher, but it was his personal desire to be a curator of beauty and cultural openness that perhaps shaped who he was. Be it hiring all races for Playboy Clubs, promoting obscure talent or featuring fantasy girls, Hefner was all about helping the modern man gain access to the kind of life he knew they wanted.
He came under a lot of fire for it, of course. Feminists disavowed him for fuelling the regressive attitude to women, authorities chased him for the excesses of substance at the Mansion, journalists tore him down for his enterprise losing money and market, and his own girlfriends stopped short of the “dirty old goat” metaphor. A harsh critic was Suzanne Moore, currently a columnist with the Guardian, who was once almost sued by Hefner after she called him a “pimp.” She wrote after Hefner’s death, “What a hoot it would have been to argue whether a man who procured, solicited and made profits from women selling sex could be called a pimp. Of course, central to Playboy’s ideology is the idea that women do this kind of thing willingly; that at 23 they want nothing more than to jump octogenarians.”
That’s debatable at best, and it doesn’t account for the fact that Hefner wasn’t like most other men. He was, perhaps, the embodiment of everything men wanted from their lives, and he was living the lavish life on behalf of all of us. Most of the colleagues I’ve interacted with over the last 20 years agree, and this is more than evident through the 10-episode docudrama, American Playboy, based on his life.
Gay Talese, the famous reporter-writer, explored sexual morality in his 1981 book, Thy Neighbo(u)r’s Wife, and dedicated many pages to Hefner. Talese writes, “The magazine that he had created had re-created him. He virtually lived within the glossy pages.” It wasn’t just dedication that Talese was talking about, because “Hefner identified strongly with the men who bought his magazine.” Talese’s all-too-personal account shed light on how an ordinary guy transformed the social landscape for men, but also his own life to constantly fuel it. The annual Playboy Jazz Festival is an example of that, as are Hefner’s induction into the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame and the New York Friars Club.
Hefner also had a world record-holding scrapbook collection, which I hope will one day become available to peruse. There can be no better document to decode the man who changed our times.
The Hef’s statue at the Hollywood Wax Museum honoured him for his contribution to sexual freedom, free speech and cultural tolerance. It’s a legacy that should live on.
The 22,000 sq-ft mansion has some 30 rooms, zoo and aviary licenses, an artificial river and orchards. Investment banker Daren Metropoulos bought it last year.
The smoking jacket and pyjamas are not just popular Halloween costumes, but have come to symbolise a man at work with his own rules. Hef had donned this since the ’60s