A playboy’s life
The world’s oldest lothario offers a hefty autobiography even as he struggles to regain full control of his publishing empire.
Author: Hugh Hefner Publisher: Taschen, six-volume box set
WHEN he’s not popping Viagra and entertaining his harem of bunnies, Hugh Hefner likes to sit on his revolving circular bed and glue articles about himself into big books.
Ever since adolescence, the legendary lothario has been compiling a scrapbook of his life. These graphic diaries were a dress rehearsal for Playboy, a magazine that also placed Hefner at the centre of a world of his own invention.
As he shot to fame on the back of its success, Hefner’s scrapbooks expanded to include everything written about him: now more than 2,000 black, leather-bound volumes line the walls of the third floor of his Los Angeles mansion.
Hugh Hefner’s Playboy: 1953-1979 (Taschen), his 3,506-page, six-volume “illustrated autobiography”, is distilled from this modest collection and mixes personal reflection with pictures culled from the magazine.
It is printed in a limited edition of 1,500 copies, and is available online, at the publisher’s website, taschen.com; in Britain, it’s available on sale for £900 (RM4,410)!
The boxed set comes with what looks worryingly like a handkerchief but, on closer inspection, turns out to be a piece of Hefner’s pyjamas (buyers are assured that they were “worn by the great man himself”).
Both this 7cm x 7cm swatch of silk, and the 84-year-old from whom it was sourced, are relics of the American sexual revolution of the 1960s. Hefner has consistently tried to carve a central place for himself in the history of that movement, which “I am sometimes credited with (or conversely, blamed for) starting”.
Hefner says it was the publication of biologist Alfred Kinsey’s sexual surveys in the 1940s and 1950s that provided the impetus for Playboy.
“If Kinsey had done the research,” Hefner reflected years later, “I was the pamphleteer, spreading the news of sexual liberation through a monthly magazine.”
With an $8,000 loan ($1,000 from his mother, who had hoped he’d become a missionary), the 27-year-old Hefner produced a pasted-together but vital magazine. He bought the rights to an old pin-up picture of Marilyn Monroe and used it as centrefold bait to drum up 70,000 advance orders: “It immediately classed us as big-time with the news dealers,” Hefner wrote, “and probably with our readers, too.”
Within two years, Playboy was selling 500,000 copies a month, at 50 cents a go; by the end of the decade this figure had doubled. For all its radical intent, Playboy was designed, Hefner notes, as “a romantic reflection of earlier times”. In the inaugural issue, he described his ideal reader (basically himself): “We like our apartment. 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.”
Alongside titillating photos and salacious cartoons, Hefner filled the magazine with good fiction, allowing subscribers to joke, “I only read it for the articles”. The first issue included a reprint of a Sherlock Holmes story, and entire novels, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, were serialised in it.
He once remarked that his life was an open book, each page a Rorschach inkblot on to which readers projected their own sexual fantasies. Despite his literary pretensions, his autobiography – written with the humourless braggadocio of Donald Trump – does little to flesh out those indecipherable stains.
He was born in 1926 into a strict Methodist family, which he describes as “repressive” and “undemonstrative”. The skinny teenage Hefner seems to have had little luck with girls so, “I decided to reinvent myself in a way more likely to appeal to attractive members of the opposite sex,” Hefner says of the birth of his new, suave self (modelled on Mickey Rooney from the Andy Hardy films). “I started wearing cooler clothes – red flannel shirts, yellow corduroy pants and saddle shoes.”
Even so, he came to sex late. In 1948, the year Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior In The Human Male was published, the 22-year-old Hefner lost his virginity to his long-term girlfriend, Millie Williams, whom he’d met when studying psychology at the University of Illinois. (He married her the following year and they had a child together, Christie.)
She was the first, Hefner claims, of more than 2,000 lovers. At the close of 1961, he assembled 12 of his favourite Playmates for a
magazine founder Hugh Hefner at his Playboy mansion in Los Angeles, California, in July this year.
3,506page, six-volume illustrated autobiography. photograph: “What made it so personal and particularly unforgettable for me was the fact that I had been romantically involved with 11 of the 12 Playmates featured in the pictorial.” You wonder, as you look at the photo, which was the lucky disciple who got away.
If you read Hefner’s autobiography alongside Steven Watts’s Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner And The American Dream, you will see how much its subject has chosen to elide. Watts, who was given free access to Hefner’s scrapbooks, documents the period of sexual experimentation that led to the Hefners’ separation in 1956: wife-swapping (Hefner slept with his sister-in-law), bisexuality, orgies, homemade porn films and serial affairs that go unmentioned here.
After his divorce came through in 1959, Hefner advertised himself as the embodiment of the libertarian Playboy lifestyle. He hosted a TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse, which was staged to feel like a soiree at his bachelor pad. He also opened the first Playboy Club, a fashionable membersonly establishment that was staffed by playgirls in bunny costumes and bowties (in Diamonds Are Forever, 007 flashes his member’s card). Variety described it as a “Disneyland for adults” and, like Disneyland, Hefner’s empire had its castle, too.
The Playboy Mansion in Chicago was, in Hefner’s description, a “house of dreams”; it had an indoor pool with a waterfall, discreet grottoes and a fireman’s pole down which you slid to an underwater bar with windows looking on to the pool. Two dozen Playboy bunnies resided in the Bunny Dormitory on the fourth floor. They came home from the club at 4am, keen to party, and the likes of Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson visited Chicago to join in the louche luxury. A brass plaque by the door read in Latin: “If you don’t swing, don’t ring.”
In Playboy And The Making Of The Good Life In Modern America, the historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo shows how Hefner’s primary achievement was to associate sex with upward mobility. Playboy was marketed at yuppies rather than hippies, and it repackaged the summer of love to a corporate readership without alienating advertisers on Madison Avenue.
Playboy chimed with and helped to shape the permissive zeitgeist and, in a culture that came to associate sex with self-realisation, Hefner became a symbol and spokesperson for the so-called sexual revolution.
In 1971, at the peak of his company’s success (circulation reached seven million, and there were casinos, hotels, resorts, even a Braille version of the magazine), Hefner floated Playboy Enterprises, selling 30% of his stake.
In 1988, after suffering a stroke, Hefner stepped down as CEO of Playboy Enterprises – though he remains editor-in-chief of the magazine – and handed the reins to his daughter. He married that January’s playmate of the month, Kimberly Conrad, and made another, decade-long attempt to settle down but divorced her in 1998.
Life outside the mansion has moved on, and after 57 years Playboy is a magazine that has lost its Mojo. It never really survived the HIV/AIDS crisis and the backlash of political correctness in the 1980s, an era that Hefner calls “the Great Repression” (the Taschen memorial closes in 1979, at the end of the glory years), which was followed by an onslaught of lad mags that seemed more in tune with youth culture, and then by Internet porn.
Playboy Enterprises reported a net loss of US$51mil (RM159mil) for 2009 and is currently facing a takeover battle from the owner of Penthouse magazine. Hefner, who has said his “life would be over” if he ever sold his company, wants to buy back all the stock he doesn’t already own for US$123mil (RM384mil), turning Playboy private and securing his style of living.
Earlier this year two of Hefner’s girlfriends left him – the 20-year-old identical twins Karissa and Kristina Shannon – leaving him with only one mistress, Crystal Harris, 24. The octogenarian insists he’s never felt better, and in interviews seldom fails to repeat the mantra, “age is just a number”.
As Groucho Marx said: “You’re only as old as the woman you feel.” – Guardian News & Media 2010 n HughHefner’sPlayboy:1953-1979 is available online at taschen.com.
The American dream: Playboy