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LOS ANGELES – Playboy founder Hugh M. Hefner, the pipe-smoking hedonist who revved up the sexual revolution in the 1950s and built a multimedia empire of clubs, mansions, movies, and television, symbolized by bow-tied women in bunny costumes, has died at the age of 91.
Hefner died of natural causes at his home surrounded by family on Wednesday night, Playboy said in a statement.
As much as anyone, Hefner helped slip sex out of the confines of plain brown wrappers and into mainstream conversation.
In 1953, a time when states could legally ban contraceptives, when the word “pregnant” was not allowed on “I Love Lucy,” Hefner published the first issue of Playboy, featuring naked photos of Marilyn Monroe (taken years earlier) and an editorial promise of “humor, sophistication, and spice.” The Great Depression and World War 2 were over and America was ready to get undressed.
Playboy soon became forbidden fruit for teenagers and a bible for men with time and money, primed for the magazine’s prescribed evenings of dimmed lights, hard drinks, soft jazz, deep thoughts, and deeper desires. Within a year, circulation neared 200,000. Within five years, it had topped one million.
By the 1970s, the magazine had more than seven million readers and had inspired such raunchier imitations as Penthouse and Hustler. Competition and the Internet reduced circulation to less than three million by the 21st century, and the number of issues published annually was cut from 12 to 11. In 2015, Playboy ceased publishing images of naked women, citing the proliferation of nudity on the Internet.
But Hefner and Playboy remained brand names worldwide.
FILE photo taken on June 2, 2006 shows Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner (center) arriving in a party with girlfriends Bridget Marquardt (left) and Holly Madison (right) to celebrate his 80th birth anniversary at the Villa Miani in Rome, Italy.