So long Hef, thanks for the gig

My girl­friend hated it, but what could be bet­ter than writ­ing about the Play­mate of the Month?

USA TODAY US Edition - - OPINION - Bruce Kluger Bruce Kluger is a mem­ber of USA TODAY’s Board of Con­trib­u­tors. He was an ed­i­tor of Play­boy mag­a­zine from 1986 to 1999.

It took me ex­actly one month as an ed­i­tor of Play­boy mag­a­zine to un­der­stand the down­side of my new job. It was 1986, and I had been as­signed to write the copy for the July Play­mate of the Month pic­to­rial — in those days, an 800-word pro­file of the young model who ap­peared nude in the mag­a­zine’s leg­endary cen­ter­fold. So I went into the of­fice of my boss, ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor G. Barry Gol­son, to ask him how it all worked.

“It’s easy,” Barry said, lean­ing back in his chair and smil­ing, clearly amused by my rookie clue­less­ness. “Call the travel de­part­ment, book your flight to Florida, go down there, take the Play­mate out for the evening, in­ter­view her, fly home, fight with your girl­friend, write the story, then file it.”

And that’s pre­cisely how it played out. My claims of faith­ful­ness notwith­stand­ing, my girl­friend was not thrilled about my en­thu­si­asm for my new job. I spent a week in the dog­house.

METHODIST ROOTS

Play­boy founder Hugh Hefner died on Wed­nes­day at the age of

91. Inar­guably an Amer­i­can icon. Hef was as un­likely a suc­cess story as they get. A stub­born and coura­geous vi­sion­ary — who stormed and re­shaped the cul­tural land­scapes of mod­ern jour­nal­ism, civil lib­er­ties, race re­la­tions, gay rights, fem­i­nism, mu­sic and cin­ema and, of course, hu­man sex­u­al­ity — he was born into a chilly Methodist house­hold in Chicago, a place where, by his own ac­count, hugs weren’t handed out freely. He wit­nessed first­hand the suf­fo­cat­ing re­pres­sion that, he in­sisted, lay deep in our na­tion’s pu­ri­tan­i­cal roots.

He set out to do some­thing about that, ul­ti­mately cre­at­ing a glossy, monthly man­i­festo for men — one de­signed to spark the spirit, pas­sion, imag­i­na­tion, in­tel­lect and cer­tainly the li­bido of a post­war na­tion ea­ger to loosen its tie. Art, lit­er­a­ture and the cos­mopoli­tan life­style fig­ured largely in the recipe Hef whipped up for his new mag­a­zine. So did naked women.

Play­boy de­buted in De­cem­ber

1953 and, as planned, it knocked

men back on their heels, even as it lib­er­ated them from the era’s rigid def­i­ni­tion of what it meant to be a guy.

“At a time when ideas of mas­culin­ity had more to do with chest-pound­ing tales of dar­ing,” my for­mer col­league, John Cham­pion, wrote in one of the hun­dreds of tes­ti­mo­ni­als that sprang up on Face­book on Wed­nes­day night, “Hef asked us to con­sider the ‘great in­doors’ and wel­comed us with cool jazz and a dry mar­tini.”

Many across the coun­try re­coiled at the nu­dity in the mag­a­zine (which, it’s worth not­ing, re­mains far tamer than what’s eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble on­line today). Yet for those of us who worked at Play­boy, it was so much more than the smirky, R-rated he­do­nist’s hand­book it was of­ten ac­cused of be­ing.

FROM VON­NEGUT TO MLK

In­deed, that’s why we felt priv­i­leged to work there.

Be­yond the per­func­tory half­dressed farm girl from Iowa, Play­boy’s pages — month af­ter month — brimmed with the real stuff: sto­ries by Ker­ouac, Updike and Von­negut; re­port­ing by Mailer and Bald­win, Wood­ward and Bern­stein; and gold-stan­dard in­ter­views with just about ev­ery­one who had pushed the nee­dle hard in the last half of the 20th cen­tury. The Bea­tles and Brando. Martin Luther King and Mal­colm X. Ayn Rand and Masters and John­son.

And a young pres­i­den­tial hope­ful named Jimmy Carter, whose star­tlingly per­sonal con­fes­sion in Play­boy’s pages about the weak­ness of the flesh — “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve com­mit­ted adul­tery in my heart many times ... and God for­gives me for it” — was quite pos­si­bly the slam-dunk sound bite that landed him in the Oval Of­fice.

No ques­tion, Play­boy’s san­guin­ity about all things sex­ual was the not-so-se­cret se­cret sauce that pulled down a cir­cu­la­tion of more than 7 mil­lion read­ers at its peak. And Hef was un­re­pen­tant in his joy­ous, and of­ten pri­apic, cel­e­bra­tion of it all (“From my point of view, I’m the luck­i­est cat on the planet,” he once said.)

Those of us who worked at Play­boy also knew that the mag­a­zine could not sur­vive on sex and nu­dity alone, and we were charged monthly with fill­ing those other 100 pages.

To that end, Hef was an in­ge­nious ring­mas­ter, con­sis­tently drilling deep into the na­tional psy­che and mar­shal­ing an ed­i­to­rial mix that gave vivid nar­ra­tion to Amer­ica’s ever un­fold­ing story.

NA­TION’S GROW­ING PAINS

From that first slim is­sue (the one fea­tur­ing Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe on its cover, but no date, be­cause Hef wasn’t quite sure there would be a sec­ond is­sue), Play­boy chron­i­cled the grow­ing pains of a na­tion of­ten in up­heaval — from the racial con­fla­gra­tions of the 1950s, to the sex­ual and youth rev­o­lu­tions of the ’60s, to the ex­cesses of the

’70s, to the moral show­down with re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism in the

’80s.

Through­out it all, long be­fore the age of Ap­ple and Ama­zon, he was an equally bril­liant bran­der — build­ing an em­pire that spawned such now leg­endary in­sti­tu­tions as the Play­boy Jazz Fes­ti­val and the Play­boy Foun­da­tion, the com­pany’s phil­an­thropic arm.

Was Hef also oc­ca­sion­ally a pain in the ass? What boss isn’t? I’m re­call­ing that time he tapped me to write a 1,000-word es­say on “the blon­de­ness of Pamela An­der­son.” My ca­reer flashed be­fore my eyes. But by the next morn­ing, I was back at my desk, ready and ea­ger for my next as­sign­ment. Truth be told, I felt like the luck­i­est cat on the planet.

Farewell, Mr. Hefner. And thanks for the un­for­get­table gig.

CE­SAR RANGEL, AFP/GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

Hugh Hefner, in Barcelona in 2006, died in Los An­ge­les Wed­nes­day.

Play­boy de­buted in De­cem­ber 1953. The first is­sue had no date be­cause Hefner wasn’t sure there’d be a sec­ond. AP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.