So long Hef, thanks for the gig
My girlfriend hated it, but what could be better than writing about the Playmate of the Month?
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.
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
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.
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