Before he became a media mogul, a publishing pioneer, and a crusader for sexual freedom, Hugh Hefner — the founder of the Playboy magazine and empire, who passed away on 27 September 2017 aged 91 — was a 'lowly' journalist.
Fresh out of college (where he was editor of the on campus magazine and introduced its popular 'Co-Ed of the Month' section), Hefner started his career as a copy editor at Esquire magazine. The magazine was one he'd admired, but slaving away at his desk job, Hefner became increasingly frustrated. He felt the men's magazines that were available at the time didn't really talk about what fellows his age were really interested in: women, and sex. With $ 1,000 (loans from from family and friends), luck (discovering nude photos Marilyn Monroe had posed for when she was a struggling actress, in the possession of a calendar company), and ideas, Hefner launched Playboy in 1953. That first issue didn't carry a date on its cover; Hefner was unsure if his experiment would prove successful, and whether or not there would be a second issue of Playboy. Sixty-four years later, the magazine is still around.
While Playboy's centrefolds — its 'Bunny of the Month' feature — were (literally and figuratively) at the magazine's core, it also published excellent works of fiction and non-fiction. Hefner — aside from his ideas about ushering in a sexual liberation for the American public — also had a taste for fine literature. And he envisaged the average Playboy reader as sharing that taste, as men who enjoyed “inviting in a female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex”.
So his magazine, apart from tastefully shot photos of nude women, also featured the finest writers of the time. Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, Gore Vidal, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marshall McLluhan and Jack Kerouac were among the writers whose original work was published by Playboy. Adding to the magazine's literary heft were features like 'The Playboy Interview' — featuring everyone from Martin Luther King Jr and John Lennon to Hunter S Thompson and Miles Davis — and the 'Advisor' column that dispensed advice to readers who'd sent in letters (sample this excerpt: "Sex is a mystery, but when it works, it reminds us of what Raymond Chandler said: The ideal mystery is one you would read if the end was missing" — in response to a reader who wrote that her boyfriend was too fixated on his inability to bring her to orgasm).
Playboy and its founder also inspired a whole lot of literature — from critical essays, investigative exposes, to exhaustive academic studies, and fun thinkpieces.
Here's a look at some of the best writing found in and aboutPlayboy, and Hefner.
'I Was A Playboy Bunny' by Gloria Steinem
In 1963, when Playboy magazine had turned 10, and its cultural cachet (or marketing smarts, as the case may be) was fairly well-established, feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote an expose that is still considered a great piece of investigative journalism. Steinem responded to an advertisement that sought to hire Bunnies for the Playboy Club in New York, under an assumed name ("Marie Ochs"). Her report, published as a two-part feature in Show magazine, takes the form of diary entries, where Steinem records her daily observations of the goings-on at the club. The Bunny costume leaves deep welts on her skin, the mandatory high heels make her feet numb, the sexism is casual and the earnings, fairly low. While it lays bare the reality behind the 'glamorous' facade of being a Playboy Bunny, Steinem's piece also articulated the concerns feminists had about Playboy itself, showing that far from being the liberal magazine it claimed to be, its attitudes towards the women it sexualised in its pages reflected old-fashioned patriarchy.
'The Fight' by Norman Mailer
Before it became a book, 'The Fight' was a reported piece that was published by Playboy in the mid-1970s. Mailer was sent to cover the historic 'Rumble in the Jungle' boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974, by Playboy, and the result was a two-part essay that's considered among the finest pieces of writing on the sport, and to appear in the pages of the magazine.
'Who Lost an American?' by Nelson Algren
Hefner was supposed to be a huge fan of Nelson Algren and several of his pieces were published in Playboy. However, Algren himself took a less-than-flattering look at the Playboy founder when he wrote about the Playboy mansion in Chicago. While the 1962 essay profiled Hefner and his creation, it also made a statement on young American men who presumably Playboy targeted: “more at ease with a depiction of passion than with passion itself, [wishing] to look longer upon pictures of passion, hear more songs about passion, and read more comments upon passion — anything to avoid feeling passion".
'Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics' by Beatriz Preciado
An offbeat look at Playboy, Beatriz Preciado's book actually began as an academic dissertation. It studies the architecture of the Playboy world, both real (the decor and design at the Playboy Clubs and Mansion/s) and imagined (in the visualisations of the 'bachelor pad' the magazine offered up to its readers as the ideal, including designs for 'erotically assisting furniture').
'Checking in With Hugh Hefner' by Neil Strauss
ThisRolling Stone interview from 1999 caught up with 'Hef' just when his second marriage — to Kimberley Conrad — had fallen apart, and the Playboy founder had thrown himself back into 'the scene' with abandon. Not 'literary' in any way, the interview — in which Strauss asks Hefner about his Viagra-popping habit, and how he picked up his three girlfriends (Brande, Manday and Sandy) — provides an interesting look at the then 72-year-old's life.
'Playboy Interview: with Rev Martin Luther King Jr' by Alex Haley
After winning the Nobel Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr sat down for a series of conversations with Alex Haley, published as the 'Playboy Interview'. At the time, Haley wasn't identified, as Playboy interviews were carried without a byline. The exhaustive interview (the full version of which can be read here) offers an inspiring insight into the man and his ideas.
Here, Martin Luther King Jr answers Haley's question about not being bothered by the name-calling his detractors engaged in:
"I hear some of those names, but my reaction to them is never emotional. I don’t think you can be in public life without being called bad names. As Lincoln said, 'If I answered all criticism, I’d have time for nothing else.' But with regard to... the names you mentioned, I’ve always tried to be what I call militantly nonviolent. I don’t believe that anyone could seriously accuse me of not being totally committed to the breakdown of segregation."
'Are We Not Men' by Jon Zoebenica
In this 2007 essay published in The Atlantic, Jon Zoebenica looks at how early peeks at his father's stash of Playboy magazines helped him develop respect for women — and why (although it was their predecessor) Playboyu is different from the 'girlie mags' of today — be it an FHM, GQ etc. From these magazines, Zoebenica makes a larger point about ideas of masculinity, and how the perception of 'being a man' has changed over the years.
'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury
Coming four years after George Orwell's 1984, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 45 painted a similarly dystopian future, where the state controlled most aspects of citizen's lives. Books have been outlawed (except for a few comic books, sex magazines and trade publications); owning any means a citizen forfeits any right over his/her property — all of which is burned by 'firemen' as penalty. Guy Montag — Fahrenheit 451's protagonist — is one such fireman, who is beginning to question everything he's accepted as the truth so far. Bradbury's book came out in October of 1953. However, it was after Playboy serialised the novel over its March, April and May 1954 issues that Bradbury's book became a huge success.
From examinations of Playboy's role in the "making of the good life in modern America" to the space the magazine occupied in the literary sphere after the Cold War — Hefner may not have known what a launchpad for ideas and discussions his men's magazine would prove to be. Like its circulation, Playboy's literary quality too may have dimmed over the years, but its founder's passing is sure to bring it into the spotlight once more.
Published Date: Sep 28, 2017 05:06 pm | Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 09:31 pm