Hefner, Hugh (1926—)

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Hefner, Hugh (1926—)

If America experienced a sexual revolution in the latter half of the twentieth century, then one of the first shots surely was fired by Hugh Marston Hefner in 1953, the year that he introduced Playboy magazine to the world. The first issue of the magazine featured a centerfold of a nude Marilyn Monroe (who had posed for it years earlier, before attaining the stardom she enjoyed in 1953), and it sold well enough to guarantee that other issues would follow in the months to come.

The "shocking" new magazine was based in Chicago, the city where Hefner, the older of two sons, had grown up in a typical middle-class household. After army service and college, Hefner married and then tried to earn a living as a free-lance cartoonist. In this he was unsuccessful, but he did land a low-level job with Esquire magazine, the most prestigious "men's magazine" of the day, which featured articles and photo layouts on elegant clothing, sports cars, and other "male" interests. Nude photos in American periodicals in the early 1950s were limited to a few "nudist" and "art photography" magazines that skirted the edge of the law and were sold "under the counter" at newsstands when they were available at all.

Within a year after Playboy's premiere, Hefner's life had undergone significant changes. He was devoting all of his time to the magazine, except for the attention he gave to the beautiful and sexually available young women who worked for, or posed for, the magazine. The Hefners separated in 1955, with divorce to follow in 1959. Mrs. Hefner retained custody of the couple's two children. As the magazine's circulation continued to grow, Hefner began to adopt the lifestyle epitomized by his publication's title. He became a playboy, and he had the business sense to realize that being a public embodiment of what the magazine was all about could attract even more readers. For Playboy was, from the beginning, more than just a "skin magazine." There were the nude pictorials, of course—generally three per issue, including the centerfold "Playmate of the Month"; but like Esquire before it, Playboy featured articles about luxury cars, fine food, wine, stereo equipment—in short, everything the modern "playboy" would want to own. And if, as was likely, the reader's income was insufficient to support the described lifestyle—well, he could always dream, and Playboy would be there to provide the material for his fantasies.

Hefner's playboy image shifted into high gear in 1959 with his purchase of a seventy-room mansion on Chicago's Gold Coast. After extensive remodeling (including installation of a revolving, circular bed, eight feet in diameter, in the master bedroom), the Playboy Mansion was open for business, and its business was pleasure—pleasure for its sole permanent resident and for his many and frequent guests. A brass plate on the mansion's front door had engraved on it the Latin phrase "Si non oscillas, noli tintinnare," which the host loosely translated to mean "If you don't swing, don't ring."

Beginning in 1962, the magazine's articles on the good life began to be accompanied by a dose of philosophy—Playboy style. The December issue of that year included the first installment of Hefner's "Playboy Philosophy." There would be twenty-five installments in all (amounting to about 150,000 words) before the series ended in 1966. In these columns, Hefner defended his magazine's content and values, assailed his critics, and espoused positions on social issues—he was in favor of increased sex education, legalized abortion, and freedom of expression; and opposed to censorship, prudery, and archaic sex laws. In addition to decrying the sexual puritanism of American life, Hefner was also an early and vocal advocate of civil rights for minorities. The magazine's editorial content reflected this view, as did Hefner's policy for booking entertainers at the mansion, the chain of Playboy Clubs that began in 1959, and two syndicated television shows (Playboy's Penthouse, 1959-61, and Playboy after Dark, 1968-70). Hefner brought in black entertainers (such as Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory, and Nancy Wilson) at a time when having "black" acts in a predominantly "white" venue just was not done.

Hefner's empire went through some tough times in the late 1970s and 1980s. Circulation of the magazine declined, partly due to competition from publications like Penthouse and Hustler, both of which were often more sexually graphic than Hefner wanted Playboy to be. Further, the close relationship existing between the Reagan administration (which came into office in 1981) and fundamentalist Christian groups like the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority made for a political climate that was inhospitable to sexual liberationists like Hefner.

Hefner unloaded the Chicago Playboy Mansion in the early 1980s and moved full-time into Playboy Mansion West, an estate he had purchased in Los Angeles. After suffering a mild stroke in 1985, Hefner began turning over day-to-day operation of his empire to his daughter Christie, whom he had brought into the business eight years earlier. In the late 1990s, Christie Hefner worked as chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises, Inc., although her father remained listed as editor-in-chief of the magazine.

Hugh Hefner was married a second time in 1989, to former Playmate of the Year Kimberly Conrad. The union produced two children, but the couple separated in January of 1998, allowing Hefner to return once again to his "playboy" lifestyle.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Brady, Frank. Hefner. New York, Macmillan, 1974.

Byer, Stephen. Hefner's Gonna Kill Me When He Reads This. Chicago, Allen-Bennett Publishers, 1972.

General Publishing Group. The Playboy Book: Forty Years. Santa Monica, California, General Publishing Group, 1998.