Hefner, Hugh Marston

views updated Jun 11 2018

HEFNER, Hugh Marston

(b. 9 April 1926 in Chicago, Illinois), publisher of Playboy magazine, who supported individual liberties and created a new image for the successful urban bachelor.

Hefner was the older of two sons of Glenn Hefner, an accountant, and Grace Swanson Hefner. After serving in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, he attended the University of Illinois and earned a B.A. in psychology in 1949, the same year he married Mildred Williams. They had two children.

In 1953 Hefner published the first issue of Playboy, featuring a nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe, then one of the most popular actresses in America. She was the first "Playmate of the Month," the woman whose nude picture was printed on a three-page full-color foldout in the middle of the issue. Sexual permissiveness in America had reached the stage where it was legal to publish photos including bare breasts (or, more precisely, bare white breasts, because National Geographic had been publishing such pictures of African, Asian, and Polynesian women for many years). Hefner took advantage of this social change, but the real key to the success of Playboy was that it treated sex as only one aspect of the good life, also talking about cars, clothing, and fine wines and offering writing good enough to make plausible the claim that readers purchased the magazine for that. By the 1960s the magazine was well known for its articles, its interviews with important artists and public figures, and its fiction, by such writers as Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Hefner himself began to exemplify the image that his magazine was promoting. In 1959 he and his wife divorced, and he purchased a seventy-room mansion in Chicago, where the parties soon became legendary. (One famous feature of this Playboy mansion was a round revolving bed, eight feet in diameter, in the master bedroom.) In the same year he opened the first of his Playboy Clubs, where the customers could eat, drink, and be merry, served by waitresses called "Playboy Bunnies": attractive young women in outfits that resembled one-piece bathing suits, with fake-fur rabbit ears on their heads. The clubs eventually spread throughout the country and then to Great Britain and Japan. Hefner further publicized his approach with two television shows: Playboy's Penthouse (1959–1961) and Playboy After Dark (1969–1971).

Hefner's approach was not all hedonism, however. In 1962 his magazine began publishing "The Playboy Philosophy," a series of editorial columns in which Hefner advocated a libertarian approach to sex and lifestyle issues: repeal of laws against consensual sex acts, an end to police attempts to entrap gays, the abolition of censorship, and the legalization of abortion. The series ran to twenty-five installments and 150,000 words before concluding in 1966, and it branched out into the "Playboy Forum," featuring news reports and reader letters and discussions, which continued for many years after. The Playboy philosophy was by no means restricted to sexual freedom. Hefner strongly supported civil rights, and his clubs and television shows were significantly ahead of the curve in hiring African-American performers (such as Dick Gregory and Nancy Wilson). As part of its support for individual freedom, the magazine spoke out strongly against draconian drug laws. Hefner also created the Playboy Foundation to support civil liberties and civil rights.

When the Democratic National Convention came to Chicago in 1968, Hefner had no intention of taking part in the demonstrations it inspired. During the convention, however, Hefner went out for a walk one evening several blocks from where the convention was being held. Rampaging police officers came up to him, and one struck him a glancing blow with his baton. It was far more a matter of indignity than pain or damage, but this direct experience of illegitimate government power strengthened Hefner's libertarianism and helped him question such other excesses as the Vietnam War.

Hefner and Playboy had always faced opposition, not all of it from reactionaries. There were those who were offended that the magazine published pictures of bare breasts and those who thought it should also show pubic hair. (Such an act would have led to arrests in 1960; Hefner did not feel safe enough to depict that part of the human anatomy in Playboy until 1970.) There were those who assumed that the Playboy Clubs were brothels and those who objected to the club rules against bunnies' fraternizing with customers, a rule that was intended to ensure that the clubs did not become brothels. In the late 1960s the rising feminist movement joined the opposition, pointing out that the Playboy image could be seen as treating women as objects for pleasure and display like the commercial products it encouraged, rather than as people in their own right.

Playboy fell from the heights of fame and fortune it had enjoyed in the 1960s. On the one hand, Penthouse and Hustler stole much of the audience by being more sexually graphic; on the other, conservative groups attacked the magazine, sponsoring secondary boycotts of stores that sold it. The original Chicago Playboy Club closed in 1986, and the last of the clubs did so in 1988. Hefner himself, after moving to Los Angeles, suffered a mild stroke in 1985. At that point he turned the operation of the Playboy empire over to his daughter, Christie, whom he named chair and chief executive officer of Playboy Enterprises, Inc. He even settled down, marrying Kimberley Conrad, a former Playmate of the Year, in 1989; they had two sons. Hefner was not through with the playboy lifestyle, however. In 1998 he separated from his wife and soon was seen squiring beautiful young women around town. He expressed gratitude to the inventors of Viagra, a drug for men that enhances sexual performance.

Playboys, like hippies, now seem to many people like some ancient and excessive artifact of the long-gone 1960s. Still, Hefner represents progress from what went before. When Playboy began publishing, the social consensus was that everyone was supposed to refrain from premarital sex, any deviation from monogamous heterosexuality was criminal and perverted, and sex was so shameful that pictures of even seminaked women were consigned to a category separate from "proper" magazines and books. By challenging these taboos, particularly the last, Hefner helped change society, and the pendulum has not swung back to anything near its original position.

The several biographies of Hefner include Joe Goldberg, Big Bunny (1966); former Playboy editor Stephen Byer's Hefner's Gonna Kill Me When He Reads This (1972); Frank Brady, Hefner (1974); and Russell Miller, Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy (1987).

Arthur D. Hlavaty

Hugh Hefner

views updated Jun 08 2018

Hugh Hefner

Hugh Hefner (born 1926), founder and publisher of Playboy magazine, helped usher in a new era of openness in American Culture.

When Playboy first hit the newsstands in 1953, it represented a new openness about sexuality that was beginning to influence American life. The magazine, which was the brainchild of a would-be cartoonist from Chicago named Hugh Hefner, was originally to be called "Stag Party," but Hefner, who wanted to suggest sophistication as well as high living and wild parties, eventually settled on Playboy. Hefner hoped to make his magazine the equal of others that featured female nudity as well as articles, such as Esquire, for which Hefner had also worked and which had recently stopped featuring suggestive photography.

Marilyn Monroe

Playboy was an instant sensation, mainly because Hefner had shrewdly purchased a nude photograph of actress Marilyn Monroe; it had been taken before her success in Hollywood, and Hefner used it as the centerfold of his first issue. Monroe was a star by the time the magazine was published, and the first issue sold out quickly. That issue included an editorial by Hefner that espoused the Playboy philosophy that was to become familiar over the years:

We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex. … If we are able to give the American male a few extra laughs and a little diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age, we'll feel we've justified our existence.

Trappings of Success

The immediate success of the magazine prompted Hefner to establish a proper office and staff for the magazine, and as of the fourth issue the Playboy empire was officially under way. Hefner's devotion to the magazine in its early years precipitated the breakup of his marriage: Hefner and his wife Millie were separated in 1957 and divorced in 1959. As he and his wife became increasingly estranged, Hefner and his associates began to embody the life-style about which they wrote, having almost weekly parties at the Playboy editorial offices. When the success of the magazine came to the attention of the mainstream public, Hefner was happy to portray himself as the playboy his magazine described. In 1959 he even hosted the television series "Playboy's Penthouse," a weekly talk show set in a bachelor pad, featuring plenty of the magazine's "playmates" and celebrities such as comedian Lenny Bruce and singers Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.

Pursuit of Pleasure

For Hefner, his magazine and image were responses to the new mood of the country. He felt that the puritan ethic was eroding and that the pursuit of pleasure and material gain was the way of life for many Americans. As Hefner has been quoted, "If you had to sum up the idea of Playboy, it is antipuritanism. Not just in regard to sex, but the whole range of play and pleasure." For many the Playboy philosophy proved to be a welcome antidote from the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s. Over the years it has continued to have its followers, and Hefner's small magazine for men has become an empire extending well beyond magazine publishing.

New Directions

In the 1990s, the glamorous life-style at the Playboy Mansion began to change. After suffering a minor stroke in 1985, Hefner reevaluated his life and made several dramatic modifications to his life-style. Gone were the all-night pool-side parties, replaced with more restrained celebrations, and in 1988, Hefner turned over the business operations of Playboy Enterprises to his daughter Christie, one of two children he had with his first wife. After a second marriage to a former Playmate of the Year produced two sons, Hefner continued to enjoy his new role as a husband and father.

He also decided to focus on electronic communication, particularly the Internet, to promote his magazine. In 1996 Hefner told Associated Press writer Jeff Wilson, "We're extremely popular on the Internet and are going to be launching a pay site. You can actually get an electronic version of the magazine and go through archival things. We are also launching a Playmate fan club in which you can get information, download images and communicate with Playmates from all through the decades." But as a parent himself, Hefner believes that parents should be empowered with a device to block their children from viewing certain Internet features. □