Sex sells

Did Hugh Hefner affect American society? If so, how?

By Sarah Sidlow

The first issue of Playboy, published in 1953, contained no date. That was just in case it wasn’t successful enough for a second issue.

Twenty years later, his business would be an empire including a string of TV shows, a jazz festival, a chain of Playboy Clubs and a brand that had become a household name — even if it didn’t feature a household subject.

Hefner’s recent passing at the age of 91 has led to an outpouring of support and remembrance for the mogul — but opinions vary widely on Hefner’s lasting impact on society.

In interviews, Hefner always claimed his brand was a result of his desire to unbutton a conservative 1950’s America. But critics couldn’t get past the shock of an adult publication that featured partially nude centerfold models. The criticism continued throughout his life as Hefner was continuously condemned for his multiple young girlfriends, his use of the world “girls,” and his outspoken love of Viagra.

But Hefner’s mag wasn’t just about sex and centerfolds (right?). Some of the era’s biggest writers published articles and short fiction in Playboy. From Hefner’s perspective, the magazine was a place for cultural exploration and sophisticated social commentary. In his inaugural issue, he penned an essay describing his vision of the magazine’s readers: “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…”

Beyond constructing the magazine’s boundary-breaking format, many remember Hefner as an architect for social and political change. He is often celebrated as an ally of LGBTQ rights and a vocal supporter of marriage equality. Over the years, Playboy featured lengthy interviews with high-profile activists like Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, and Muhammad Ali.

In 1976, during his presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter granted Playboy an interview.

Still others laud Hefner for simply opening up the sex conversation in America. When the first issue of Playboy hit the streets, a Protestant America was faced with an important, but largely uncomfortable, exchange. A decade before the sexual revolution, Hefner created a mag that celebrated sex, relationships, and uncomfortable conversations.


A revolutionary entrepreneur

Before the silk pajamas

By Missy Mae Walters

Imagine what the world would be like today had Hugh Hefner never created Playboy magazine?

It’s sort of unimaginable. Just think about it: How many people in their lifetime can say they, themselves, have totally changed a culture? Hugh Hefner was such a man.

Whether you loved him or you loathed him, you have to give Hugh Hefner credit. He was a revolutionary entrepreneur of his own enterprise and branding. The Playboy brand is known world-wide and over the span of several decades, has survived a very bumpy road which included censorship, scandals, and leadership changes. This resilience says a lot about Hefner and his commitment to his company.

Before Hefner spent his days in silk pajamas with a pipe hanging from his mouth surrounded by a posse of “girlfriends,” he was a normal co-ed at the University of Illinois-Chicago. As inconceivable as it was, he was at this point in his life shy and self-conscious. He channeled his energy into his writing, having his very own byline in the college newspaper called the Shaft. He wrote essays and illustrated comics with sexual undertones and added his own touch of a special section for the “Co-Ed of the Month” from the campus.

At a time, he recognized a need in society to free sexually repressed and curious young men and women. No one dared to talk about sex in public. The findings on human sexuality by Alfred Kinsey in 1948 and 1953, known as the Kinsey Reports, were reported nation-wide and sent shock waves rippling across American society. Essentially, the report said, although people didn’t talk about sex, they sure were thinking about it. It created an avenue to which Hefner channeled his ambitions.

Growing up middle class during 1920’s in Chicago, Hefner’s father was an accountant who was constantly at work and his mother was a school teacher; both were emotionally distant towards him and his brother. There was no love. No emotion. And certainly, no affection in his household. You could say the lack of love during his childhood created a need he sought to fill, especially later in life.

Following college and his marriage to his college sweetheart, Millie, Hefner began working as a copy editor at Esquire magazine. A lifelong fan of the magazine, it was his dream job. After only a few weeks, he had changed his mind. The progressiveness of Esquire magazine during the 40’s is what had drawn him in as an avid reader and fan, but following the end of war, the magazine chose to tone down the copy. No more pinup girls, no jokes as Hefner had at one time loved. He sought a new avenue to direct his energy — his very own magazine.

Despite any fears, Hefner chose to start his own magazine. He raised capital by going to investors and pitching his idea. Just to put it into perspective, Time Magazine was started with an initial investment of $86,000 in 1923. Like most entrepreneurs seeking financial assistance for an idea with no guarantee of success, he received a lot of no responses. His personal investment, after selling nearly $600 of his own furniture, is what put him across the line to meet his goal.

The magazine was a long shot. The first issue had to make a statement and it certainly did. The first iconic issue of Playboy, contained within its pages the nude centerfold of Marilyn Monroe — the “It Girl” of the decade. The first Playboy was wildly successful selling over 70 percent of printed issues or about 54,000 copies.

After only a year of circulation, Playboy magazine was printing over 150,000 issues per run. The most popular issue of the magazine’s run was in November 1972, which sold 7.1 million copies. Over the course of the next 60 years, at its height, Playboy crossed the billon dollar mark. The company has continually learned how to adapt and reinvent itself as new technologies have emerged.

Whether you agree or disagree with the Playboy’s appropriateness, it did push the envelope of discussion on several important social issues of the time. That is definitely something I can respect since many would have rather looked in the other direction. In 1965, in the midst of the civil rights movement, Alex Haley interviewed Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. It is said that this was King’s longest interview given throughout his fight for racial injustice during the 60’s. Other momentous articles included discussion of gender stereotypes, the War in Vietnam, and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s just to name a few.

The world definitely would not have been the same without Hugh Hefner.

The icon of the Playboy empire, Godfather of the sexual revolution in America, and a great American entrepreneur — may you rest in peace… in your silk pajamas.

Missy Mae Walters serves as the senior associate of campaigns and public affairs at JSN & Associates. Walters served as the
 regional political director for the Trump for President Campaign in Ohio and is a former executive director of the Montgomery
County Republican Party. Reach her at MissyMaeWalters@DaytonCityPaper.com.


A bunny for your thoughts

Putting Hugh Hefner in a different light

By Tim Smith

During a chaotic news cycle that included the Las Vegas shooting tragedy, the ongoing struggles in Puerto Rico, and the continuing soap opera called the White House, came the passing of Playboy magazine founder, Hugh Hefner, at the age of 91. Some critics have since come forth to label him as nothing more than a flesh peddler who exploited women and promoted a sexually liberal lifestyle, but his legacy goes much deeper than that.

The question before the board isn’t whether or not Hugh Hefner objectified women. I won’t dispute that, because his signature magazine and its spinoffs showcased the female physique, with and without airbrushing. He introduced the word centerfold to the lexicon, and exemplified a sophisticated Libertarian lifestyle. But he also promoted open dialogue on a wide variety of subjects that would become a part of the American fabric. For the record, you will not see me writing such a testimonial for Hustler magazine publisher and former Daytonian, Larry Flynt, when his time comes.

Many people overlooked the fact that Hefner took chances and pushed the boundaries of what was considered “the norm” in conservative America beginning in the 1950’s. With Playboy magazine, he made a point to feature not only attractive women, but thought-provoking ideas and cutting-edge fiction from some of our best writers. He also pushed the civil rights agenda and tolerance in an era when those weren’t popular notions. He continued that push into the new millennium when he supported legalizing same-sex marriages. Hefner claimed to be politically independent, and his editorial stance rarely favored one side over the other.

Hefner was color and gender blind when it came to writers for the articles, fiction, and interviews he published. He chose to put talent first. Writers featured in Playboy over the years included Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Sexton, Germaine Greer, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Shere Hite, and Alex Haley, who contributed some groundbreaking interviews for the magazine. Haley interviewed Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party.

The Playboy interview set a new standard and soon became the hot ticket for celebrities, athletes, and political figures. The reclusive John Lennon and Yoko Ono sat down for a lengthy talk that touched on subjects that were far removed from their music. In an eerie twist of events, the issue featuring Lennon’s interview was on newsstands when he was assassinated in 1981. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was interviewed during his 1976 bid for the White House where he raised eyebrows and the blood pressure of his campaign staff when he stated, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Even the media-hating Frank Sinatra agreed to an in-depth chat in 1965. If you think Donald Trump has a toxic relationship with the press, check out Sinatra’s pedigree and you’ll understand why this was a noteworthy interview.

Over the years, Hefner expanded his empire to include nightclubs, merchandise, and television. He encouraged new talent in the entertainment field, and two of his early TV shows, “Playboy’s Penthouse” and “Playboy After Dark,” featured musicians and stand-up comics in need of exposure. In 1963, he gave a career boost to an up and coming black comic named Dick Gregory by hiring him to work at the Playboy Club in Chicago. Gregory later claimed that his career took off after that gig. Hefner also sponsored the Playboy Jazz Festival, where lesser-known performers were given a chance to play before a large audience.

Hefner may have promoted sexism through his magazines, clubs, and Playboy Bunnies, but in retrospect, he was simply going with the times. He didn’t start the sexual revolution in the 1960’s — he just took advantage of it. To the current generation, Hugh Hefner will likely be remembered as the Botox and Viagra addicted old man in the silk pajamas and bathrobe, surrounded by young women who were paid to act like they were having a good time. In reality, he should be remembered as someone who got people thinking and talking about issues that they normally wouldn’t.

And that’s significant.

Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com. 

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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