“What sort of man reads Playboy?” asked the house promotional ads in the magazine’s pages in its early years.
Easy, was the magazine’s usual answer. A man who traveled — always first class. Drove a sports car. Listened to jazz. Ate at expensive four-star restaurants. And wore expensive, perfectly tailored clothes. Most importantly, of course, he was a man who, wherever he was, stood no more than five feet away from one or two beautiful women.
We knew better in the ’50s. The sort of “man” who read Playboy was likely to be a 13-year old boy avid to see pictures of beautiful, naked women who had been discovered milking cows in Alabama or working behind the TWA counter at an airport. We liked the cartoons because they took even less time to read than the captions on the naked pictures. Sometimes they were very funny (Gahan Wilson; Shel Silverstein). Commonly, they were sniggeringly puerile.
The truth is that the sort of “man” who read Playboy was more likely to hide the magazine from his mother than drive a Ferrari.
The very idea of “reading the articles” was hilarious to us serious pubescent Playboy devotees.
In truth, some of us DID discover early on that, in one case, the printed matter of Playboy was some of the finest ever published in America: to wit, the Playboy Q &A Interviews. Among the anonymous masters who conducted them was Alex Haley, future author of “Roots.”
To this day, I think they are unparalleled, though widely imitated. If you find the books full of them, they can’t possibly be recommended more highly. (Playboy interviewed Mel Brooks twice. They are, together, the definitive interviews with one of the most rollicking interviewed celebrities in America.)
Rolling Stone’s interviews could match or even exceed them but, at their best, Playboy’s interviews were so independent of the rest of the magazine and so good that they seemed to come from Mars.
The idea of those house ads was to tell the magazine’s prospective advertisers that “these are the kind of guys who will see ads for your product.” From the beginning, Playboy was only incidentally a nudie magazine; it was, first and foremost a lifestyle magazine. It took what Esquire had always done, uncovered a lot more flesh and magnified by 100 the nonsense that went into describing its own “readers.”
The women were remarkably uniform in looks. Everything about them was airbrushed — their hair, their skin, their bodies, their quotes, their idiotic “girl next door bios.” (“Brunnhilde loves football and long walks in the rain.”)
And then, Lord help us, this entirely fantastic lifestyle magazine got into the nightclub business and had the idea that an equally important question was “What sort of man edits Playboy?” And, then they started selling Hefner’s very own fantasy lifestyle as a way to corral readers and advertisers along with the pictures.
This meant showing us “Hef” working in a huge round bed and wearing satin pajamas all day. And later, wearing an absurd yachting cap. And smoking a pipe like a boarding school Latin teacher. And surrounding himself with airbrushed women whose brains had been scrubbed clean of anything that might possibly resemble intelligent content.
Worst of all, the magazine’s editor thought it necessary to put down his pipe long enough to inflict the “Playboy Philosophy” on readers in countless installments.
I was still in my teens then. When I checked out of Hefner’s “vision” completely, I was still young enough to have never once referred to him as “Hef.” I never wanted to get that close to him. And I was always baffled by the clear-cut equation of sexiness and brainlessness. I didn’t get it. I still don’t. The movie stars of my dreams tended to be Janet Leigh, Inger Stevens and Lee Remick.
His first playmate was Marilyn Monroe, whose beauty and allure couldn’t have been more obvious in still photographs but whose movies usually made her so breathy and bubbleheaded that they made me uncomfortable. We weren’t laughing with Monroe; we were laughing at her. The real Monroe, we later learned either actually read books or was cultured enough to pretend to. Hard ones too — Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and Joyce’s “Ulysses.” You didn’t catch Joi Lansing or Jayne Mansfield or Miss September pretending such things, much less doing them.
Why on earth WOULDN’T Monroe be reluctant to show up on film sets and be troublesome when she got there? If the world always treated you like a gorgeous bimbo, you might cause trouble at work too. And explore pharmacological relief.
“Hef,” the ridiculous lifestyle, exploded all over his fabled manse for the famous and the horny. Hook-ups might happen. Food was always available too. Medicines were openly talked of (including Quaaludes which eventually became Cosby’s fave). Even by people who didn’t own pipes or yachting caps or philosophies.
“Playboy After Dark” — a TV show with a “groovy” theme by Cy Coleman — made the Playboy “lifestyle” look tolerable if you didn’t have to listen to Hefner.
At this point, it is imperative to be fair to one of the most influential Americans of the past 100 years. He did do radical things and even great ones. He was an apostle of racial and sexual freedom in an era that needed one. He was a gift to comedians, especially Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce (Bruce’s classic autobiography “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” was published by Playboy.)
He sold lots of products to “the sort of man who reads Playboy.” Some of those products were genuinely sophisticated.
His death last week at 91 brought out a lot of admiration but also savagery too. Here is Ross Douthat’s near definitive denunciation in Sunday’s Times.
Hefner, said Douthat, was “a pornographer and a chauvinist who got rich on masturbation, consumerism and the exploitation of women” who “aged into a leering grotesque in a captain’s hat and died in a decaying manse” that was home to “pathetic orgies.”
In all the obituaries, Playboy’s people made it plain that everyone should know that long before his death, Hefner had secured the right to have his remains buried for eternity next to those of Monroe.
Monroe, long dead by the time he did so, had absolutely no say in the matter.
No surprise there.