One evening in 1967, Hugh Hefner, who has died aged 91 , appeared on a TV special broadcast from the Playboy Mansion’s library. Puffing on his customary pipe, and flanked by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox and conservative editor William F Buckley, the billionaire porn magazine magnate and American men’s titillator-in-chief argued that the religious basis for morality was obsolete.
If America was to fulfil its manifest destiny and its citizens were to genuinely enjoy life, it needed to be liberated sexually. This, he said, was what Playboy Enterprises, of which he was the chief executive and visionary founder, was patriotically supplying. In this, arguably, Hefner was fulfilling his mother’s wish that he become a missionary. True, his work involved more pool parties, voluptuous women pillow-fighting and wearisome boasts about sexual prowess (“I have slept with thousands of women, and they all still like me,” he told Esquire magazine in 2002) than previous missionaries found necessary, but he always imagined himself to be a proselytiser for hedonistic anti-puritanism.
Whatever Hefner’s missionary pretensions, he certainly had business acumen. In 1953 he founded what would become a multi-billion-dollar industry with a few nude photos of Marilyn Monroe. The first issue of Playboy sold 50,000 copies nationwide. When, in 1963, he was arrested finally for selling obscene literature (after publication of an issue featuring nude shots of Jayne Mansfield), the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
This irrepressible swinger and/or corrupter was born in Chicago, Illinois. He was raised by Grace and Glenn Hefner in what he later recalled as “a repressed midwestern Methodist home”. His father’s lineage was impeccably puritan: he was directly descended from the Plymouth governor William Bradford. Grace, whom the adult Hugh would describe as running an unimpeachably puritan household, instructed him and his friends on the facts of reproduction from an illustrated book. Hefner later complained she had only taught him about sexual biology, not its emotional aspects. But Grace had thereby done more than most of his friends’ parents dared to improve her child’s sexual education.
One bitter evening he stood on a bridge overlooking the Chicago river aged 26 and contemplated suicide to escape an unsatisfying marriage – to Mildred Williams, whom he had married in 1949 – and a job that hardly fulfilled him. After a stint in the army and graduating with a BA in psychology from the University of Illinois, he had worked as a copywriter for Esquire. He quit in order to set up his own magazine, provisionally called Stag. Hefner took out a bank loan and raised $8,000 from 45 investors including $1,000 from his mother. “Not because she believed in the venture,” he told one interviewer. “But because she believed in her son.” Each issue featured nude photographs and a centrefold poster of the “playmate of the month”. But Playboy was not – or not only – what Tom Wolfe called a “one-hand magazine”. Hefner commissioned Lenny Bruce, John Updike and Jack Kerouac to write for him. Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X was born from his interview with the leader in Playboy.
His marriage to Mildred, with whom he had two children, limped through a decade in which his career blossomed. Theirs became a proto-open marriage when she allowed him to sleep with other women. Mildred did so because she felt guilt over having an affair while he was away in the army and hoped that would preserve their marriage. They divorced in 1959. Hef’s swinging then began in earnest. He claimed to be “involved” with maybe “11 out of 12 months’ worth of Playmates” during the 60s and 70s. He also acknowledged that he experimented in bisexuality. His Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles, became a byword for sybaritic excess. He worked from his bed, often wearing silk pyjamas, happy to be, as he frequently was, distracted from running a global porn business by female employees.
Business boomed. Playboy Enterprises went public in 1971 at a time when the magazine was selling seven million copies worldwide each month. Hefner astutely diversified his brand: he hosted TV shows to proselytise for Playboy’s hedonistic male lifestyle, and ran a string of Playboy clubs staffed by that modern symbol of sexual infantilisation and female commodification, the Playboy Bunny.
Hefner, though, considered himself a proto-feminist. “In the 1950s and 60s, there were still states that outlawed birth control, so I started funding court cases to challenge that. At the same time, I helped sponsor the lower-court cases that eventually led to Roe v Wade. We were the amicus curiae [a friend of the court who volunteers information] in Roe v Wade [the 1973 US supreme court decision affirming a woman’s right to choose abortion]. I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism. That’s a part of history very few people know.”
In 1985 he suffered a minor stroke. His daughter Christie began to run the Playboy empire. In 1989, he married for the second time, wedding playmate of the year Kimberley Conrad. The couple had two sons, necessitating the transformation of the Playboy Mansion into a family-friendly home. After he and Conrad separated in 1998, she moved into a house next door. They divorced in 2010.
In 2011 his planned wedding to Crystal Harris initially fell apart when his fiancee realised that “I wasn’t the only woman in Hef’s life.” She may have had a point. If he suffered after Crystal’s rejection, there were compensations: there always were for the oldest swinger in porn. He had once said: “I wake up every day and go to bed every night knowing I’m the luckiest guy on the f**king planet.” They reconciled and married in 2012.
Hugh Hefner, born April 9th, 1926; died September 27th, 2017.
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