Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Magazine died of natural causes at the alarmingly old age of 91. He was surrounded by loved ones, and he died a wealthy man without pain at home. Proof that every now and then, when someone is asleep at the cosmic switch there actually is justice in the Universe.
With the passing of Hugh Hefner the country is indulging in that familiar ritual of remembrances and necrobiographical photo tours that usually accompanies the death of a cultural icon.
But let us take a moment and really examine the nature of this icon and what he meant to this country.
Certainly there is a temptation to simplify complex personalities. Especially when they create complicated legacies on the mammoth of contradictions that is American society.
In the process we often trivialize both the person and their career by simply depicting what a magpie might remember: A flash of color, a little sparkle, something shiny.
And it is not our intention here to bewilder the reader with a dazzling rabbit hole of details usually (and thankfully) reserved for biographers.
But neither should we let him be defined by the moral scolds, the resentful 80s era brand of neopuritanism, or the eternally sex starved 16 year old that still peeks out from behind every dowdy career employee, impassioned minister, or hoary, hardened man of business.
For surely they were his perfectly opposite foils. No more fit to represent Hugh Hefner than a group of Trump voters to describe the finer points of Gore Vidal.
He was not a pornographer. The ethos of the playboy lifestyle was not about the hateful oppression of women. Nor was it about a cheap wank in the bathroom—Not that those things were not alive and well in the society in which he functioned.
The true legacy of Hefner was in creating an American version of The Gentleman of the Empire. A vision of the accomplished man of the world in which titles, landed aristocracy, and a fixed inherited sense of taste had been replaced by a bustling, self made version of manhood. The men of the post-war, prosperous United States.
Hugh heralded a more democratic, meritocracy of male taste, style and gravitas. A unique American evolution of a worldly, informed, monied, engaged, man of fashion and taste.
Whether or not one thinks they agree with whatever would have defined those things in the mid 20th Century, the man (and publication) who actually defined them was its most famous Playboy, Hugh Hefner.
The magazine that he created was not a simply girlie magazine. Instead it was the most accurate journal of the American Century.
Hugh Hefner created the Most Successful Magazine In US History.
One thing that surprises people. The most successful magazine in the history of the United States is Playboy
At the height of Playboy’s popularity one-quarter of all American college men were buying or subscribing to the magazine every month. The best-selling Playboy edition was the November 1972 edition, which sold more than 7 million copies. The population of the US was only about 200 million. And once purchased, most copies were widely shared.
No other magazine has ever even come close to those kinds of consistent numbers.
Playboy was easily the most accurate portrayal of the psyche of the country because it was the highest paying publication, publishing the most expert writers with the highest standard of journalism but the least amount of censorship.
The Playboy Interview redefined the interview process in American literature.
The format was an extensive (usually several thousand-word) discussion between a notable individual and an interviewer. Some of the most important interviews of the past 70 years, including individuals as diverse as Steve Jobs, Ayn Rand, and Fidel Castro.
After his stint at Playboy he coauthored Malcolm X’s autobiography, and of course authored “Roots’.
One of the magazine’s most famous interviews was with Jimmy Carter in the November 1976 issue, in which he stated “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” That issue hit the stands shortly before the Presidential elections. That year, Carter was swept into the Oval Office.
David Sheff‘s interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared in the January 1981 issue, which was on newsstands at the time of Lennon’s murder; the interview was later published in book format.
From the beginning, Hefner insisted on including literary works in Playboy. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury for example, was published in 1953. Today it is considered one of the foundational works of American sci fi. But it was released in the middle of the McCarthy era to little widespread fanfare. In 1954 it was serialized in the March, April and May issues and became an American Classic.
In fact, Playboy boasts an illustrious record of short stories by luminaries such as Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Chuck Palahniuk, P. G. Wodehouse, Roald Dahl, Haruki Murakami, and Margaret Atwood. (yes, the writer of Hulu’s runaway success, The Handmaid’s Tale)
In that potent era of American fiction from the mid sixties to the mid seventies Robie Macauley served as the Fiction Editor at Playboy.
He curated and published fiction by Saul Bellow, Seán Ó Faoláin, John Updike, James Dickey, John Cheever, Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Crichton, John le Carré, Irwin Shaw, Jean Shepherd, Arthur Koestler, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, John Irving, Anne Sexton, Nadine Gordimer, Kurt Vonnegut and J. P. Donleavy, as well as poetry by Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
(You can follow all the wikipedia links to see just how much of a dent that makes in late 20th century literature.)
Mens Fashion, Style and Architecture
But Playboy had more influence on American Culture (and therefore global pop culture) than just literature and media long form interviews. Its influence on Mens Fashion was literally profound. The sportwear, styling techniques, tonsorial and sartorial advice of Playboy became the established pinnacle of taste.
Even James Bond, that ineffable expression of tasteful worldliness and Manhood was described on multiple occasions as ‘Playboy Magazine with a gun’
To this day, social researchers and theorists expound on the Playboy mystique.
According the Beatriz Preciado as recently as 2014
[Playboy] also came to embody an entirely new lifestyle that took place in a series of utopian multimedia spaces, from the fictional Playboy’s Penthouse of 1956 to the Playboy Mansion of 1959 and the Playboy Clubs of the 1960s. At the same time, the invention of the contraceptive pill offered access to a biochemical technique able to separate (hetero)sexuality and reproduction, troubling the traditional relationships between gender, sexuality, power, and space.
So in taking a moment to remember Hugh Hefner, the man. Yes. Recount his foibles, his failings, his pecadillos. Remember that he was sexually fluid decades before that was even a thing.
Remember the angry anti porn crusaders. Listen patiently to the modern demonizers of physical attraction (and keep in mind that these are the people who would cement fig leafs over the genitals of greek statues if the Church hadnt already beaten them to it) Nod guiltily over single minded wank sessions over the centerfolds if you are of a certain age.
But also take a moment and pay tribute to the poetry, the literature, the art, and the healthy image of maleness –onewhose sexual drive was balanced with intellectual and cultural attainment– that he crafted for generations of the modern world.
Rest in Peace, Hef.