Looking back over his 87 years – 60 of which have been defined by his creation, Playboy – Hugh Hefner admits it took being a workaholic during his media empire’s formative years to transform him into an icon of sexual liberation and sophisticated indulgence.
“I had been really consumed the first few years on the magazine – I had this phenomenal success on my hands,” Hefner remembers. “And I didn't want to miss the party that I had created.”
He certainly didn’t, as is demonstrated within the pages of publisher Taschen’s lavishly illustrated six-volume collection "Hugh Hefner’s Playboy," initially published as a high-priced limited edition collectors’ volume and only now available in an affordable consumer edition that effectively serves as both part one of the autobiography of the celebrated publisher and a chronicle of the groundbreaking first 25 years (1953-1977) of his even more renowned magazine.
Hefner, an avid scrapbook enthusiast since his formative years (nearly 3,000 volumes fill the attic of his Playboy Mansion), brings his story vividly to life with unparalleled access to both his personal and professional archives.
“The part of it that particularly pleases me is the first of the six volumes covers the formative pre-Playboy days with my cartoons and friends and girlfriends and it's all very personal,” says Hefner, whose childhood interest in drawing his own comic strips (starring a version of himself, alternately suave and self-deprecating) and attraction to graphic design – through high school and college on into his Army service and early years as a copywriter – provides a fascinating glimpse at a publishing mogul-in-the-making.
“I was doing comic books and writing short stories and illustrating them in grade school – I think the die was cast early,” he chuckles. “You see what the first small steps that became the huge ones later on with the magazine. I was in rehearsal for what came later from very early on.
In 1952, 26-year-old Hefner had quit his writing gig at Esquire and, with $8,000 of seed money, worked feverishly to launch his own magazine venture, which would be defined by its penchant for publishing material others wouldn’t dare to touch.
“It was a younger version of what Esquire had been 10 or 20 years [earlier],” Hefner recalls of his earliest inspirations. “It was a magazine that was not allowed in my home, which of course gave it a sort of cachet and appeal. But then it changed immediately after the War: they took the pinups out, they took the cartoons out, and it became a more general interest magazine. So I saw an opening in terms of a magazine for younger men, and that was really the notion behind Playboy.”
At the center of the notion, literally and figuratively, was the Playmate featured in the foldout pictorial in the middle of the magazine. Playboy’s approach pushed the boundaries of the multitude of popular “girlie mags” of the day with an irresistible contrast: a greater degree of physical female exposure balanced by a more artistic presentation, creating a less “dirty,” refreshingly freer sense of sexuality.
“The concept was 'The Girl Next Door,' and not too sophisticated,” explains Hefner. “The premise was that beauty was everywhere – they weren't just in Hollywood or New York. It was the beautiful girls who were selling you your suit or at the store, were in your class in college or whatever. I'm not sure that I planned it ahead of time, but I certainly saw it when we did that and we got that remarkable response. I knew that we were onto something.”
“You might think that in the more conservative 1950s, that there would be a reluctance to pose, and yet there wasn't,” says Hefner, whose early Playmates included now-iconic pinup Bettie Page and his own secretary Janet Pilgrim. “Now, the extent of nudity in the early Playmates was limited, but the early Playmates were very nice girls and really didn't have a problem with it.”
Yet Hefner wasn’t averse to stacking the deck in his favor on day one by featuring the first of many celebrity nudes that would grace the pages of Playboy. “We were able, with the very first issue, to pick up the nude calendar photo of Marilyn Monroe, which the public had heard about but had not seen because it could not be sent through the mail,” he recalls. “I'm the kid who didn't think the Post Office had the right to ban nudes in the mail. There had been a court decision, which I was very much aware of, that nudity per se was not obscene. I presented it in that first issue, and of course, Marilyn Monroe in that same year became the most popular celebrity in the country.”
But even Playboy’s publisher did not foresee the seismic cultural aftershocks the magazine, both controversial and cutting-edge cool, would create throughout its first quarter-century. Beyond its celebration of free-wheeling sexuality, the magazine also featured some of the finest literature, hardest-hitting journalism and most innovative graphic design of the era.
“I could not have anticipated – no one could have – the dramatic impact that it would have in the years that followed, but it happened very, very quickly,” says Hefner. “The magazine was so unique that its influence was felt very soon. It was written about in positive ways in Time and Newsweek within the first couple of years. By the end of the ‘50s it was the magazine that was the phenomenon – and that was nothing to what lay ahead.”
On the frontlines of the sexual revolution, Playboy was poised to effect genuine cultural change, and by the end of its first decade Hefner stepped out from behind his desk, expertly cultivated his image as the preeminent savvy swinger of his day and embraced his role as a tastemaker of the times with a series of essays he called the Playboy Philosophy.
“When I started writing the Philosophy, it was only intended as a one-issue statement – and I got hooked,” he laughs. “I started writing it every month. For young people in that time frame, it was a phenomenon. The magazine in the 60s was the most popular magazine on college campuses – everybody was debating and talking about the philosophy in classes, out of classes.”
Meanwhile, the Playboy brand took root with a series of Playboy Clubs – complete with curvaceous waitresses wearing the quickly iconic Bunny suits – Playboy Casinos and Hef-hosted television projects like “Playboy After Dark,” which served as precursors for latter-day reality series like “The Girls Next Door.”
“We almost single-handedly changed the sexual mores of our time, because [Playboy] properly understood the sexual revolution provided personal freedom in a very previously hung-up society,” says Hefner, who feels assured he founded the right magazine for the right moment in time. “It's interesting to try and contemplate what it would have been like if I'd never been around and had never started the magazine. But there were, obviously, other things going on at the same time, and one imagines that somehow, one way or the other, we'd still have wound up in some variation on the theme.”
As Playboy prepares to mark its 60th anniversary in December, the future of its once all-powerful brand is difficult to predict, Hefner admits: the current lack of the very taboo barriers it once broke down has left his media empire figuring out its future in a changing digital landscape unfettered by taboos. “You can't reinvent the wheel,” says Hefner, whose pride in his social impact is tempered by thoughts of Playboy’s ongoing relevance. “The new generations are much more comfortable with their sexuality, and I take a real sense of celebration in terms of that. What comes later? I say why expound on things that you cannot foresee?”