The underdogs of the world, despite however we may root for them, don’t always succeed.
Many continue their lives on a path of mediocrity and quietly disappear leaving no trace after they shuffle off this mortal coil.
There are, however, prime examples of the schoolyard four-eyes (Microsoft developer and billionaire, Bill Gates) or the chubby girl (fitness trainer and sexy dynamo, TV’s Jillian Michaels) who shed nerdy wall-flower personae and blossomed into fully-formed personalities.
For the socially challenged—the nerd—interactions with members of the opposite sex are awkward, embarrassing, terrifying, and oftentimes humiliating.
This is especially true of the male nerd: women for him are unobtainable objects to be worshipped from afar as he lacks the confidence or social skills to engage them effectively.
Among the downtrodden, success in life is the best revenge, putting all naysayers, childhood school bullies, and snotty homecoming-queens-turned-overweight-mommies in their respective places.
Far better than simple, comfortable success, though, is outrageously skyrocketing fame and fortune working in tandem. This kind of victory is the ultimate in nerdly revenge.
For one gawky looking ex-GI in the early 1950s, the road to that triumphant pinnacle from which he could look down upon all his detractors was fueled by a manic drive, Pepsi Cola, and Marilyn Monroe.
Hugh Hefner built a publishing empire with Playboy magazine; arguably, this magazine with its frank discussions about sex did more to loosen up America from the sphincter-tightened straits of the Eisenhower-Era Dark Ages than any other instrument in American history.
He sailed through his elementary school years; in high school he was found to have an IQ of 152, putting him in “genius” territory (roughly in the middle of the accepted genius range).
His schoolwork was lackadaisical, however; like many people with genius-level intelligence, he was probably scholastically
On the whole, Hefner’s childhood was lackluster. As a young boy, his most valued possession was a blanket with bunnies printed on it. [This motif would provide the creative spark for one of the world’s most recognizable corporate symbols, the iconic Playboy Bunny emblem.]
As an adolescent and teenager, Hugh was not successful with girls.
Upon graduating from high school he joined the US Army in 1944.
Still interested in the visual arts, Hefner took a few art classes at Chicago’s Art Institute upon his military discharge. He then enrolled in the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
He piled on his class load, taking extra credit hours so he could graduate quickly. He got his BA degree in 1949 (after only two-and-a-half years), majoring in Psychology with a double minor in Creative Writing and Art. He then started graduate work at Illinois’ Northwestern University. Though interested in pursuing a Sociology advanced degree, he dropped out after only one semester.
Higher education was not the only thing Hugh Hefner found in his pursuit of a college degree. It was during his short stay at Northwestern University that he met a girl named Mildred Williams (b: 1926), another Northwestern student. The two became an item and agreed to marry.
Hugh had never had sexual intercourse; he was still a virgin at the age of 23.
His puritanical upbringing received a major jolt shortly before his and Mildred’s wedding, however. Mildred dropped the bombshell that she—contrary to both his and ridiculous societal expectations—was not a virgin.during the years of World War II, Mildred confessed to Hugh that she had lost her virginity before he had been an Army news clerk.
It was a massive blow to his ego, and Hefner was destroyed by this news. Secondarily, he felt somewhat emasculated—she brought sexual experience (however minimal and fumbling) to their marital bed while he, the man, had none.
Hefner recalled this moment-of-truth as “the most devastating moment of my life”. He actually held Mildred’s prior sexual experience against her during the course of their marriage, causing much hurt. [He stated in a 2006 interview that her guilt over her pre-marital “indiscretion(s)” led her to “allow” him to sleep with other women.]
This was a smart, sophisticated rag, but its major attraction was its dolls: quality photographs of models, stars, and starlets by some of the finest photographers available. It showcased exquisitely rendered pin-up illustrations of scantily-clad, voluptuous young women drawn by George Petty and the incomparable Alberto Vargas.
It did not, however, depict nudity—no mainstream magazine did then—but it was still highly sought for its “girly pictures”. [In later years, Esquire shied away from its earlier titillating role and also cut out its distinctive, higher-end fiction and non-fiction upon which its early success was based.]
Esquire was the plum publication, and Hugh Hefner found work there out of college. His entry-level job in its Chicago offices was as a promotional copyrighter. In a snit over not getting what he felt was a deserved $5-per-week raise (a paltry $44 US in today’s currency), Hefner suddenly quit in January 1952.
Mildred was pregnant at the time of his separation from Esquire. Hefner worked for Publisher’s Development Corporation (in its Sales & Marketing department) before moving on to Children’s Activities magazine (as its circulation promotions manager). He lived the low-key dream of most post-War urbanites: wife, job, and a modicum of satisfaction. In November 1952, Mildred gave birth to the Hefners’ first child, a girl they named Christie.
Hefner was settling in.
The magazine almost died before its birth, however.
A men’s adventure magazine named Stag got wind of Hefner’s title for his venture. He was contacted by a representative of this magazine; he was told that if he persisted in using the title Stag Party he would be sued for infringement upon the other magazine’s trademark.
Hefner, Mildred, and Eldon Sellers put their heads together in a brainstorming session to come up with an alternative title. Consideration was given to several faux-sophisticated sounding names, none of which passed muster: Bachelor, Sir, Gentleman, and Top Hat. Two genuinely and strangely outlandish names (considering Hefner’s desire for his magazine’s intended high-brow tone), Pan and Satyr, were also rejected.
In Chicago, there had been an automobile company that was no longer in business. It was Eldon Sellers who uttered that company’s name: “Playboy”.
Hugh liked it and the short sound of its two syllables, and he thought it was truly reflective of the high living and sophistication he envisioned his creation would espouse.
The word was pure magic.
In 1873, Comstock helped start a watchdog group, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He served as secretary for this outfit and successfully lobbied for a very severe federal statute, enacted that same year, called the Comstock Law.
This outlawed the transportation of “obscene” matter though the mails. Though its intent was specifically targeted against pornography, it was also worded so that a looser interpretation could include “subversive” literature or “dissident” materials—deemed “obscene” by some people—or anything else that the bumpkins of rural America found “offensive”. For example, an anarchist’s newsletter, under that law, could have been confiscated as “obscene”; its creators, publishers, printers, and its vendors could have been fined and imprisoned for a long time.
Unfortunately for America, the US Government gave the crusading Comstock a badge. He was appointed Special Agent for the Post Office Department (also in 1873), and he served zealously and gleefully without pay. With the color of law behind him, he and his followers ferreted out “smut” and “obscene” materials everywhere.
Before very long, Comstock’s inability to distinguish literary art from pornography led to an amusing—and embarrassing—clash between him and playwright, George Bernard Shaw. Comstock had savagely campaigned against Shaw’s play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1898), calling it “obscene” and “lewd”. He also referred to Shaw as “an Irish smut dealer”, thereby adding bigoted overtones to his seething.
Shaw responded by coining a word, “comstockery”, which he used in his writing. It was defined as “prudish, licensed bigotry” and mocked such a person’s inability to distinguish real vice from artistic expression ahead of its time. Comstock lost much of his public support during this absurd—and losing—battle against Shaw; he died, forgotten, in 1915 having only made people miserable.
Shaw, on the other hand, went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925 and literary immortality.
The United States Supreme Court also got into the fray.
It handed down decisions concerning obscenity in America with respect to First Amendment rights. The terms and definitions used were vague and open to interpretation. The Court ruled that materials were obscene if they appealed predominantly to a prurient interest in sexual conduct or if they depicted or described sexual acts in a “patently offensive” way. Furthermore, such things would be deemed obscene if they lacked serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Therefore, any material pronounced “obscene” was not protected by the First Amendment’s right of free speech.
Many local US municipalities adopted their own versions of “blue laws” that prohibited the sale or possession of materials that the “community” decided was “offensive” or obscene. More broadly, the language of such laws might label “obscene” any act or utterance that was “deeply offending” according to contemporary community standards of “morality and decency”.
However, it was difficult to determine what such obscene materials might be. Were they solely the milieu of the pornographer? Or, in the wrong hands, could a painting by Goya (Saturn Devouring His Children, for example) be considered “obscene”?
And the issue with pornography itself was complex—most people thought they knew what it was, but there was no clear-cut line in the sand. As one Supreme Court Justice put it, “I may not know exactly what pornography is, but I know it when I see it.”
The country had chosen Dwight D. Eisenhower as President in the 1952 election year (and he was a two-termer, leaving office in 1961). Under Eisenhower, the United States entered a nationally conservative period the like of which would not be seen again until Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980. Hugh Hefner was aware of conservative obscenity laws, but he also had a conviction that, if challenged, he could prove his magazine was not obscene.
Still, he had to exercise caution when thinking about his nudes.
He could not put a nude woman on his front cover. He also knew the style of any nude pictures inside had to conform to the law—there could be no full-frontal nudity (with open displays of the vulva or even pubic hair). There could be no sexual suggestiveness, either. Anyone caught with such materials could be fined and imprisoned: the buyer, the seller, and the publisher, thanks to Comstock’s Victorian crusading in the previous century.
Hefner, seriously addicted to Pepsi Cola (drinking almost a case per day of the stuff), was fueled by the sugary carbonated beverage and his passion. On a card table in the Hefner home, he set up a typewriter and began working up the first issue of Playboy, guzzling Pepsi by the gallon. Mildred saw little of him, and he barely slept.
He contracted artwork, did some himself, and wrote much of the content as well, including a humorous, though extremely condescending (by today’s norms), “warning” printed inside:
“We want to make it clear from the very start, we aren’t a ‘family magazine’. If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.”
The only other thing Hugh Hefner needed for his maiden run was a gimmick.
The shot, named “Golden Dreams” by its photographer Tom Kelley, was one of many taken during a two-hour session with her on May 27, 1949.
In the photo, Marilyn’s hair was not yet platinum blond, but strawberry. Nor had she completely filled out into the curvaceous form known to millions. Though her breasts are clearly presented, her calves were tucked beneath her, with her hip twisted toward the camera so that none of her pubic area could be seen. This picture was put on a calendar, and it sold well.
However, the woman on the calendar was anonymous. And as 1950 came and went, so did the calendar.
In 1953, her movie studio finally learned the sexy image on the earlier calendar was their star, Marilyn Monroe.
This revelation raised a bit of a stink with studio heads; Marilyn took it all in without concern, quipping later that the only thing she had on during the shoot “was the radio”.
Hugh’s next problem was one of presentation. He only had the one good 1949 color photo of Marilyn as an anchor and a lure.
His cover, the first thing seen by a potential buyer, had to also be eye-catching. He secured permission to use a more recent promotional image of her, and he put that teaser picture—in black-and-white—on the cover. On the right-hand side he printed:
The magazine had 42 pages; the color Marilyn nude was placed on page 19 (pre-“centerfold” concept). And she was called “Sweetheart of the Month” (changed in later issues to “Playmate of the Month”). [The cover also featured a curious caricature on its right-hand side of a running, ectomorphic woman with the words “VIP ON SEX” printed beneath it. It is possible this hokey image may have been originally intended as a logo for the magazine. The irony in that little cartoon is that Hugh Hefner, at that time in his life, was anything but a “VIP on sex”. He had only experienced one woman—his wife—and she came to their marriage knowing more about the subject than he.]
To avoid trouble with the law, Hugh had not put his name anywhere on it. There was sufficient fear of prosecution on his part, putting a nude in a publicly available forum. Though on the surface he was cavalierly nonchalant then, he was quoted in later years: “It was risky enough that I didn’t put my name on the first issue.”
Playboy had no corporate logo, either.
The first Playboy magazine hit the stands in December 1953 with a cover price of 50¢ (kind of pricey for its day—this is over four bucks now). [And first-issue copies in Mint to Near Mint brought over $8,000 in the collectors’ market in 2007.]
Hugh, not sure how well it would be received, purposely did not put a date on it. That way, if the print run didn’t sell out the first month he could leave it on newsstands to keep selling the next month without a glaring date indicating it was already an old issue (though it notes clearly in the lower right it is the first issue).
Hugh Marston Hefner had nothing to worry about. There would be no leftover copies of his first publishing effort. The Marilyn issue was a hit, and very quickly sold over 53,000 copies. [And Hefner, who never got to meet Marilyn, later bought the crypt next to hers in Los Angeles’ Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.]
As for a corporate identity for HMH Publishing Corporation and Playboy magazine that particular problem was solved by the time the second issue was printed.
Work on that issue involved art designer, Art Paul. Paul had created a little stylized profile of a rabbit. It wore a tuxedo collar and bow tie and was executed in glorious black-and-white. It was originally meant to go at the end of the magazine as a stop.
Somewhere in the back of Hefner’s brain his childhood blanket with the bunnies on it lurked. He chuckled over Art Paul’s bunny. He thought it was charming and somehow spot-on for his magazine, and he adopted it as the corporate logo. [He said later he chose the image because it was “frisky and playful”. He also liked the sly sexual connotations of featuring a rabbit (known for their “amorous”, and frequent, intimate activities).]
The bunny appeared on the front cover starting with Playboy #2 and on every issue thereafter. [As time wore on, merely stamping the bunny at the top of the cover sheet became boring, and cover designers took to playing “hide the bunny”. The logo is on every cover, but now it might be blended in with the background, hidden in a model’s hair, or even outlined using props from the cover photo shoot. Regardless of where it is, it is there on every cover.]
His access to women changed Hefner.
Still smarting from his wife’s perceived “infidelity” he availed himself of the flesh he met every month and had photographed for his magazine. Despite the allegation that Mildred “allowed” him to sleep with other women, the marriage was strained. Hugh’s philandering, devotion to all things Playboy, and his emotional unavailability—the magazine came first, always—finally led Mildred and he to divorce in 1959.
Newly single, and wanting to cultivate his man-about-town image, in September 1959, he bought a rambling pile in Chicago and dubbed it the Playboy Mansion. It had 72 rooms, including a 60-foot by 30-foot ballroom.
Hefner’s bedroom in his new palace was his domain. He had a large circular bed installed. Built into its headboard were a top-of-the-line stereo unit (upgraded as technologies changed), a phone, and other doo-dads. It was there he spent most of his down time, even writing articles or editing Playboy at home.
He affected the man of leisure aspect of the “international” playboy character he was by wearing only silk pajamas, a smoking jacket, and bedroom slippers when outside of his boudoir (and, much later, the garb was so closely associated with him he would appear in televised interviews dressed that way). This told onlookers that he was a man who could afford his luxuries, so much so that he didn’t even have to bother wearing traditional clothing.
On a brass plaque over the front door of Hefner’s manor was a contrived Latin phrase, Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare. The rough translation, which spoke volumes about Hefner’s lifestyle,
He also started a tradition of showing first-run movies in a specially designed theater room in the house. People felt honored to be invited to one of these showings. [Hefner’s favorite movie of all-time is 1942’s Casablanca. It is the “Saturday Night Feature” every year on his birthday weekend.] Invitations to his parties were rarely turned down, and they were coveted by many. Once anyone was “in” with Hefner, he or she toed a line to make sure never to be “out”.
Using his freedom and his growing popularity as a character in his own right—and Hugh Hefner represented the first time in history that a publisher, not the “talent”, became a star—he explored the medium of television.
In 1959 he debuted Playboy’s Penthouse. The program was intended as a look inside both the mind and tastes of not only Hugh Hefner but all “playboys”. He dressed formally, smoked a pipe (an affectation, sometimes it was never lit), and carried himself with the stiff air of an urbane man of leisure. His stage set looked like what the unsophisticated, naïve, sexually ignorant, and uncultured man of the late 1950s imagined a “swinging bachelor pad” looked like.
Hefner was a huge jazz buff, rabidly devoted to the music, and he had thousands of recordings. His show, fundamentally an interview program and very tame despite expectations from the
In the same year he bought the mansion and started his TV show, Playboy closed in on the one million circulation mark.
The magazine had great photographers working on its behalf (many “guesting” to help with the models). Among them was Bunny Yeager (a former girly model herself, she died in 2014), whose property was the already-iconic Bettie Page. She had sent Hugh pictures of Bettie—he selected one of her wearing only a Santa hat and sitting in front of a Christmas tree, winking at the camera. He included Bettie in his January 1955 issue as its centerfold. Schlock-meister (film producer/director) Russ Meyer shot the Yvette Vickers layout for Hefner’s July 1959 issue.
Hefner’s earliest features were mature women—Bettie was in her early 30s when she made the cut, Yvette Vickers was only a month away from her 31st birthday when she was Playmate of
Hefner espoused what he called “The Playboy Philosophy”. He had carried this “philosophy” in his head as he developed the concept for the magazine.
What was a “playboy”? What did he think? What were his political views? Hefner, as an ongoing and lengthy project (one that spanned many, many issues and took up pages of editorial space), began serializing his philosophy in the magazine. This work—a manifesto more than a philosophy since he frequently used calls to action—discussed politics and governance, his beliefs about the nature of men and women, and it also demanded reasoned discourse on the truths of human sexuality.
Despite his loftier pretensions, however, Hugh never forgot that the real reason most men bought his magazine was for its nude women and not “just for the articles” (a phrase that passed into pop culture, with many readers claiming they didn’t buy it for the nudes but they read it “just for the articles”).
And the articles in Hefner’s creation were stellar. Taking his cue from Esquire’s genius of publishing quality material by well-known writers, many big names appeared between Playboy’s covers.
Hugh serialized Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future dystopia, Fahrenheit 451, in 1954’s March, April, and May issues. Science-fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke; James Bond creator, Ian Fleming; and controversial writer of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, were showcased over time.
He also took chances with the content starting early in the magazine’s run. Esquire had rejected a short story by science fiction writer, Charles Beaumont. Hugh picked it up for inclusion in his magazine in 1955.
The story, “The Crooked Man”, centered on a straight man that lived in a world where homosexuality was the norm. It was a provocative, fresh, and controversial piece, and Hefner received a lot of hate mail from puritanical and homophobic types for printing it. He wrote an open response—a brave one and a very modern one: “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society then the reverse is wrong, too.”
The offices he and his staff occupied in a business tower in Chicago lent their name to it: the Playboy Building. Hefner seriously spread himself very thinly over the decade of the 1960s, venturing into other enterprises to expand Playboy’s presence and influence beyond just the magazine.
During what is called “Playboy’s Golden Age” (the period roughly from the mid 1950s through the early 1970s) Hugh rarely stopped thinking about ways to increase exposure or to generate publicity.
Though respectfully successful on the merits of his print efforts for several years, his next brainchild, the Playboy Club, was sophomoric, pandering, and just plain silly.
The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago on February 29, 1960, (a Leap Year day) within a short distance of the Playboy Mansion. It was a darkened night club environment modeled on a “bachelor pad” motif, with occasionally featured entertainment—strippers and burlesque performers, singers, and comedians. In effect, these were upscale vaudeville houses for men with pretensions.
Playboy Clubs sprung up in major cities around the country; proud men waved their keys in the envious man’s face (and of all card holders during their heyday, only about 20% of paid members ever visited one of the clubs—apparently, it was enough for them just to hold the status of being a member to boost their egos). The clubs were primarily bars where blowhards sat around, ate and drank, and pretended to be big shots, at least for awhile. Hefner knew this, and catered to it.
The most important image to emerge from the clubs, the thing that truly cemented the Playboy brand in popular culture, was based on Hugh Hefner’s beloved bunny logo.
The drink servers at the club were all very attractive young women of a certain pleasingly proportioned build and height (no fatties or middle-aged women). To make them unique, Hefner created a costume for them (based on garb he’d seen worn in another famous Chicago night spot).
It was absurd and goofy but it was an instant hit, at least for his branding vision. Waitresses wore a backless, strapless, sateen bustier singlet cut high up the thigh. French cuffs with cufflinks (no sleeves) decorated their wrists. They also suffered the indignity of wearing a pair of rabbit ears on their heads.
But the biggest and dumbest—and, certainly, the—thing that created the most titters was they wore a fluffy cottontail like a rabbit’s on the derriere of the singlet. In full gear, any woman was immediately identified with Playboy magazine, the Playboy Clubs, and the Playboy image. For all its silliness, it was a brilliant marketing move on Hefner’s part, separating his Playboy Bunnies from mere waitresses in the eyes of his audience.
The non-paying public, of course, was titillated beyond reason about what might be going on in such dens of iniquity. The simple truth was not a whole lot was “going on”. Hefner had strict rules of behavior, starting with his Bunnies. The women who found jobs in these clubs as servers were not the models seen in the magazines (though some would later pose for it). They were attractive job applicants off the streets of Chicago, New York, et al.
Hefner created a 44-page “Bunny Manual” to guide them, and a “Bunny Mother” kept a close watch on the “kits”. The Bunnies had to be properly groomed and made-up at all times on the job. They had to be single (or give the appearance of being single—sexual availability was a key “selling” point for the rubes who bought memberships); married Bunnies removed their wedding rings before starting their shifts. A Bunny’s husband or boyfriend was not allowed within two blocks of the club.
There was to be no fraternization between the Bunnies and the customers outside the Club. Any woman giving out personal information to a customer (her last name, phone number, or address), if caught, was terminated. While there was to be no sexual contact between the Bunnies and the customers flirting and banter was encouraged to help relieve the saps of their money in higher tips. [And there are many famous women today who once donned the juvenile Bunny costume and schlepped drinks for yutzes in one of the Playboy Clubs. Among them are Deborah Harry, lead singer of the seminal Punk/New Wave band Blondie, and TV journalist/personality, Barbara Walters.]
And it wasn’t only the Bunnies who had rules.
Even though they had paid to gain membership in these clubs, the men who frequented them had rules as well. There was a gentlemen’s dress code—men had to be properly attired and presentable or they would be turned away. They could not speak harshly or rudely to the Bunnies. There was to be no foul language used in discussions with them, and there was to be no solicitation for sex.
The biggest and most enforced rule, though, was no member could fondle or otherwise touch the Bunnies. If a customer put his hands on any of the women working in one of Hefner’s clubs, and it was seen or reported, that man would be ejected, his membership revoked, and he would be banned. [This banishment policy is one Hefner adopted when he hosted soirees at the famous Playboy mansions, both in Chicago and in Los Angeles. Manhandling any women in his employ who might be a party guest meant banishment. He also hated illegal drugs and drug usage. Any guests—no matter how rich and famous—caught using, having, selling, or even soliciting for drugs in his manors were ejected and banished for life from future parties.]
He was not above trouble, though.
In 1955, busty (44”) Jayne Mansfield (a platinum blond, second-rate Marilyn Monroe) featured in Playboy. In the early 1960s she was filming . . . Promises, Promises, a movie in which she would appear nude. In 1963, Hefner got his hands on stills of Jayne in the buff from the movie shoot. He intended to use them in an upcoming issue of Playboy. However, he was busted for possession of “pornographic” materials. He was arrested and put on trial under Comstock-style obscenity laws. The jury in the case was deadlocked—the charges were eventually dropped, thus setting a precedent for him in the event such a thing ever happened again (it did not).
To combat such Victorian prudery, Hefner established the Playboy Foundation in 1965. It provided grants to nonprofit groups fighting censorship and researching human sexuality (and research into human sexuality could also be used as an excuse to imprison someone for handling “obscene” materials).
Also in 1965, Playboy magazine broke a social taboo: in its March issue Jennifer Jackson appeared as the first African-American centerfold. [Women of color had featured in under-the-counter nudie and “art” magazines long before 1965. The pornracist America.]
As the 1960s neared their close, his magazine sold in the millions. It was estimated that fully one-fourth of all college males read it in 1969. The magazine started international publishing in 37 countries that year. The Playboy brand had made an indelible mark, first on American culture, and then globally, with the bunny logo becoming one of the most easily recognized symbols around the world.
Hugh Hefner, now most familiarly known to the world as “Hef”, tried television once again with himself as the star. Rebooting the format he’d previously failed with, Playboy After Dark started taping in 1968. It was roughly the same bachelor-pad, party-atmosphere talk show he’d done in 1959, just with different guests (it lasted about as long, too).
In addition to the “extras”, there was an 18-year old brunette cutie who had hired on specifically to co-host with Hefner.
While still a college student, the teenager got wind of an opportunity to audition for Hefner’s Playboy After Dark. Hef was looking to spice up the program, and he elected to go with a younger female co-host. Barbra Klein got the job. Hefner (who claimed previously that he had been involved with “maybe eleven out of twelve months’ worth of Playmates”) was still a bit socially awkward around women, especially, as in Barbara’s case, those not attached to his magazine. After taping two episodes, he finally worked up the nerve to ask her out. Barbara, who was nearly a quarter-century younger than Hefner, told him she had never dated anyone over 24. Hef allegedly shot back, “That’s all right. Neither have I.”
A relationship developed, and Hefner seemed genuinely in love with Barbara. He made her an integral part of his life, and she was in Playboy in its July 1969 issue. [She also appeared several more times in nude pictorials: March 1970, May 1972, and in December 1975. None of
Hugh talked Barbara into changing her name to the alliterative “Barbi Benton” (though her first pictorial named her as “Barbi Klein”). He began a sincere effort to groom her and market her talents. Hefner helped her with acting classes and singing lessons (Barbi liked Country music). She got a tiny part in an obscure movie, L’uomo del colpo perfetto (1968). Then, in 1969, she appeared on the hugely popular corn-pone comedy/music variety show, Hee Haw (and she would become a regular on that long-running program later).
Hugh “Svengali” Hefner had a protégé.
As with the original Playboy Mansion in Chicago, the Los Angeles manor featured a circular bed. A news junkie, Hefner had multiple televisions installed in his bedroom so he could watch several channels at once, scanning for interesting topics for research and inclusion as written pieces in upcoming magazines.
The bedroom had a separate access door that led to the home’s kitchen. He often took his meals in bed.
He also spent much time isolated in the room working on the magazine (and an interesting photo dated to the early 1970s shows Hef sitting cross-legged on his bed with file folders, books, proof sheets, and the other editorial detritus of running Playboy magazine strewn all over its surface).
No one sat in front of Hef or his lady except on low footstools, cushions, or on the floor near his feet—obstructing his view of the screen was verboten. The hierarchy in the seating arrangement of the room was telling as well—like a good king, Hef assigned places based on the attendee’s popularity, his liking for the person, or other factors. The closer one sat to him (or to the screen) the more favored he or she was. Because of the perceived pecking order, many “back room” people wheedled and connived to win points with Hef, moving forward in the seating chart. [He developed a similar seating assignment when dining with his household members and guests. There are three tables: an opulently set large one which Hugh and his favorites occupy, a secondary table nearby that B-class people dine at, and a third one at which out-of-favor Playmates and lower-tier personalities eat.]
The hedonism of the decade—minus the drugs—was not lost on Hef. His parties raged on as they had in Chicago, only this time he was closer to more “beautiful people”, actors and actresses with whom he hobnobbed and who sycophantically adored him.
Some of his parties lasted days. Hef, not always the best host, sometimes secreted himself in his opulent bedroom and didn’t even bother to put in an appearance. Other times he might greet a few guests, then quietly remove himself to spend some hours editing his magazine.
Hef moved full-time into his Los Angeles place in 1974.
The flight attendants (still called “stewardesses” back then) dressed in mod clothes of Hefner’s choosing (minus the bunny ears and tails of Playboy Club servers). And while the Jet Bunnies
Hefner was the ultimate international playboy with the acquisition of that jet, and it became nearly as famous—and as recognizable—as he was.
Barbi Benton spent much of the 1970s as Hugh’s main squeeze, and she usually traveled with him on the Big Bunny when he chose to visit other parts of the US or other countries.
Her creative career, while boosted by Hefner’s influence, never really took off as hoped. She did some television series appearances in the early 1970s (Marcus Welby in 1972 and McCloud in 1975, for example). She had the part of “Miss Iowa” in The Great American Beauty Contest and as “Melanie” in The Third Girl from the Left (both in 1973).
Barbi’s recording career was slightly better. Her association with Hefner got her an appearance on the music showcase The Midnight Special in 1973. Hefner had started his own record company, Playboy Records, and she released three albums of Country-tinged music from 1975 to 1976. She had a #5 hit on the US Country charts in 1975 with “Brass Buckles”, and she performed on American Bandstand.
But Hugh Hefner and she could not last forever. Despite the seeming great affection between them, she and Hefner ended their relationship in 1976 after seven years together. [It was apparent that Barbi Benton had been a hugely important woman in Hefner’s life, and he recalled her with nothing but fondness. In 2011, responding to a Twitter query about his favorite moment from his failed second attempt at television stardom Hugh replied, “My best memory from ‘Playboy After Dark’ was meeting Barbi.”]
As the 1970s wore on, however, times grew tough for Playboy. Hefner had been riding high since 1953—a terrific run of good business practices, his dynamism, quality in his magazine, great marketing strategies and branding, and diversity in his Playboy Entertainment group had fueled his success. Now, though, by 1975, many things coalesced to erode Playboy’s dominance of the “men’s” magazine market.
Playboy had its bolder imitators. Just as Hefner had co-opted much of Esquire magazine, Penthouse magazine, founded by Bob Guccione, was a blatant rip-off of Playboy (its nude models were called “Pets” and its centerfold was the “Pet of the Month”). Guccione, though, took the low road, and his editorial content was more sensationalized, a form of “yellow journalism” in the mainstream porn world.
Guccione (1930-2010) had been born in Brooklyn, New York, but unlike Hefner he had no significant publishing experience. Married and having a child by the age of 20, Guccione separated from his wife, and he took off for Europe in hopes of becoming a painter. He met a British woman named Muriel, and the pair moved in together in London where they married. He then managed a chain of laundromats before moving on as a cartoonist for a newspaper catering to Americans. He also did cartooning on occasion for a greeting card company. Muriel started selling pin-up posters, and from there Guccione, using Playboy as his paint-by-numbers blueprint, launched Penthouse in England in 1965. It debuted in America in 1969.
Obscenity laws had previously disallowed the exhibition of a woman’s pubic hair in nude photography. Hefner himself, while not disgusted by it, refrained from ever showing it in his magazine for two simple reasons. The first was purely legal: he could be imprisoned for violating federal and state laws.
The other reason was purely aesthetic. Hefner considered the works his photographers created were more than mere nudie shots. He believed it was art. His sets and props were lavish, and the accessories draping the women were tasteful. He knew that to appreciate the female form as it was staged meant the reader should take it in all at once—the lighting, the pose, the setting, all were to be appreciated as an artistic composition. Hefner was completely aware that allowing the publication of pubic hair would ruin his vision: any man casually inspecting his magazine, at the first sign of pubic hair, would immediately zero in on that area of the model’s body, leaving the overall intended artistic efforts unnoticed.
Unfortunately, other publishers didn’t share Hugh Hefner’s more artistic vision. His most direct competition, Penthouse magazine, was the first to show female pubic hair. Penthouse then moved on to full-frontal nudity.
Meanwhile, starting with one nudie bar he called the Hustler Club opened in 1968 in Dayton, Ohio, Larry Flynt (born in 1942 in Lakeville, Kentucky) branched out into the Ohio cities of Akron, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Columbus. By 1970 he had eight clubs in operation. These Hustler Clubs offered much more than anything Hefner’s Playboy Clubs promised.
In 1972, Flynt published a four-page black-and-white newsletter spotlighting his Hustler Clubs. It was only a short step for him (very well-off from his clubs’ proceeds) to start his own glossy—and very explicit—magazine, Hustler. It made its first appearance in July 1974. In November of that year, Hustler was the first over-the-counter magazine to feature a woman’s open, exposed vulva. Larry Flynt scored a major coup in 1975 when he bought and printed some topless (clandestinely taken) 1971 photos of a sunbathing Jackie Onassis (widow of assassinated President, John F. Kennedy). A million copies of that August 1975 issue were sold within a few days.
Penthouse soon followed in exposing a woman’s vulva and later her anus in its images. Also-rans Gallery and Oui magazines (almost indistinguishable from each other and without the financial or artistic clout of either Playboy or Penthouse) likewise showed more of a woman’s genitals than seen on newsstands before. Community standards had relaxed enough to allow for such publications to thrive. [However, despite changes in norms, Larry Flynt’s magazine, due to its more explicit nature, came under fire early and often, leading him to battle obscenity charges many times, most famously in a Cincinnati case in which he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, only serving six days. He took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, dramatized in the 1996 movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, in which he played the judge who had originally sentenced him in the Ohio case.]
To worsen matters, in addition to the competition’s pressure, America moved into a recession in 1975 (one that lasted with varying spikes of “recovery” into the mid 1980s). Playboy’s numbers fell dramatically. Trying to stop the bleed-out, Hefner made an executive “if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em” decision. He allowed pubic hair to be included for the first time. [Previously, careful posing of the models, with a well-placed prop or a woman’s covering hand or arm, obscured the offending area. In many cases, stray photographic pubic hair was airbrushed out in retouching.] He also allowed full-frontal nudity, but still did not take the extra step of “open” poses.
Even so, Hefner’s acquiescence to popular demands (as evidenced by increased sales of Penthouse) did not sit well with his advertisers. Many long-standing backers dropped their accounts, and Playboy continued to lose money. In a move to tighten his belt, Hefner sold his beloved Big Bunny jet in 1976. [The plane went to Venezuelan Airlines, and then spent several years in storage. It was purchased in 1989 by Aero Mexico. The airline repainted it the more traditional silver color of jets, refitted it, and used it for shuttle service domestically. The Big Bunny was retired for good in 2004.]
Hef also divested himself of the US Playboy Clubs which had been losing money for the past few years thanks to other outside entertainment diversions (discothèques were on the ascent thanks to the rise of disco dance music). The very first Playboy Club in Chicago, though, stayed open for sentimental reasons, finally shutting down in 1986; there remains one in Las Vegas in the US. The profitable ones in foreign countries stayed open.
Finally, video-tape players and video-tape recorders became affordable for home use. And cable television rose to prominence, with “pay-per-view” options. Now, with soft- and hard-core porn available for home use on VHS or by subscribing to an adult cable channel, people didn’t seem to have much interest in the quaint Playboy.
He decided to go back to the magazine’s older format of more tastefully arranged, and less explicit, nudes. Advertisers returned, but not as before—America’s love-affair with the magazine had dimmed. It no longer had the cachet it did in the Sixties and early Seventies.
The 1980s saw the magazine still selling respectably, though it was very tame compared to what was readily available by then. Many women—supermodels, actresses, and other female entertainers—took off their clothes in its pages. While certain women could produce high sales figures, interest had waned greatly.
In his personal life, Hefner took to having a new girlfriend seemingly every other month. They were mostly blond, very young, and most likely only interested in the aging Lothario for his money. Some looked as if they might be long-term, but none had the staying power Barbi Benton did.
Hugh Hefner had a stroke in 1985. He used his convalescent time to re-evaluate his life. He worked more diligently on his charity causes. He also funded UCLA’s restoration and preservation program for old movies.
He decided that he needed more time to enjoy himself versus running Playboy (though he had a board of directors and adequate staff, he still spent many hours looking at photos, approving content, steering the corporation, and even writing). His daughter, Christie, had come to work for the Playboy group in 1975. In 1988, Hugh turned control of the operations over to his first born (she stepped down in January 2009).
Looking to perhaps settle down again, he married his then-gal pal, Kimberley Conrad (a former Playmate) on July 1, 1989. They had two children during the marriage. The couple separated in 1998 with her moving into a mansion Hugh provided for her next door to his own. The divorce came later (in 2010).
Hefner financed a Clara Bow documentary in 1999. As a fan of hers, Hugh felt the finished film, Discovering the It Girl, was a fine way to re-introduce the silent- and talking-film actress to the country. She was pop culture’s first true female sex symbol: “Nobody has what Clara had. She defined an era and made her mark on the nation.”
In keeping up with media trends, and perhaps anticipating them somewhat, Playboy Online (Playboy.com), the official website for Playboy Enterprises, went live in 1994. The site had “chat” capabilities, video clips, and photos of women not featured in the magazine. In September 2005, the company launched an on-line version of the magazine, Playboy Digital.
2005 saw the introduction of a stupid, but popular, “reality” TV show produced by Playboy Enterprises called The Girls Next Door. The show featured the “adventures” of daily life for three of Hefner’s former girlfriends (Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson). Later, the show’s cast comprised twins Kristina and Karissa Shannon, and another woman, Crystal Harris. It ended its run in 2009.
Playboy magazine continued its sales decline in the new millennium. The number of print issues was reduced from 12 to 11 in 2009 (with a double issue printed for July/August); the print run was further decreased to 10 issues starting in 2010 (with a combined January/February release on top of the summer double-issue). The most lucrative part of the business now is not the magazine but licensing of its imagery for merchandising, with the Playboy bunny logo selling on coffee mugs, clothing items, and other personal effects.
Shareholders in Playboy took a hard hit over the past couple of decades, and Hefner owned 70% of the company. Wanting to take it completely private, Hefner worked out an arrangement—basically with himself through his organization, Playboy Enterprises, Inc., though requiring board approval—to buy up all shares at a certain price. This transaction was completed in March 2011, and Hefner became the sole shareholder.
These days octogenarian Hugh Hefner dodders along, occasionally appearing on a television interview, but mostly known for his woman troubles. The women who hopped in and out of Hefner’s bed in recent years were insignificant. Compared to Barbi Benton, they were literally flavors-of-the-month. It is almost certain Hefner was not stupid enough to believe any of these young trollops actually loved him; they did, however, love his money and his influential celebrity standing, and he knew this. So, in a sense, he was engaging in an alternate form of prostitution solicitation.
He cycled through blond bimbets, clearly keen only on getting their mitts on his fortune, and then seemed occasionally surprised when things didn’t work out. [One, Crystal Harris—the “reality” TV show produced by Hugh, dumped him shortly before a planned wedding in 2011. She, of course, had featured in Playboy—a chuffing Hugh Hefner ordered her image removed from that recent issue’s covers. However, they reconciled and married on New Year’s Eve 2012: Hugh was 86, his bride was 26.]
He swears Viagra is a wonder drug. Considering the number of contacts with female flesh he’s had in his career it is surprising that Viagra® is all he needs. One would think he would be so deadened to the sexual experience that not only would he take Viagra, he’d likely need a crane as well.
Hefner’s career, for many men, is enviable. He was the first publisher in history to become a major celebrity. Because of the influence his magazine had on society, he was a trend setter for some things, creating the mold of the devil-may-care womanizing but erudite international playboy. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his TV work and as a movieMonty Python’s movie, And Now for Something Completely Different). And on a truly quirky note, Hugh Hefner has a species of rabbit named in his honor: Sylvilagus palustris hefneri. [This is an endangered subspecies of marsh rabbit, named after him to acknowledge his financial support of preservation efforts.]
His was sometimes also a hollow echoing in the void on other pop culture interests. He had started the annual Playboy Jazz Festival in 1978, featuring some of the world’s best jazz musicians, but jazz music is still not as greatly appreciated or as popular as he would have liked. He also never succeeded in becoming a regular TV host of his own
His achievements—the money, the fame, the thousands of women, the impact on America’s collective psyche—far and away outpace his failures, though.
Success has been the best and sweetest nerdly revenge. In other words, it’s good to be Hef.
Author’s Update: Hugh Hefner turned 89 years old in April 2015. He is a bit frail now, needing some assistance in getting around.
Furthermore, one of his former girlfriends, Kendra Wilkinson, recently reported that during their relationship she had to be either drunk or drugged (of her own doing) in order to have sex with his aging carcass.
More recent women have claimed his interest in sexual matters—Viagra® or no Viagra®—in has waned, preferring to spend time in more innocuous activities with them. He remains married to Crystal Harris; upon his death it is unclear just how much, if any, of the Playboy empire she will inherit. A son (Cooper) from his marriage to Kimberley Conrad is allegedly being groomed to take over Playboy Enterprises, but this young man (in his early 20s) does not seem inclined to want that job.
For now, Hugh Hefner still runs the show.
Amazon Price: $6.99 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 14, 2016)