The Magazine

Bare Nekkid Ladies

Hugh Hefner and the mainstreaming of pornography.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Hef's Little Black Book

by Hugh Hefner and Bill Zehme

HarperEntertainment, 183 pp., $19.95

IN 1992 HUGH HEFNER authorized the film Once Upon a Time, a documentary about his long career as the founder of Playboy magazine. It's a fascinating movie, not least for its archival footage from the 1950s and early 1960s: Playboy's early years, when Hefner first became famous as an editor with a flair for displaying color photographs of not-quite-nude women in a publication aimed, as one early advertisement put it, at the "man of taste who--without acquiring the stigma of the voluptuary or dilettante--can live life to the hilt."

In one clip from the early 1960s, Playboy model Cynthia Maddox addresses the camera. She wears a black cocktail dress, a bouffant flip, and a look of exasperation. For a year she's been dating "Hef," faithfully, she explains--even though he insists on dating other girls. "I don't mind sitting home and not going out," Cynthia sighs, "but I expect him to do the same."

Poor girl, but what did she expect from a man calling himself "Mr. Playboy"? He'd hung a plaque outside his front door that read, "If you don't swing, don't ring." He registered the names of his lovers in an expanding series of "little black books." Hefner now claims to have slept with "thousands of women"--and "they still like me." But then, according to the legend he has sustained for so long, everybody likes Hugh Hefner--and "Hugh Hefner" is the one subject, next to sex, Hefner seems never to tire of. His new autobiographical volume, Hef's Little Black Book, is described by its publisher as a "treasure trove of urbane lore, wry advice, and time-honored wisdom spanning the realms of romance, hedonism, ambition, business, dreams, and, of course, sex." Hefner's coauthor, Bill Zehme, provides the lore, calling Hefner "The Master" and tracing, in awestruck prose, his long career "from the inspiration of a single idea to the emergence of a sprawling international corporation built on self-belief."

The book has lots of pictures, too. Here's Hef's "Mansion West"--"a sprawling baronial Tudor" placed atop "the greenest of slopes" set on "five green acres" near Hollywood. Here's his "glorious jet-black DC-9" and his legendary round, rotating bed, which "launched a thousand hips," as Zehme quips. Here's Hef hosting a party, passing the deviled eggs; here he is poolside, brows knit, intently basting a naked beauty with baby oil. Here's Hef's state-of-the-art movie theater and his fridge filled with Pepsi Cola, the Master's favorite soda. And here's something you won't find on the menu at Denny's: "Hef's Requisite Postcoital Meal," an inviting mix of buttered toast, hash brown potatoes, and "eggs sunny side up, with bacon, crisp."

The man who began Playboy is "a descendant of Pilgrim life at Plymouth Rock," as James Coburn solemnly narrates in Once Upon a Time. But he wasn't to the Mansion West born. Hefner's parents were poor, teetotalling Methodists who worked their way up to a modest brick home on Chicago's west side. At school, Hefner was considered dreamy and withdrawn but precocious; over the years he has often pointed out that his I.Q., measured in boyhood, hit the mark at a whopping 152.

IN 1944 Hefner joined the army, serving as an infantry clerk; after the war he enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he majored in psychology, ran a humor magazine, and sang with a dance band. After graduating in 1949, Hefner married his first wife, Mildred Williams, a schoolteacher--the prototypical girl next door. The couple had two children, a son and a daughter, Christie, who now heads the Playboy Corporation and with her father owns around 70 percent of the company's stock.

Soon after leaving college, Hefner worked variously as a cartoonist and a copywriter, but he dreamed big. He started Playboy with a small investment and some loans, pasting up the first issue himself on a card table in his Chicago flat. Its centerfold featured Marilyn Monroe reclining nude on a carpet of red satin. Hefner didn't know the actress; he'd bought the picture cheap from a local printer.

Hefner's autobiographical narratives invariably revolve around a trio of themes: repression, escape, and self-invention. He had a happy, secure childhood, he admits, but he feared ending up like his parents, who were too "repressed" for his tastes, "with no comprehension of the possibilities of turning life into a real celebration." So, he says, he retreated into the fantasies of love and adventure provided by comic books, popular songs, and movies (he's been a chronic movie-watcher all his life). "He was just eight when he saw Tarzan and His Mate," Zehme records, "and his life would change forever."