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

In 1962 Hefner sought to enhance his credentials by writing "The Playboy Philosophy," a 250,000-word manifesto serialized in the magazine. Hefner wanted to answer his critics, who included some well-known academics, journalists, and clergymen. Benjamin DeMott, for example, had described the Playboy world as "first and last an achievement in abstraction," since the many things that "presumably complicate both the inward and outward lives of human beings"--including religion, families, vanity, love--have "all been emptied from it." Mike Wallace, interviewing Hefner on his television show Night Beat, observed that Playboy offered little more than a "sniggering" and "lascivious" kind of sex. And Roy Larson, a Methodist minister, argued that Playboy's philosophy was a set of new commandments, which included: "Thou shalt not wear double-breasted suits," "Thou shalt not swing and sway to Sammy Kaye," "Thou shalt not read the Reader's Digest," and "Thou shalt not attend the P.T.A."

"The Playboy Philosophy" recalls the work of a smart undergraduate who has ingested too much caffeine. Hef certainly swotted up for the occasion. One imagines his aides staggering out of the Chicago Public Library and back to the mansion, their arms full of such books as Social Control of Sex Expression, Love and Sex Emotions, and G. Rattray Taylor's Sex in History--all of which are cited in Hefner's discourse.

And what does he actually say, beneath the pretentious blather? Nothing much--just a series of now largely unexamined clichés, for forty years the background noise of popular American culture. Free enterprise, a good thing, is stoked by the sort of conspicuous consumption Playboy promotes. Repression, a bad thing, is rooted in the Puritanism that has marked this country's culture from the start. Playboy, the antidote, refuses to treat sex "with solemnity," nor will it accept "shibboleths, chains, traditions, and taboos." For "what causes all the sickness, the perversion, the rape, is a repressive society--a society that can't be open in a loving and positive way."

Hefner claims he stopped composing his credo because he believed the cultural transformation he was demanding was well on its way. By the mid-1970s, his empire included publishing, movie production, casinos, resorts, and the international chain of private clubs where waitresses carried trays dressed as rabbits, complete with ears and tail. The rabbit-head Playboy logo, indeed, now appeared on clothing, golf equipment, and countless other products; it hung from the rearview mirrors of El Caminos and Cordobas all the way from Worcester to Walla Walla.

Playboy, meanwhile, sold more than seven million copies each month, and no magazine paid its contributors more. Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Norman Mailer were all contributors. The interviews the magazine ran, moreover, were widely admired, offering extensive conversations with Albert Schweitzer, Jean Paul Sartre, Princess Grace, and Jimmy Carter, among others--none of whom would have appeared similarly in the pages of Knave, say, or Jugs.

STILL, the early air of strenuous sophistication--bohemianism in a Brooks Brothers box--was now largely gone. Playboy was no longer criticizing "Mr. Average American" but inviting him to the party, where the music was by Sammy Hagar, not Stan Kenton, and the talk was of the National Football League, not Friedrich Nietzsche. It offered a strange blend of the high and mostly low: Vladimir Nabokov on one page, Linda Lovelace on the next.

Hefner was in his glory and, after the fashion of the day, sported leisure suits and loudly patterned shirts with flapping collars, projecting power now in a manner that was part Rat Pack, part Howard Hughes. He turned his Los Angeles mansion into a Xanadu, complete with a zoo of exotic animals: Peacocks strolled the grounds, and monkeys hung from trees. With his companion, the actress Barbi Benton, Hef toured the world in his DC-9, and as Benton would recall, "in every city we went, thousands of people would turn up at the airport to see Hugh Hefner walk out of this black plane with a bunny on the tail. It was like he was the president."

BUT DURING the 1980s cracks appeared in Playboy's airbrushed façade. Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her demented boyfriend (a story retold in Bob Fosse's 1983 film, Star 80). Penthouse magazine and other competitors challenged Playboy's circulation by offering more graphic pictorial spreads. The publisher of Penthouse, Bob Guccione, is bankrupt now, but still proud of his own contribution to the slow march of Western civilization. "We were the first to show full-frontal nudity," Guccione recently reminisced. "The first to expose the clitoris completely." Penthouse, not Playboy, was now leading the way.

During the 1980s, Playboy followed and responded--never quite matching the explicitness of its rivals, but becoming even more obviously lascivious and sniggering. Hefner's most visible critics included the "anti-sex feminist left," as he called it, and religious conservatives like Jerry Falwell. But other commentators, like the philosopher Roger Scruton, took time to consider the ethical and cultural implications of pornography's acceleration: Scruton's 1985 Sexual Desire is one of the decade's best books on the theme. The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley saw Hefner as the first source of "the pervasive presence of sex, whether overtly or by innuendo, in virtually every corner of our public life from sitcoms to soap operas to advertising."

In the climate of the 1980s, the Meese Commission on Pornography, appointed by President Reagan, found links between organized crime and the growing porn industry, and a connection between certain pornographic genres and violent crime. Almost touchingly, some of the commission's members lamented porn's focus on "uncommitted sexuality" generally. Others pointed to the obvious fact that displaying sex publicly changes and degrades its nature. The commission did not link Playboy to criminality or violence; in fact, one commission member would even praise Playboy for publishing "the healthiest nude sexy pictures in America. It should have a larger share of the sex picture market." Still, some vendors, like 7-Eleven, pulled the publication from its shelves and sales--along with advertising revenue--began to slide. One headline in those days said it all: "Playboy--The Party's Over."

For a time Hefner, who suffered a stroke in 1985, withdrew from the public stage, planning to write an autobiography, still unpublished. Then in 1989, to wide surprise, he married Kimberly Conrad, a former Playmate of the Year. In Once Upon a Time Hefner declares that he has come full circle "to values very similar to my own parents."

The marriage to Kimberly ended after ten years, and perhaps many in his organization were relieved, since the figure of "Hef," like Colonel Sanders, was necessary for sales as the recognizable face of an international brand. Hefner himself has recently--and revealingly--stressed that "I'm really in the advertising and marketing business, not just in terms of the magazine, but everything else I've done."

Clearly, Hefner recognizes the value of keeping his swinging, retro-cool bachelor image alive for a new generation of Playboy readers--even while he and Zehme laugh up their sleeves at the millions who might actually take it seriously. "What kind of man reads Playboy?" asked an old ad campaign. Judging by the way Hefner speaks to him in Hef's Little Black Book, that reader is certainly not very bright, and he's no man of the world, either. Here's Hef on love and marriage: "The best relationships are those where both people are really trying to make it work." And, "some relationships improve with marriage, but a lot of them don't." Remember, too, "Different people have different needs."

ON SEX, Hef's observations are no less acute. "It's not a good idea," he instructs, "to fall asleep while you're actually having intercourse. Not very polite." Beyond that, "cuddling is very important." Hef recommends a "mirror on the ceiling"--still a must for the gentleman of taste. Also, "a large television screen is important for your X-rated videos." But then, "I'm a visual guy."

This allusion is perhaps self-serving, since Playboy is now, ironically, heavily invested in X-rated videos. For years, Hefner not only sought to portray himself as a man more seduced than seducing--an amiable fellow who couldn't resist the temptations that came his way--but also to uphold Playboy's image as a "classy" publication. In the beginning, he promised a publication that would provide "the directness of a good foreign film and the spice of a Broadway show." But the Playboy Corporation now owns "Spice," "Hot," and "Vivid," hard-core cable channels. In fact, when combined with its own Playboy channel, Playboy dominates the growing cable and satellite adult movie market.

In the 1950s Hefner ensured his respectability--and thus his profitability--by taking his magazine upscale and edging it carefully into the cultural mainstream. But pornography has followed the same cultural path as jazz and rock 'n' roll: Subversive once, it's mainstream now, a major American industry worth more than $15 billion annually--more than major league football, baseball, and basketball combined. Americans spend around $500 million each year on X-rated pay-for-view movies alone--a figure that some in the skin trade predict will soon hit $1 billion.

No wonder Hefner considers himself "the happiest guy on the f--ing planet": His magazine might be sinking, but thanks to porn he's still rich. Besides--and here's the seldom mentioned truth about Hefner--hard core was always where his heart was. Zehme shows him as a young husband "living life to the hilt" by urging his wife and neighbors to comeover for a few rounds of "strip charades" as one neighbor recalls, as well as "strip poker, strip spin the bottle," and--who knows?--strip Scrabble as well. At Hef's behest, "stag films became part of their home entertaining." And Hef made a stag film of his own, in which he appeared masked with a "willing young woman" and a sidekick who now recalls "Hef could talk anybody into anything if he tried."

Innumerable hours spent watching Hollywood movies may have given Hefner help in forming his persona (according to Zehme, "urbane swells" like Cary Grant and Fred Astaire somehow "taught Hefner how to be a romantic leading man"). But his life has been little more than one long porn loop: He attended his first orgy in 1957 and never looked back; Zehme cheerfully calls him a "sex-junkie with an insatiable habit." Although Hefner encouraged his readers to "live with zest and adventure," he seems to have spent most of his time indoors in his pajamas: eating fried chicken, watching old movies, and having sex with thousands of his closest friends.

The Master of the Good Life--the man Esquire recently described as a "philosopher king"--has had, in fact, a surprisingly dull life, if Hef's Little Black Book is an accurate guide. But maybe the dullness is not so surprising. In the pages of Playboy, the sweated and furtive pornography of the 1950s dressed itself up in a smoking jacket and pretended for a while to be the high life. But it was always just about the business of pornography and nothing more: the dull repetition of dirty pictures, issue after issue.

Day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, in the case of Hugh Hefner.

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.