NO MATTER WHAT KIND of life you lead, there is inevitably a guidebook to help you lead it. Right now, as we speak, on Amazon.com, one can find a Guide to Living and Working in a Multicultural World, or a Guide to Living in Sin Without Getting Burned, or a Fat Girl's Guide to Life. There are numerous guides to "simple living" and "better living" and even a Canine Guide to Living With Humans Without Going Mad, if your dog, unlike mine, happens to be a big reader.
Most of these, of course, are applesauce. Who needs some jackleg generalist fuzzing over the idiosyncrasies of each of our lives, telling us Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, and It's All Small Stuff, until they come out with their tie-in follow-up, What About the Big Stuff? which, as luck would have it, we're not supposed to sweat either. As an American and an individualist, I'll sweat where I please.
THE ONLY ONE OF THESE BOOKS I've ever found remotely appealing is the 1974 Rockin' Steady: A Guide To Basketball and Cool, by former Knicks superstar Walt "Clyde" Frazier. If you love to be cool, particularly while playing basketball, there is all manner of indispensable tips and nifty party tricks. Not only does Clyde literally throw open his closet, revealing what every gentleman should wear. Pants: maroon cords with UFO patch on backside; and suits: black cow skin with poncho and silver studs. But renowned for his hand-speed, he also teaches us how to catch a fly in mid-air (relax your hand, bring flexor and extensor muscles to a spring-like tension, then flex hard enough that your muscles will pop like a trap just before the tendon separates from the bone). News you can use, if ever there was some.
I thought I might be in for a similar treat when cracking Hugh Hefner's new offering, Hef's Little Black Book. But the name itself is something of a misnomer. Yes, the book is both black and little (5 inches x 7 inches). But if you think you're in for the unlisted phone numbers of Shannon Tweed or Barbi Benton, you're clean out of luck. It is a thin hybrid of biography and guidebook. To dumb down its premise, if that's even possible, it purports to tell us how to live like Hef, i.e., how to be a hedonist, to get laid at will, and to spend your entire working life in satin pajamas.
Hefner has been promising/threatening to write a full-blown memoir for years, though this book serves as an anemic placeholder. Keenly convinced of his own historical magnitude, he has long documented every facet of his life, right down to filming his extramarital affairs. His co-writer is Bill Zehme who has, in the past, proven himself a formidable talent, this year picking up a National Magazine Award for an impressive Esquire story he wrote on disgraced columnist Bob Greene. But as a longtime celebrity chronicler, Zehme has fellated more stars than most of the denizens of Hef's bunny hutch. Thus the Hefner/Zehme collaboration is a love story of sorts: Zehme's love for Hef, Hef's love for himself.
Anyone who glances at tabloid headlines can be forgiven for harboring a natural set of assumptions about Hefner. While he is an indisputable deity to one-handed magazine aficionados, Hefner has, in his senectitude, become a figure worthy of pity, as much as scorn. After his second, decade-long marriage collapsed in 1998, the temporarily monogamous Hefner re-launched himself as a party animal. His Holmby Hills lair, which reportedly represented a monastery during his years of matrimonial bliss, again was deemed the vortex of cool, as the Jimmy Caans of yesterday gave way to today's Ashton Kutchers. The whole second coming smacked of a smirky nostalgia trip by the New Hollywood set, who habitually cannibalize bygone pop culture either because they're too lazy to forge new ground, or because all the possibilities have been exhausted. But Hef's status as a Children's Museum exhibit hasn't seemed to bother him. In the last several years, the septuagenarian began showing up in public with arms full of women one-third his age. Largely bottled-blondes with rhyming 'andy-suffixed names (Mandy, Candy, et al), the fame-hungry minxes dutifully posted up beside him, their plunging necklines barely immuring their silicone sisters, standing at attention like soldiers guarding the queen.
Hef would be photographed by his own ever-present camera crew (he has asked how you know something ever happened if you don't have a picture of it), taking to the dance floor with little regard for rhythm or his creaky hips. There, he gyrated, chugging along like a sputtering Studebaker, while the girls giggled at a joke he wasn't in on. Though he boasted of bedding them all with the help of his new best friend, the little blue pill, they had the look of the sexy cousins at a family wedding who coax Uncle Morrie out to the dance floor to strut his stuff during "Play That Funky Music White Boy." They think it's touchingly cute. He thinks he's really swingin'. (One of Hef's exes went so far as to suggest to Philadelphia magazine that Hef much preferred watching to participating in their group-sex shenanigans, and that the only thing that really put lead in his pencil was watching gay porn. Hef denied all of the above).
As both Internet and hard-copy porn have come to resemble cervical x-rays that make the soft-focused air-brushings of Playboy magazine (as opposed to Playboy's more hardcore spin-off ventures) look nearly PG-13, Hefner became less of a lightning rod for controversy and more of a clown. Historically, he was hounded by everyone from vice cops to the postmaster, and reaped the subsequent publicity bonanzas. But as the public became more un-shockable, his magazine, struggling to ward off competitors, began smelling increasingly desperate, even resorting to stunt-casting as when Wilson Phillips tubby, Carnie Wilson, the beneficiary of a recent stomach-stapling, was asked to bare all for his cameras.
Meanwhile, in his new-and-improved randy phase, Hefner suffered all manner of indignities. One of his harem, maybe it was Mandy, left him to star in Baywatch: Hawaii. Back in the old days, when Hef lost a mare from his stable, she tended to gallop off with the likes of Frank Sinatra. But now, he was losing women to the likes of doofus comedian Rob Schneider, who gave one of Hef's women copulatory asylum on the very night that Schneider performed at a Friar's Roast in Hefner's honor.
IT'S NATURAL to assume that any honest bio of Hefner would therefore take a somewhat jaundiced look at his late-era projections of himself as the most insouciant, fun guy on Planet Earth. But of course, healthy skepticism is not the intended function of Hef's Little Black Book. This brings us back to his co-conspirator Bill Zehme, who possesses the trait any celebrity hagiographer needs in abundance--credulity. With pen, purple, and panties, damp, Zehme depicts Hefner in an annoying argot that is half fanzine, half overripe liner-notes from some moldy bebop album. At every turn, he polishes the legacy. Hefner, we learn on the first page, is less pervy old lecher, more silly girl. Like some dreamy, unicorn-drawing teenybopper, Hefner--indiscriminate mounter of thousands of women--it turns out, is in love with being in love. It says so right on the opening page: "The one he loved first did not love him back." While writing for the school paper, "Hep Hef" as he then bylined, "learned then that he lived largely to be in love, to pine, or to yearn. He learned that his heart felt best when aflutter. . . . This would never change. The boy was father to the man he would become."
Zehme insists on referring to all Hefner's loves as "Special Ladies," with a special designation of "Very Special Lady, literally the girl next door," for his last wife, Kimberley, who Hef set up on an adjoining estate, so his sons could be near while he returned to his higher calling: laying pipe with 22-year-olds. Zehme pants over every architectural detail, reprinting a mansion bedroom floor plan while reporting of Hef's trademark bed, "Perfectly round, eight and a half feet in diameter, its rotations made it, well, revolutionary . . ." He dutifully recounts every Hefnerian bon mot, such as they are. When Hefner was trying to woo his second wife, who'd rebuffed his advances, she said, "I don't really know you." Hefner responded, "How are you going to get to know me if we don't spend some time together?' (Hef's line!)" (Zehme's exclamation point!)
But if the prose is icky, it pales next to the man it intends to service. Despite Zehme's strenuous efforts to turn Hefner into something admirable, something approximating flesh-and-blood, the latter comes off as a 24-carat eccentric, completely unable to harness his own appetites. There is his drawn-draped, hermetically sealed universe--Hef at one point, was rumored to only go out eight or nine times a year. And there is his three-dozen-bottles-a-day Pepsi habit.
There is his general creepiness which we're expected to take for charm. In the 1960s, he leaned over one female employee's desk and said, "Don't think of me as your boss or the publisher of this magazine. Think of me as a guy looking for a date" He also was known to excuse himself from editorial meetings, making co-workers wait while he went into his office for a Special Lady-nooner. And there is his rigid dress code: "One of the key moments of my life was the discovery that I could get away with wearing pajamas most of the time. It simplified that first decision of the day: What am I going to wear?"
Weirdest of all are his nutritive requirements. Blessed with a white-trash palate (he loves Wonder Bread, but only fresh from an unopened pack), Hefner still manages to be so fussy that his round-the-clock kitchen staff keeps a meticulous log in the butler's pantry, along with photographs, detailing his meal preparations right down to the vegetable arrangements and placement of the salt and pepper shaker on his bed tray.
He's been known to write memos to them on the preferred color and consistency of his fried-chicken and pork chop gravy. A fried chicken fiend (he's declared himself "pretty horny for some fried chicken"), Hef is positively Howard Hughesian about its preparation. He requires three drumsticks per meal, and the drumsticks, when ordered from the butcher, must weigh 2.8 to 3 ounces, while thighs should weigh 3.5 to 4 ounces and breasts should be 22 to 25 ounces.
After a good, clean mansion orgy, which Zehme somehow knows is "always happily consensual, full of good cheer and humor, lacking inhibition and later regret," Hefner also likes to chow. Even in the middle of the night, his requisite post-coital meal (the book actually contains a photo of it) is "eggs, sunny side up, with bacon, crisp. Hash brown potatoes. Buttered toast, grape jelly, a cold glass of milk, and applesauce. Followed by French toast. All served on a bed tray." Admonishing Hefner to "get a room" would never be appropriate, since he logs more rack-time than '70s-era Brian Wilson. "Get a table at Denny's," would be more like it.
But what of this mythical bedroom artistry? It would seem that even us square, suburban work-a-daddies might benefit from a few practical tips. Here too, however, Hefner is completely disappointing. Almost immediately, there is a credibility deficit, when he tells us what kind of woman he likes. No, not one with trampoline tits and a room-temperature IQ, as 50 years of evidence suggests. But rather, he insists, "a woman who thinks sexy is likely to appear sexy. That, combined with vulnerability, can be tremendously appealing." It's like he's describing former Playmate Carmen Electra to a tee.
Hefner is a gentle lover, Zehme tells us, presumably not from personal experience, though one can't be sure with sentences like: "Feelings intensified, as they are wont to, and walls changed to portals, as his gentleness would impress each woman he ever knew." How Hefner had a chance to survey each woman, when he was pinned at the bottom of a Sealy Posturepedic dogpile, Zehme doesn't specify.
However, it is not so much the softer side of Hef we are struck by. It is the utter banality of his observations. Though the man has spent most of his existence getting an up-close look at gender relations, he offers nothing but a series of no-duh epiphanies. With his wealth of experience, one might think he'd say something insightful, even if by accident. But he doesn't, unless you weren't clued in to the following: "The female body is aroused in more than one place." Or how about, "Some relationships improve with marriage, but a lot of them don't." Or maybe, "The best relationships are those where both people are really trying to make it work." But wait, there's more: "That should be a given in your marriage, but isn't always true."
Occasionally, he'll jar a reader from slumber with an oddball testimonial: "One could argue that there is no such thing as premature ejaculation. When you want to ejaculate, you ejaculate. It may be premature for her, but not for you." But then, he proves once more that the only thing he is master of is the obvious: "It's a good idea not to fall asleep while you're actually having intercourse. Not very polite."
Such vacuity would all be well and good if Hugh Hefner was content to be seated at the dirty uncles' table with Larry Flynt, Al Goldstein, and the rest of his ilk. But that has never been his intent. From the beginning, Hefner aspired to respectability with a fervor that the rest evidenced only when they dully prattled on about first amendment rights at ACLU dinners. Not only did Hefner garnish his stroke book with top-shelf copy from the likes of Irwin Shaw, PG Wodehouse, and Saul Bellow, but he even, in the early '60s, fashioned his own 250,000 word "Playboy Philosophy." On the Playboy.com website, it runs to 345 pages. It's a manifesto that's as pretentious as it is unreadable, in which a furrow-browed Hef vacates the contents of his mind on subject headings ranging from "Sex in the Counter Reformation" to "Animal Contacts" to the unrelated but nicely juxtaposed, "Illegal Petting."
SUCH PRETENSES have caused a surprising number of people to take him seriously. After one initially achieves fame, nine-tenths of becoming a legend (if one opts not to die tragically young) is to stick around long enough to receive your lifetime achievement laurels no matter how imperceptible that achievement might be. And with Hef still kicking, among other things, that's precisely what's happened. Over the last several years, he's received honors not typically afforded pornographers, such as having a Chicago street named after him, as well as a newly discovered species of rabbit.
Often, the ironies are so rich, they almost seem scripted. The "TV CARES" committee of the Academy of Arts & Sciences went so far as to give Hefner, the man who brags in his book that "I've never been a big prophylactic man," an award for promoting safe sex. When the American Society of Magazine Editors welcomed Hefner into their hall of fame, he was inducted alongside Gloria Steinem, the feminist co-founder of Ms magazine, who compared the proceedings to "a conservationist being given an award with the head of a timber company."
But however seriously people take Hefner, they can never take him as seriously as he takes himself. For a half century, he has cast himself as, well, let him tell it, as he did the Fresno Bee during Playboy's 50th anniversary observances last fall: "I don't think any other magazine has left a stronger mark on pop culture than Playboy. Because we were dealing with things forbidden to some extent and pushing boundaries, we redefined the social fabric. I think one can say it is the magazine that changed America."
JUST HOW MUCH Hefner changed America by unbuckling our chastity belt, versus how much libidinous America changed herself, is open to dispute. But if he's willing to take credit for it, I'm willing to give it to him. As an experiment to see how much America-changing has been done since the dark ages of Eisenhower-era repression, I performed a simple test. Calling up an Internet image search, I typed in the innocuous term "pretty girls," thinking I might find some cheesecake cheerleader photos, or an old Varga girl print, or maybe an Angie Harmon fan page.
Instead, I saw a pretty girl, sure enough: a buck-naked Asian lass squatting on a counter making a homemade, soft-serve confection. The name of the website from which her image materialized, available to any man, woman or child, was shitforyou.com. And indeed she was. Perhaps Hefner really has changed America. If so, someone should hold his nose in it.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.