The Magazine

Bare Nekkid Ladies

Hugh Hefner and the mainstreaming of pornography.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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That first, and soon lost, wife Millie also gets a large part in Hefner's narrative of transformation and ascent. She shocked Hefner by admitting that she'd had an affair during their engagement. While Hefner was stuck on some army base, manning a typewriter, Millie was back home dallying with another man. "This was the single most devastating experience of my life," he remembers, "and in a certain sense, I don't think I ever got over it."

This event perhaps throws light on Hefner's obsession with proclaiming that "nice girls like sex, too," which he seems to equate with Newton's discovery of gravity. It also makes his transformation from shy cartoonist into the Casanova of Chicago look more clearly like an act of revenge. Millie strayed, so Hefner strayed, too--two thousand times, or so.

By 1959 Hefner's marriage was over, and he set about reinventing himself, cultivating the image of urbane fashionability his magazine extolled. He looked for props. A pipe, he figured, would be a good place to start--a fine briar to suggest intelligence and class, not some cheap corncob Popeye would puff on. He stopped wearing white socks with his sweaters. He swapped his Studebaker for a Cadillac and, most notably, bought a seventy-room mansion in Chicago's loop, three blocks from Lake Michigan. Alex Haley, a Playboy regular, recalls that, from the start, Hefner's mansion, its blinds always drawn, took on the aura of a shrine. Outside, gaping tourists would gather, "as if they expected an orgy to spill out."

SELLING SEX was starting to become a boom industry during the 1950s, as publishers and moviemakers sought to test the limits of legality in the increasingly permissive postwar era. Skin mags like Carnival, Escapade, and Wink were available to those who knew where to find them, and a steady stream of "hygiene" films played in shady theaters across the land, combining glimpses of nudity with dark warnings of the dangers of prostitution and venereal disease, to appease local censorship boards. On the same bill viewers might catch a more cheerful vehicle promoting the merits of sunbathing by offering fleeting shots of happy nudists square dancing or pitching horseshoes.

The key for Hefner, however, was to craft a more upscale image for Playboy. So he combined Esquire's literary sophistication with the sort of artful nudes one could find in camera magazines like Popular Photography and the Figure Photography Annual. And he constructed an editorial voice that was light, clubby, and oddly earnest, as if this middle class Midwesterner--who seems to have subsisted largely on fried chicken and Wonder Bread--were very determined to come across as a man of the world. "We enjoy mixing up cocktails," he wrote in the first issue, "putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex."

Nietzsche's work doesn't actually appear in the first year's issues of Playboy, but Giovanni Boccaccio's does: Hefner didn't have to pay royalties to writers who died in the fourteenth century. But as sales grew, so did the list of contributors: John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Erskine Caldwell--even Bob Hope, writing about golf. Unlike other men's magazines of the day, Playboy didn't run crime stories or articles about fishing for trout or tracking moose. From the start, it emphasized the stylish and the cool: jazz, sports cars, Parisian nightlife, ice buckets covered in calf skin. It paid tribute to the iconoclastic and hip: Steve Allen, Orson Welles, Frank Lloyd Wright.

IN 1959 Hefner began a syndicated television show, Playboy's Penthouse, which was set in what was meant to look like a high-rent bachelor pad, high above the city. Every week a party was in progress, and Hefner, wearing a tux, invited viewers inside to meet his pals and mingle with the girls. Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sammy Davis Jr. provided the music; Lenny Bruce poured the champagne. Once a name on the masthead, Hefner was now large in the public eye: the bantering icon of one of the fastest-selling magazines in publishing history.