Hugh Hefner died Wednesday September 27th, 2017, at the age of 91. The founder of Playboy magazine turned the brand into a media, lifestyle, and entertainment giant—and turned himself into an international icon along the way.
Yes, he was controversial— many have viewed him and his enterprise as vulgar and exploitative—but it’s undeniable that he basically lit the fuse to the American sexual revolution.
December, 1953 marked the first issue of Playboy, famously featuring Marilyn Monroe on the cover and as the very first “centerfold.” The issue sold out of 50,000 copies nearly “instantly,” according to Business Insider.
What many don’t know even to this day, however, is that this was done without Marilyn Monroe agreeing to it: Hefner legally acquired the rights to photos (for $500.00) Monroe had modeled for early in her career, but Monroe never gave the green light to publish them.
Controversial? Absolutely, and from the get-go.
The good news for Monroe is that the published photos, besides helping launch the Playboy empire, actually helped her career. Later on, Playboy became the starting point of several celebrity careers, including Jenny McCarthy, Anna Nicole Smith , Carmen Electra, and Pamela Anderson (who appeared in 13 different issues) as well as a venue for already well-known actresses and entertainers to promote their careers.
In the early days of the magazine, the conservative guardians of 1950’s morality naturally hated Hefner and everything he stood for. J. Edgar Hoover was not a fan—his agents compiled a 213 page dossier on Playboy as they searched each monthly issue’s articles for jabs at Hoover and the bureau. This goes to prove that there were indeed some men who actually did get the magazine to read the articles.
As the ‘50’s morphed into the ‘60’s, with James Bond and those ‘swingin’ cats from Ocean’s 11 on the scene, the magazine began to be integrated more fully into mainstream American culture, appealing to “… the guy who is young, vigorous, indifferent to the bonds of social responsibility,” said Todd Gitlin, sociologist at Columbia University and the author of “The Sixties.
There was always of course more to Playboy than simply nude women. The Playboy Interview became a cornerstone of the publication, with interviews of persons like Miles Davis (interviewed by Alex Haley); Vladimir Nabokov; Malcolm X; John Lennon and Yoko Ono (shortly before Lennon’s death in 1980) and the infamous Jimmy Carter interview in which the presidential candidate admitted to having “looked on a lot of women with lust.”
Playboy published fiction, too: what is perhaps Ray Bradbury’s most famous work, “Fahrenheit 451,” was purchased and published by Playboy. Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates—all were published in the magazine.
Artist LeRoy Neiman was one of Playboy’s top illustrators for decades, and said of staying at the Playboy Mansion, “It was nothing to breakfast there with comedians like Mort Sahl, professors, any kind of person who had something on his mind that was controversial or new. At the parties in the early days, Alex Haley used to hang around. Tony Curtis and Hugh O’Brian were always there. Mick Jagger stayed there.”
If the walls could talk…
Playboy’s circulation reached one million issues by 1960 and, feminist opposition notwithstanding, grew to peak at about seven million in the 1970s—the most successful men’s magazine in the world. Playboy branched into ancillary businesses like film, a cable channel, clubs, resorts, and casinos. Circulation began to decline in the later ‘70’s and 80’s as competitors like Penthouse and the VHS porn industry began selling a more lascivious versions of sex appeal Yet, the Playboy rabbit head logo with bow tie remained then, and remains today, one of the most recognized brands in the world. Even Carrie Bradshaw paid homage with a Playboy necklace on “Sex and the City,”
Hugh Hefner was associated with the brand he created his entire life, and came to embody the luxuriously promiscuous lifestyle associated with Playboy. And, uniquely enough, the end of his life is a tribute to the icon who helped kick off the building of his empire: Hefner will be buried in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, CA, in a mausoleum drawer right next to Marilyn Monroe’s.+
Like him, love him, or can’t stand him, one thing is for certain: Hugh Hefner lived life on his own terms.
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