He successfully tapped into a new generation of Americans who were enjoying rising standards of living in the boom years of the 1950s and 60s. A political activist and philanthropist, he produced not just a magazine, but a whole lifestyle. And in Playboy's famous bow-tie-wearing rabbit he launched one of the most recognised brands of the 20th Century.
Hugh Marston Hefner was born in Chicago on 9 April 1926, the son of two teachers with strong religious views. After serving in the US Army as a writer, he graduated with a degree in psychology before going to work as a copywriter for the men's magazine, Esquire. In 1953 he borrowed $8,000 to produce the first issue of Playboy. Hefner was so worried that the magazine would not sell that he left the date off the cover. His mother contributed $1,000. "Not because she believed in the venture,"
Hefner later said, "but because she believed in her son." He'd originally planned to name the new publication Stag Party, but changed his mind at the last minute. "Can you imagine a chain of clubs staffed by girls wearing antlers."
PLayboy Magazine Became the Bible of Middle-Class Post-War American Males
The first edition featured a set of nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe that Hefner had bought for $200. They had originally been shot for a 1949 calendar. Whether by luck or judgement, Hefner's timing was just right. The launch of Alfred Kinsey's reports on human sexual behaviour challenged conventional beliefs about sexuality and raised subjects that, until then, had been taboo. Kinsey was the researcher," Hefner later remarked, "I was the pamphleteer."
Middle-class American society in the 1950s was notoriously strait-laced and the combination of tastefully photographed women and intellectually stimulating articles appealed to the post-war urban male. "I never thought of it as a sex magazine," Hefner later recalled. "I always thought of it as a lifestyle magazine in which sex was one important ingredient." It was an unqualified success, selling more than 50,000 copies within weeks. Hefner had found a niche in the market for men's publications, which was then dominated by hunting, shooting and fishing periodicals.
Front Cover of the First Edition of Playboy
The second issue saw the appearance of the bow-tie-wearing rabbit, which was designed by the magazine's art director Art Paul. It would appear on a host of products over the following decades. In 1955 Hefner published a short story by the writer Charles Beaumont, about straight men facing persecution in a world where homosexuals were the majority. In response to a flood of angry letters, Hefner replied: "If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society then the reverse is wrong too." In later years he would become an advocate for same-sex marriage describing it as "a fight for all our rights". Hefner's editorial stance was in tune with the changes in society as the magazine campaigned for liberal drugs laws and the right to abortion.
Hugh Hefner with his Girl Friend Barbi Benton and London Playboy Club Bunnies
The Playboy Clubs Complete with Bunnies Built on the Success of the Magazine
For the next 20 years, Playboy dominated its market, with circulation peaking at over seven million in the early 1970s, when a survey suggested that a quarter of all male college students in America were buying the magazine. At the time it contained some of the finest contemporary writing in the magazine market, with Saul Bellow, Arthur C Clarke, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal among the regular contributors.
The articles appeared sandwiched between the obligatory photographs of beautiful women, although far more tastefully shot than many of Playboy's more downmarket competitors. The centre spread entitled Playmate of the Month featured some famous names including Jayne Mansfield and Pamela Anderson, while other celebrities, including Bo Derek, Kim Basinger, Farrah Fawcett and Madonna, have been happy to pose for the magazine.
The photographs of Jayne Mansfield provoked Hefner's arrest and a prosecution for obscenity in 1963 but the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
Hugh Hefner and Bunnies with the Big Bunny DC9
The Big Bunny epitomised Hefner's high rolling style. Hefner set out to exploit the success of his magazine with the opening of the first Playboy club in Chicago in 1960, which introduced the Playboy bunny waitresses. The relaxation of gaming laws in the UK opened up another opportunity and Hefner opened three casinos in the UK. By 1981 they were contributing all of Playboy's worldwide profits. At this time Hefner was living a life of luxury and indulgence in his two Playboy mansions, accompanied by an ever-changing cast of celebrities and pneumatic girlfriends, and shuttling between them in his personalised DC9, the Big Bunny.
Sexually explicit: Hefner's fortunes went into a major decline during the 1980s. The British authorities shut down the UK casinos following a series of irregularities, effectively cutting Playboy's income. A year later a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was closed after Hefner was judged by the state gaming board to be an unsuitable person to hold a licence.
Demonstration against Playboy in Indonesia
Playboy had many critics including those whose religious beliefs were offended by its content. Playboy magazine too was failing as more sexually explicit competitors competed for space on the newsstands and traditional Playboy readers got older and moved on. In a further personal blow Hefner suffered a stroke in 1985 and four years later passed the daily control of Playboy Enterprises to his daughter Christie. In 1989, at the age of 63, Hefner married one of his playmates, 27-year-old Kimberley Conrad. The marriage lasted for 10 years and produced two children.
The 90s saw a revival in Playboy's fortunes as Christie Hefner took the company into new and more profitable areas including cable TV.
Hefner, meanwhile, had - in his own words - discovered Viagra, and spent his days in his mansion, dressed in silk pyjamas and surrounded by a half-dozen or so live-in female companions.
Hugh Hefner at his 75th Birthday Party. He was Rarely Seen in Public Without a Group of Companions
In 2012 he Married his Third Wife, Crystal Harris, when he was 86 - 60 Years Older than his Bride
A libertarian by nature, Hefner's Playboy Foundation continued to support freedom of expression and First Amendment rights. He also donated large sums of money to the Democratic Party, including Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. He was a keen supporter of conservation organisations and, perhaps appropriately, had a species of rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, named in his honour.
In his later years Hugh Hefner was much ridiculed as the elderly man who still surrounded himself with beautiful young women. But in Playboy he created a lifestyle which was in tune with the aspirations of a large section of post-war American society. The feminist Camille Paglia called him "one of the principal architects of the social revolution". "I am a kid in a candy store," Hefner famously said. "I dreamed impossible dreams, and the dreams turned out beyond anything I could possibly imagine. I'm the luckiest cat on the planet."
For Hugh Hefner, Gay Rights Were Part of the Sexual Revolution
Playboy Magazine - August, 1955 Included Short Story "The Crooked Man"
The year was 1955, and science fiction author Charles Beaumont had, by most accounts, crossed the line with his latest short story. “The Crooked Man” depicted a dystopian future where homosexuality was the norm, heterosexuality was outlawed and angry anti-straight mobs marched through the street chanting “make our city clean again!” Even the relatively progressive Esquire magazine had rejected the piece because it was too controversial. But Beaumont found a fan in a young Hugh Hefner, who agreed to run it in his Playboy magazine, then less than two years old.
Outraged letters poured in to Playboy. Even readers of the pioneering nude publication found Beaumont’s tale of straight people dressing in drag and sneaking into dark barrooms to find partners too offensive for their tastes. Hefner responded to the backlash in a defiant note. “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society,” he wrote, “then the reverse was wrong, too.” The move would serve to represent an early example of Hefner’s lifelong commitment to gay rights, and civil rights in general.
Caroline Cossey - 1st Transgenderto Appear Nude in Playboy in 1981
Hefner, who died Wednesday at 91, prided himself as an advocate for the LGBT community, taking public stands on high-profile issues such as sodomy laws, same-sex marriage and transgender rights well into his later years.
The Late Founder of Playboy was Considered a Retrograde Chauvinist by Many, but his Politics
and his Support for Women’s Rights were Once as Radical as his Sexual Mores
Hefner was motivated by his unwavering support for personal freedom, sexual or otherwise. He believed that American culture was poisoned by religious puritanism, and he railed against sexual repression as damaging and unhealthy. This was a reaction to his conservative upbringing in a devout Methodist family, which he contexualized within a broader cultural critique. Hefner’s politics were progressive, and he supported much of the liberal agenda in the second half of the twentieth century. And nothing appeared in Playboy without Hefner’s approval, so his politics were the politics of the magazine (although most of his editors were also progressive, if not radical). Support for the civil rights, gay rights and antiwar movements, the liberalization of drug laws, and liberal feminism all found their way into the Playboy worldview. Much of this was expressed through The Playboy Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the magazine. But even more significantly, these political views were championed in several letters-to-the-editor columns, particularly one called the “Forum.” Here Hefner and his editors engaged in a constant conversation with their readers, who offered their views of current social and political issues, and Playboy responded with its collective opinion.
Liberal feminism—as opposed to a more radical stance, which made Hefner hysterically defensive because of its critique of traditional heterosexuality and feminine beauty, the world that Playboy was built on—was a central concern for Playboy in the late 1960s and early '70s. Hefner supported women’s reproductive rights—including access to birth control and legal abortion—as a matter of overall sexual freedom. Of course, liberated women meant straight men could have more consequence-free sex, but reproductive rights were an important issue for feminists. Playboy published information on the struggle for legal abortion with monthly updates on changing state laws. They promoted the work of the Clergy Consultation Service, which was a hotline that women could call to track down safe abortion before Roe v. Wade.
The Foundation provided funds to rape crisis centers and day-care centers for working mothers, and supported the Equal Rights Amendment. As some women were protesting outside of the Playboy offices, other activists, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then attorney for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, wrote to the Forum to thank Playboy for its support, which eventually totaled $100,000. As much as male privilege, this is an important part of Hefner’s legacy and one that typically goes unacknowledged.
Hefner will always be a contested figure. In the hours after his death, progressives continue to claim him for both sides of the feminist debate, just as many did 50 years ago. But wherever we place him on the political spectrum—champion of liberty or unrepentant chauvinist—there can be no doubt that Hefner was one of the most significant cultural figures of the past 70 years.