THE BACK PAGES

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR. PLAYBOY

JAIME J. WEINMAN March 20 2006
THE BACK PAGES

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR. PLAYBOY

JAIME J. WEINMAN March 20 2006

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR. PLAYBOY

At the cusp of 80, Hugh Hefner isn’t a celebrity, he's an icon. Even among women there’s a grudging affection.

THE BACK PAGES

books The office trenches P.48 A

music The classical monoculture

rfiIm~ The terrorist as] romantic hero 4 KP52~4

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(`taste \\ A walk-in closet for wine P~55

(heIp bamn, how~i you gef I `~`s~_~~

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JAIME J. WEINMAN

Hugh Hefner, founder

of Playboy magazine, will celebrate his 8Oth birthday next month. He will celebrate it the way he celebrates all his milestones: hanging out at his famous Playboy Mansion with various famous friends and at least three blond, silicone-enhanced young women. “I will be throwing a major pyjama party,” he says of his birthday plans. And he describes himself to Maclean’s with a phrase that he uses in many of his interviews: “I’m the luckiest cat on the planet.” It was true when the term “cat” was current slang, and it’s true now.

Hefner doesn’t appear in public all that much today, preferring “the parties we throw here at the mansion,” but he doesn’t need to go out to maintain his celebrity status. That’s because “Hef” is more than a celebrity: he’s an icon, someone whose very name is a synonym for a particular way of living. The reality show The Girls Next Door, currently running in the U.S. on the E! channel, focuses on the lives of Hefner’s three blond girlfriends at the Playboy Mansion (sample dialogue: “People assume, because I’m Hef’s girlfriend, that I’m a Bunny and I’m a Playmate and I’m a centrefold, but they’re different things”). The show is built around the idea that it’s a joy to be the girlfriend of an elderly man. Hefner is proud that the show has proven to be surprisingly popular among young women: it shows “my life, and the life at the mansion, through the eyes of the girls, and I think that apparently has a lot of appeal to young women.” Even though Hefner has been married twice and has four children (one of whom now runs his company), he still manages to present himself as the ultimate swinging bachelor, and audiences seem to love it.

Hefner tributes are everywhere these days: at the Grammy Awards this year, rapper T.I. wore a suit in a style he described as “a modernday Hugh Hefner.” A poll taken this January

by the romance-novel publisher Harlequin revealed that Hefner was one of the celebrities their male readers would most like to meet (the others were TV doctor Patrick Dempsey and the Dalai Lama). An eBay search reveals such items as a “vintage Hugh Hefner-style smoking jacket” and even a Playboy Mansion computer game that allows the player to “be Hugh Hefner.”

Being Hugh Hefner is what many men around the world have wanted for a long time now. And the first person who wanted to be Hugh Hefner was Hugh Hefner himself. When Playboy began in 1953, Hefner’s biography wasn’t any different from that of thousands of men of his generation: he was college-educated, served a hitch in the army, and later worked in journalism and copy-editing. There was nothing in his background—which he describes as “a very typical Midwestern Methodist home”—to suggest that he’d be in for a life of glamour and sophistication. In many ways he was what would later be called a nerd.

And that’s what Playboy was: an affirmation that a man could be a nerd and still be cool and desirable. Much of the content of the magazine was the kind of middlebrow, food-for-thought fare found in serious masscirculation magazines of the time. Hefner paid his writers well and ran long, in-depth pieces on politics, sports and culture; regular contributions from authors like Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut led to the famous joke about men who read Playboy only for the articles.

Meanwhile, Hefner himself was building up the profile of the magazine by building up his own public profile, turning himself into the living embodiment of the freedom and fun his magazine celebrated. By the early ’60s, he was world-famous: “I literally came out from behind the desk,” he says, “and started living the life.” It was fun for him, but it was also good for business, because it helped turn the fantasy elements of Playboy—the never-never land of free love and endless partying—into a reality, keeping alive the hope that the world of Playboy might yet become real. Asked why he is so admired among men, Hefner says simply: “Because I’m living out a universal male fantasy.”

For over 40 years, Hefner has carefully preserved that fantasy as part of the Playboy culture. Even his clothes and mannerisms are

taken from fantasy and escapism: he came up with his much-copied, much-parodied way of dressing, with his smoking jacket and oversized pipe, partly based on the movies of his childhood and partly on mystery stories: “I was reading Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and Sherlock Holmes hung out at his apartment all the time in a smoking jacket and smoked a pipe, so there may be a connection there.” But Playboy wasn’t a magazine for monastic intellectual types like Sherlock Holmes. The idea was to create a girlie magazine for the type of man who wouldn’t normally be considered a swinging hipster. A type of man like Hefner himself. As Chris Colin wrote in his Salon magazine profile of Hefner: “The Playboy universe encouraged appreciation of the ‘finer things’—literature, a good pipe,

a cashmere pullover, a beautiful lady. America was seeing the advent of the urban single male who, lest his subversive departure from domestic norms suggest homosexuality, was now enjoying new photos of nude women every month.”

Hefner’s real glory years were the early ’60s. It was the era when an ideal of laid-back masculine coolness was sweeping the world, from the Rat Pack in America to Jean-Paul Belmondo in France, and Hefner and Playboy defined what it meant to be a swinging single man in that golden age of the single gentleman. The early ’60s was when Hefner expanded Playboy from a magazine to a cultural empire. In i960 he opened the first of his famous

Playboy Clubs, which offered a taste of a Hefiner-esque lifestyle to affluent young men. Women dressed in bunny costumes (based on the magazine’s rabbit logo, as iconic as Mad’s Alfred E. Neuman). As comedienne Sarah Silverman explained in 2001 at a roast for Hefner: “Bunnies aren’t whores—they’re paid monthly.” Hefner expanded into television, first with a show called Playboy’s Penthouse, taped in Hefner’s native Chicago, where he hosted a combination of talk show and swinging party, surrounded by sexy women and celebrity guests. Playboy’s Penthouse was nationally syndicated, but banned throughout the American South because it showed its AfricanAmerican guests, like Bill Cosby and Ella Fitzgerald, not only as guests but as frill participants in Hef’s perpetually swinging party; it was, Billy Ingram wrote at Tvparty.com, “the first national program where whites and blacks sat down and partied as equals.”

Hefner invited the controversial young comic Lenny Bruce onto the first episode to do his taboo-breaking routines about racial and religious topics; this will be one of the episodes featured later this year when Playboy brings out a DVD of six Hefner television episodes. Playboy also ran the first major magazine profile of Bruce, helping to turn the comedian into a national cult figure. Other performers who got their first big national profiles in Playboy include Mort Sahl, the prototypical angry political comedian, and Hefner’s fellow Chicagoan Bob Newhart, who made his first television appearance on Playboy’s Penthouse. (“He was not yet working primarily as a humorist—he was an accountant,” Hefner recalls.) Playboy was a leading force in shaping the culture, and Hefner, brandishing his pipe and chatting with the guests at the newly built Playboy Mansion, was part of it.

Some people have argued that Hefner belongs on a list of cultural figures who suddenly lost their relevance when John F. Kennedy was

shot. Early ’60s cool was over; late ’60s unrest and tension was in, and people who had been the kings of popular culture started to be shuffled off to the wax-museum world of Las Vegas. Playboy continued to be as popular as ever, reaching sales of seven million copies a month by 1971, but its cultural impact had been blunted.

One of the biggest changes of the late ’60s, the sexual revolution, hit Hefner especially hard because it challenged the whole basis for the smaller sexual revolution he had created. Hie Playboy approach to sexual freedom depended on the man always being in control of every situation: sexual freedom meant that a man like Hef

was free to get all the girls he wanted, do what he wanted, live the way he wanted. The girls of Playboy were there for the man’s pleasure, not necessarily their own. Suddenly a new definition of sexual freedom came along, and it depended on the idea that men and women should be equally if ee—and no one could argue that a woman in a one-size-fits-all rabbit costume could really be considered liberated.

The biggest push back against Hef came from a defector from his own side: Gloria Steinern, a writer who went undercover as a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club, and hit it big in 1963 with an Esquire exposé called “I Was a Playboy Bunny.” As a leading feminist writer and talk-show guest, Steinern seemed to speak for all the women who wouldn’t be content with a place in a single gentleman’s fantasy life; she even debated Hefner directly in a long interview in 1970. Hefner himself felt that the new women’s movement was against the kind of sexual freedom he had promoted, and sometimes against sex itself. “The women’s movement got caught up in this kind of anti-sexual, anti-Playboy posture,” he says. “That’s very understandable, because that’s what America is. We remain a Puritan people, and I’m sure it’s that way with Canadians.”

Hefner tried to adapt to the new culture—a culture less friendly to his way of thinking—with mixed success. He launched his second syndicated television show, Playboy After Dark, in 1969. This was a revamped version of Playboy’s Penthouse, shot in colour and in Los Angeles (where Hefner would soon relocate full-time). The show retained the swinging cocktail party atmosphere of Playboy’s Penthouse, but with a more garish, less sophisticated look, similar to late ’60s favourites like Laugh-In. It was well received enough to last two seasons in syndication, but Hefner seemed ill at ease, as if he knew he didn’t fully belong in the new, rougher landscape of popular culture.

Over the next two decades, Playboy declined and Hefner’s iconic status declined with it. New competitors like Penthouse offered more explicit pictures and less sophisticated reading material than Playboy. The basically middlebrow culture of Playboy gave way to a more lowbrow culture, and if Hefner tried to provide men with the assurance that sex was all in good taste, the new magazines and movies celebrated the aspects of sex that weren’t in good taste. Hefner began to seem like an establishment figure who wouldn’t act his age; Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, says that he “aged not into elderstatesman status, but into self-parody.”

NOW, WHEN WE’RE MORE NEUROTIC THAN EVER, HEF IS THE ONLY PERSON KEEPING ALIVE THE DREAM OF BEING PERFECTLY FULFILLED

The pendulum started to swing back toward Hefner in the early ’90s. With the backlash against what was seen as overly doctrinaire feminism and sexual etiquette, Hefner began to seem like a symbol of a less uptight era. And TV and movies, written by people who had grown up with Playboy, were anxious to make use of his aura of old-style coolness; he appeared on more television shows and even guest-voiced as himself in a memorable episode of The Simpsons (“Krusty Gets Kancelled”), caricatured lovingly in his full smoking-jacketed glory.

By 2003, with the 50th anniversary of Playboy, Hefner was semi-officially an institution; he was celebrated as a hero for advancing the cause of sexual freedom, and denounced by Christianity Today magazine for the same reason. It could be said that Hefner resembles that other swinging icon of the ’50s and early ’60s, Frank Sinatra. Late in Sinatra’s career, when he had become something of a caricature of himself, audiences would show up at his concerts and imagine

that he was what he once had been. Hefner has a similar role for his fan following: he’s a symbol of a time gone by, and a type of lifestyle that is just as tantalizingly out of reach now as it was in 1953.

Hefner doesn’t necessarily think that the early ’60s, Rat Pack era was more sophisticated than our own, but “it was more glamorous ... the music was better.” Hefner represents the last link to a time when a glamorous lifestyle seemed available in everyday life, when men took pride in the way they dressed and looked, and when sexual relations were simpler. Even Hefner’s analysis of his own motivations for starting Playboy—“l wasn’t getting the hugging at home”—is rooted in the pop-Freudianism of the ’50s and early ’60s, when there was hope that we might be able to cure our own neuroses. Now, when we’re more neurotic than ever, Hefner comes off as the only person who keeps alive the dream of being perfectly fulfilled in every way: if Sinatra exuded confidence in his own talent, Hefner exudes the same confidence in his happiness. His talent is being happy, for remaining the luckiest cat on the planet after all these years.

Today, Hefner sees his image and reputation riding higher than ever, as even women start to come around to a grudging affection for his ways. He points to the success of The Girls Next Door and to the increased popularity of Playboy merchandise with the distaff side: “Women are now wearing the Playboy trademark in jewellery and fashions and T-shirts as kind of a statement of sexual empowerment. That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago ... [women] don’t have the same hang-ups they had during the beginning of the feminist movement.” All this talk of Playboy’s success in terms of merchandising and marketing tie-ins may open Hefner up to charges that he is responsible for, in Thompson’s words, “turning lifestyle and sexuality into something that is consumerized and fetishized.” But Playboy is a consumer product, and there are worse ways to make a living than to market yourself as a tie-in with your main product, the way Hefner did. When asked what it’s like to be him, Hefner has a short answer: “It’s a good gig.” It’s a gig he intends to keep on playing, right up to his 80th birthday and beyond. M