The founder of Playboy is 80 this year. Celebrations have included a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from Paris Hilton and the inevitable girl in a cake. Last week, Hugh Hefner and his entourage hit London – the first stage of a tour around Europe. The diminutive Hef and his three leggy girlfriends – Holly, Bridget and Kendra – make such a spectacle that it’s “hard not to stare open-mouthed”, says Sally Pook in The Daily Telegraph. In fact, he’s toned down his act. “I used to have seven but there was a lot of petty jealousy,” he says.
It would be easy to see Hefner’s birthday celebrations as a grand finale; he views them as a return to form. After two decades in the wilderness, the Playboy brand is back in vogue. Hef is making regular appearances, his girlfriends have a reality TV show and a Playboy-themed casino has just opened in Las Vegas. And the bunny logo has regained an edge. “To have Playboy hot again with a whole new generation is unbelievable,” says Hefner. These are “golden years… I’m finally getting recognition that was withheld from me for such a long time”.
Born in Chicago in 1926, he remembers, as a child of the Depression, watching films about “the Jazz Age, the flappers… And thinking that I’d missed the party”. His school reports described a shy child, but “I was smart”, he told The Chicago Tribune. “I was publishing my own neighbourhood newspaper when I was eight.” Hefner took a degree in psychology at the University of Illinois and in 1949 married Millie Williams. Two years later, he got a job as a copywriter on Esquire magazine, quitting when they refused him a $5 raise. He was 27 when he produced the first issue of Playboy on his kitchen table, having mortgaged the furniture and borrowed $3,000. The first issue, which carried the now iconic nude portrait of Marilyn Monroe, sold out and the magazine quickly reached a circulation of one million, topping out at more than eight million by the early Sixties.
The nudes were a draw – Playmate of the month became a national institution – but so too was the writing, enabling many men to say with some validity that they bought Playboy for the articles. Hefner published Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike and Norman Mailer. Playboy also offered bold coverage of issues such as race and the Vietnam War. Having left his first wife and two children, Hefner embraced his new lifestyle with gusto, buying the first Playboy mansion in 1959 and opening his first club in 1960. His sybaritic tastes soon became legendary: flying on a Bunny-liveried DC 9, holding meetings in satin pajamas and throwing lavish parties.
By 1980, the backbone of the firm had become its gambling operation, centred on a British casino, says former Playmate Marilyn Cole Lownes in The Times. But when the UK authorities clamped down on it in 1982, Hefner’s empire was put in jeopardy. The arrival of his daughter Christie as CEO in 1988 helped stem the losses: she moved Playboy into TV and the internet. Yet while pornography is a multi-billon dollar industry, most of the profits go to middlemen. Hef is enjoying a renaissance, but with revenues of just $330m, Playboy remains a “pipsqueak”. Still, Hef doesn’t let it get him down, insisting, “I’m the luckiest guy on the planet and I know it.” Hef still lives life to the max, but he plans on keeping the best company in the hereafter. Marilyn Monroe is buried in a drawer at the mausoleum in Westwood Memorial Park; Hef has bought the one beside her.
Playboy – not about sex, but an aspirational lifestyle
When one considers “what the Bunny has done for civilisation”, it’s clear that Hefner has every reason to be proud of his legacy, says Stephen Bayley in The Times. When he began publishing Playboy in 1953, he was “at least as bent on escaping from the anti-intellectualism of middle America as he was from what he called its ‘puritanical’ attitude to female flesh”. Playboy’s primary concern wasn’t sex: it was devoted “to something equally seductive and just as remote” to many – a lifestyle. Writing in 1962, Hefner explained that the magazine had been intended to fill a gap with a “select audience of young, literate, urban men, who share with us a particular point of view”. It was aimed at “a man of taste… who – without acquiring the stigma of the voluptuary… can live life to the hilt.” This was the era in which “go-go” stocks, such as Kodak, were storming the markets. Playboy, says Bayley, chimed with the new environment. “It was not an invitation to sex, it was an invitation to consume”.
Hefner himself always considered the magazine “a response to my own upbringing in a repressed Midwestern Methodist home”. His recent decision to put aside his second wife and two children to resume a life of “self-indulgent bachelorhood” has coincided with a “solid move back into the black”, says The Chicago Tribune – but it comes at a price. “The iconic tastemaker” may have “become a leading purveyor of hard-core programming on cable and satellite TV”, but he remains frustrated that, after all these years, with one of the world’s most recognised brands, Playboy is not a billion-dollar business”.