WHENEVER Hugh Hefner mentioned that his strict Methodist mother had wanted him to be a missionary, he got a big laugh. He got a bigger one when he said he answered: “Mom, I was.” His listeners were thinking of the missionary position, no doubt, and the hundreds of women he had conquered with that irresistible saturnine charm. But he was absolutely serious. As the man who brought sexual liberation to America in the form of clubs, casinos, Bunny Girls and naked centrefolds, he too was a preacher and a prophet. But instead of “Thou shalt not”, the creed of Puritan killjoys down the centuries, his was “Freedom!”—and the loud tooting of a sports car, accessorised with beauties, driving at speed through America’s drearily conformist suburbs and its herds of sacred cows. Blessed is the rebel, he cried; no progress without him.
(At this point Hef in his wolfish prime would pop another Dexedrine, take a couple of puffs on his ever-present pipe, spin round on his giant revolving bed and dictate the next para to his eager secretary. Hef in his dotage would retie his silk dressing gown, shuffle into his velvet slippers and get one of his nubile assistants to adjust his hearing aid, since too much Viagra—“the fountain of youth!”—had made him deaf.)
Playboy magazine was the voice of his rebellion. He started it in 1953, with borrowed money, as a pleasure primer for young urban males just like him. It was dedicated to the pursuit of happiness and the American dream: if you worked hard, you too could claim your prize of big hi-fi rigs, fine wines and bed-ready girls. He picked those himself in seigneurial fashion; sometimes, in the photos, his pipe would be perched in an ashtray beside them. He liked his Playmates to resemble a pretty girl next door, to show that nice girls liked sex too, in or out of marriage. If you doubted it, you only had to read the Kinsey report of 1948, which had let the sunshine in on the hyperactive sex lives of the citizenry. What was this hypocritical hangup America had, this bugaboo of “sin”?
Sex was fun. Whether it was morally good or bad wasn’t the point. The morality depended on the situation. All that stuff aside, sex was also the beginning of civilisation, the life force. It should be celebrated. Yet America had swarmed since its foundation with censors, prigs, prudes and bluenoses intent on sexual repression. To keep down a natural drive led to deviancy and crime, even witch-burnings, even mass madness (at least as he understood Cotton Mather, or Catholic medieval Europe). And it was tyranny, pure and simple.
This was his philosophy. He called it one, and laid it out in long editorials over months and years. This meant he had to defend it against lounging sneerers like William F. Buckley, who flung words like “latitudinarianism” at him on TV. Well, he could be an intellectual too, showing in the more literary pages of Playboy—with offerings from Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, John Updike and Jack Kerouac and interviews with Orson Welles and Martin Luther King, among many others—that he was on the very cutting edge of culture.
What other philosophers really disliked was that he made money from it. A lot of money. The first-ever run of Playboy, with Marilyn Monroe clothed on the cover and inside naked, sold out overnight. It was the coup of a lifetime. By 1958, profits were $4m a year. He branched out into Playboy Enterprises: clubs and casinos across the world, films, cable, digital. His bunny logo was on cufflinks and shirts. The 1970s were his best years, when he moved from Chicago to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles and flew in a black Playboy jet with attendants in ultra-brief black leather. The 1980s, when he lost gambling licences in London and Atlantic City and was dogged by scandals, were rocky, and in 1988 he gave up control of his empire. Playboy’s circulation fell to less than 1m. But by then he was so rich that he could go on living his big boy’s dream, wearing his captain’s hat in bed and parading with armfuls of giggling conquests clad, to his orders, in “lingerie or less”.
He backed civil rights of most sorts. Feminists, though, were the enemy. They seemed to want women to be asexual, when the point of his crusade was to celebrate their wonderful differences: as displayed by those Bunny Girls who staffed his clubs and casinos, so cute in those black-satin corsets that made their breasts bigger, those big ears and fluffy tails. (All Hef’s idea; he loved to have a menagerie at hand.) They were free, too, to turn any club member down, except for Number One keyholders. And he refused to run pornography, even in the 70s when, during the “Pubic Wars”, Penthouse did. Short of real smut, why cover up such objects of desire?
To many he was a priapic horror, but to himself he was a romantic. Playboy was really a boy-girl romance magazine. The first pin-ups he fell for at 14 were tasteful drawings of nudes from Esquire. He was a virgin on his first marriage, and tried it twice more, but he liked variety. His career was a quest for beauty as well as freedom, he said, and Marilyn gloriously topped and tailed it. He never met her, or paid her for those photographs, but he forked out $75,000 to get the crypt in Woodlawn right beside hers. To spend eternity together was the sweetest thought. And she, of course, would feel the same.