Playboy goes west
Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Key Club in 1960 surrounded by bunnies. His magazine has been described as both misogynist and feminist
There is nothing like Playboy and there never will be again. When Hef founded it in 1953, men’s magazines contained grainy black and white pictures of semi-naked strippers and articles in which men conquered wild animals and bad guys. Sex was shameful. The word smut comes to mind. But Hef, who had grown up on the west side of Chicago in the 1920s and 30s, pursued a different vision. Having graduated from the University of Illinois and worked at magazines, including Esquire (then still in Chicago), he imagined a lifestyle monthly which would attract urban men with a mix of nice clothes, nice cars, culture, and colour photographs of the girl next door, naked.
Luck sided with Hef. In a famous coup, having read that the rights to some nude colour photographs of Marilyn Monroe—then already a movie star—were owned by a calendar company in Chicago, he convinced the owner to sell him the images. He ran the photos, which show Marilyn writhing on red velvet, in the first issue, December 1953. It sold 54,000 copies. In that issue, Hef defined Playboy, sincerely, with what now reads like a send-up of a Rat Pack mission statement: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex…”
Playboy emerged in the right place at the right time. In America, conspicuous consumption and personal fulfilment were replacing older, more ascetic ideals and by 1959 the magazine was selling a million copies an issue. In the early 1970s it sold around 7 million copies each month. By that time, Playboy had become a global brand under attack on several different fronts. It has been variously described as misogynist, feminist, kitschy, and irrelevant. Above all, however, it is a magazine that presents The Good Life, including sex, as a man’s natural territory.
To read through Playboy today is to go back in time. Many of the magazine’s trademark features first appeared in the 1960s and have changed less than you might imagine. There are pages of photographs of Hef and his friends partying. The Playboy Advisor, a column first started in 1960, steers readers on how to dress, date, and consume. The Playboy Forum, begun in 1963 to raise issues of importance to the magazine, these days publishes short provocative essays and confessional pieces. The legendary Playboy interview, which in the old days gave thousands of words to heads of state and literary figures—Gabriel García Márquez, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jimmy Carter, Camille Paglia—is also intact (although shorter). New York Times columnist and Princeton professor Paul Krugman did one in the April issue.
Two of the hoariest features are the Party Jokes page, a page of witticisms and gags that seems to have been dredged up from before the sexual revolution, and the full-page cartoons. Here is a typical one: a woman is reclining on an analyst’s couch holding a vibrator. “Do you mind, it helps open me up,” she asks as the Freudian figure looks on. Asked about these pages, editors told me that readers liked them.