(co-authored with Dalya Munves, April 2010)
Between the restraints of the Flying Forties and the liberality of the Swinging Sixties, the Nifty Fifties marked a revolutionary time in many aspects of the American way of life, from economics to culture to sexuality. From that revolution, a lifestyle emerged that fused the modern values of consumerism and liberalism and rebelled against the conservative status quo. Hugh Hefner, the champion of this new lifestyle, not only spread his philosophy through Playboy magazine, but also lived it. Hefner has become the playboy par excellence, both celebrated as a rebellious hero and censured as an immoral fiend. Hugh Hefner on-going celebrity can be attributed to economic and social accomplishment, personal charisma, and careful maintenance of his image.
Before publishing Playboy, Hefner briefly lived out “the American Dream”: he graduated from college, got married, found an office job, had two children, and moved to the suburbs in Chicago. The writer/cartoonist and soon-to-be publisher, who grew up abhorring his “strictly Puritanical” upbringing, did not find that life fulfilling. Instead of internalizing his [relatively] religious background, Hefner constructed his worldview by watching films, reading comic books, and exploring popular psychology, most notably the Kinsey report (Watts 53). After his failed experience with the “American Dream,” Hefner felt the need to challenge the old Puritanical values and champion the emerging values of the post-war middle class: consumerism, social mobility, and sexual liberation.
In December of 1953, Hefner published the first issue of Playboy and, in doing so, realized his vision of a magazine that was “daring, provocative, even naughty, but not dangerous or subversive” (Watts 70). The social climate of the 1950s is key when considering the public reception of both Hugh Hefner and the magazine. In August of 1953, the Kinsey report on women’s sexuality was published (several years after the report on males) and became the best-selling scientific publication up to that time (Dyer 25) At the same time, Marilyn Monroe’s popularity and her reputation as a sex symbol were becoming entrenched thanks to her successful roles as “the girl” in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and her numerous public appearances (Dyer 24). Hefner capitalized on her growing popularity directly by purchasing the Golden Dreams calendar photos of Monroe and making her the magazine’s first centerfold (photos which people knew existed but few had seen [Dyer 27-29]).
From the outset of Playboy, Hefner treated it as an outlet for his personal vision of an ideal lifestyle. Grounded upon his influence from popular culture, Hefner’s “good life” entailed open sexuality (as typified by Monroe), emulative consumption (including acquisition of more products for simple enjoyment), and social mobility. Watts contends, “Playboy began bringing a submerged, collective social fantasy to the surface” (70)—a fantasy that was twofold, sexual and economic.
The socioeconomic components of Hefner’s “the good life” were fostered by the post-war economic boom. In the 1950s, Americans (especially males) were experiencing a new economic prosperity that made them “intoxicated with abundance and eager to throw off restraints” (Watts 75). Increased expendable income and upward socioeconomic mobility made “the good life”—as portrayed by Playboy—seemingly achievable. Because Playboy readers felt that they too could live in the way that Playboy proposed (and in which its publisher lived according to the magazine and the media coverage of him), Hefner was received with admiration instead of jealousy, reaching his celebrity status.
Hefner was admired as the physical embodiment of Playboy’s ideals, and he carefully cultivated his public persona as such. Tim Carvell on McSweeneys.net contends, “In launching Playboy, perhaps the smartest thing Hugh Hefner did was in establishing his personality as that of a witty, urbane sophisticate who enjoyed the company of many, many young women. After all, who knows how many fewer copies the magazine might have sold, had he instead depicted himself as a solitary masturbator?” In short, “the good life” translated to the audience as expensive hobbies, good dining, good drinking, and the company of beautiful women. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Hefner penned the Playboy Philosophy, which elaborated on that idea of “the good life”—an existence of sophistication and enjoyment after usual hard work.
At the same time, he carefully developed his image through external media coverage as well as his own TV shows (Playboy After Dark, for example). Playboy became the empire in vogue, and Hefner its robe-and-slippers-wearing emperor with a beautiful Playmate on each arm.
Aside from Hefner’s portrayal of himself (via Playboy), his ascension to stardom was made possible by the various media outlets that focused on his success as revolutionary and entrepreneur. Television interviews with renowned late-night anchors and feature articles in newspapers and respectable magazines (such as Time and Esquire) contributed greatly to his charismatic public image by attributing part of the success of the social and sexual revolution to him (Watts 157, 171).
Also during the 1960s, Hefner’s charisma materialized (or institutionalized in a Weberian sense ) further throughout the magazine and the growth of Playboy Enterprises, which took over venues and activities across the U.S. and abroad in accordance to “the good life” of luxurious pleasure, ranging from night clubs and casinos, to the opulent and famous Playboy Mansions in Chicago and Los Angeles (Watts 250). Playboy became the empire in vogue among the “powerless elite” (Alberoni 70) of celebrities and those “who are well-known for their well-knowness” (Gamson 141-147), with Hefner as fashionable emperor wearing slippers and a satin robe while smoking a pipe with beautiful Playmate in each arm—the the image that Hefner had cultivated almost as camp (Dyer 176).
Yet, during the 1970s, Playboy changed because Hefner himself changed, turning more political than before. In spite of having published articles by recognized and controversial authors from the beginning, it was not until the seventies that Hefner decided to take a stance with the magazine that was more than mere leisure reading about a sophisticated life of good drinking and sexual pleasures. In the September issue of 1970, Playboy published articles about abortion rights, feminism, college students’ political leanings, among other “hot topics” of the decade (Watts 240, 294). In parallel, Hefner started campaigning for Democratic candidates, even hosting fundraisers privately and publicly (Watts 310-313).As someone who people paid attention to via the magazine or the media, Hefner determined to use his power for what he thought would serve liberalism.
Hefner’s liberal efforts back-lashed in the Greedy Eighties, when a series of unfortunate events jeopardized both his celebrity and Playboy Enterprises. First, the murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten caused a public outcry that blamed Hefner for the tragedy because he had “used her as an object” (Watts 324). Hefner tried to defend his image, but the damage had been done by the time the controversy became old news. Second, the revival of conservatism spearheaded by the Reagan administration put Hefner in its moral crosshair during the new crusade for decency, for which Hefner had to appear before Congressional panels about pornography and free speech (Watts 346). Feminists, too, started blaming Hefner for a lot of the “moral decadence” of America. During that process, stockpiled with the Stratten scandal, Hefner’s public image switched from admirable Playboy to demon of corruption, which ultimately forced Hefner to step down as CEO and hand down the position to his daughter Christie (who he had groomed for the job) in an attempt to finally separate his image from the company’s. To make things worse, the bad light and the conservative offensive hurt Playboy Enterprises revenue, accentuating its decline even further (Watts 366).
Since the 1990s, however, Hefner has bounced back to rise to new heights of fame. Recurrent cameos as himself in TV series and movies (including family-friendly cases such as The Simpson), the airing of The Girls Next Door, an E! original reality TV show featuring Hefner and his three current girlfriends, and the Playboy website have contributed greatly to Hefner’s return as a positive celebrity who both earned and tailored his stardom through earnest entrepreneurship, charisma, smart adaptation to the evolution of social mores, and a little luck to be in the right place and at the right change of times.
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Falsani, Catherine. The God Factor. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. New York, 2006.
Redmond, Sean, and Su Holmes. Eds. Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader. Sage. London. 2007.
Watts, Steven. Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream. Wiley. New Jersery, 2008.