It started when I was about eight years old. Sometimes, after everyone else had gone to bed, I would go to the book shelf and look at the Playboys. They were buried under a stack of other magazines; Time, Newsweek, Life, National Geographic, whatever. My Mom must have buried them down there. Seeing some scantily clad hotty on the cover, no doubt pissed her off. The playboys were thicker than the other magazines. I would quickly turn to the middle pages, where the pictures were. And there they were, beautiful, young, naked women; often smiling, always looking glad to be young and beautiful and naked. This was my introduction to human sexuality. At that age, it went no further than a few minutes of stolen ogling. By my teens, my time alone with Playboy magazines tended to be in the bathroom and was a bit more involved. Hugh Hefner's impact on American culture cannot be overstated. When he published the first Playboy Magazine in 1953, with Marilyn Monroe as his first nude model, there was no such thing as a mainstream magazine with pictures of naked women. At that time magazines with nude models were sold in brown paper wrappers in shops in bad neighborhoods that sold “dirty books.” That was how the naked female form was viewed at that time, as something “dirty.” Hugh Hefner would change that concept forever. His models were anything but dirty. They were wholesome, lovely girls next door. That was sort of the whole point with Playboy; these were nurses and teachers and stewardesses; beautiful young girls, enjoying their youth and beauty unashamedly. And Hefner, through Playboy Magazine, challenged our culture's concept about sex at the same time he challenged how we viewed women's bodies. He espoused the belief that people could have sex for pleasure and it didn't mean they were “dirty” people. During the 1960s and 70s Playboy became a sort of manual for the hip, liberated, swinger type. Hefner understood that for Playboy to be truly legit it would have to include work from the best writers of the era, and it did. Alex Hailey, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and virtually every meaningful writer of the last half of the twentieth century contributed to Playboy. The Playboy interview became the single most important piece of real estate in American magazines; Jimmy Carter did one when he was running for president. By contrast, the idea of a presidential candidate being interviewed by Hustler or Penthouse would have been absurd. Meanwhile, Hefner the man became a symbol of the ultimate male fantasy. He lived in a mansion in Hollywood, surrounded by incredibly hot young women, who would do anything to please him. During the 1970s the Playboy mansion and it's house guests and parties became legendary. The likes of O.J. Simpson, Bruce Jenner and Bill Cosby came and went with regularity. Actor James Caan of “The GodFather” fame moved in and set up shop. While today the whole scenario sounds like a Dirty Old Man theme park, back then probably every straight man in America would have gladly traded places with Hefner. Yes, Hugh Hefner looks a tad anachronistic today, in his silk pajamas and pipe, with his attitudes about women as objects of beauty and pleasure. But Hugh Hefner and Playboy were an essential link in the evolutionary chain that is American culture. We would not be where we are were it not for him. And as one looks at the landscape, there is not and never was another magazine like Playboy. Penthouse tried but never came close. The chicken and the egg question is, did Hefner come along at just the right time and capitalize on America's new yearning for liberation, or did he prod it along and make it happen? The smart money says he prodded it along and made it happen. The world is a happier, healthier better place because of Hugh Hefner.
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