NAME: Playboy. Hef originally wanted to name me Stag Party, but a hunting magazine of all things—Stag—threatened to sue. For Hef, the name Playboy evoked the Chicago of the Roaring Twenties, a licentious, glamorous era—he imagined—of gangsters, bootleggers, speakeasies, le jazz hot, and flappers. (Hef was born in 1926, too young to be hanging out in speakeasies.) Ironically, flappers were known for being flat chested, so this may have been the first flaw in his vision.
Hef also had to hastily redesign the logo. The original design—a stag wearing a top hat—obviously wouldn’t do anymore. He came up with the now ubiquitous rabbit logo—young people wear it today without even knowing what it means or where it comes from—”because the rabbit is the playboy of the animal kingdom.”
Rabbits have been associated with fertility and rebirth since at least the Middle Ages, when folks had time on their hands to think of things like this. That’s why it’s an Easter Bunny instead of, say, an Easter Aardvark.
That’s something else me and Jesus have in common—that and our immaculate conceptions.
BIRTH DATE: I was born in December, 1953, although I still look 18 to 25—just good genes, I guess. That, and a lot of airbrushing and plastic surgery.
Actually, there is some confusion about my exact birth date. Hef was so uncertain when—or even if—my second issue would come out, he didn’t put a date on my cover, thereby extending my shelf life indefinitely. He also didn’t put his name on the masthead, for fear of being arrested.
It wasn’t just another time, it was another world. The Cold War had just broken out, and it was far from clear who would win. Joe McCarthy was busy hunting Commies—not stags—under (and in) every bed. Sex outside of marriage was sinful, anything but missionary was perverted, masturbation caused blindness, homosexuality was officially classified as a mental disease, birth control was a shadowy subject, and abortion was illegal. Under the circumstance, it’s amazing anybody got laid.
Hef was like many young men at the time. He went to school on the GI bill (he got a degree in psychology). He got stuck in a boring, gray flannel job writing advertizing copy for Esquire, and wondered what had become of all his youthful dreams and ambitions. Hef, who fancied himself something of a cartoonist, had self-published a book of his drawings—Chicago! That Toodlin’ Town!—a few years before, to resounding failure.
Two other things were eating Hef—and not in a good way. First, he had been stationed stateside during World War II; he didn’t see any action—at least of the military kind. Second, his wife at the time, Mildred Williams, admitted to him she had had an affair while he was away in the army. You know how fragile the male ego is. Hef’s whole career—and my existence—can be attributed to the biggest case of compensation since Menelaus sacked Troy over Helen’s little fling with Paris (the ancient Greek, not the hotel heiress).
Still, Hef might have stayed at Esquire if Esquire had stayed with him. Esquire decided to move from Chicago to New York—that’s where all the big magazines were publishing. Hef asked for a $5 dollar raise on his $80 a week salary as compensation for the move—and was denied. In a huff, Hef quit. It turned out to be a costly mistake—for Esquire.
Hef had read in an advertizing trade journal about a photographer who in 1948 had taken cheesecake photos of a then unknown figure model named Norma Jean Baker. Norma Jean had since “blown up,” as the young people say today, as the actress Marilyn Monroe. The photos should have been worth a fortune—only they weren’t. Although tame by today’s standards—I’ve seen more skin in an issue of W—they were too racy at the time to be published in a magazine. (They had appeared in an “art” calendar of the sort that hangs in the back of garages and is appreciated by auto mechanics everywhere.)
Hef’s genius—and it was a stroke of genius—was to build a whole magazine around one photo. Hocking his furniture for $3,000, he bought the most explicit photo for $500—one sixth of his operating capital—and then preceded to give birth to me in his kitchen, which must have been extremely messy for Mildred Williams. I burst Athena-like, fully formed, from his tortured brow, which probably hurt like hell at the time.
MEASUREMENTS: I must admit I was born a little on the anemic side: only thirty-two pages, and no advertising. Other than the Marilyn photo, printed in glorious color, the issue was in boring black and white, and didn’t have much in the way of content. Hef had to fatten me up with stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ambrose Bierce, and the Decameron that were in the public domain—hence no royalties to pay.
But I put on weight quickly. My initial print run was 70,000 copies; when more than 85% sold within the first couple of weeks, Hef knew his furniture was safe. For the next three decades, I steadily grew: by the end of the 50s, my sales had passed a million issues a month—and I had become a threat to Hef’s old employer, Esquire. By the end of the 60s, Hef had expanded his empire to include television, a string of nightclubs, a Hollywood mansion, and a philosophy. (Hef imagines himself to be a philosopher king in the style of Plato, or at least Plato’s Retreat.) By the end of the 70s, I peaked at seven million issues a month—not bad for a little girl from Chicago.
But then, for the next three decades, I started to shrink, like a detumescent lover, to about three million issues a month—still a respectable wad, but definitely going flaccid. The media orgy was over, but why? What happened? To understand that, you have to understand the last half century of American culture. So loosen your girdles, girls, and take a deep breath. Here goes:
TURN-ONS: From the start, Hef wanted to create more than just another men’s magazine. There were already plenty of those—magazines with names like Peepshow, Frolic, and Wolf Bait. These magazines were aimed at lowbrow, blue collar male readers—the guys who didn’t go to college on the GI Bill. They consisted mostly of adventure stories of the “weasels ripped my flesh” variety and allegedly hilarious dirty jokes. And the women! Strippers, models, actresses, and other tawdry types. In a word, whores! The message was only “bad girls” had sex outside of marriage, and then only for money.
Hef envisioned a total lifestyle magazine aimed at college educated, (aspiring to be) upwardly mobile young men like himself. This magazine would teach men how to mix the perfect cocktail, pick the best “Hi-Fi” equipment, tie the ideal cravat. Most of all, it would teach men how to meet, pickup, date, and make love to women. (Hef personally introduced the concept of “cunnilingus”—yes, girls, munching on the velvet taco—to millions of men.)
And what women! Marilyn not withstanding, Hef preferred the girl next store—wholesome, clean-cut, all-American lasses who just happened to be naked. (Or almost naked; Hef played peek-a-boo with the censors for years, who were scandalized by even the thought of nipples on a mammal. ) The message was even “good girls” had sex outside of marriage, and for pleasure—both giving and receiving—not for money. This was a revolutionary communication at a time when so-called experts were still debating whether “decent” (re: married) women had—or should have—orgasms. (They also were debating whether vaginal orgasms were morally superior to clitoral ones. Honey, I will take the Big O any way it comes!)
Hef put his moneymaker where his mouth was. As the cash rolled in, he used it to hire the best writers, artists, editors, photographers, and cartoonists available. (Hef had the decency not to publish his own cartoons; he was man enough to admit this was not his forte.) By the end of the 1950s, Hef seemed to have achieved his goal: a hip, cutting edge magazine for men with undeniable quality and circulation—the New Yorker with Jayne Mansfield as a mascot, not that pansy Eustace Tilley. Then disaster stuck.
The 50s ended.
TURNOFFS: The 1960s were the best of times, the worst of times for Hef. The Pill became available in 1960, and the sexual revolution he had been beating the drums—and other skins—for arrived. But then feminism reared its unattractive head. (Who wants to be equal, girls, when you can be put on a pedestal?) To Gloria Steinem and her sisters, Hef’s new sexual freedom was the same old sexual slavery dressed (or undressed) in swingers’ habiliments. “Women’s lib” baffled Hef. For the past decade he had been battling the forces of oppression; now he found himself lumped together with the oppressors. What, he asked—OK, sugar, not with a lot of originality, but give him A for effort—do women want?
(Ironically, Gloria owes her career to me: she first came to fame by going undercover as a Bunny in a Playboy club and writing the shocking—shocking!—expose about how uncomfortable it was to work in stilettos and a corset all night long. As the young people say today, duh! You’ve got to suffer for beauty, dearie. You can’t spell fashion without fascism. )
In the 1970s, competitors followed in the furrow Hef had plowed. Penthouse was aimed at a sophisticated “European” (re: kinky) audience—Bob Guccione was actually a Guido from Brooklyn, although he tried to hide it. Hustler was a throwback to the lowbrow, pre-me days—Larry Flynt is a cracker from Kentucky, and proud of it. (I’ve had to fellate a lot of frogs in this biz, sweetheart, but I wouldn’t touch these toads with a ten-foot dildo.) Both Penthouse and Hustler were positioned to be more explicit than me. Hef’s dirty little secret—don’t tell him I told you—is he’s a conservative at heart. Behind that swinging façade is essentially an old fashioned guy whose values were formed in relation—or in opposition—to the 1950s. Hef decried the “gynecological” photos of the competition and stuck with relatively chaste pinups.
In the 1980s, the VCR became spread wide. The initials might as well have stood for Venomous Coiled Reptile. I may have been able to withstand Gloria and the Gruesome Twosome—even been invigorated by the mud wrestling—but video was the tongue kiss of death. Who wants to look at pictures when you can watch movies? (Despite Hef’s famous “what sort of man reads Playboy?” advertising campaign, and his attempts to make me the New Yorker with tits, my “readers’” still did more looking than reading and—how do I put this delicately?—polishing their china.)
This is when Hef put his daughter Christie in charge of Playboy Enterprises. She was the other good thing to come out of Hef’s union with Mildred Williams. A bit of a Plain Jane—I’m the good-looking sister—but with a head for figures. Christie restructured the organization, signing lucrative licensing deals, and making the painful cuts Hef couldn’t bring himself to—like closing all the remaining Playboy clubs, which nobody (except Hef) thought were cool anymore. Hef retired to his mansion and consoled himself with an ever-changing roster of Playmates. (I don’t think he’s going to gasp “Rosebud!” when he expires, darling, unless Rosebud happens to be the name of the PMOY.)
Christie applied a Kotex to the problem, but each new technology—DVDs, the Internet, those iPhone thingies—touched off a fresh period of bleeding. Who needs a monthly men’s magazine when you can instantly download free live porn to your phone? (Putting the “vice” in mobile devices. Do people have any idea what kind of content is streaming through their bodies 24/7, as the young people say? If they did, they’d go home immediately, take a cold shower, and put on lead underwear.)
But the real problem—it breaks my heart to say this, I hope he finds it in his pants to forgive me—is Hef himself.
AMBITIONS: When Hef started me, he had the uncanny ability to channel the hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fantasies of a generation of men. But with each passing decade, he has become increasingly out of touch—a bad thing for a magazine that depends so much on tactile sensation. Men, for better or worse—maybe a little of both—have changed, but Hef hasn’t; he’s become as stuck in time as that weirdo Michael Jackson. Jacko was permanently pre-adolescent; Hef is perpetually post-adolescent.
Now he’s retreated into his own reality television show, sinking to the level of Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen. (Fight the power!, sweetheart, as the young people.) Hef looks like somebody’s confused grandfather who’s accidentally wandered into a sorority house—he’s even got the bathrobe and slippers. You expect the men in white coats to show up any moment and take him back to the Home for Aging Lotharios. He’s also started selling tickets to his swinging soirees to defray expenses. I remember when men would give their right oysters to attend one of his bachelor bacchanalias; now all they have to do is shell out five thousand clams.
(I hear Hef and the Girls Next Store have recently parted company, and some of them are telling bunny tales out of schoolgirl uniforms. Have you no sense of decency, ladies? In my day Playmates kept their mouths and legs shut once Hef was through using them. But Hef has been big about it. He’s moved on; he’s has already replaced them with nineteen-year old twins. Hef likes things that match; he was into feng sui, honey, before anyone else.)
Nobody takes Hef’s philosophy seriously anymore—it’s long and turgid, but not in a good way. Today I mostly make the news when some former Playmate does a Britney, as the young people say, and melts down in public, like Anna Nicole Smith. (A beautiful girl, but with a tad of a weight problem. She should have stuck her fingers down her throat instead of all that booze and pills. Don’t act so shocked, dearie! A little bulimia is better than a little ODing any day! Just make sure you fix your makeup afterwards, and use a breath mint.)
(Speaking of Britney, how long before she doffs her dance togs in my pages? The celebrity centerfold has become de rigueur for female stars on their way up—or down. Hit me, baby, one more time, as the young people say.)
In some ways Marilyn Monroe is my alpha and omega-seven: Anna had a Marilyn obsession, and wanted to live (and die) like her. Hef has made plans to join Marilyn in the afterworld: they never met in life, but he’s purchased the plot next to hers in Westwood Cemetery. I must admit the image of their two rotting corpses “knocking boots,” as the young people say, in the grave makes me feel a little icky.
But I’ve got a better idea: I read in the newspaper the other day that a Harvard scientist thinks he can clone a Neanderthal for around $30 million. Why not Hef? Sure he seems prehistoric now, but he was a magnificent beast in his day. Maybe with the right nurturing—Gloria, are you listening? You said you would consider adoption—he could evolve into modern man, whatever that is.
It’s a “win-win situation,” as the young people say today: Gloria gets to spank Hef; Hef gets to—finally!—suckle at Gloria’s breast. I just hope they’ve saved some of his DNA. If I know Hef—and who better?—he’s scattered some around somewhere.