Note – This article was originally commissioned for publication in half an hour by Wired. I included Google Translate links to those resources missing a proper English language translation.
Talk about professional deformation. When I was informed about Hugh Hefner’s death, my first thought was how I had no pre-obit at hand – meaning one of those biographical articles good journalists keep constantly updated and ready for publication in case some public figure kicks the bucket. After all, the quicker you dive like a vulture on the still warm cadaver, the more chances you get at gaining one click more and the connected hundredth of a cent from advertising.
Actually, it was even worse than that: I wasn’t even like bad journos, who by now will have already copy&pasted from Wikipedia or some American paper “their” memorial article about the Playboy founder. I can’t help it: holding on to some ethics always gets me. So here I am, forced to tell you ‘two or three things I know about him’, as they say, and which I suspect you won’t read anywhere else.
People usually imagine pornographers as filthy and amoral characters. What several “adult publishers” like Hefner, Larry Flynt and others – including the Italian Saro Balsamo – have in common is a sincere passion for culture. Better: for counterculture, that is that kind of non-hypocritical information that usually cannot find space on regular mass media. Since the early Fifties Playboy in particular has been on the front line against racism, censorship, McCarthyism and for female emancipation, starting with free and safe abortion rights (which, by coincidence, is celebrated today all over the world). This revolutionary spirit was also stressed in several international editions, including the very politicized Italian one in the Seventies, and it heavily contributed to the success of the magazine.
Depending on the woman you are asking, Hugh Hefner is described as a saint or as the worst bastard on Earth. In time I reckoned he was, after all, just a very pragmatic person. The doors to his empire were always open to every pretty girl wishing to accept the rules of his game: getting photographed and filmed in the nude in exchange for quite a bit of cash and fame that, with a modicum of intelligence, she could build a career upon. Those who sought to exploit him by taking without giving anything back (or even by blackmailing him, as it happened from time to time) were booted out and ostracized forever by serious glamour photographers. On the other hand, those who played it straight could count on his eternal support.
The most emblematic story is probably that of Bettie Page who, before becoming an early fetish star, had been the January 1955 centerfold. Forty-two years later, when Hefner learned that Bettie had fallen on hard times after an awful story of stalking and mental disease, the publisher immediately unleashed the full power of his legal team to collect four decades of illegally exploited image rights and to make her a multi-millionaire without her even having asked. And let’s ignore the “little help” he gave Marilyn Monroe to boost her career…
«I buy it for the articles»
Playboy as a literary magazine is often taken as a joke, but it is definitely real. The very name of the magazine reflected Hefner’s idea of a cultural revolution, consisting in turning a bunch of still shell-shocked yokels from WWII into refined gentlemen. The ingredients were the above-mentioned counterculture and the stories of giants like Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac or Kurt Vonnegut. And tits, of course. But you needed something to catch their attention after all, isnt’it?
The ecumenic club
Another of Hefner’s strategies to spread the concept that you could be a man even without behaving like a caveman – and seeing eroticism as something more of a jackhammer – was to open dozens of Playboy Clubs all over the world. The requisites to get in were just three: carrying a lifetime membership card sold at just $25, being properly attired… and not trying to bed the waitresses, who were specifically trained to move and interact with the clients in a “nice” but never vulgar way. If this doesn’t sound very revolutionary to you, try rewatching Mad Men to get an idea of the sexism of that era…
By the way: the rules didn’t mention any exclusion, so whenever Hefner received a complaint from some colored or disabled client who was discriminated out of his establishments, especially in the Southern states, he immediately proceeded to legally destroy the franchisee and to turn the license over to somebody else. Offering it in a few cases right to the person who had been mistreated.
In bed with the bunnies
Even though the official version he and his playmates repeatedly swore was that any hanky-panky betwen bunnies and publisher was forbidden, and the “girlfriends” guests of the mythical Mansion were only there to learn how to be more professional models and to have «elegant dinners with friends and business partners» (hmm…), Hefner obviously also took them to bed. This is according to the numerous biographies of former playmates, who also revealed what happened in those beds. Which is to say not much, since for almost half a century Mr. Playboy preferred just have the girls close as he watched porn, often of a males-only genre. Then he fell asleep in front of the screen just like most granpas, and the ladies could finally go back to their rooms and plan their post-Playboy careers.
The common element in all of these stories is probably Hefner’s belief to be able to change the world through his own good example, even when logic suggested the contrary. After all, we are talking about a twenty-six years old man who decided to became a publisher and to redefine world journalism after he was denied a $5 raise. About a son exasperated by his parents’ bigotry who managed to make the world accept sexuality as a liberated and happy endeavour. About a man so horrified by the ignorance and sexism of his fellow males that he repeatedly risked everything he had to make them better persons. About a guy who, even when surrounded by dozens of the sexiest girls (at least by his canons) alive, was proud to only have sex with his fiancee, considering the others just as friends «to be treated with the utmost respect» – demanding that his million readers were similarly upstanding in their behavior.
In the next hours, as his body will be buried next to his first playmate Marilyn as he had always wanted, I wonder how many obits will remember to state how he was, above all, a romantic.