Hugh Hefner, who died yesterday at 91, made America great for guys. He sanitized porn, stripped it of blemishes, odors, fluids, friction, and body hair. He made dirty look clean—or as his ingenious counter-crusader, Erica Jong, would say, zipless. He made free look like fun. He was a Pied Piper for lifestyle as life. The airbrush was his weapon. His entrepreneurial genius made him the prophet of an American-based, worldwide cult devoted to the secular ritual of the no-commitment orgasm. Live it up, American male! he proclaimed in living color. You lived through the Great Depression and the Great War, lucky guy, and now it’s time to get down, dirty, and free.
In the process, whatever more limited objective he might have had in mind at first, he found himself a cultural revolutionary, a global brand, an impresario of arm candy, of sex with winks but not leers, driving the old, expiring, censorious America into the DTs. That is, he escorted America over the threshold to a world of Deep Throat and also, eventually, his acolyte Donald Trump, who at a Playboy mansion party to which he escorted “Apprentice” figures, told Hef: “It’s hard for me to tell which of these girls are yours, and which ones are mine.” He flattered generations of would-be models, equipping them with phony résumés to accompany centerfolds, and he crusaded . He inspired Gloria Steinem to burrow underground as a Bunny. He made generations of boys think that women came with staples in their navels.
Did he objectify women? Is the Pope Catholic? But he didn’t invent dirty words, stag movies, or mass-produced nudity. He elevated them into an empyrean realm where women remained on pedestals but the pedestals were wheeled into the bachelor pad. Before Playboy, “male magazines”—more raunchily known as stroke books before the term became a genre for the caretakers of people who suffered cerebrovascular events—were crappy-looking things printed on newsprint or something even cheaper that looked as though the ink would come off on your hands. The moderately dirty pictures of pin-ups like the famous Bettie Page were studded among outdoor adventure and war stories. Their literary pretensions were nil.
Hefner changed that. He made sex middle-class, an activity for pipe-smoking bachelors who were unleashed to be fast and loose, finding their meaning in leisure time pursuits. His ideal readers not only had bedrooms, they subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club. They had record-players and sports cars. But his readers were not encouraged to be mindless sex maniacs. The uncouth days were over, the smooth days were here. In his inaugural issue Hef famously issued a manifesto for the life of the postwar bourgeois with this proclamation:
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.
Hef prided himself on upholstering his magazine with the best and the brightest. He published Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Mario Vargas Llosa, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you name ‘em. He paid his writers top dollar. He ran interviews with Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, Vladimir Nabokov, and Henry Miller. It was in Playboy, June 1973, that Alfred Kazin published his great essay, “The Writer as Political Crazy,” reaming out the likes of D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, and Jean Genet for their slavish surrender to one or another totalitarian rapture. That issue also contained a piece by the great Vietnam war correspondent Gloria Emerson. Hefner mellowed into a certain peace with feminists. He was a First Amendment absolutist. Love him, he was a liberal. And in the process, he helped turn the counterculture into the culture.
Hefner must have felt like a winner, having probably changed everyday life more than any other American of his generation. He probably did not know he was checking out during the Days of Awe, when observant Jews ransack their memories in search of sins for which to atone on Yom Kippur. Atonement wasn’t his game. During his last conscious moments, did he lick his lips and tick off the scores he had somehow, along the way, missed? Did he imagine eternal rest in postcoital satisfaction, knowing that, in the house of today’s world there are many—so many—Playboy Mansions?
Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.