So long Hugh Hefner. And thanks for the glorious gig.
My girlfriend hated it, but what could be better than writing about the
Playmate of the Month and the 'blondeness of Pamela Anderson?'
By Bruce Kluger
Playboy magazine to understand the downside of
my new job. It was 1986, and I had been assigned
to write the copy for the July Playmate of the Month
pictorial—in those days, an 800-word profile of the
young model who appeared nude in the magazine’s
legendary centerfold. So I went into the office of my
boss, executive editor G. Barry Golson, to ask him
how it all worked.
“It’s easy,” Barry said, leaning back in his chair and
smiling, clearly amused by my rookie cluelessness.
“Call the travel department, book your flight to
Florida, go down there, take the Playmate out for
the evening, interview her, fly home, fight with your
girlfriend, write the story, then file it.”
girlfriend was not thrilled about my enthusiasm for my new job. I spent a week in the
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died on Wednesday at the age of 91. Inarguably an
American icon—a stubborn and courageous visionary who stormed and reshaped
the cultural landscapes of modern journalism, civil liberties, race relations, gay
rights, feminism, music and cinema and, of course, human sexuality—Hef was as
unlikely a success story as they get. Born into a chilly Methodist household in
Chicago — a place where, by his own account, hugs weren’t handed out freely—
he witnessed firsthand the suffocating repression that, he insisted, lay deep in
our nation’s puritanical roots.
So he set out to do something about that, ultimately creating a glossy, monthly
manifesto for men—one designed to spark the spirit, passion, imagination, intellect
and certainly the libido of a postwar nation eager to loosen its tie.
Art, literature and the cosmopolitan lifestyle figured largely in the recipe Hef
whipped up for his new magazine. So did naked women.
Playboy debuted in December 1953 and, as planned, it knocked men back on their
heels, even as it liberated them from the era’s rigid definition of what it meant to be
a guy. “At a time when ideas of masculinity had more to do with chest-pounding
tales of daring,” my former colleague, John Champion, wrote in one of the hundreds
of testimonials that sprung up on Facebook on Wednesday night, “Hef asked us to
consider the ‘great indoors’ and welcomed us with cool jazz and a dry
Many across the country recoiled at the nudity in the magazine (which, it’s worth
noting, remains far tamer than what’s easily accessible online today), yet for those
of us who worked at Playboy, it was so much more than the smirky, R-rated
hedonist’s handbook it was often accused of being.
Indeed, that’s why we felt privileged to work there. Beyond the perfunctory half-
dressed farm girl from Iowa, Playboy’s pages—month after month—brimmed with
the real stuff: stories by Kerouac, Updike and Vonnegut; reporting by Mailer and
Baldwin, Woodward and Bernstein; and gold-standard interviews with just about
everyone who had pushed the needle hard in the last half of the 20th century. The
Beatles and Brando. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Ayn Rand and Masters and
And a young presidential hopeful named Jimmy Carter, whose startlingly personal
confession in Playboy’s pages about the weakness of the flesh—“I've looked on a
lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times...and God
forgives me for it”—was quite possibly the slam-dunk sound bite that landed him in
the Oval Office.
No question, Playboy’s sanguinity about all things sexual was the not-so-secret
secret sauce that pulled down a circulation of more than 7 million readers at its
peak. And Hef was unrepentant in his joyous—and often priapic—celebration of it
all (“From my point of view, I’m the luckiest cat on the planet,” he once said). But
those of us who worked at Playboy also knew that the magazine could not survive
on sex and nudity alone, and we were charged monthly with filling those other 100
To that end, Hef was an ingenious ringmaster, consistently drilling deep into the
national psyche and marshaling an editorial mix that gave vivid narration to
America’s ever unfolding story.
From that first slim issue (the one featuring Marilyn Monroe on its cover, but no
date, because Hef wasn’t quite sure there would be a second issue), Playboy
chronicled the growing pains of a nation often in upheaval—from the racial
conflagrations of the 1950s, to the sexual and youth revolutions of the '60s, to the
excesses of the '70s, to the moral showdown with religious fundamentalism in the
'80s. Throughout it all, he was an equally brilliant brander—this long before the age
of Apple and Amazon—building an empire that spawned such now legendary
institutions as the Playboy Jazz Festival and the Playboy Foundation, the
company's philanthropic arm.
Was Hef also occasionally a pain in the ass? What boss isn’t? I’m recalling that time
he tapped me to write a 1,000-word essay on "the blondeness of Pamela
Anderson." My career flashed before my eyes. But by the next morning, I was back
at my desk, ready and eager for my next assignment. Truth be told, I felt like the
luckiest cat on the planet.
Farewell, Mr. Hefner. And thanks for the unforgettable gig.
(Photo: Lucy Nicholson, AFP/Getty Images)