I’ve been intrigued by the reactions to the death of Hugh Hefner – the founder of Playboy Magazine. Erotica goes back thousands of years on cave walls, in paintings, sketches, and later in woodcuts and engravings. Since the invention of halftone printing there have been magazines like PhotoBits, first published in 1898. Pinup girls like Bettie Page used to pose for such magazines, which were usually sold discreetly to adult men, who usually concealed them. Playboy was the first high-quality, mass market men’s magazine to feature nude pictorials, and the first of the type that many women and children ever saw on the shelves. My father concealed his Playboys, though not very well, but we had neighbors whose parents were less conscientious.
I subscribe to the self-described progressive outfit The Young Turks (TYT), who have one show called, “Old School.” During a recent broadcast founder Cenk Uygur announced Hefner’s passing as breaking news. Even though they have vastly different backgrounds and business models, Uygur seemed to feel a connection to his fellow entrepreneur/publisher:
Cenk: What’s funny is that I just got a little emotional. I almost teared up, I didn’t, but … what do I know about Hugh Hefner. I interviewed him once. He was nice…. He was part of America, man.
Malcolm Fleschner: He was an iconic figure in America.
Cenk: I just got really, really sad.
Malcolm: There is only one Hugh Hefner, there is nobody like him, and there never will be again, we’ve lost him, whatever you thought about him, he was a uniquely American figure and had a massive impact on our culture …
Cenk: If ever a person was iconic, it was Hugh Hefner … Man, he lived a good life.
On TYT’s Pop Trigger, a younger group, Brett Ehrlich, Grace Baldridge, Daron Dean, and Jason Carter also covered Hefner’s passing, and extolled Hefner as forward-thinking, even while acknowledging his objectification of women. On the TYT main show, Ana Kasparian, Ehrlich and Baldridge again seemed to take Hefner for granted as an exponent of social progress, despite his flaws. On their recurring youtube show, Reality Rescued, TYT’s roving reporter Jordan Chariton even tossed out that he had first masturbated to Playboy, shocking poor Emma Vigeland.
I had seen many of my father’s copies before December 1967, but will always remember a Playboy pictorial on erotic Art Nouveau engravings by Aubrey Beardsley, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Bayros and Norman Lindsay which my younger self found much more provoking than remote and detached photos of Hef’s carefully selected bunnies. I could probably buy a copy, but it probably wouldn’t live up to my memories.
Even though he was a vocal champion of (many) liberal social values, Hefner fares less well with liberals than the TYT progressives. In a New Yorker article, Hugh Hefner, Playboy, and the American Male, Adam Gopnik writes:
There was a time when his excursions into the Playboy philosophy, which was not quite as ridiculous a document as its title makes it sound, were, though never taken seriously, at least seen as significant. Now, they seem not merely quaint but predatory.
For The American Thinker, Rick Moran writes, Hugh Hefner is Dead:
What was Hefner’s role in this transformative America? Actually, he was a lot less impactful than certainly Hefner would have us and the media believe. He did not initiate the sexual revolution. We can thank the Pill for that. Rather, Hefner rode the wave of changing morals and mores by creating bankable images of nearly nude women, along with sharp political and cultural commentary from some of the best liberal writers in America. He made it cool to be a cad and reinforced the male fantasy of consequence-free sex.
And The New Republic decries, Hugh Hefner’s Incomplete Sexual Revolution:
What derailed the male revolt was the female revolt. Women reasonably asked themselves: If men like Hefner were abandoning the traditional claims of chivalry, then what were they offering? The answer: a patriarchy without any promise of protection—a raw deal.
Without a trace of irony, today’s intersectionally woke neoliberals signal their virtue by pointing out that Hefner profited from wrapping himself in the social revolution at the same time that he was sexually exploiting his lowly-paid female employees.
Interestingly, a woman architect really appreciated Hefner. Writing for the AIA journal, Architect, Karrie Jacobs penned, Playboy Magazine and the Architecture of Seduction in 2016, quoting Beatriz Colomina:
… Hefner made [midcentury modern design] mainstream. That’s the point of the exhibition, that Playboy did more for modern architecture and design then any architectural journal or even the Museum of Modern Art. At its peak, it had seven million readers.
I gave a lecture at Cornell at the beginning of this research. At the end of the lecture, a woman said to me, “Now I understand why my father, who never went to a museum, who never had any idea about art or architecture or design, had an amazing collection of midcentury furniture.”
And then I had a correspondence with her. She asked him, “Where did you get all this furniture?” And he said, “Playboy told me to buy it.”
That is absolutely spot on. Along with the girls, and the interviews, and the fiction, were descriptions of the Playboy Pad: apartments or houses that would reflect well on the bachelor’s good taste, with lists (and costs) of the Barcelona chairs, Burberry raincoats, Fleischmann’s Preferred Blended Whiskey, Miles Davis albums, Blaupunkt hi-fi sets, etc that midcentury human male bowerbirds could purchase and arrange to attract a mate.