While the biography costs an arm and a leg, we can only afford to share this review with you unless of course we have some serious takers for the book on the ‘legend’.
When he’s not popping Viagra and entertaining his harem of bunnies, Hugh Hefner likes to sit on his revolving circular bed and glue articles about himself into big books. Ever since adolescence, the legendary lothario has been compiling a scrapbook of his life. At first these consisted of comics he had drawn, doodles full of hormonal angst that starred Goo Hefner: “our hero”, a “Sinatra-type of guy”, “the type of high school kid you would see in the movies”. These graphic diaries were a dress rehearsal for Playboy, a magazine that also placed Hefner at the centre of a world of his own invention. As he shot to fame on the back of its success, Hefner’s scrapbooks expanded to include everything written about him: now more than 2,000 black, leather-bound volumes line the walls of the third floor of his Los Angeles mansion.
Hugh Hefner’s Playboy: 1953-1979 (Taschen), his 3,506-page, six-volume “illustrated autobiography”, is distilled from this modest collection and mixes personal reflection with pictures of breasts culled from the magazine. It is printed in a limited edition of 1,500 copies, and is on sale for the princely sum of £900. These tomes are obviously too precious to waste on reviewers, so the only way of seeing the autobiography is to visit Taschen’s offices, where, like the investigator in Citizen Kane, you can read a proof in the publisher’s carefully guarded vault. The boxed set comes with what looks worryingly like a handkerchief but, on closer inspection, turns out to be a piece of Hefner’s pyjamas (buyers are assured that they were “worn by the great man himself”).
Both this 7x7cm swatch of silk, and the 84-year-old from whom it was sourced, are relics of the sexual revolution. Hefner has consistently tried to carve a central place for himself in the history of that movement, which “I am sometimes credited with (or conversely, blamed for) starting”. Indeed, in the late 1970s he nearly became a martyr to it when he almost choked to death after swallowing a sex toy. Fortunately, his girlfriend dislodged it using the Heimlich manoeuvre, and Hefner lived on to burnish his legend as an Ayn Rand-style hero who toiled to change the socio-sexual mores of the western world.
Hefner says it was the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s sexual surveys that provided the impetus for Playboy: “If American laws were rigidly enforced, 95% of all men and boys would be jailed as sex offenders,” he wrote in a student review of Kinsey’s work. “Our moral pretences, our hypocrisy on matters of sex have led to incalculable frustration, delinquency and unhappiness.” Playboy, which first appeared on newsstands in December 1953, mocked America’s puritan pretensions. “If Kinsey had done the research,” Hefner reflected years later, “I was the pamphleteer, spreading the news of sexual liberation through a monthly magazine.”
With an $8,000 loan ($1,000 from his mother, who had hoped he’d become a missionary), the 27-year-old Hefner produced a pasted-together but vital magazine. He bought the rights to an old pin-up picture of Marilyn Monroe and used it as centrefold bait to drum up 70,000 advance orders: “It immediately classed us as big-time with the news dealers,” Hefner wrote, “and probably with our readers, too.” Within two years, Playboy was selling 500,000 copies a month, at 50 cents a go; by the end of the decade this figure had doubled. Hefner made readers feel part of a knowing, sophisticated, elite gentlemen’s club. In 1957, he offered them the chance to buy, for $150, a lifetime’s subscription, which they could bequeath to an heir. The first issue was hand-delivered by a Playmate.
For all its radical intent, Playboy was designed, Hefner notes, as “a romantic reflection of earlier times”. From the outset it was retro, full of nostalgia for the jazz age and pre-Code Hollywood. In the inaugural issue, he described his ideal reader (basically himself): “We like our apartment. 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.”
Alongside titillating photos and salacious cartoons, Hefner filled the magazine with good fiction, allowing subscribers to joke, “I only read it for the articles”. The first issue included a reprint of a Sherlock Holmes story, and entire novels, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, were serialised in it. Though most of Playboy’s fiction had already appeared elsewhere, Hefner could boast an impressive writers’ stable that included John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Arthur C Clarke, PG Wodehouse, Bertrand Russell, Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood and Vladimir Nabokov. At a party to mark Playboy’s 25th anniversary, Hefner thanked the assembled centrefolds by saying: “Without you, I would be publishing a literary magazine.”
He once remarked that his life was an open book, each page a Rorschach inkblot on to which readers projected their own sexual fantasies. Despite his literary pretensions, his autobiography – written with the humourless braggadocio of Donald Trump – does little to flesh out those indecipherable stains. He was born in 1926 into a strict Methodist family, which he describes as “repressive” and “undemonstrative”. The skinny teenage Hefner seems to have had little luck with girls. At 16 he was devastated when Betty Conklin, a “perky brunette”, chose another boy to accompany her on a hayride. “I decided to reinvent myself in a way more likely to appeal to attractive members of the opposite sex,” Hefner says of the birth of his new, suave self (modelled on Mickey Rooney from the Andy Hardy films). “I started wearing cooler clothes – red flannel shirts, yellow corduroy pants and saddle shoes.”
Even so, he came to sex late. In 1948, the year Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published, the 22-year-old Hefner lost his virginity to his long-term girlfriend, Millie Williams, whom he’d met when studying psychology at the University of Illinois. (He married her the following year and they had a child together, Christie.) She was the first, Hefner claims, of more than 2,000 lovers. At the close of 1961, he assembled 12 of his favourite Playmates for a photograph: “What made it so personal and particularly unforgettable for me was the fact that I had been romantically involved with 11 of the 12 Playmates featured in the pictorial.” You wonder, as you look at the photo, which was the lucky disciple who got away.
If you read Hefner’s autobiography alongside Steven Watts’s Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream you will see how much its subject has chosen to elide. Watts, who was given free access to his scrapbooks, documents the period of sexual experimentation that led to the Hefners’ separation in 1956: wife-swapping (Hefner slept with his sister-in-law), bisexuality, orgies, homemade porn films and serial affairs that go unmentioned here. Hefner had a bedroom next to his office and had taken to wearing his pyjamas to meetings as the boundaries between work and pleasure broke down. “Duty calls,” he’d say as he excused himself to entertain a woman (he staffed the office with Playmates).
After his divorce came through in 1959, Hefner advertised himself as the embodiment of the libertarian Playboy lifestyle. He hosted a TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse, which was staged to feel like a soirée at his bachelor pad (guests on the first show included Lenny Bruce, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole). He also opened the first Playboy Club, a fashionable members-only establishment that was staffed by playgirls in bunny costumes and bowties (in Diamonds Are Forever, 007 flashes his member’s card). Variety described it as a “Disneyland for adults” and, like Disneyland, Hefner’s empire had its castle, too.
The Playboy Mansion in Chicago was, in Hefner’s description, a “house of dreams”, just the kind of place one of his cartoon superheroes would have lived. It had an indoor pool with a waterfall, discreet grottoes and a fireman’s pole down which you slid to an underwater bar with windows looking on to the pool. Two dozen Playboy bunnies resided in the Bunny Dormitory on the fourth floor. They came home from the club at 4am, keen to party, and the likes of Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson visited Chicago to join in the louche luxury. A brass plaque by the door read in Latin: “If you don’t swing, don’t ring.”
In Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, the historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo shows how Hefner’s primary achievement was to associate sex with upward mobility. Playboy was marketed at yuppies rather than hippies, and it repackaged the summer of love to a corporate readership without alienating advertisers on Madison Avenue. Playboy chimed with and helped to shape the permissive zeitgeist and, in a culture that came to associate sex with self-realisation, Hefner became a symbol and spokesperson for the so-called sexual revolution.
In 1971, at the peak of his company’s success (circulation reached 7 million, and there were casinos, hotels, resorts, even a Braille version of the magazine), Hefner floated Playboy Enterprises, selling 30% of his stake. He decided to clone his Chicago life and he set up a new home in LA. He had two of everything: “I literally was in love with two women at the same time,” he marvels. And he had a black DC-9 jet, christened Big Bunny, to shuttle between coasts.
In 1988, after suffering a stroke, Hefner stepped down as CEO of Playboy Enterprises – though he remains editor-in-chief of the magazine – and handed the reins to his daughter. He married that January’s playmate of the month, Kimberly Conrad, and made another, decade-long attempt to settle down. Their separation in 1998 coincided with his discovery of Viagra (one of his scrapbooks for that year was titled “VIVA VIAGRA”). “Picasso had his blue period,” the 72-year-old joked, “I’m in my blonde period.” The E! channel has documented his sugar granddaddy lifestyle in The Girls Next Door, now in its sixth season, which offers a banal window into his tudor-gothic Shangri-La. Norman Mailer described life at the mansion as “outward-bound and timeless”, and indeed Hefner seems to float in an airbrushed dream space, an unfading caricature of his former self.
Life outside the mansion, however, has moved on, and after 57 years Playboy is a magazine that has lost its Mojo. It never really survived the Aids crisis and the backlash of political correctness in the 80s, an era that Hefner calls “the Great Repression” (the Taschen memorial closes in 1979, at the end of the glory years), which was followed by an onslaught of lad mags that seemed more in tune with youth culture, and then by internet porn. Playboy Enterprises reported a net loss of $51m for 2009 and is currently facing a takeover battle from the owner of Penthouse magazine. Hefner, who has said his “life would be over” if he ever sold his company, wants to buy back all the stock he doesn’t already own for $123m, turning Playboy private and securing his style of living.
Earlier this year two of Hefner’s girlfriends left him – the 20-year-old identical twins Karissa and Kristina Shannon – leaving him with only one mistress, Crystal Harris, 24. The octogenarian insists he’s never felt better, and in interviews seldom fails to repeat the mantra, “age is just a number”. As Groucho Marx said: “You’re only as old as the woman you feel.”