I know there are lots of women who will disapprove of my brief homage to Hugh Hefner, who died yesterday at 91. He certainly objectified women and arguably contributed to a male culture of disrespect for them, too. The Bunny stereotype? Well, you could call it a growing pain—or simply a pain. But Playboy was also a breakthrough in many important socio-cultural ways. Taboo-busting, mores changing, fire-branding. The magazine emerged at a critical time in American history when the nation was in the throes of an identity crisis, a hypocritical slide into postwar puritan pursuit among other concerns, including racial inequality and growing imperialism. We won a great war against fascism and had become a fear-mongering, morally unstable Cold War enabler. Playboy was not just a girlie magazine, exploiting sex at the expense of respect. Hef was not just an immoral pornographer. He was waging a war against a more insidious American immorality.
I won’t preach about the power of Playboy to change attitudes for better or worse, only to say that sex was the key that Hefner used to open a door to political and sociological concerns and the people who spoke for them. No, I didn’t just read it for the interviews or essays. When I was 10 and 11 I sneaked peeks at the girls. But frankly, I also loved the look and feel that Hefner enabled through the work of the great art director Art Paul. Playboy was, well, my design education between covers. It was also fun, fun, fun.
A number of years ago I had the chance to interview Hefner for a story I wrote about his pioneering art director, Art Paul, which appears in my book Rants and Raves. It was an hour of history. After all, Hefner introduced a generation to the wit of Lenny Bruce, who also busted taboos and paid a heavy price, and so many other icons of the ’50s and ’60s. The time allotted for our talk was too short to get into everything I wanted to ask him. It was about design. Hefner told me he wanted to be a cartoonist. So it is not surprising that he filled the magazine with great cartoonists, like Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Little Annie Fanny—and with whom Hefner published the humor publication called Trump.
He originated the Playboy Bunny after his original name for the mag, Stag Party, proved unsatisfactory. I asked him whether the Playboy name was lifted from the original Playboy magazine, a literary journal with left leanings, which was published in the U.S. from 1919–1924 (although not in 1921–23). He told me he had known about it, and maybe he did think it was a good title. He couldn’t recall. But he did recall the excitement of his first issue and what he could make happen to change America through its ongoing publication.
I wish Hef a happy send-off to the mansion in the sky. And I offer much gratitude for making my awkward youth a little more tolerable, and my later years a little more enlightened.
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