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THE STORY OF THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO IN THE 1950S HELPED CREATE THE SEXUAL LANDSCAPE WE INHABIT TODAY
May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
As a convert to the cause of more open sexuality, he became a crusader, taking up that cause with the passion his puritan grandparents had espoused in their religion. For all his subsequent success in terms of personal sexual freedom, there was, according to some who knew him well, a certain grimness to his pursuit of pleasure.
Hefner was only twenty-seven when he started his magazine. All of his small savings and some of his friends’ were tied up in it; if it failed, he would owe several thousand dollars. Playboy was not Hefner’s original choice for a name. He had wanted to give it the cruder title of Stag Party , but a letter from the lawyers of a girly magazine in New York called Stag threatened legal action if he did not change it. Playboy it became, as an afterthought.
Hefner printed seventy thousand copies of the first issue, hoping that it would sell at least thirty thousand of them at fifty cents each. Instead, bolstered in no small part by word of mouth on the Monroe photos, it sold fifty-three thousand—a huge success. He was in business. Within a year, by December 1954, circulation had reached one hundred thousand. By early 1955 Playboy had $250,000 in the bank, and Hefner had turned down an offer of $1,000,000 for the magazine from a group in Chicago. Hefner demanded ever more glossy photos and used what he considered sophisticated writing; he was trying to make Playboy legitimate and stated his purpose of bringing sex out into the open.
Hugh Hefner’s great strength was his lack of sophistication.
The Calvinists, Hefner believed, thought sex was dark and furtive, and the other girly magazines of the period were so cheap and crude they seemed to confirm that judgment. It was Hefner’s particular genius to know that it was now going to be permissible to have an upscale, far more sophisticated magazine of male sexual fantasies that customers might not be embarrassed to be seen buying—or even leaving out on their coffee tables.
Alfred Kinsey was his hero, and he had understood from reading the Kinsey report that he was not alone, that his sexual attitudes and fantasies were mirrored by millions of other young men. In his first issue Hefner wrote: “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 for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” There it was: the Playboy ethic, sex not only as legitimate but as a sophisticated life-style. By the end of 1956, still operating with a skeleton staff, Playboy was a phenomenon. Circulation was six hundred thousand. “A lot of it,” said Ray Russell, a writer and editor who was one of Hefner’s first hires, “was good luck, random choice, being carried on the tides of the times rather than the leader of the times. It was a matter of being the right magazine able to take advantage of a rising economy, more than any degree of conscious planning.”
Hefner was pretty much living in his offices in those early days. Then as he became more successful he converted a Chicago mansion into his home; even so he remained distant and remote, a kind of latter-day Gatsby who opened this plush residence to an endless stream of people whom he did not know, and who did not know him. In some ways he was still an outsider looking in. “Hefner,” said Don Gold, an editor at Playboy in the fifties, “is not a very complicated man. He thinks Poe is the best writer in the world. When he buys a pipe, he buys two dozen of the same pipe. He likes his mashed potatoes to have a dimple of gravy on them. He is mid-America personified. The Marquis de Sade would have told him to wait in a corner, though he is, in a healthy way, by sex possessed.”
Despite the magazine’s intellectual pretensions, Hefner’s great strength was his lack of sophistication. He was square but longed to share in the wider, hipper world that television and movies were bringing so tantalizingly close. In that, he mirrored the longings of millions of other young men from similar backgrounds, fantasizing a faster and freer life.
His success—for he soon became the most successful magazine publisher of the decade, a millionaire who styled himself an authority on the fast-lane life for the young, monied, and restless—echoed powerful new chords in American life. The first was a more candid view of sex and sexuality. Hefner sought to abolish America’s puritan past, so evident in his own background. In the broader sense Playboy represented the transition to the better, more affluent life that more and more Americans were enjoying as they lived decidedly better than their parents in material terms. The magazine explained how to buy a sports car and a hi-fi, how to order in a restaurant, what kind of wine to drink. It provided an elementary tutorial on the new American affluence for newcomers to the middle class, midwifing young men who were often the first members of their families to graduate from college into a world of increasing plenty.