Farewell, Hugh Hefner: The Man Who Brought Sex Out of the Shadows

He invented ‘lifestyle,’ built an empire, and watched the internet run away with his revolution. Après Hef, le déluge.


His timing seemed off, but as with so many things about Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday at age 91, his timing proved impeccable. Playboy magazine debuted in December 1953, during the first year of Dwight Eisenhower’s long, beige presidency.

On the magazine’s cover was a dazzling blond movie actress, waving and laughing full throat, her curves sheathed in a dress with a plunging neckline. It was Marilyn Monroe, star of that year’s How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and she also appeared inside the magazine, naked as the day she was born, stretched out seductively on a sheet of flame-red satin spread over two full pages.

Hefner, a Chicago copywriter, made no secret that his new magazine was casting a wide net. His first editor’s note opened with this declaration: “If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, PLAYBOY is meant for you.” He added that the Playboy reader is the kind of guy who invites a female acquaintance in for some cocktails, music, and “a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, and sex.” The first issue cost 50 cents and sold more than 50,000 copies. Hugh Hefner was on his way.

By the end of the ’50s, the original two-page center spread had morphed into the trademark three-page “centerfold” and the magazine was such a success that Hefner was running a string of Playboy Clubs, hosting a television show, mounting a jazz festival, and purchasing his first Playboy Mansion on Chicago’s Gold Coast. One of his immortal creations, the Playboy Bunny, debuted just as sexy John F. Kennedy was replacing staid Ike in the White House. The birth-control pill was on the market, and the sexual revolution that Hefner had helped nurture was about to become a fact of American life.

It turned out that Hefner wasn’t selling sex so much as he was selling what we now call “lifestyle.” The one he was peddling was built on the accumulation of stylish stuff, including clothes, booze, cars, art, books, stereos and, of course, lots and lots of beddable women. The Playboy lifestyle sought to bring sex out of the shadows, the turf of such pulpy skin mags as Dude, Gent, Nugget, and Cad, and Playboy reflected this in its ads and its upscale editorial content, which included clever cartoons, fiction by literary lights Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Joyce Carol Oates, and its celebrated interviews with subjects ranging from Malcolm X to Marshall McLuhan, Vladimir Nabokov and Jimmy Carter.

Hefner, the son of strict Methodist schoolteachers, became the poster boy for the Playboy lifestyle, frequently photographed with buxom women on his arm, or decked out in what became his trademark—bathrobe, silk pajamas, and slippers, puffing a pipe while running his empire from his capacious bed at the Playboy Mansion. It is unrecorded how many lovers Hefner had in his long life, but he was married three times and fathered four children. At his death, he was married to the model and former Playmate Crystal Harris, 60 years his junior.

Playboy magazine’s circulation would peak at more than 5 million in the 1970s, but by then it was apparent that not everyone wanted to enlist in Hefner’s vanguard of the sexual revolution. The feminist Gloria Steinem, one of many women who derided the Playboy philosophy as sexist, donned a Bunny costume and went to work undercover at New York’s Playboy Club in 1963. Her exposé of the job’s grueling working conditions and low pay—a fraction of the advertised $200 to $300 per week—ran in two issues of long-gone Show magazine, in which her fellow Bunnies scorned the club’s customers as “jerks,” “suckers,” and “schmucks.” Bunnies, Steinem reported, stuffed the bosoms of their too-tight uniforms with dry-cleaning bags, cut-up Bunny tails, foam rubber, lamb’s wool, and Kotex halves. And they all complained about the agony of long hours spent teetering on high heels.

A cousin of mine, a former NFL football player, married a woman who worked as a Bunny at the San Francisco and Boston Playboy Clubs in the 1960s. She offered a version of the job that differs sharply from Steinem’s. She says she made about $300 a week at the San Francisco location, where she was a Showroom Bunny, working the tables and introducing such acts as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Tony Bennett. “The Playboy Club was like walking into a castle,” she told me recently. “It was very difficult work—you had to run carrying heavy trays of drinks and, yes, the costumes were tight. But I didn’t have issues with hard work, and I was never touched by any man. The Bunnies bonded, and I was making more money than I ever thought I would make.”

She does acknowledge that she now suffers from “neuropathy” on the soles of her feet, numbness caused by nerve damage, courtesy of those long hours on high heels half a century ago. But she has no regrets.

Steinem’s Show article got wide attention, but Hefner couldn’t have cared less. He was too busy expanding his empire and fending off the competition. In 1971 he opened a second Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles and took Playboy Enterprises public. Meanwhile, Bob Guccione had started publishing Penthouse magazine, which featured full frontal nudity, and Larry Flynt’s Hustler went one better, showing not just female pubic hair, but the intricacies of female plumbing. Small wonder that Flynt’s private jet was painted pink. Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw, made this vow: “We promise never to ink out a pubic hair or chalk out an organ.” Videotapes expanded the reach and increasingly graphic content of porn. Après Hef, le déluge.

If Hefner had been able to dismiss Steinem’s behind-the-scenes exposé of Playboy Clubs, there was a piece of writing that he could not ignore. The 1980 Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten, became the love interest of director Peter Bogdanovich while she was acting in his movie They All Laughed. After Stratten was murdered by her estranged husband, Bogdanovich published a book, The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten (1960-1980), claiming that Hefner and the Playboy lifestyle had put Stratten in harm’s way. Hefner suffered a stroke in 1985 and said it was a result of the stress brought on by Bogdanvich’s “pathological” book.

The proliferation of free pornography on the internet eventually turned the once-racy Playboy into a quaint anachronism. Conceding this, the magazine stopped publishing pictures of nude women in 2016 because, as Playboy Enterprises CEO Scott Flanders put it, they had become “passé.” But it brought nudes back again early this year, declaring “naked is normal.” “Today, we’re taking our identity back and rediscovering who we are,” said Cooper Hefner, Hugh’s son, a fierce critic of the no-nudes policy.

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So it turns out Hugh Hefner didn’t invent sex, exactly. What he invented was a way to make mountains of money from sex at a time when everyone thought about it, nobody talked openly about it, and just about everybody wanted to see and do more of it. Eventually everyone got to see much more of it than even Hefner could provide, which is to say that he got outpaced by the revolution he helped create. Not a bad epitaph for the man’s gravestone.