Hef's Sex Education

A new documentary explores Playboy founder Hugh Hefner's little-known history as an early gay-rights pioneer. Plus, the night he was fixed up with Gloria Steinem.

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At 83, Hugh Hefner's legacy is pretty much bulletproof. His Bunnies have their own hit TV series; the Playboy Mansion remains a celebrity hop-stop. Hefner's life is, in many ways, a fantasy blueprint for many an American male: He started a small business (Playboy magazine) that made him a millionaire, earned him fame, and got him plenty of sex with younger women in the process.

But much as he revels in his status as the godfather of American hedonism, he's concerned he'll be remembered in the wrong light. “One of the things I find really curious is when people say I've lived an amoral life,” says the man who's stood at the center of a thousand Playboy Bunny photo ops. “From my perspective, it's quite the contrary. I feel I've lived a very moral life. I've been on the side of angels from the beginning.”

“Our TV show, The Girls Next Door, is hugely popular, primarily with women. Some women wear the rabbit on clothing with great pride.”

Usually when the words “Hefner” and “angels” appear in the same sentence, there's an accompanying photo spread with a blonde wearing nothing but a pair of feathered wings. A new documentary aims to change that. Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival next month, highlights Hefner's work as a civil-rights activist and an early champion of women and gays.

The challenge of transforming such a large public persona is evident in the film's subtitle, which can't help but prioritize Hefner's sex-icon bona fides (a Playboy first, Activist second.) Filmmaker Brigitte Berman, who won an Oscar for her 1985 documentary Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got, focuses on the publisher's battles over censorship, segregation, abortion, and contraception. She says she was inspired to make the film after attending Hefner's 80th birthday party at the Playboy Mansion. “I got to know Hef because of his love for jazz,” she says. “When people think of him, they think of the babes, the boobs, the blondes. There's another side to him, one I think is too often overlooked.”

Berman sent a treatment to Hefner, who granted her full access to his personal archives without asking for any right to interfere with the filmmaking process. “This film has less to do with the lifestyle and more to do with my commitment to social change,” he says.

“I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1948, and there were the beginnings of racial integration. There were student protests against restaurants and movie theaters that had segregation, and I took part in some of those protests.” When Hefner launched his chain of Playboy nightclubs, two of the franchises in the South were segregated. At his own expense, Hefner bought back the franchises and integrated them.

He commissioned articles for Playboy from writers who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, including screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten.” “I received a letter from Ronald Reagan at that time, requesting that I stop using writers who'd been identified by HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee],” he says. His late-'50s TV variety show, Playboy's Penthouse, featured acts “that couldn't get on network television because they'd been blacklisted.”

So blacks and suspected Communists—sure. But what of the women? Hefner has long asserted that Playboy and feminism are not only compatible, but complementary—"I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism,” he told Esquire in 2002—and for just as long, women have disagreed. Berman got feminist writer Susan Brownmiller to discuss her objections to Hefner's work, but his most famous critic, Gloria Steinem, declined several requests to appear in the film, citing an overloaded schedule. (Steinem also declined, through a publicist, to comment for this article.)

This, even though Hefner's existence provided Steinem the opening for her big break. The woman who would later co-found Ms. magazine first gained attention as a writer in 1963, when she penned her now-infamous exposé on working conditions for Playboy bunnies. (The article became a Movie of the Week, A Bunny's Tale, starring Kirstie Alley in 1985.) Something that didn't make it into Berman's documentary is the fact that prior to that article's publication, Steinem and Hefner had been in touch, as a mutual friend was trying to set them up on a date.

Strange but true, says Hefner: “Harvey Kurtzman, who had founded Mad magazine, told me he had this hot secretary who he was convinced was made to order for me. He thought she had the same way with men that I had with women. After exchanging letters, I went out to New York for some kind of event we were organizing. We threw a party and Gloria was invited, but she didn't show up. The reason was she was working on that article.”

Hefner is convinced Steinem only defends the Bunnies article because she feels obliged to. “It was that piece that gave her notoriety and fame, so she's had to support it for all these years, but it was sort of a foolish piece, and many of the Bunnies she worked with were resentful about it. I think the article has limited her in terms of who she could have been and what she could have accomplished.”

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Through money from the Playboy Foundation, Hefner has funded many legal battles over access to birth control and abortion. “I was so blindsided when the more conservative feminists attacked me. I didn't know what that was all about. I thought we were always fighting the good fight and on the same side. In fact, we were the amicus curiae in the Roe v. Wade case.” Hefner sees no merit in the argument that Playboy's centerfolds were more about objectification than sexual liberation. Playboy is about freedom, not male domination—at least according to the Book of Hef. “I always found it strange that the feminist movement would consider sex the enemy, since it seems one of the major ways that women have been held in subjugation historically is through sexuality.”

Times have changed, he says, especially the attitudes many women have toward his brand. “Our TV show, The Girls Next Door, is hugely popular, primarily with women. Some women wear the rabbit on clothing with great pride. I think that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.”

Perhaps even more surprising than his purported feminist leanings is Hefner's early support of gay equality. Even in ascetic 1955, when being gay could get one fired from a government job, Hefner addressed homosexuality head-on in his fledging new magazine. At the risk of alienating readers, he published a short sci-fi story by Charles Beaumont titled “The Crooked Man,” depicting a world in which homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are a vilified and persecuted minority. “The story was turned down by Esquire, and then we published it,” he recalls. After the magazine was deluged with angry letters, Hefner ran a response asserting that “if it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse was wrong too.”

“Without question, love in its various permutations is what we need more of in this world,” says the twice-married Hefner, who, unlike most of his peers, favors legalizing same-sex marriage. “The idea that the concept of marriage will be sullied by same-sex marriage is ridiculous. Heterosexuals haven't been doing that well at it on their own.”

For the record, Hefner's two attempts at marriage were a failure. But he insists he made valiant efforts in both instances, saying he remained faithful as long as the marriages remained intact. “The second marriage lasted eight years,” he recalls. “Was I happy during that time? I think not. Different strokes for different folks. We get along very well now that we're not married. The last dozen years have been the happiest of my life.”

Hefner says young people today will have a hard time imagining what the world was like in 1953, the year he started Playboy. It was a watershed year for the Cold War: Stalin died, the Rosenbergs were executed, McCarthy's cultural war was hitting its stride. And yet, for a man who was so ahead of his time, Hefner today often appears to long for the past. He remains passionate about old movies and music, and has a tendency to wax nostalgic about the so-called good old days. “I feel sorry for younger people because when I was growing up the movies and music were so romantic,” he says. “Now it's those rap numbers about fucking in the road. Something's been lost.”

An innocence? A simpler time? The '50s may have been Hefner's foil, but they will always be his heyday.

Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist and the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp Press). He is also a programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival