LEGENDS

My Father and Hugh Hefner: The Greatest Rivalry in Porn

For decades they fought for domination of the men’s market in print in America. These were people who changed the world, and yet never could stand each other.

My father hated Hugh Hefner. Which I always thought was irrational and, by the end of his life, just force of habit, something he no longer felt with any real emotion, a default position for which the source code had long been lost. 

If it hadn’t been for Hugh Hefner my father might have died the penniless painter and cartoonist and erstwhile drycleaning chain store manager he was in 1964, when he realized that Playboy, an American import, was the biggest selling men’s magazine in England, where we lived at the time, despite making no attempt to Anglicize whatsoever. He thought, well I can do a version of this that would at least have the advantage of being native, and written in English English rather than American English. So in 1965 he started Penthouse, which immediately outsold the invading Playboy, and, once he brought it to America to compete with Hef on his home soil, eventually became one of the most famous and infamous and influential magazines in history.

To be fair, Hefner hated my father. Both of them, for all their undeniable toughness and strength, were incredibly thin skinned to each other’s criticisms and provocations. For decades they fought for domination of the men’s market in print in America. At their height, the two titles sold a combined 10 million-plus copies a month. Both men bestrode the publishing industry, Titans in a pantheon that probably only otherwise included Henry Luce, William Randolph Hearst, and DeWitt and Lila Bell Wallace, the founders of Reader’s Digest. These were people who changed the world, opened it up culturally. It is not an exaggeration to say Hefner and my father did that.

Hefner resented that my father was the usurper. My father resented that, even though Penthouse passed Playboy, he never vanquished Hefner, never replaced him in the American psyche as the Alpha male. My father was always the brasher, cockier, bolder - but always the outsider. Hefner stayed more in bounds, more establishment and to the public the more iconic, in the same way Charlie Brown is more iconic than The Simpsons, or Coca Cola is more essentially Americana than, say, Pepsi.

Ironically, of course, they were both very similar --- good men, deeply intellectual, brilliantly creative and instinctive, evenly matched, though pockmarked with flaws and doubts and personal pains. Both men were culturally polarizing lapsed Christians, who hoped that the God they disavowed ultimately did exist and really did have a sense of humor.

Now that Hefner has died, his public eulogies have been binary, reflecting the controversial nature of his career. The ones which I feel he deserves have acknowledged his huge place in history and the social issues he championed. He financed many of the earlier, lower court cases that culminated in Roe v. Wade. He was, like my father, a champion of free speech and he fought for many great liberal causes. 

But inevitably there have been kick the grave criticisms of his hedonistic lifestyle, and Playboy’s mantra that a hedonistic lifestyle could at least partly be yours too. One such piece, in the Guardian, was titled “Effusive Hugh Hefner tributes ignore Playboy founder’s dark side” – a core facet of which is that he had sex a lot. It is true that he did not see 70s feminists as his natural allies and could be crude in his characterizations, certainly by contemporary standards.  The article also resurfaces ugly old allegations – like the accusation that he was somehow indirectly responsible for Playmate Dorothy Stratten’s murder at the hands of her husband – and an account of Bill Cosby drugging a woman at the Playboy Mansion rightly resonates even more loudly today. Gloria Steinem is trotted out in absentia, of course, for her brilliant expose of what it was like to be a Playboy Bunny in one of Hef’s clubs, but I’m not even sure she disliked him that much. The underlying sin seems to be Hefner’s lifestyle, undergirded by angst that the man had lived in the first place. In a surely unintended irony, the photo shows a handsome, young looking Hefner, in 1972, the prime of his life, having the time of his life.

There is no doubt the idiotic reality TV show he did in the mid 2000s, while in his 80s, The Girls Next Door, did scuff the gloss of his legacy. And subsequent claims that his coterie of almost identical looking blonde girlfriends had to pleasure him selfishly injured his reputation --- even if exaggerated, they made him, and the women, look ridiculous. I felt sorry for him, that, even as an octogenarian, he still felt the obligation to be seen as a stud.

***

But I liked Hefner! And always respected him as the magazine genius he was. I interviewed him in 1998 for the first issue of my magazine Gear. He greeted me warmly, wearing silk red pajamas, and was gracious and charismatic. I knew a Guccione interviewing a Hefner would gain attention for Gear’s launch, which it did, and I think he was simply intrigued to see what I was like, knowing that at the time I was estranged from my dad, as he was estranged from his son David, who was only a month different in age to me.

When I got to the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills in LA, I had the same sensation I had crossing the Red Square in Moscow a few years earlier, of being somewhere I was as unlikely to ever see as the surface of the moon. Surrealy, I was greeted by a couple of resident Bunnies --- I don’t know what else to call them --- who came to see me, like I was some exotic creature that had landed, with a broken wing, on their lawn. Each gave me warm, strong hugs, and their silicone breasts prodded my chest.

I said to him that we had both spent a lot of our lives hearing the criticism that the centerfolds in Penthouse and Playboy exploited women, and had defended against that accusation, passionately and sincerely. Was there the possibility we were wrong? “Well, I don’t know this is a question that has a definite, objective answer. Is a picture of a nude woman automatically exploitative? No, of course not, obviously not, but may there be circumstances behind it in which it is? Of course, sure.” he answered.

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I asked him what was pornographic in his opinion? “I think, quite honestly, that pornography is a level of sexual explicitness, or imagery, or writing, that you don’t approve of. When you put a line between erotica and pornography, pornography is the bad label. That’s all,” he said.

He told me that he and Gloria Steinem had originally been set up on a date that never happened, which he said she denies, and that the second time they were supposed to meet was at a party she didn’t show up for because she had already begun her undercover sting as a Playboy Bunny in one of the then proliferating Playboy Clubs, and didn’t want to be exposed. He said Lauren Hutton and Debbie Harry were in her same Bunny training class.

Towards the end of the interview I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, and if he had any regrets.

“As someone who has some positive impact on society,” he said, and as far as regrets, “that’s a tricky one. Obviously, there have been some mistakes, and there has been a loss of some people very dear to me, but my life has been so rewarding, and such an adventure, that one has some concern about changing anything. I recognize that I am one of the most fortunate people on the planet, and the best part of it is what nobody else can know, which is how much satisfaction and love and friendship has been part of my life continuously. You know, I’m a most lucky fella.”

Which, on reflection, was true.