Hugh Hefner, iconic Playboy founder, dies at 91
In 1953, a time when states could legally ban contraceptives and the word “pregnant” was not allowed on “I Love Lucy,” Hefner published the first issue of Playboy, featuring naked photos of Marilyn Monroe and an editorial promise of “humor, sophistication and spice.”
The Great Depression and World War II were over and Playboy soon became forbidden fruit for teens and a bible for men with time and money, primed for the magazine’s prescribed evenings of dimmed lights, hard drinks, soft jazz, deep thoughts and deeper desires. Within a year, circulation neared 200,000. Within five years, it had topped 1 million.
Hefner, the pipe-smoking embodiment of the lifestyle he touted, died at his home of natural causes on Wednesday night, Playboy said in a statement. He was 91.
Hefner and Playboy were brand names worldwide. Asked by The New York Times in 1992 of what he was proudest, Hefner responded: “That I changed attitudes toward sex. That nice people can live together now. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction.”
By the 1970s, Playboy magazine had more than 7 million readers and had inspired such raunchier imitations as Penthouse and Hustler. Competition and the internet reduced circulation to less than 3 million by the 21st century. In 2015, Playboy ceased publishing images of naked women, citing the proliferation of nudity on the internet but restored its traditional nudity earlier this year.
Hefner became the flamboyant symbol of the lifestyle he espoused. For decades he was the pipe-smoking, silk-pajama-wearing center of a constant party with celebrities and Playboy models. By his own account, Hefner had sex with more than a thousand women, including many of those pictured in his magazine.
Hefner was host of a television show, “Playboy After Dark,” and in 1960 opened a string of clubs around the world where waitresses wore revealing costumes with bunny ears and fluffy white bunny tails. In the 21st century, he was back on television in a cable reality show - “The Girls Next Door” - with three live-in girlfriends in the Los Angeles Playboy mansion. Network television briefly embraced Hefner’s empire in 2011 with the NBC drama “The Playboy Club,” which failed to lure viewers and was canceled after three episodes.
Censorship of the magazine was inevitable. Playboy has been banned in China, India, Saudi Arabia and Ireland. In the 1950s, Hefner successfully sued to prevent the U.S. Postal Service from denying him second-class mailing status.
Playboy proved a scourge, and a temptation. Drew Barrymore, Farrah Fawcett and Linda Evans are among those who have posed for the magazine. Several bunnies became celebrities, too, including singer Deborah Harry and model Lauren Hutton, both of whom had fond memories of their time with Playboy. Other bunnies had traumatic experiences, with several alleging they had been raped by Hefner’s close friend Bill Cosby, who faced dozens of such allegations in recent years. Hefner issued a statement in late 2014 he “would never tolerate this behavior.” But two years later, former bunny Chloe Goins sued Cosby and Hefner for sexual battery and gender violence over an alleged 2008 rape.
One bunny turned out to be a journalist: Feminist Gloria Steinem got hired in the early 1960s and turned her brief employment into an article for Show magazine that described the clubs as pleasure havens for men only. The bunnies, Steinem wrote, tended to be poorly educated, overworked and underpaid. Steinem regarded the magazine and clubs not as erotic, but “pornographic.”
“I think Hefner himself wants to go down in history as a person of sophistication and glamour. But the last person I would want to go down in history as is Hugh Hefner,” Steinem later said.
“Women are the major beneficiaries of getting rid of the hypocritical old notions about sex,” Hefner responded. “Now some people are acting as if the sexual revolution was a male plot to get laid. One of the unintended by-products of the women’s movement is the association of the erotic impulse with wanting to hurt somebody.”
Hefner added that the magazine contained far more than centerfolds. Playboy serialized Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and later published fiction by John Updike, Doris Lessing and Vladimir Nabokov. Playboy also specialized in long and candid interviews, from Fidel Castro and Frank Sinatra to Marlon Brando. John Lennon spoke to Playboy in 1980, not long before he was murdered.
Hefner liked to say he was untroubled by criticism, but in 1985 he suffered a mild stroke that he blamed on the book “The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980,” by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. Stratten was a Playmate killed by her husband, Paul Snider, who then killed himself. Bogdanovich, Stratton’s boyfriend at the time, wrote that Hefner helped bring about her murder and was unable to deal with “what he and his magazine do to women.”
After the stroke, Hefner handed control of his empire to his feminist daughter, Christie, although he owned 70 percent of Playboy stock and continued to choose every month’s Playmate and cover shot.
Not surprisingly, Hefner’s marriage life was also a bit of a show. In 1949, he married Mildred Williams, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1958. In July 1989, Hefner married Kimberley Conrad, the 1989 Playmate of the Year, who was then 27. The couple also had two children. The couple divorced in 2010 and he proposed in 2011 to 24-year-old Crystal Harris, a former Playmate. Harris called off the wedding days before the ceremony, but later changed her mind and they married at the end of 2012.
“Maybe I should be single,” he said a few months later. “But I do know that I need an ongoing romantic relationship. In other words, I am essentially a very romantic person, and all I really was looking for, quite frankly, with the notion of marriage was continuity and something to let the girl know that I really cared.”
Hefner is survived by Crystal as well as his daughter, Christie; and his sons, David, Marston and Cooper. Playboy announced no immediate funeral plans, but Hefner owned a plot in a Los Angeles cemetery next to Marilyn Monroe. AP