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playboy came of age in a time that, seen through a certain lens, isn’t that different from our own. Our newly minted president had never held a political office of any kind, our major global enemy was Russia and the whole country was in the deepest throes of sexual revolution. Nobody in their right mind would make more than a glancing comparison between Dwight Eisenhower and Donald Trump, but 1953, like 2017, saw us in a period of intense nuclear anxiety, our national identity uncertain.
Alfred Kinsey, a former zoologist at the University of Indiana, founded the organization that would later become known as the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948, contained some scandalous findings that began to inch open the heavy door behind which hid human sexual behavior. For starters, it made it clear that monogamy as commonly understood was more or less a sham. Kinsey wrote that about 69 percent of white men in the United States had slept with prostitutes and that “it is probably safe to suggest that about half of all married males have intercourse with women other than their wives, at some time while they are married.” The second Kinsey Report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, came out in 1953.
playboy launched in December of that year. The Kinsey Reports, not to mention Esquire magazine’s refusal to give Hef a small raise as a copywriter and cartoonist, pushed him into founding a magazine that he wanted to call Stag Party until a cease-and-desist letter pushed him to come up with the decidely more durable name playboy. He began the magazine with an investment of just $8,000 from 45 investors. His mother donated $1,000, and he still keeps a receipt for her loan in his extensive records. So basically playboy was Kickstarted, only we didn’t have a name for it then.
The first words ever published in playboy were a mission statement that made it very clear that this men’s magazine would stand apart from the rest of the field.
“If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, playboy is meant for you,” the statement reads. “If you like your entertainment served up with humor, sophistication and spice, playboy will become a very special favorite.”
This wasn’t going to be a magazine that pushed you into the great outdoors. No, the playboy man was a dazzling urbanite from the start.
“We like our apartment,” the intro reads. “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 acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”
And though the world was a turbulent place, playboy’s earliest commitment was to provide a small window of escape.
“Affairs of state will be out of our province. We don’t expect to solve any world problems or prove any great moral truths. If we are able to give the American male a few extra laughs and a little diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age, we’ll feel we’ve justified our existence.”
But the main draw was, of course, the cover girl, Marilyn Monroe. Hef found Monroe while looking through calendar catalogues for pictures of naked women. Monroe had posed for photographer Tom Kelley out of “desperation,” having been released from studio contracts, according to her book Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words. She signed the pictures Mona Monroe to protect her identity.
“You must promise to never tell anyone about my posing for you in the nude,” she reportedly told Kelley. “I want you to promise me that you will take the pictures so that I wouldn’t be recognizable in them.”
They indeed went undiscovered until Hef found them while combing through endless archives. That year, 1953, she appeared in How to Marry A Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but her pose on the cover of playboy—and her nude centerfold spread—became as iconic as any of her film roles.
“She’s as famous as Dwight Eisenhower and Dick Tracy, and she and Dr. Kinsey have so monopolized sex this year, some people in high places are investigating to make certain no antitrust laws have been bent or broken,” the magazine wrote of Monroe.
And it’s true that she stunned as what was then called the “Sweetheart of the Month.” Her nude form indeed let the reader see a side of her that wasn’t visible in motion pictures—literally. But this was no normal skin mag, with leering descriptions and lewd photography. You can see this in the juxtaposition of the Monroe pictorial and the first issue’s fiction, “Introducing Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Back then the magazine cost just 50 cents and was worth every penny. As good as that was, American Playboy points out, Hef was just getting started.
Check out iPlayboy for access to playboy magazine’s complete archives.