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Though playboy had launched and was doing gangbuster early sales, by the mid 1950s it had become clear that there was still something missing from the magazine. Sure, the bunny logo was firmly in place and the term “Playmate” had supplanted the “Sweetheart” appellation provided to Marilyn Monroe, but the magazine missed a certain je ne sais quois.
There are a few reasons for that, both of which would be quickly rectified by some savvy hiring decisions by Hugh Hefner. First of all, Hef was still married to college sweetheart Mildred Williams. During their 10-year marriage, Williams gave birth to Christie and David in 1952 and ‘55. (Christie would go on to run the magazine and company at large from 1988 to 2009.) Hef was faithful to Mildred, as he was to each woman he married, which no doubt raised a few eyebrows when his magazine ran stories like the July 1955 piece “A Vote for Polygamy.”
“Matter of fact, monogamy is nothing more than a rather recent experiment in sex relations, a kind of crazy idea dreamed up by some fanatical barbarians when they were getting ready to run over the rich, civilized, polygamous Roman Empire,” wrote Jay Smith. “They fastened their aberration on Christianity and Judaism when they took over down south, but it didn’t put down very deep roots in either of those faiths and has since been laughingly rejected by Mohammedans, Buddhists and residents of Southern California. As recently as 1675 the English thought seriously of ditching it, a bill being introduced into Parliament in that year to repeal the Act of king James, which made it a felony to marry a second husband or wife if the first was still living.”
Selecting a normal woman, albeit a beautiful one, codified the Playboy lifestyle as achievable for the average man or woman.
That same issue saw another key development. That would be the first time playboy used a nonprofessional model as its Playmate of the Month. Charlaine Edith Karalus, who worked in the subscriptions department, must have caught Hef’s eye because he asked her to pose for the issue. She agreed, on the condition that he buy a new addressograph for the office and that he change her name.
Hef picked Janet Pilgrim to make fun of puritanical attitudes about sex among the reading public. Selecting a normal woman, albeit a beautiful one, was important because it codified the Playboy lifestyle as achievable for the average man or woman. That was the missing ingredient—the thing that made the average man think that he, too, could live the playboy lifestyle.
“Actually, potential Playmates are all around you: the new secretary at your office, the doe-eyed beauty who sat opposite you at lunch yesterday, the girl who sells you shirts and ties at your favorite store,” the magazine wrote. “We found Miss July in our own circulation department, processing subscriptions, renewals and back copy orders. Her name is Janet Pilgrim and she’s as efficient as she is good looking.”
The second savvy decision by Hefner was hiring Victor Lownes. The pair met in 1954 and Hef wanted to hire him as the promotions director for the company. That would happen, but first Lownes started writing for the magazine. His early pieces include this profile of comedian Jonathan Winters.
Lownes cut quite a figure. Frank Brady, in his 1974 biography of Hefner, wrote that he was “a dapper and sophisticated man-about-Chicago,” and that Lownes, “it was said, discovered Brooks Brothers when he was still in diapers.” In the same biography, Brady wrote that Lownes was “the essence of the true playboy image.” A former executive echoed the sentiment: “Wherever Lownes sat became the head of the table.” Russell Miller, writing in Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy, said that Lownes “loved parties, girls and sex and was never happier than when enjoying all three simultaneously.”
Lownes was always at dinner with a different woman, and that caught Hef’s eye for obvious reasons. The pair became inseparable, which made Hef and then-wife Mildred extremely separable. Hefner and Williams broke up in 1955, though their divorce wouldn’t be final for a few years.
Perhaps playing off that confidence, an ad for subscriptions running in the April 1956 issue asked “What is a Playboy?”
“Is he simply a wastrel, a ne’er-do-well, a fashionable bum? Far from it: he can be a sharp-minded young business executive, a worker in the arts, a university professor, an architect or engineer. He can be many things, providing he possesses a certain point of view. He must see life not as a vale of tears, but as a happy time; he must take joy in his work, without regarding it as the end and all of living; he must be an alert man, an aware man, a man of taste, a man sensitive to pleasure, a man who—without acquiring the stigma of the voluptuary or dilettante—can live life to the hilt. This is the sort of man we mean when we use the word playboy.”
Hefner was without a doubt living the life promised by the ad: He was hanging out with Lownes, editing a massive magazine and, most important, dating Janet Pilgrim.
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