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1956 marked the beginning of the explosion of playboy into the American mainstream. The first important innovation that year was the centerfold, which has since become a magazine fixture.
The first person to shoot a woman as a centerfold was a woman herself. Ruth Sondak was born in New York in 1916, joined the U.S. Army Corps during World War II and learned to photograph while in the service. She quickly became a successful photographer in her native New York, where she worked for seven years under the banner of Keystone, a British news syndicate.
“There was only one other woman photographer in New York at that period covering news assignments,” Sondak told Santa Monica College newspaper The Corsair in 1976. “In fact, there really were not many photographers at all—even though there were a lot of newspapers. There was a corps of newsmen and photographers, and I was accepted as one of the group. I remember an editor saying that I was the only photographer who always came back with pictures instead of excuses.”
The Playmate in question was Marian Stafford, who wanted badly to be an actress.
“This month’s Playmate is a little girl with big television aspirations,” the introduction to her pictorial reads. “But her most unique television experience is as a human test pattern for Max Liebman spectaculars, where she spends hours before NBC color cameras during rehearsals and is never seen by the audience.”
Hefner, too, entertained dreams of television fame—and quickly achieved it courtesy of an appearance on Mike Wallace’s show Night Beat. Hefner appeared on the program on January 9, 1957, and Wallace came in hot.
“I think that you’ll agree that it’s a sniggering kind of sex, it’s a lascivious kind of sex, it certainly isn’t a healthy kind of sex and you can’t suggest that it is,” Wallace said.
“We would not only suggest it, but I would say rather strongly that we consider it a healthy attitude,” Hefner replied.
Later, much later, Wallace would say, “I trust Hef. I haven’t seen him in a long time, but I like him.”
The most controversial part of Playboy’s Penthouse was something we wouldn’t even think about now: Hef invited black guests. And he let them in the front door.
Hef had had the TV monkey on his back, and he fed it with a new show. Playboy’s Penthouse launched on October 24, 1959. The first guests were Lenny Bruce, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat “King” Cole.
“This is a kind of a… an interesting party,” Bruce told Hef. “You know, I first figured it would be like, sort of a TV, you know, a typical fake party. But it’s got a good party feeling to it, with some pretty chicks, which is a good composite.”
"Well,” Hef said. “[We have] the girls and we serve real liquor… it does the trick.”
Bruce was a bawdy comic that became famous in part because of his appearances on the Penthouse, but perhaps the most controversial part was something we wouldn’t even think about now: Hef invited black guests. And he let them in the front door.
Southern affiliates didn’t want to carry the show, which filmed in Chicago and had to be purchased specifically by local networks, but Hef didn’t care. The TV show burnished playboy’s image as a modern magazine for the modern man—and one that’s on the right side of history. Though it only ran for two seasons, it also provided a window into Hugh Hefner’s bachelor lifestyle.
June 1957 was the first time Hef made an extended appearance in the magazine.
“Editor Hefner is a bona fide ‘Night Person'—his day begins around 11:00 a.m. and ends in the early hours of the following dawn. In his vigorously masculine office on the top floor of the new playboy Building, he edits copy, approves layouts, holds meetings with his editorial, art, production, advertising, promotion, circulation and business staffs. He has an enthusiasm for the magazine that communicates itself to his associates like sparks to tinder. His dress is conservative and casual, he always wears loafers, and a bottle of Pepsi-Cola (which he consumes at the rate of two dozen a day) is never very far away. There is an electronic entertainment wall in his office … that includes hi-fi, AM-FM radio, tape and television, and will store up to 2,000 LPs. Brubeck, Kenton or Sinatra is usually on the turntable when Hefner is working.”
Again, Hef played up his bachelor lifestyle to attract readers. The magazine’s central promise was that if you followed its instructions exactly, one day you might be as fulfilled as was Hef.
Another critical early appearance was in December, 1961, by which time the magazine’s circulation was about 1,150,000. Hef had bought the first Playboy Mansion, then in Chicago and just blocks from the Playboy Building. The December issue included a 10-page feature pegged to an A-list Christmas party that included many of the magazine’s most famous Playmates.
The mansion itself was the stuff of dreams.
“The Playmates were captivated by Hefner’s collection of abstract-expressionist paintings,“ the story reads, "which includes the works of such moderns as Pollock, de Kooning, Tworkov, Resnick and Rivers. Throughout the house, there is a felicitous amalgam of the traditional and the contemporary, typified by the juxtaposition of a giant piece of modern sculpture and a burnished suit of 16th-century armor. The outsize oak-paneled main room, constructed in England a half century ago and shipped in sections to Chicago, has an enormous marble fireplace; 20 feet overhead, hanging from the beamed ceiling like a quartet of orbiting satellites, are stereo speakers in plexiglass globes, from which emanate the sounds of a 20-foot-long custom stereo installation.
“On the floor below, the visiting Playmates got their first glimpse of the freeform pool and its bamboo dressing rooms, waterfall-hidden cave (called the ‘Woo Grotto’ by Time magazine), and sunroom and steam bath. Adjacent to the pool on a still lower level, they were shown the subsurface bar that can be reached, conventionally, by a stairway or, more directly and delightfully, by a fireman’s pole whose terminus is cushioned by soft leather padding. In this bar, with its low-lit, palm-frond and ti-leaf motif, guests can take their ease on deep couches that line the walls or observe human marine life through a picture window that gives a bathysphere’s view of the pool.”
Quite the picture. And Hef, promotions director Victor Lownes, and playboy were about to give avid readers the keys to the kingdom.
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