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Hugh Hefner was exonerated from obscenity charges stemming from the June 1963 photo spread featuring the backstage nudity of actress Jayne Mansfield. The charges were dubious enough, even then, to inspired a jury of Chicagoans to side with Hef 7-5. He walked, crisis was averted, and Playboy’s rise continued apace.
With protest music playing in the background, the show tracked the magazine’s move away from the happy-go-lucky image projected in the 1950s. A key hire made was Arthur Kretchmer, an editor who joined the magazine from the Village Voice in the 1960s, and is described as “representing his generation” as an anti-war leftist. According to American Playboy, this is when Hef had an important realization: “If it matters to us, it would matter to our readers.” Kretchmer would go on to serve as the editorial director from 1972 until his retirement in 2002.
Thus, as the show points out, playboy became political: Anti-capital punishment, pro-choice, staunchly dedicated to access to birth control, and against the Vietnam War.
An important moment for civil rights, the playboy way, was featuring Jennifer Jackson as the magazine’s first black Playmate that appeared in the March 1965 issue. Jackson and twin sister Jan were twins that worked at the Chicago Playboy Club. They first appeared together in a photo roundup, The Bunnies of Chicago, published in August 1964. March belonged, however, to Jackson. The show reminds us that, like any comments section, this racially charged change came with a gross type of backlash from reader letters disgusted over “negroes” in the publication.
The playboy empire was growing bigger than ever. Hef bought the Palmolive Building on Michigan Ave, a Chicago architectural landmark, and slapped a bunny on the top. Things were going so well that Time magazine put him on the cover in 1967. The story praised Hefner for elevating the conversation around nudity and sexuality.
“America was undoubtedly ready for it anyway, but Hefner seized the moment,” Time wrote. “He was the first publisher to see that the sky would not fall and mothers would not march if he published bare bosoms; he realized that the old taboos were going, that, so to speak, the empress need wear no clothes. He took the old-fashioned, shame-thumbed girlie magazine, stripped off the plain wrapper, added gloss, class and culture. It proved to be a surefire formula, which more sophisticated and experienced competitors somehow had never dared contemplate.”
Though Hef’s star was on the rise, America was facing serious problems, rocked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968. King was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. America turned its eyes next to Robert F. Kennedy, the firebrand junior senator. He was in the early stages of a presidential run, and his speech following King’s death is regarded by some as the greatest speech of the 1960s – not delivered by King himself. He, too, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
As the show, Hugh Hefner, and his son Cooper point out, the magazine wouldn’t be silent on these tragedies, placing its perspective front-and-center. The January 1969 issue saw a pair of pieces that would provide a window into both men’s lives. “A Testament of Hope” was the last piece of writing King ever did, and playboy had it exclusively.
King’s words painted a picture of America as a nation divided, but moving towards equality. His essay didn’t shy away from the nation’s racist roots, nor did it ignore the nation’s racist reality. But King knew that, as the education gap closed and more and more young white people came to recognize that everyone was deserving of basic human rights, that the Civil Rights movement would triumph. Even to his last days, he was showing Americans the way forward.
“Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory,” King wrote. “Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.”
RFK was eulogized in a pair of pieces running side-by-side: “R.F.K., the Statesman” focused on his already-considerable political career. In particular, his and his family’s commitment to progressive politics were on full display.
“He set himself to fight the extra handicaps American law and order imposed on the blacks and the poor,” playboy wrote. “He sent in Federal marshals and troops to put Negro students into Southern universities. He established an Office of Criminal Justice to help the poor have a fair break in the courts. As chairman of the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, he helped invent a number of the programs that later went into the war against poverty—among them, the concepts of community action, of the maximum feasible participation of the poor and of a youth service corps. He wanted, he liked to say, a Department of Justice, not a Department of Prosecution.”
Next to that sat “R.F.K., The Man”, an article addressing what Kennedy was like as a person. Writer Budd Schulberg painted Kennedy, largely through remembered dialog, as a man that was committed to his principles and willing to explain them to whomever asked.
As America struggled through the throes of equality, playboy’s role as the arbiter of culture continued. That meant a return to TV with Playboy After Dark, a move to Los Angeles, and Hef meeting a very important woman.
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