T omorrow is Hugh Hefner’s 90th birthday. It’s hard to believe that 62 years ago he created one of the most important, controversial and progressive publications of the 20th century with only $3600. While Hefner has always been in the public eye, he hasn’t granted too many in-depth interviews. However, for the January 1974 issue of the magazine he talked openly about starting his iconic publication, the legacy (and future) of Playboy and also how the public perceives him.
To celebrate his 90th birthday, we’ve taken his 20,000 word interview and edited it down to the most important and relevant portions that give insight into the man who created one of the most well-known media companies the world has ever known.
How did you happen to start Playboy in the first place, and why?
I got the journalism bug early. I was publishing my own neighborhood newspaper at the age of eight or nine and selling it door to door for a penny a copy. As a child, I spent most of my spare time writing and cartooning fantastic stuff, mad scientists, monsters, space travel, that sort of thing. I remember being reprimanded by one of my grade school teachers for drawing cartoons in class when I was supposed to be studying. She sent the drawings home to my mother with a note saying that if I continued to waste my time this way in school, I would never amount to anything.
In the Army, I became a magazine buff studying the editorial concepts and contents of various publications. By the time I was graduated from the University of Illinois–where I drew cartoons for the Daily Illini and edited Shaft, the campus humor magazine–I knew I wanted to start a magazine of my own. The only thing wrong with that dream was the money: I didn’t have any.
I tried to sell a couple of comic-strip ideas to the newspaper syndicates, but they weren’t interested, and I wound up working as a copy writer in the ad department of Carson Pirie Scott for $40 a week. That led to my next job, as a copy writer in the promotion department of Esquire, at $60 a week. I thought that would be exciting, because in my early teens Esquire had represented a world of urbane sophistication that really appealed to me. But the magic I’d found in the magazine wasn’t present in the job.
What made a guy like you, from a fairly strait-laced Protestant background, want to publish a magazine like Playboy?
Perhaps in part it was because of my strait-laced Protestant background. My parents are wonderful people and they instilled in me an idealism for which I’m grateful. As a kid I remember being moved to tears by such classic movies of the Thirties as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which dealt with the typical American theme of one man against society fighting for the most basic democratic ideals, and so I admired the image of an iconoclastic individual who questions the accepted “truths.” But my parents also raised a son whose skepticism of bullshit included the bullshit they themselves accepted. They had been reared in a very strict, almost puritan Protestantism. So at a very early age, I began questioning a lot of that religious foolishness about man’s spirit and body being in conflict, with God concerned primarily with the spirit of man and the Devil dwelling in the flesh.
H. L. Mencken defined the puritan as a person who is terribly afraid that someone somewhere is having a good time. That carried over into the idea that work was virtuous but that enjoyment of the rewards for that work might somehow lead to decadence. I wanted to edit a magazine that would express my views on these subjects, a magazine free of guilt about sex and the benefits of materialism, a magazine that tried to put some of the play and pleasure back into life.
I still didn’t have any money, but I was 27 years old and I was afraid that if I didn’t try it on my own soon, I might have to learn to be a good company man after all. I went to the bank and got a household loan of $200; then I went down the street to Local Loan and put up my furniture as collateral for another $400. Then I went to friends, relatives, friends of friends–anyone who’d listen–and managed to raise another $3000. One writer friend contributed an article for the first issue and took his $200 payment in stock. That was probably the most lucrative magazine article anybody ever wrote. It made him a millionaire.
Anyone familiar with the business could have told me that there’s no possible way to start a major magazine on $3600, but I didn’t know that. As a frame of reference, Time, Inc, started Sports Illustrated about the same lime I started Playboy, and I understand they went through $30,000,000 before it turned a profit. If I’d known as much about publishing then as I do today, I probably wouldn’t have been foolish enough to take the chance. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
Were you confident of Playboy’s success from the very beginning?
On the contrary, I was so uncertain about the magazine’s chances that the first issue didn’t even have a date on it. I figured, well, if it doesn’t sell out in the first month, we’ll leave it on the stands a second month. I was the entire editorial staff and I didn’t have a single day of professional editorial experience.
We printed 70,000 copies of that first issue and sold almost all of them in the first couple of weeks. With that initial response, I got a small advance from a distributor and we were able to print a second issue, and then a third, and so on. Playboy was a success, as far as I was concerned, when I realized it was going to produce enough profit to permit me to continue publishing it.
On our first anniversary, I remember, the employees of the company–seven of us by that time–celebrated in a booth at a local sandwich shop. I knew we were in business to stay, so I picked up the check. I still had no idea, of course, that in the years ahead Playboy would become the most successful magazine of its time and that the Rabbit would become famous around the world as the insignia of a huge, diversified empire. Did you know that I almost called the magazine Stag Party and the symbol was originally going to be a stag? I changed my mind just before we went to press, thank God. Can you imagine a chain of key clubs staffed by beautiful girls wearing antlers?
We’d rather not. How do you explain the magazine’s phenomenal success?
I think it was the right idea in the right place at the right time. A great many of the traditional social and moral values of our society were changing, and Playboy was the first publication to reflect those changes. We offered an alternate lifestyle with a more permissive, more play-and-pleasure orientation. The editorial message in Playboy came through loud and clear: Enjoy yourself. Since our rather modest beginnings, it’s become not only one of the most popular magazines in publishing history but also–graphically, literarily and journalistically–one of the best in the world. Hell, it’s the best.
It may not surprise you to learn that I also think Playboy is one of the most important and influential magazines in the world, in terms of the impact it’s had not only on sexual mores but as a champion of individual rights. We’ve devoted a great deal of space, in articles, in interviews, in “The Playboy Forum,” to championing for others the same freedoms and opportunities we’re lucky enough to enjoy ourselves.
Have you done anything to support these freedoms and opportunities, apart from advocating them in the magazine?
That’s why I started the Playboy Foundation, which backs many of the same causes we espouse in the magazine–especially the ones that are unpopular enough to have been left largely unattended to by the government and other foundations. We’ve supported countless civil liberties cases, the antiwar movement, Jesse Jackson’s PUSH and other civil rights organizations, political reform, sex research and education, abortion reform before it became popular, prison reform before it became popular, and the continuing campaign to reform our repressive sex and drug laws, as well as any number of charities and community- fund efforts. For a long time, we were the chief sponsor of the Kinsey Institute and the research of Masters and Johnson, and right now we’re the biggest financial supporter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, because I think making criminals out of people who smoke marijuana is very damaging to the social fabric of this society. I’ve made the social commitment through this and a similar foundation formed at the same time; they’re the major beneficiaries of my stock in Playboy.
The funds for your Foundation come from profits on what Lift called “the house that flesh built.” By talking only of Playboy’s editorial and financial commitment to social and political causes, aren’t you downplaying the importance of nude pictures in the magazine’s success?
I never want to be accused of that. I love those ladies. They are, and always will be, an integral part of Playboy’s total editorial package, just as sex should be an integral part of the total human experience. Playboy has tried to integrate the erotic and intellectual interests of its male readers, and that has proved to be a far more controversial and misunderstood editorial concept than I could have guessed when we began. Even as relatively sophisticated a magazine as Newsweek has criticized Playboy for marring its otherwise excellent editorial content with what it termed a “peek-a-boo” interest in sex; but as far as I’m concerned, incorporating the two is Playboy’s greatest virtue. There’s a decontaminating process that takes place as a result of the open publication of nude pictures of the human body. I’m convinced that because of Playboy, our society suffers from fewer sexual hang-ups than it did 20 years ago.
But the magazine’s nude photography has been criticized for encouraging not open, healthy sexuality but a voyeuristic, look-but-don’t-touch attitude.
There’s a lovely line in our new film, The Naked Ape: “Voyeurism is a healthy, nonparticipatory sexual activity. The world should look at the world.” We are sexual beings, whether we try to deny it or not, and open, healthy sexuality requires that we not be ashamed of our own bodies. When Playboy started, most men probably would have been uneasy, in the presence of a wife or girlfriend, about opening up a magazine with nude pictures in it. What Playboy has been saying is that a person shouldn’t feel guilty about an open interest in sex. We’ve taken some of the shame and mystery out of human sexuality, and it’s this kind of repression of our sensual interests that has led to the kind of voyeurism that makes looking a substitute for, rather than a preamble to, touching.
According to some members of the women’s liberation movement, the girls featured in Playboy –particularly the Playmates–are treated as sex objects.
Playboy treats women and men, too, for that matter as sexual beings, not as sexual objects, not as things, but as people. In this sense, I think, Playboy has been an effective force in the cause of female emancipation. Gloria Steinem once called me the father of women’s liberation, and I rather liked that. She didn’t mean it in the complimentary sense, of course, but there’s more truth to that interpretation than Gloria would care to admit.
As far back as “The Playboy Philosophy,” I wrote that the major beneficiaries of sexual emancipation would be women, because they’ve been the major victims of our repressive sexual heritage, which relegated women to the level of chattel–first the possession of their fathers and then of their husbands. It’s part of our Judaeo-Christian heritage that women are either “good girls” or “bad girls” on the basis of their sexual behavior.
Women have traditionally been either put on pedestals or damned as the source of all sexual temptation and sin. These are two sides of the same coin, since both place women in a nonhuman role. Playboy has opposed these warped sexual values and, in so doing, helped women step down from their pedestals and enjoy their natural sexuality as much as men.
The fact that attractive girls are part of a slickly packaged lifestyle business enterprise convinces many of Playboy’s adversaries that you regard women, if not as sex objects, then as no more than an accessory to “the good life,” along with clothes, sports cars, stereos and penthouse pads.
Anybody who feels that way obviously misses the whole point of what Playboy is all about. Far from being an accessory to the good life, women and the romantic liaison between them and our male readers are the very point and purpose of what Playboy espouses as a guide for living. The physical accouterments are there to provide the most pleasant possible environment for the relationship between two people to flourish. And since the magazine has always been an extension of my own dreams and fantasies, it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out what’s most important to me. The fact is that if you could find your way to the very heart of Hugh Hefner, what you would find is a man motivated by romance. More than wealth and power and whatever other primary motivations most men have, what lights my fire is my romantic relationships with women.
Surrounded as you are by women, there must be a great temptation to simply play the field. Yet, over the years, you’ve always had a girlfriend with whom you’ve preferred to spend most of your time. Why?
While variety certainly has its own rewards, I’m essentially a sentimental, quite sensitive, romantic fellow, and I need the kind of emotional rapport that’s possible only in a long-term relationship.
The public has heard, in numerous stories about your personal life, that you have a kinky thing for a lifestyle that’s one continuous round of champagne and caviar, communal sex with wall-to-wall women, water beds, baby oil, vibrators, mirrors on the ceiling and video-tape equipment for instant replay.
Art Buchwald once wrote a very funny column about the first time he stayed at the Chicago Mansion. He had all these wild expectations, and he described how he ended up spending all night playing gin rummy with me and some of the guys. He went downstairs to the pool, he said, and it was empty. He checked the steam room and there, barely visible through the haze, was what he thought must be one of the Bunnies who live in the house. It turned out to be Shel Silverstein.
Buchwald spoofed the Playboy mystique, but other reporters have seemed genuinely disappointed not to find a full-scale orgy taking place in the ballroom on their arrival. They’ve dismissed the tales of revelry in the Mansion and attempted to create an image of Hefner as a square rather than a sybarite.
Which image is the true one?
The truth is somewhere in between.
Guests who stay at the Mansion–celebrities, writers working on assignments for the magazine, personal friends–must expect some fun and games with these girls.
My male guests usually know me well enough to be aware that whatever happens in the house is a matter of individual initiative and the personal preferences of the people involved. The sort of impersonal exploitation suggested by some is completely foreign to me. It’s simply not my style.
Do you find that that sort of misrepresentation occurs very often in stories about you and Playboy?
I think writing about Playboy and the lifestyle of its publisher is rather like a Rorschach test. Our society suffers from so many hang-ups related to the enjoyment of sex and materialism that writers frequently produce pieces that are more a projection of their own prejudices and fantasies or those of their readers than they are about us.
Why is control so important to you?
I’d like to hear the arguments on the other side. What virtues are there in being without control? One of the greatest sources of frustration in contemporary society is that people feel so powerless, not only in relation to what happens in the world around them but in influencing what happens in their own lives. Well, I don’t feel that frustration, because I’ve taken control of my life and I’m even lucky enough to have some influence outside it as well.
Some people might wonder whether its possible to get the most out of life when the private world you’ve created seems to cut you off from so much of the rest of it.
Physical insulation isn’t the same as psychological isolation. A private world that manages to minimize wasted time and motion actually permits greater attention to individual interests and matters of greater importance. During one period in the Sixties, when I rarely ventured outside the Chicago Mansion, I developed a reputation as a Howard Hughes-style recluse. We’ve both chosen to live in self-contained, separate physical worlds, but Hughes has purposely cut himself off from all contact with other people, and the Playboy Mansion was conceived as an environment in which I could more readily enjoy the company of others.
When Playboy first started, I was a familiar part of the social scene on Chicago’s Near North Side. Then the magazine began growing so rapidly and I got so totally immersed in it that I found it more convenient to live at the office than to go home to an apartment. That arrangement worked for a while, but by the end of the Fifties I’d decided I needed a place to escape to when the work was done–a house elegant and elaborate enough to make me want to leave the office routine occasionally, and that turned out to be the first Playboy Mansion.
The concept worked so well that within a year I was doing almost everything in the Mansion. I moved my office and a secretary in and, with the arrival of the Bunnies, my social life was increasingly concentrated there, too. The house soon became a favorite hangout for friends, associates and visiting celebrities. Instead of going out for a few drinks in some crowded, smoke-filled bar, we relaxed and rapped in front of the fireplace in the main room, ordered our favorite food and drink from kitchen and bar facilities superior to most of the restaurants in town, played pinball or pool in the game room, took a swim or a steam, or unwound in the romantic comfort of the underwater bar, which can be reached most easily by sliding down a fire pole from the floor above. The Mansion ended up working so well that going out came to seem like a useless exercise. What the hell was it I was supposed to go out for?
Perhaps to visit places that couldn’t be brought to you.
Places hold no interest for me. A friend recently suggested driving up from LA to San Simeon, the old Hearst castle. He thought I might be interested in seeing how another famous editor-publisher had lived. But I don’t relate to Hearst, and the grandeur of his old domain is now something for the tourists. What I’m interested in is relationships with people. Visiting the most beautiful or historic spot in the world would have no meaning for me unless it were shared with someone I cared about. Visiting Paris just to see the sights would bore me.
Playboy will continue to play an important part in promoting social and sexual freedom for the individual, because those who suggest that the sexual revolution has already been won are naïve.
Then what made you decide, in the late Sixties, to widen your horizons–build your private plane, take trips, buy your West Coast Mansion?
I think a lot of men begin to re-evaluate the pattern of their lives in their middle years, whether they’re married or single, successful or unsuccessful, and I decided that what had worked very well for me earlier in the decade wasn’t satisfying any longer. I was fortunate enough to be able to dramatically change the pattern of my life when I wanted to. The company had grown so big that one man could no longer hold onto the reins as tightly as I had. I began to delegate an increasing amount of authority to my key executives, and that wasn’t easy, because Playboy has always been such a personal enterprise.
I agreed to host a new TV series, Playboy After Dark, to be taped in Los Angeles, because I knew that would force me out of the house and into new areas of activity. In addition to its obvious promotional values, the TV show was intended as a first step in Playboy Enterprises’ West Coast diversification into motion picture, television and record production. We bought the private plane to provide prompt, comfortable transportation between our Chicago headquarters and our expanding enterprises throughout the country and the rest of the world.
I’d had an apartment on top of the Playboy office building in Los Angeles for several years, but with more of our activities centered there, I decided to get a house. What I found was something even more than I had envisioned–an elegant English Tudor home, set on five and a half acres of ground just a block and a half from Sunset Boulevard in Holmby Hills, that became Playboy Mansion West. I now spend almost as much time there as I do in Chicago.
What’s the attraction?
I don’t think anything I could say would adequately describe the place. The main building was inspired by a mansion in England called Holmby House. The grounds are handsomely landscaped, with rolling hills, a variety of trees, plants and flowers and what is reputed to be the largest redwood forest in Southern California. We added a tennis court and a swimming pool, with adjoining ponds and waterfalls and introduced exotic varieties of fish, birds and animals as a finishing touch. It isn’t as large as the Chicago Mansion, but it’s even more impressive because of the elegance of the architecture and the grounds. There’s a separate guesthouse, a greenhouse and a game house, with an outdoor bar and buffet area done in the same stone as the main building. But the most popular spot on the estate is a grotto we built, as a pan of the pool, that can be entered by swimming through a waterfall and includes an elaborate series of Jacuzzi baths that are enjoyed more as a center of social activity than for their therapeutic value. In short, the West Coast Mansion is a veritable Shangri-La, and rumor has it that you really do start aging perceptibly after leaving the grounds.
As a guy who earned rather than inherited his money–who started out as a middle-class working stiff–don’t you ever take a look around you at all this incredible luxury and wonder if it’s too good to be true, feel that it’s all a dream and maybe you’ll wake up and it’ll all be gone?
I still have a certain sense of wonder at all that’s happened, but that adds to my enjoyment of it. I don’t think I’ll ever become jaded by the success or the life I’m leading; it’s simply not my nature. As a matter of fact I feel like a kid in the world’s biggest candy store.
Your guest registers at both Mansions read like the proverbial Who’s Who of show business, sports, politics, journalism, art, science law and even religion. Do you consider yourself a celebrity buff?
Unashamedly so. But most of us are no matter what degree of success we have achieved. I grew up in the Thirties and Forties, and film stars were my idols as a kid, so the celebrities of show business have special meaning for me. They’re the closest thing Americans have to royalty, and the biggest of them enjoy much the same prestige.
Among the celebrities you’ve entertained are George McGovern, Ringo Starr, Rudolf Nureyev, John Kenneth Galbraith, Liz Taylor, Timothy Leary, Ralph Nader and Linda Lovelace. What do you have in common with such a diverse list of people?
Some are close friends who stay at the house whenever they’re in town. Others are just casual acquaintances I know socially or with whom I share some common interest. In terms of common interest, I remember an evening of serious conversation with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and fellow clergymen Bishop John Robinson, Dr. Harvey Cox and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Jesse has become a close friend in the years since King’s death, and the Mansion is something of a sanctuary for him when he feels the need to get away from it all. On another occasion, about a year before his marriage to Miss Vicki on the Tonight Show, Tiny Tim spent a nervous evening here asking my advice on women. He obviously didn’t take it.
The Rolling Stones stayed for four days at the Chicago Mansion during their last American concert tour. What can you tell us–for publication–about that legendary visit?
Mick and the boys spent most of their time with us conversing on important social issues of the day over brandy in the library. And for relaxation, we played a few games of chess.
Wont buy that, eh? Well, let’s just say that a good time was had by all starting in my Roman Bath and ending four nights later with an impromptu concert by the Stones and Stevie Wonder in the ballroom. When the tour was over, the Stones told the press that the high point of their eight weeks in America had been the time they spent at Hefner’s house in Chicago.
Does that kind of informal concert happen often?
Well, Buddy Rich is a guest in the Chicago Mansion whenever he’s in town, and one evening he brought his entire band over as a surprise. They set up their stands at one end of the ballroom and did an entire show for us. On another evening, we were throwing a party for some visiting dignitaries from Morocco when the entire cast of Hair came in singing “Aquarius.” They wound up naked in the pool doing most of the score from the show.
Most of the musical moments at the Mansions aren’t that elaborate, of course. Harry Nilsson entertained us around the piano with several of his songs at a party last New Year’s Eve. Tony Bennett did the same thing on a different occasion. Shel Silverstein regularly regales the Bunnies with his songs, a number of which have been inspired by incidents that look place here.
Tom Jones has been an occasional guest of yours; has he ever performed at either Mansion?
You haven’t mentioned the big parties you throw for a few hundred friends every week or so in either Chicago or Los Angeles Do the stars come to gaze at one another on these occasions?
And at our Bunnies, and at the Playmates–and vice versa. But our biggest turnouts are the popular closed-circuit telecasts of sporting events that I host several times a year. Last summer in the LA house, we screened a Muhammad Ali fight, and half the male stars in town were there, plus a few female fans as well. Groucho Marx and George Raft were on hand, representing the old Hollywood; Jack Nicholson, Burt Bacharach Joe Namath, Jim Brown, Tony Curtis, Bob Culp, David Steinberg, Jimmy Caan, John Derek, Clint Eastwood, the ever-popular Warren Beatty, Harry Nilsson with Sally Kellerman, Ryan O’Neal with Ursula Andress, Don Adams with Don Rickles–everybody was there. Tommy Smothers looked around at the room of familiar faces and said, “If somebody set off a bomb in here tonight, you’d have to start show business all over again.”
In another interview, you said you enjoy your reputation almost as much as you do your lifestyle What did you mean?
I meant that I enjoy the public’s fantasies about the way I live almost as much as the way I really live. And I can’t deny being amused at the mixed reactions I arouse, often in the same people. Even if they put me down, they eat it up. They want to know what’s going on in those Mansions. What’s it like on that plane? What does he really do with those Bunnies?
A number of your personal tastes for simple clothing, food and drink don’t exactly fit that image.
Playboy has never taken the position that there’s only one right kind of neckwear or music or one right way to live your life. The magazine promotes not what people should be doing to look hip but an attitude that has to do with savoring life however you choose to go about it. I’m a living testimonial to that. It would be an affectation for me to wear things I didn’t enjoy because I felt I ought to. And Pepsi happens to be what I like to drink. As a matter of fact, I like Pepsi so much that I used to polish off 25 or 30 bottles a day, and I started worrying about putting on weight, so I began smoking my pipe, thinking that would cut down my drinking.
Is it really true, as we’ve heard, that when you went to Maxim’s in Paris, generally considered one of the world’s finest restaurants, you dispatched an aide to the kitchen beforehand to provide them with your personal recipe for fried chicken?
It’s true. My aide spent the afternoon showing them how to prepare Southern fried chicken the way I like it, and with all due credit to Maxim’s, it was delicious. It tasted just like Colonel Sanders. You must understand that at that point, we’d been traveling for a month through Africa, the Greek isles, Italy, Spain, England, and so forth, and by the time I got to Paris, I was pretty horny for some home-cooked chicken.
In areas other than food, drink and clothes, you could hardly be accused of simple tastes. Your lifestyle is so extraordinarily lavish, in fact, that some people regard it as an embodiment of the philosophy of conspicuous consumption.
Well, there’s no denying that I’m one of the nation’s major consumers–or that I haven’t tried very hard to conceal that fact–but my feeling, frankly, is that I earned it and I have a right to do with it exactly what I damn please. And I’d feel the same way about it even if I didn’t also spend a good deal of what I’ve made on the causes I happen to believe in. But beyond what anyone thinks of me, there’s an implicit assumption I can’t accept in the hostility some people–particularly among the affluent young left–feel not only toward conspicuous consumption but toward materialism itself, and the assumption is that it’s evil. They make no distinction between the ills wrought by materialism corporate greed, urban blight, pollution, artificial obsolescence and the like and the benefits of materialism, which include, thanks to technological progress, a longer and healthier life and a better ability to feed and clothe the people of this planet.
They also fail to appreciate the fact that, thanks to the benefits of materialism, their own lives–however simply they choose to live–are very different from, and very much better than, the simple life led by those in the underdeveloped countries of the world. If a kid gets hungry in Taos, he can wash dishes somewhere and make enough to get by on. Or he can hock a watch to pay for a meal or a doctor. I also don’t see too many of these idealistic young kids throwing away their motorcycles and their stereos, or using the money they spend on jeans and flowered shirts to buy food and clothing for the poor instead. I’m not saying they should; but they should examine their own values before condemning other people’s, and they should realize that by rejecting materialism itself rather than the excesses of materialism, they’re throwing out the baby with the bath water.
How do you feel about the proliferation of Playboy imitators in the past year or two, and the fact that some of them are obviously trying to copy more than your magazine?
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I guess I’ve been flattered more sincerely and more blatantly than any other magazine publisher in history. Playboy has inspired an unprecedented number of similar publications since we started 20 years ago. The trouble with most of these magazines is that they try to compete by shamelessly copying our own publication instead of offering readers something fresh and original.
Penthouse is a prime example. It was going to be called Playgirl until lawyers warned its publisher, Rob Guccione, of the danger of trademark infringement in using a title so similar to Playboy’s. So he settled on Penthouse, a name closely associated with Playboy. Our first TV series was titled Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy Club showrooms are similarly named but not close enough to be actionable.
The primary feature in each issue of Penthouse is a pictorial rip-off of our own Playmate of the Month, imaginatively retitled “Pet of the Month” which, in turn, inspired such derivative spin-offs as an annual Pet review, “Pet of the Year” and a Pet calendar.
This copycat concept extends to other editorial features as well–including the Playboy Interview and Playboy Forum, which Penthouse picked up without even bothering to retitle. Penthouse even has a small symbol of a key instead of a Rabbit, which it places at the end of each story and article. Such inspired innovation. The only thing missing is a, “What Sort of Man Reads Penthouse?” ad and, believe it or not, some of the other imitators even include a copy of that, along with an attempt to duplicate the art and design of our magazine that prompted Time to refer to one recently as “Playboy plagiarism.”
Considering the limited nature of its editorial content, how do you explain the favorable press coverage Penthouse has received in the past year?
The one thing Guccione does well is publicize his publication. He mounted an effective newspaper ad campaign a couple of years ago that used our Rabbit trademark as an attention-getting device and created the idea that Penthouse was out to give Playboy some real competition. Guccione further dramatized the idea with personal attacks on Playboy in the press. It’s an obvious technique, but the media went for it. There’s no denying that Guccione is a talented promoter, and he’s also a good photographer; he’s just not a very good editor.
Do you think [Playboy Enterprises] is likely to be as important in the next 20 years as its been in the past 20?
As good as the first 20 years have been, the next 20 are bound to be better. People are going to have more leisure time than ever before, so a company devoted to leisure-time activities–especially one with Playboy’s strong identification in that market–seems certain to be increasingly important. And just as clearly, the magazine is going to have even more influence in the future than it does today. Circulation is at an all-time high; far greater than any other men’s magazine in history and its impact on our manners and morals probably won’t be fully appreciated for some time to come.
Playboy will continue to play an important part in promoting social and sexual freedom for the individual, because those who suggest that the sexual revolution has already been won are naïve. Our society is more sexually schizophrenic than sexually liberated. We’re going through a painful and difficult transitional period in which many people have started to come to grips with their own sexuality, but we still live in a country where most adult sexual activity is illegal, and the voices of suppression are still being heard and heeded.
Are you thinking of the recent Supreme Court decisions on obscenity?
Of course–as well as the apathetic and, in some instances, even favorable reaction of a press that is otherwise so sensitive to the suppression of our freedom. What can you say about a society that permits explicit images and descriptions of pain, violence and death, yet attempts to prohibit explicit images and descriptions when what is involved are acts of pleasure and love? I find it incredible, in 1973, that the Supreme Court of the United Stales can justify surrendering to what it calls “local communities” the right to decide what is pornographic and therefore illegal. What it amounts to is that the Nixon Court, which is supposed to be loaded with what he calls “strict constructionists” of the Constitution, has ruled that the First Amendment’s absolute protection of free speech and press doesn’t really mean what it says, that certain kinds of speech and writing aren’t necessarily free at all speech and writing that has to do with sex. The Court has decreed that the ruling elite of every local community has the power to determine what everyone else in town may read or see.
There were rumblings, soon after the decisions, about “cracking down” on Playboy and the other men’s magazines.
There were, indeed, but so far they haven’t come to much–primarily, I think, because the Supreme Court decisions weren’t aimed at Playboy. They were aimed at hardcore, which has nothing to do with what we publish and never will. But there’s still harm in trying to suppress it. If there is an adult audience for this kind of material then how dare we say, in a supposedly free society, that adults can’t go to a theater and see whatever they want to see or to a bookstore or magazine stand and buy whatever they want to read? The primary ones hurt when you censor aren’t the publishers or the editors but the people whose rights to that material are suppressed.
I find it very disturbing that some intelligent and learned people don’t understand that. I read an editorial in The Wall Street Journal about the decisions, suggesting that maybe the Court was right and talking about “the rights of the majority in a democracy.” Well, totalitarianism by the majority is not what America is all about. The greatness of America isn’t that it grants majority rule; it’s that it protects the freedom of the individual, the freedom of those who might want to read or see something that isn’t popular with the community. Too many magazines and newspapers take the attitude that this small limitation on someone else’s liberties is a price worth paying to get rid of the porno theater down the street, which they don’t patronize anyway. Well, they’re being very shortsighted.
What’s your reaction as an editor-publisher? How will Playboy be affected?
Except for those communities where some prosecutor is foolish enough to think that he can make a name for himself by going after us, they shouldn’t affect Playboy at all. And let me tell you that anybody who does try to ban Playboy under these decisions is going to look nothing but foolish, because he’s going to lose. You don’t win these cases against Playboy. Nobody ever has. Our reputation is too solidly established. I can say without any sense of glee, as a matter of fact, that Playboy is actually going to benefit commercially from these decisions, because if the more sexually explicit publications are suppressed, then the sexually oriented portion of Playboy is obviously going to have even greater appeal. Suddenly, we may find ourselves right back in the sexual avant-garde, and I don’t welcome that, because I don’t welcome censorship. But I’ve been fighting that kind of sexual oppression for 20 years, and I’m not going to back out of the fight now.
In the Philosophy, you wrote that America was undergoing a “moral rebirth.” Would you still say that?
I wrote that during the Kennedy years, when optimism seemed appropriate. There have been a lot of times since then when it was difficult to be optimistic, but in the past year my mood has been a good deal more hopeful. I feel strongly that the whole Watergate affair, for example, is one of the best things that’s happened to America in recent years. It shows that even at the highest level of power, it’s impossible to keep such total corruption under wraps. That’s a dramatic demonstration of the great strength of our system.
We’ve always had petty corruption at the state and city levels, and occasionally–thanks to Teapot Dome and Spiro Agnew–at the federal level as well. All these scandals have had to do with people taking money that didn’t belong to them. But Watergate was corruption of a far more ominous kind and on an unprecedented scale. It was a conspiracy to subvert the democratic process. These men felt they were justified in what they were doing, regardless of the law, because they thought they knew what was best for the country and that their cause was just.
Even if steps are taken to curb Presidential power, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening again when the lessons of this experience are forgotten?
Nothing. That’s why a free press is so fundamental to a democracy. It’s the free press of this nation–the newspapers, magazines, radio and television–that refused to let go of the Watergate scandal, that refused to be intimidated by the Nixon Administration’s systematic attempts at repression, that refused to accept as scapegoats the half-dozen men originally on trial for the break-in, that eventually led to the exposure of the involvement of the highest men in our Government and established the atmosphere that made possible the Congressional and Justice Department investigations that may finally bring the true villains to justice. The only safeguard against a repetition of this sort of thing is a free and diligent press that will sound an appropriate warning if such demagoguery ever rears its ugly head again.
Do you think Playboy has made any contributions to that end?
I certainly do. In a series of articles, interviews and editorials, we attempted to alert the people to the dangerous and truly totalitarian men who had come in to power with the Nixon Administration. The last Presidential election was the first in which I became deeply involved personally, because I could see the ominous directions in which our country was headed under the leadership of these men. Unfortunately, the people didn’t listen. We lost the battle but with Watergate, we’ve won the war.
That’s why it’s so important for all of us to speak out against every form of tyranny as we’ve tried to do personally and editorially, over the years, from opposition to the war in Vietnam to legal support for victims of reactionary laws governing the private sexual behavior of consenting adults. That’s the only way in which a free and democratic society can survive.
You said earlier that Playboy will be even more influential in the next 20 years than it has been in the past 20. But what about your own plans? Are you going to be running the magazine and the company until the 40th anniversary?
Somewhat longer than that, I hope. Voluntary retirement is difficult for me to imagine. Playboy magazine is still the heart of all I do, and I don’t want to let go of more than I have to. I mean, I love it almost like a person. If I didn’t care so much, it would be easy to step back and say, “OK, you’ve done it. Great. Now go do something else.” But I can’t. Working as hard as I do I feel occasional frustration about the demands it makes on me but that’s about the only thing that ever brings me down. At the end of a difficult day, I can still relax with my friends, doing what I want to do and feeling like a million dollars.
In view of the fact that Playboy Enterprises is such an extension and expression of your own vision, do you think it will continue to be as successful after you’re no longer running it?
After I’m no longer running it? That’s a delicate way of pulling it. You mean after I’m “gone?” What can I say? Obviously, there’s a long-term preparation going on to make the company independent of the energy and expertise of any one person. In any case, you have to recognize that my vision is shared with a lot of talented people who work for me, as well as with millions of people in our society, or else we wouldn’t be so successful. There’s no reason to assume that Playboy is going to pass from the scene when I do–unless, of course I decide to take it with me.
Time once called your concern about your place in history as monumental as Lyndon Johnson’s. How do you think you’ll be remembered?
I don’t think I’m the best person to answer that. You should ask somebody more objective, like my mother.
Well I think I’ve been a fairly important influence on contemporary sexual attitudes. Beyond that, not very important.
That sounds overly modest.
True. Actually, I think I’II rank second only to Jesus Christ. I just can’t seem to find that middle ground.
Try once more.
Well, if we hadn’t had the Wright brothers, there would still be airplanes. If there hadn’t been an Edison, there would still be electric lights. And if there hadn’t been a Hefner, we’d still have sex. But maybe we wouldn’t be enjoying it as much. So the world would be a little poorer.