The Founder, Editor-in-Chief and Chief Creative Officer of Playboy, Hugh M. Hefner is a man who has profoundly influenced society in the last 60 years while his publication remains one of the world’s best-selling men’s lifestyle magazines. It has inspired a media empire and one of the most recognizable brands in history.
The Pre-Playboy Years (1926-1949)
Hefner was born in Chicago on April 9, 1926, the elder son of conservative Protestant parents, Glenn and Grace Hefner, and a direct descendent of distinguished Massachusetts Puritan patriarchs William Bradford and John Winthrop. He attended Sayre Elementary School and Steinmetz High on the West Side of Chicago, where he was no more than an average student, despite a genius IQ (152). He distinguished himself instead with his extracurricular activities: founding a school paper, writing, cartooning and serving as president of the student council where he championed student causes.
Following graduation from high school in January 1944, Hef (a nickname preferred since adolescence) joined the Army, serving as an infantry clerk and drawing cartoons for various Army newspapers. After his discharge from service in 1946, he spent the summer taking art classes (anatomy, of course) at the Art Institute of Chicago, enrolling that fall at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Hefner earned his bachelor’s degree in two and one-half years by doubling up on classes while drawing cartoons for the Daily Illini and editing the campus humor magazine Shaft, where he introduced a new feature called Coed of the Month.
He subsequently took a semester of graduate courses in sociology at Northwestern University where, pursuing his interest in individual freedom, he wrote a term paper examining U.S. sex laws in light of the then-astonishing Kinsey Institute research on human sexuality.
The Playboy Origins (1949-1960)
In June 1949, Hefner married a classmate, Mildred Williams. Their ten-year marriage produced two children: Christie in 1952 and David in 1955.
Following college, Hef tried his hand at cartooning and, failing to sell any of his ideas for a cartoon strip, published a book of satirical cartoons about Chicago titled That Toddlin’ Town.
Hefner worked as an assistant personnel manager for the Chicago Carton Company for $45 a week in 1949, and as an advertising copywriter for the Carson Pirie Scott department store for just $40 a week in 1950. His future seemed uncertain when he landed a promising job as a promotion copywriter at Esquire at $60 a week in January 1951. When Esquire moved its offices to New York, his request for a five-dollar raise was denied and he decided to stay behind and start a magazine of his own.
Hefner and a fellow copywriter from Esquire tried to raise enough capital to launch a Chicago magazine and failed. While working as the newsstand promotion director of Publisher Development Corporation in 1952, he became convinced there was a market for a sophisticated men’s magazine that would reflect the views of the post-war generation and that he was the man to start it.
To support his family, he took a better-paying job as circulation manager of Children’s Activities magazine in January 1953, but by that spring and summer the dream of starting his own magazine had become an obsession. He found a printer willing to print the first issue and a distributor to distribute it. He got friends and family to invest in the venture, raising just $8,000, including $600 of his own money borrowed from a bank using his apartment furniture as collateral.
The first issue of Playboy magazine, which featured the now-famous calendar photo of Marilyn Monroe, was produced on a kitchen table in his South Side apartment. On the newsstands in December 1953, it carried no cover date because Hefner was not sure when or if he would be able to produce another. But the first issue sold more than 50,000 copies, enough to pay for the paper and printing costs and to finance another issue.
Thereafter, Hefner never doubted that the magazine would be a success. He plowed profits back into the publication and hired a young, enthusiastic editorial, art, promotion and advertising staff to assist him. Playboy grew at a phenomenal rate. By the end of the decade, the magazine was selling more than a million copies a month and to celebrate, Hefner held the first Playboy Jazz Festival at the Chicago Stadium. It was called, at the time, the greatest single weekend in the history of jazz.
The Playboy Golden Years (1960-1975)
Very early on in the magazine’s history, Hefner took a progressive approach not only to sexuality within its pages, but also to literature, politics and culture. In its second, third and fourth issues, Playboy published Ray Bradbury’s classic Farenheit 451, a novel in which books are banned and critical thinking is forbidden. In 1955 he published the controversial story “The Crooked Man” by Charles Beaumont which depicted a world in which homosexuality was the standard and heterosexuality was the persecuted sexual preference. The story was considered to be radically anti-homophobic, particularly for the times. Playboy went on to publish such iconic writers as John Updike, Ian Fleming, Joseph Heller, Gabriel García Marques, Margaret Atwood, Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut, to name a few.
The now standard-setting “Playboy Interview” debuted in 1962 when frequent contributor Alex Haley interviewed jazz legend Miles Davis. Mr. Haley’s Playboy interviews, which are still important reads for cultural historians, also included Malcolm X (1963), Martin Luther King (1965), and perhaps most famously, George Lincoln Rockwell (1966), the founder of the American Nazi Party.
At the start of the new decade, Hefner, now divorced from Millie, began to live out the “Good Life” depicted in the pages of his publication. He hosted a popular syndicated television show called Playboy’s Penthouse, purchased the Playboy Mansion at 1340 North State Parkway, and opened the first Playboy Club on the Near North Side of Chicago on February 29, 1960.
From the very beginning of the Sixties, Hefner and Playboy became what Chicago columnist Bob Greene has called “a force of nature.” At a time when the country was about to enter a dramatic period of cultural upheaval, Hefner was, as always, there to push the envelope. In 1959, the year that Playboy’s Penthouse debuted, blacks and whites were not seen socially mixing on television together. The show, shot in an apartment setting showed the races enjoying both white and black performers together. The show also featured integrated musical acts, another taboo at the time.
The Playboy Clubs were a huge success and quickly expanded via franchisees to other cities. Becoming a member at any single club in the country, granted that member access to all of them. When it was later revealed that black club members were not allowed to enter Playboy Clubs in Miami and New Orleans, Hefner quickly bought out those franchises – at a considerable loss to the company – and opened the clubs to all members.
And in a move that could be expected from his earlier post-graduate work, Mr. Hefner via his Playboy Foundation, was also active in the fight to repeal the country’s archaic “sodomy laws,” firmly believing that the government had no place in American bedrooms. His work in this area has been recognized as influential by historians of the gay rights movement.
In the magazine, Hefner propelled these ideas and others through an extended series of editorials titled The Playboy Philosophy, championing the rights of the individual and challenging our heritage of Puritan repression. The magazine became the largest-selling, most influential men’s magazine in the world.
By 1971, when Playboy Enterprises went public, the magazine was selling seven million copies a month, there were 23 Playboy Clubs, resorts, hotels and casinos with more than 900,000 members worldwide. The Company’s assets included book publishing, merchandising, a modeling agency, a limousine service, a record label and a TV and motion picture company. It was truly an empire ruled by one man.
Hefner hosted a second syndicated television show, Playboy After Dark, taped in Hollywood in 1968 and 1969, and in 1970 acquired the famed black Big Bunny jet, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-30, in which he regularly commuted between Chicago and California and toured the world.
In 1971, he established a second residence in Los Angeles with the acquisition of a five-and-one-half acre estate in Holmby Hills known thereafter as Playboy Mansion West, where he was able to more closely supervise Playboy Enterprises’ increasing interests in television and film production.
Hollywood Hugh (1975-2000)
In 1975, Hefner decided to make Los Angeles his permanent home, reflecting the extent to which Hollywood movies had influenced his dreams and aspirations as a boy. In 1980, Hefner championed the reconstruction of the Hollywood sign, then in serious disrepair, and was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his efforts. In saving the sign, Hefner referred to it as “Hollywood’s Eiffel Tower.” The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce honored him further with its first Annual Hollywood Hall of Fame Award as Outstanding Citizen of the Year. In 2010, he again came to the rescue of the Hollywood Sign by donating $1million, $900,000 of which was needed for the Trust for Public Land to purchase the property and preserve the 138 acres behind the iconic sign.
The Hollywood sign restoration was only one of Hefner and Playboy’s major projects as a part of the Hollywood creative community. The Company produced such features as Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, distributed by Columbia Pictures, which was voted Best Picture of the Year in 1971 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures; Monty Python’s first film, And Now For Something Completely Different; and The Naked Ape, with Universal Studios.
Playboy also produced such popular television movies as Third Girl From The Left, with Kim Novak and Tony Curtis; The Death of Ocean View Park; The Cop and the Kid; and A Whale For The Killing.
The increasingly conservative Eighties took their toll on both Hefner and his company. In 1985 he suffered a stroke that changed the direction of his life. He referred to it at the time as “a stroke of luck.”
Bringing his life full-circle, the world’s most famous bachelor was married on July 1, 1989 to Kimberly Conrad, Playboy’s 1989 Playmate of the Year. Their fairy tale courtship resulted in an uncommonly romantic wedding ceremony conducted at the wishing well where Hef first proposed at Playboy Mansion West. Their first son, Marston Glenn, was born in 1990 on April 9, the same date as Hef’s birthday, and their second son, Cooper Bradford, was born on September 4, 1991. The Hefners separated in the late 1990s and, after their sons moved on to college, divorced in early 2010.
For many years Hef was a fixture on the Hollywood celebrity club scene and the Playboy Mansion remains a mecca for entertainment industry superstars including a new wave of young motion picture and television celebrities, rock groups and more. Hollywood and cinema continue to be major factors in Hef’s personal and professional life.
At his direction, the Playboy Foundation instituted an Freedom of Expression Award, given at the Sundance Film Festival. Hefner underwrote the West Coast retrospective of the late British filmmaker Dennis Potter’s works at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; he personally endowed a course in Censorship in Cinema at USC, for which he serves as a guest lecturer; and he has been a major contributor to UCLA’s project to restore classic films. In 2006, Hef made a $1 million donation to the UCLA Film & Television Archive for public screenings of American cinema, establishing The Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program. He was a sponsor of the acclaimed American Cinema series on PBS, and he has long been active in seeking out and restoring such vintage films as Vitaphone shorts and the films of the Twenties British crooner Al Bowlly.
On March 28, 1996, Hefner was honored in formal ceremonies at USC for his lifelong dedication to film and his endowment of a chair for the Study of American Film at the University’s School of Cinema-Television. In 2007, Hef made a $2 million dollar donation to the USC School of Cinematic Arts to help fund a central exhibition space in the new headquarters and a new archival repository for student films and historic documents.
In 1994, Hefner established and Playboy funded the Playboy Jazz Film Festival, the first-ever showcase on the West Coast for many of the best and rarest films in the jazz lexicon. This event was in addition to the annual Jazz on Film program traditionally presented free to the public by Playboy on the eve of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. In 2013, the Playboy Jazz Festival celebrated its 35th successful season.
Hefner’s personal archive at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills contains more than 5,000 feature films. Each weekend, he screens films at the Mansion for celebrities and personal friends: Sundays are first-run features; Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are vintage classics or special favorites.
21st Century Playboy (2000-Present)
Hef has appeared as himself in numerous television shows and movies, including Entourage, Sex and the City, Shark, Curb your Enthusiasm, Last Comic Standing, Las Vegas, The Simpsons and most recently Sony Pictures’ feature film The House Bunny. In 2005, the world was invited to “step into Hef’s slippers” for the launch of the hugely popular video game titled Playboy: The Mansion, and in the summer of 2009, Hefner was joined by a dozen Playboy Playmates for a Brett Ratner-directed commercial filmed at the Playboy Mansion for the very successful Guitar Hero gaming franchise.
Hefner’s most recent venture on the small screen is The Girls Next Door on E! Entertainment. For six seasons, this behind-the-scenes look at the Playboy Mansion was one of the network’s top rated programs. It became an international sensation airing in more than 150 countries around the world resulting in multiple spinoff shows for its cast members.
In 2006, Hef celebrated his 80th birthday with weekend long festivities at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. The celebration included the annual “Casablanca Night” movie screening and buffet dinner, a glamorous pajama and lingerie party with Playboy Playmates, celebrities and nearly 1,000 partygoers, and an appearance at the Long Beach Grand Prix in support of Playboy Racing (from the Grand Am Series) where thousands of race fans joined together to sing “Happy Birthday” to Hef. He continued the festivities in Europe as he and his girlfriends embarked on a two-week, eight-city tour visiting London, Cannes, Paris, Barcelona, Munich, Rome, Pompeii and Venice.
Frequently interviewed by major news and entertainment media the world over, in-depth profiles of Hugh Hefner have appeared in publications such as Esquire, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, Vanity Fair, Times of London, Hollywood Reporter and Variety. In 2003 Hefner was the subject of an A&E special, Playboy’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, a star-studded two-hour event filmed at the Playboy Mansion featuring live music, comedy performances and interviews. Hefner was also profiled in a two-hour special, Hugh Hefner: American Playboy, as part of A&E’s prestigious Biography series in 1996. He had previously been the subject of a feature-length documentary film, Hugh Hefner: Once Upon A Time, produced by Lynch/Frost Productions and distributed by IRS Releasing.
Recent profiles on Hefner include a 2008 biography written by Steven Watts entitled Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, Taschen’s Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, a six-volume illustrated autobiography with highlights from Playboy’s first 25 years, Hugh Hefner: Girlfriends, Wives and Centerfolds an E! True Hollywood Story, and an in-depth look at five decades of Playboy’s wildest and most famous parties hosted by Hef entitled Playboy 2000-The Party Continues. The roster of famous names who have enjoyed the legendary hospitality at Playboy’s Mansions in Chicago and Los Angeles over the years runs the gamut from Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, Buddy Rich, Mel Torme, BB King, Tony Bennett, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead to Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and many more.
In September of 2009 Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, a documentary focusing on Hefner’s humanitarian efforts, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Academy Award winning documentarian Brigitte Berman, the film garnered rave reviews and was released theatrically in 2010.
Hef’s dreams and fantasies again became a reality with the recent resurgence of the iconic Playboy Clubs and in 2006, the Playboy Club and Casino at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas made its official debut and enjoyed a successful five-year run. In 2010 Playboy Cancun opened in Mexico and in 2011 the Bunny returned to the UK with the opening of Playboy Club London in the city’s fashionable Mayfair district.
Hef continues to serve as the company’s Chief Creative Officer and magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, playing a key role in determining the path of Playboy Enterprises. Hef has frequently been quoted as believing that the United States’ most important export is “the American Dream,” which he feels is conveyed to the world through motion pictures. His own dreams are soon expected to reach the big screen in a feature film about his life.
On New Year’s Eve 2012, Hugh Hefner married Playboy Playmate Crystal Harris in a very private ceremony that included close family and friends. The couple resides at the Playboy Mansion.
Awards Won by Hugh Hefner
The recipient of a number of awards for his contributions to society in general and the publishing industry in particular, Hefner received the 1996 International Publishing Award from the International Press Directory in London and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Society of Magazine Editors at its 1998 ceremonies in New York. In September 2001, Hef was inducted into the New York Friars Club as an honorary Friar on the occasion of his gala Roast in New York City, an evening of uninhibited comedy subsequently aired nationwide on the Comedy Central network. January of 2002 brought Mr. Hefner back to New York where he received the Henry Johnson Fisher Award, the highest honor of the Magazine Publishers of America. In March 2002, Hef was inducted as an honorary member of the Harvard Lampoon, which named him “Harvard Lampoon’s Best Life-Form In The History Of The Universe” and in 2008, Spike TV honored Hef with their Guy’s Choice “Alpha Male” lifetime achievement award.
In 2010 he received both the Award of Honor and the First Amendment Award from the prestigious PEN Center USA organization. In 2011 The Thalians honored Hef with their “Mr. Wonderful” award for a lifetime of philanthropy and that same year received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2012 he received the “Treasures of Los Angeles Award” from Central City Association of Los Angeles and was also honored with “The Distinguished Service Award” by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. In addition to the long list of awards, Hugh Hefner is a two-time Guinness Book of World Records holder. One is for being the longest running editor of a magazine and the other for having the largest scrapbook collection, which currently consists of more than 2600 volumes.