Playboy has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation over the last year or two, and comment on our success has often included discussion and debate on our doctrine and our editorial point of view—in the popular press and various journals of opinion, as well as around the office water cooler, at fraternity bull sessions, at cocktail parties, club gatherings and wherever else urban men and women exchange ideas. Having heard so many others explain what playboy is all about, we’ve decided it’s time to speak out ourself on what we believe in, and what we feel playboy represents in present-day society, permitting ourself a few personal asides on society itself along the way.
Last month we offered some opening observations on playboy’s critics and pointed out that negative comment on the magazine actually takes two very different forms: There are some who criticize playboy for its content—certain specific features of which they do not approve; while others object to the publication’s concept—the overall editorial viewpoint expressed in the magazine each month.
The critics of content are the easiest to answer. Few would quarrel with the overall excellence of the magazine’s fiction and articles (a list of writers like the ones contributing to this issue speaks for itself) and playboy has received more honors, awards and certificates of merit for its art, photography, printing and design, during the last half-dozen years, than almost any other magazine in America. The criticism of content is soon seen to be largely a matter of sex, and primarily pictorial sex, at that. For some few, a photograph of the female figure—no matter how attractively posed—is embarrassing, objectionable and even downright sinful. In fact, one sometimes gets the feeling that the more attractively posed—and therefore appealing—the female is, the more objectionable and sinful she becomes to the critical. In order to react in this way, of course, one must believe that sex itself is objectionable and sinful—especially as typified by a beautiful woman. Fortunately only a twisted few are able to fully accept such a negative view of God’s handiwork, but the witch-burning Puritanism, which associated the Devil with all things of the flesh, and which formed a part of our early religious heritage in America, has left its mark on many more. And so the prude, the prig, the censor and the bluenose have a ready band of followers willing to bowdlerize the world’s greatest literature; destroy the too-suggestive art and sculpture; clip, cut and mutilate the cinema; determine—not just for themselves, but for their neighbors as well—what can and cannot be shown on television, what magazines and newspapers can and cannot print, what plays the theater can and cannot present; burning, destroying, defacing, purging, purifying—all in the name of Him who was the Creator of all these things in the beginning. And if they could find some means or manner by which they might burn from the memory of man every sensual delight, every yearning of the flesh, every God-given pleasure of the body, we have no doubt that some would seize the opportunity with much zeal and joy. This, we suggest, is man at his most masochistic—man at his self-destructive ultimate. For here man tries to destroy not simply the body, but the very mind of all humankind. If a person can look at the picture of a beautiful woman and find ugliness there, and obscenity, then it can only be that he carries that ugliness and obscenity within himself. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is its opposite.
The Criticism of Concept
The critics of Playboy’s editorial concept are not so easily answered. Sex plays a part in their attitudes, too, of course, but it is a more sophisticated and complex criticism, as when Harvey Cox, in writing Playboy’s Doctrine of Male for the “Christian Journal of Opinion,” Christianity and Crisis, describes Playboy as “basically antisexual.” And the magazine’s attitude toward the male-female relationship in our society is coupled with what some critics feel is Playboy’s overemphasis on the superficial and material things of life.
According to John A. Crane, minister of a Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, California, who devoted an entire sermon to “Philosophy and Phantasy in Playboy Magazine and What This Suggests About Us”: Playboy presents “a new image of the ideal man…. [He] is, above all, a skilled consumer of the bountiful flow of goods and services produced by our economy of abundance. He is a man of discriminating taste, style and polish. He knows how to spend money with flair. He is a skilled and sophisticated lover, who knows how to avoid anything resembling a permanent attachment with his paramours.
"Not only does Playboy create a new image of the ideal man, it also creates a slick little universe all its own…. It is a universe for rather elegant and refined consumers, and girls are the grandest of all consumer goods. A girl is something, like a sports car or a bottle of scotch or an Ivy League suit, that is meant to be used and enjoyed by men. But always with flair, with polish. There need be no entangling, no stifling alliances or obligations. Girls are playthings, and once enjoyed will have to be set aside and replaced with others new and fresh.”
On the same note, Harvey Cox describes women as a “Playboy accessory.” “After all,” he writes, “the most famous feature of the magazine is its monthly foldout photo of a playmate. She is the symbol par excellence of recreational sex. When playtime is over, the playmate’s function ceases, so she must be made to understand the rules of the game. As the crewcut young man in a Playboy cartoon says to the rumpled and disarrayed girl he is passionately embracing, ‘Why speak of love at a time like this?’”
And suggesting just how far apart the critics of Playboy’s content and concept may sometimes be, Cox continues: “Moralistic criticisms of Playboy fail because its antimoralism is one of the few places in which Playboy is right…. Thus any theological critique of Playboy that focuses on its 'lewdness’ will misfire completely. Playboy and its less successful imitators are not 'sex magazines’ at all. They are basically antisexual. They dilute and dissipate authentic sexuality by reducing it to an accessory, by keeping it at a safe distance.” Cox concludes with: “We must see in Playboy the latest and slickest episode in man’s continuing refusal to be fully human.”
What is Playboy’s answer to these critics of its concept? There would seem to be some truth in what they say, even if we do not agree with their conclusions. How is it possible to both agree and disagree with these critics—accepting some of their evidence, while rejecting their interpretation of it? Part of the answer lies in their incomplete understanding of what Playboy really represents and believes in. Another part of the answer is clearly rooted in a fundamental difference of opinion about life, and the world in which we live, that we would like to explore at some length. But the best way to begin, we think, is through an explanation of just how Playboy was initially conceived and why we feel it has enjoyed such success in a time when many other, older, well-established magazines have floundered and failed. And in fully understanding the Playboy phenomenon, one may also gain greater insight into this entire generation and how it has grown out of the social and economic revolution that has taken place in America over the last 60 years.
The Uncommon Man
Within the threescore years of this century, the American personality has undergone as drastic and dramatic a change as the country itself. The first 30 years of the 20th century were characterized by our unbounded faith in ourselves, both individually and as a nation. We were enjoying the results of the industrial revolution, and if the streets were not literally paved with gold, it was only a technicality. It was a time of confidence and enthusiasm; it was a crazy, romantic, wonderful time, when most men believed they could lift themselves by their own bootstraps, even if they didn’t yet own a pair of boots. Boys hungrily consumed the books of Horatio Alger (he wrote 119, or, as one critic put it, “one book, rewritten 118 times,” that sold an almost unbelievable 250 million copies) with titles like Sink or Swim, Strive and Succeed, Do or Dare, Fame and Fortune. They told a youngster that success, yes, and fame and fortune, too, could be his—no matter how humble his beginning—if he was industrious, honest and had faith in himself, his God and his country. Nothing was impossible. Any boy could grow up to be President of the U.S., or of U.S. Steel.
The United States was the golden land of opportunity and freedom—for its own people and for the rest of the world as well. America’s promise was spelled out in the words inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
These were the years of the Uncommon Man—when uncommon ambition and deeds were the rule rather than the exception. These were the years of the great national heroes, both fictional and real. Before World War I, every young man’s idol was Frank Merriwell, whose exploits in Frank Merriwell at Yale, Frank Merriwell’s Dilemma and The Winning Last Quarter-Mile proved the importance of pluck, perseverance, honor and playing the game according to the rules. Merriwell was the ultimate in the Uncommon Man—he was, as his creator Burt L. Standish modestly informed us in adventure after adventure, the greatest student and athlete that Yale has ever known. The so-called Golden Era of Sports was actually less that than a period in which important sports figures (and, indeed, anyone who excelled at almost anything) were acclaimed national heroes. It was a time when an entire country could get as cockeyed excited as a kid over a young man’s climbing into a single-motor airplane and flying across the Atlantic alone.
The era reached its apex in the decade now fondly remembered as the Roaring Twenties. After the Great War, a new sophistication and cynicism spread across the land, but the Twenties were a good deal more than Sheiks and Shebas, bathtub gin and the Charleston. It was a yeasty time, a time of innovation and adventure, when new notions and ideas were accepted almost as quickly as they were born—a period of important growth in science and the arts. It ended with the stock market crash late in 1929.
The Common Man
The ten years of bleak Depression that followed the Roaring Twenties came as a brutal and sustained shock to the national psyche. Some saw in it a terrible retribution for the years before—a sort of protracted hangover from an economic binge. It was nothing of the sort, of course, but the generation which came to mature during the Depression suffered just the same.
During the Thirties, worse things than hunger afflicted us. It is difficult—nay, almost impossible—to hold onto one’s optimism, individuality and spirit of adventure when you cannot earn enough to support your family. Intellectual achievement and education lose much of their prestige and appeal when a diploma offers no assurance of a job after graduation, and when the great majority cannot afford higher education in any case. Nor is a man apt to feel particularly competitive in a society that offers him almost no opportunity to compete.
In place of individual initiative, an emphasis on accomplishment and educational attainment, a faith in self and in our economic system, a curiosity about the new and different, Americans became increasingly concerned with security, the safe and the sure, the certain and the known.
Instead of helping the people to sort out their ideas and ideals during this time of uncertainty and confusion, a great many newspapers, magazines and movies actually pandered to the public’s already growing prejudices. If it was especially difficult to get ahead during the Depression, then the popular press was perfectly willing to persuade people that what they already had was plenty good enough. After all, why make a man quest after things he could probably never achieve? If his aspirations were much beyond his hopes of fulfilling them, he would only become frustrated and unhappy. So the newspapers, magazines, movies and radio, too, set about making Americans satisfied with their lot, complacent about the status quo. Some might argue that if you curbed the nation’s initiative, it could cause incalculable damage, but that was an abstract philosophical idea and the problems of the time were the only reality.
This satisfied, complacent, relatively initiative-free social order was achieved in several ways: First, the mass media made the wealthy appear to be as shallow, ignorant, foolish and unappealing as possible. Admittedly, making wealth itself unattractive would really take some doing, but the press and films did a damned impressive job of the next best thing. The Sunday magazine section of the Hearst papers of the Thirties had a fine old time convincing us that most all of society (the socially prominent) and the financially well to do were either scoundrels or scandalous empty-headed nincompoops, or both.
The wealthy, as depicted in the mass media, almost always accumulated their money (“ill-gotten gains”?) in some underhanded or slightly suspect way. Or else it was inherited. And in either case, it was clearly undeserved and unearned. There just wasn’t very much interest in publishing stories of self-made men, who prospered, like the heroes of Alger and Standish at the start of the century, through the application of pluck, perseverance and honest hard work. A catchy label is always helpful in more clearly establishing a desired identity for any group, and the press came up with a fine one: “The Idle Rich.”
In the films, the rich girl-poor boy romance, or vice versa, was extremely popular all through the Thirties, as we became tremendously class conscious in this supposedly classless country. And invariably the wealthy half of the pair, and his or her family, turned out to be the less thoughtful, practical, considerate and nice. Poverty, you see, brings out the best in a person.
Rich young men were played by rather foppish, foolish, weakling types like Robert Montgomery, while the poor heroes were portrayed by more solid, feet-on-the-ground fellows like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Tracy won his first Academy Award of the Thirties for straightening out a rich man’s spoiled youngster (Freddie Bartholomew) in Captains Courageous; Gable got his Oscar for straightening out a rich man’s spoiled daughter (Claudette Colbert) in It Happened One Night. Gary Cooper fought the good fight for the little man, against the forces of evil wealth and power, in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (by inheriting a few million himself and throwing the Haves into an absolute panic with plans for spreading the wealth around to a number of Have-Nots, and winding up in a sanity hearing for his trouble) and again in Meet John Doe (by threatening to jump off the top of a building, when evil Mr. Moneybags, played by Edward Arnold, became too much for him). Having apparently learned nothing from Coop’s chilling experience (it was a subzero December night when he climbed out on that roof to jump), Jimmy Stewart took on the same all-powerful adversary in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (in both pictures dirty Arnold was trying to use his millions to buy his way into the White House, but in this one he even had his own SS-like motorcycle police corps).
A typical example of a romantic movie made during the Depression (and there are dozens upon dozens to choose from) was something called Holiday, starring Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and a pre-Dr. Kildare Lew Ayres. Cary played a handsome, unassuming, high-principled, philosophical pauper, who fell in love with a beautiful, self-centered, cold-as-ice rich girl, played by we’ve no idea who. Lew Ayres portrayed the wealthy, foppish, foolish, weakling brother, who might have turned out as well as Cary, we soon realized, if only he hadn’t been born rich. As it is, he’s an alcoholic. What else?
The wealthy father was a domineering egomaniac, who kept his children under his thumb, or tried to. (Edward Arnold was apparently busy elsewhere when they made this one, because the tyrannical old man was ably played by someone else, whose name we also don’t recall.) Katy played a second daughter who, by some unexplained miracle, had managed to escape the evil taint of Daddy’s moola.
The conflict in the film develops over Daddy’s insistence that he will consent to the marriage only if Cary agrees to come to work for him as a vice president in one of his corporations. Miss Rich-bitch sides with Daddy, of course, but Cary realizes that if he consents, he will surely be corrupted and destroyed, no doubt winding up like the wealthy, foppish, foolish, weakling Lew Ayres, or worse. And he doesn’t even care for a cocktail before dinner.
At this point, it would be legitimately argued that this movie is less concerned with a conflict between the virtues of acquiring or not acquiring money than with the more basic question of whether a man should give up his individuality, independence and integrity in exchange for a soft, secure and purposeless life. Obviously, the only thing for Cary to do is to tell the old man to shove it, which is exactly what he does. But here’s the rub—and this is what makes this particular picture an especially interesting example of the philosophical content of Depression-day film fare. Why did Cary turn down the old man’s offer? (And it should be mentioned, he thought long and hard before finally deciding to turn it down at picture’s end.) Exactly what was Cary weighing this executive position in Daddy’s firm against? Did he have a plan for going into business for himself? Did he prefer to work his way up in another company of his own choosing? Did he have the driving urge to become a doctor—to heal, to save lives, to get an M.D. movie series of his own going before Lew Ayres sobered up and latched onto the Dr. Kildare gimmick at Depression’s end? Maybe he wanted to build bridges or skyscrapers? Or would he heed the call of politics and help Junior Senator Jimmy Stewart take care of power-mad Edward Arnold? Forget it. Cary had worked just long enough to save up enough money to buy a small boat. He was in his middle 20s and he figured that work could wait for at least 12 years. He planned on bumming around the world in his boat for the next dozen annums. Honest. That’s it. And that’s exactly where he was headed at picture’s end. Naturally, Katherine Hepburn knew a good thing when she saw it, so when her sister bowed out, she tagged right along after Cary—leaving the purposeless life with the wealthy family for a purposeless life with a boat bum. No doubt she made the best decision under the circumstances (boat bum or not, Cary Grant is still Cary Grant), but one can’t help wondering why the makers of this movie, like many of their brethren during the Depression, felt obliged to preach a philosophy that said, in essence, the best thing in life is sitting on your ass. Actually, we don’t wonder at all. Since a major part of the country was forced to do little more than sit on its ass through much of the Depression, it was just good box office to give them movies that said that loafing and doing nothing with your life is really desirable. Why, look, Cary Grant is doing it by choice—he’s passing up several million dollars and marriage to Rich-bitch, who the movie would have us believe he loved—right up until the last couple of scenes anyway—and all so he could loaf. The public liked that sort of soothing syrup, and so the movies gave it to them, and so did the magazines, and the newspapers and radio.
A majority of the movies made during the Thirties were musicals, comedies and other forms of escape entertainment exploiting the public’s desire to avoid the realities of the times. And when a realistic film was made, it usually was depressingly downbeat. No point in being overly optimistic about this world in which we struggle to survive.
Initiative, ambition and the accumulation of wealth were not the only virtues made light of or actually ridiculed during the Depression. Education, intellectual achievement, science and the arts took their knocks, as well. By Depression’s end, the press had even come up with a suitably negative label for excessive intellectualism and academic accomplishment: “Egghead.” In place of Picasso, we were given Norman Rockwell and in place of literature, the Reader’s Digest.
No general truth is without its exceptions and no time is without its virtues. The Thirties did witness the positive emergence of greater concern for one’s fellow man and the immense strides made in the labor movement, but even these worthwhile accomplishments had their negative aspects, for they further de-emphasized the individual in favor of the group. And concern for the collective many is not always the same as concern for each and every separate member of society taken as the single person, with his individual hopes and dreams, desires and aspirations.
Legitimate interest in the welfare of the average man became subtly transformed into an idealization of the average man. To be an average guy, a part of a group, one of the gang became a pretty good thing to be. “Mr. Average Man” was someone with whom everyone could identify, and who wouldn’t be proud to be considered “Mr. Average American”? But just a generation before, no American worth the name would have settled for the notion of being an “average” anything. His aspirations were a good deal higher than that. For there is something far better than being just average, and if most of us aren’t aiming for that something better, then the very average itself will drop lower and lower, along with our aspirations.
During the Depression, concern for the Common Man turned into deification of the Common Man, and of common ideas and common taste. Who needed an education? Wasn’t common sense what really counted? There was no room in the Thirties for the uncommon act, the uncommon accomplishment, the uncommon mind or the Uncommon Man.
There are very few great heroes in the Thirties, where there had been many in the Twenties and before. (The single notable exception was F.D.R., who existed less as a hero during this time of trouble than as a truly national Father Figure.) And the temper of the times may be most clearly appreciated when we consider that during the Depression, and thereafter, we not only failed to recognize and acclaim the Uncommon Men we’d most acclaimed a decade earlier.
Charles Lindbergh was the greatest single hero of the Twenties. He had gained an even greater hold on America’s heart in the early Thirties through the tragic loss of a child in a world-famous kidnap-murder. But when he returned from a visit to Germany late in the decade and expressed the unpopular view that we should avoid a war with that nation, because her armed might would prove too much for us, his ideas were not considered the honest, if inaccurate, opinions of a sincere and patriotic American, they were damned as being little short of treason. The Lindbergh Beacon, atop the Palmolive Building in Chicago, was promptly renamed and the “Lone Eagle” was really alone from that time on. The public never forgave him. But was it a single unpopular opinion they were unwilling to forgive, or the fact that he’d been an uncommon hero to them in the first place?
Charles Chaplin is unquestionably the greatest comedian the world has ever known. He was beloved all through the Twenties, not only in America, but everywhere. He made some of his most delightful feature-length films in the Thirties, but the U.S. began to cool toward the little tramp. They didn’t like Chaplin’s politics. Born and raised in London’s slums, he’d always been a bit left-of-center politically, but he was certainly no active Communist, as some suggested. The public didn’t care much for his personal life either. The U.S. government actually brought criminal charges against him for violating the Mann Act, because he transported a woman, with whom he was having an affair, from one state into another—a “crime” that, in these days of more easily accessible and less expensive transportation, probably over half the adult male population of this country has committed. And despite the fact that the Mann Act was passed to cover white slavery, as clearly stated in the law, and the “immoral purposes” referred to therein, in connection with transporting females over state boundaries, is prostitution. Chaplin was acquitted.
The spurned female, who had helped the government with that case, then filed a paternity suit against Chaplin, claiming him the father of her illegitimate child. He lost that case, despite the fact that blood tests proved conclusively that the child could not possibly be his. Neither the public nor the press ever forgave Chaplin for these breaches in good conduct. Yet Errol Flynn, who was involved in maternity and rape suits at about the same time, was secretly admired by most and generally considered to be a lovable scalawag. Charles Beaumont, in his article, Chaplin, published in Playboy (March 1960), commented on this paradox: “Flynn, even when he was consorting with girls young enough to be his granddaughters, could do no wrong. Chaplin could do no right.” And Beaumont also suggested a possible reason for this double standard: “Perhaps because he [Flynn] did not add to these [his affairs] the affront of genius.”
One of the greatest actors of our time, and as much responsible for the early worldwide popularity of movies as any other human being, Charles Chaplin was never given an Academy Award. His last two pictures to be released in the United States (Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight) were generally panned here and did poorly at the box office, although they both won praise and prizes in Europe. Badgered by the public, press and the U.S. government (the then Attorney General of the United States, James P. McGranery, called him an “unsavory character” and ordered Immigration authorities to hold a hearing to determine whether Chaplin was an undesirable alien), he was English and had never taken out citizenship papers, an “affront” for which America would never forgive him, Chaplin finally chose exile in Switzerland in 1945.
We feared that the memory of Charlie’s genius was fading, for almost nothing complimentary had been written about him in any large-circulation magazine in the previous half-dozen years, so we asked Charles Beaumont to write an article on Charlie, the talent, as distinguished from Chaplin, the man. Beaumont’s article began: “High on the list of America’s pet hates is a man who, over a 30-year period, gave this nation—and every other nation throughout the world—a gift valuable beyond price and beyond estimation the most desirable and most difficult to receive: the imperishable gift of joy.”
Beaumont continued: “An anti-Chaplin campaign was begun, calculated by its emphases and omissions to present a single image of Chaplin, so hateful an image that some European critics concluded that it was a classic admission of guilty conscience….
"Not content to destroy the man, the columnists proceeded to attack the man’s work. Learned students of the cinema, such as Hedda Hopper, began to have second thoughts about the "so-called Chaplin masterpieces.” Were they really as funny as they were cracked up to be?
“Only a few months ago, a logorrheic Hollywood TV personality was asked why he persisted in slamming Chaplin. 'I’ll tell you,’ said the personality. 'I’ve got nothing against the guy personally. What he does is his own business. I’m sick of hearing all this stuff about what a great comic he was. You see one of his pictures recently? They’re pathetic. Stupid. What’s funny about a little schmo who looks like Hitler and acts like a queer? I’ll tell you a great comic. Joey Frisco. There’s a great comic….’
"So now even Charlie—as distinct from Chaplin—is under attack. It would be comforting to think the Little Fellow isn’t in danger, that nothing so magnificent could possibly perish, but other magnificent things have perished, and at the hands of men. Why not Charlie too? Film doesn’t last forever, and memory fades. And though we speak of a wonder that held the world enchanted for three generations, the wonder has demonstrably begun to dim. The young in America today do not know Charlie at all, except as the monster the press has built, and that is sad. Unless they live in the few great cities of the nation [in which some few Chaplin films are still shown], they don’t know Charlie, either. And that is tragic. For the artist and his art, separable as they may and must be, are of vital importance to the cultural and moral development of America. If we allow ourselves to forget what we had, then we shall never understand what we lost, and that will make us poor indeed.
”'I have a notion that he suffers from a nostalgia of the slums.’ So wrote Somerset Maugham of his friend Charles Spencer Chaplin, touching upon one of the great secrets of Chaplin’s art. From the beginning it has been a celebration and a mockery of the earth’s poor. Celebration because while we breathe, even in the dankest air of the lowest slum, we live, and life is sacred; mockery because in Chaplin’s words, 'The poor deserve to be mocked! What fools they are!’ What holy fools, he should have added, for that must be the final description of his masterpiece, Charlie.
“…Dispensing love, he received love in return; and his fame grew, like a vast silvery balloon.
"That this must have its effect upon a man is, or should be, self-evident. Chaplin the man had always been withdrawn. The sudden overwhelming popularity caused him to withdraw further. People did not understand. They did not understand that Chaplin’s way of repaying them for their love was to give them the best of him, through Charlie, and that having put into Charlie all that was wild and sweet in him, there was little left over.
"But people have a way of resenting great artists. A man may travel to the searing center of his soul and come out with a new vision, and the world will ask him why he hasn’t changed his shirt.
"This is what the world—our American world—began to ask Chaplin. Over a 20-year period, working 20 hours a day, making the finest films anyone had ever seen, distilling his genius to its greatest perfection…. And people laughed, but they did not forgive. For while Chaplin was dishing up these delights, he was living a life described by columnists as 'unnormal.’
"To ask an artist to please everyone with his life as well as his art is both stupid and unfair. Even if all of the charges against Chaplin were true, America’s attitude would be difficult to understand. As the charges are almost entirely false, the attitude is inexplicable.”
Beaumont concluded: “It is for these reasons, for his occasional weaknesses as a person and for his incredible strengths as an artist, that Charles Chaplin became one of the most despised men in America. Now, in Vevey, Switzerland, he lives quietly with his wife and seven children—one of whom this remarkable man sired only recently, despite the fact that he is in his 70s. Because he is in his 70s, Chaplin will, before long, die. And then, because his legend has been all but destroyed, he will probably be forgotten, as most men are.
"But what Chaplin created we must not allow to be forgotten: Charlie the fool. Charlie the clown. Charlie, the spirit of Man, walking with a goatlike skip in his oversize shoes and a hitch of his baggy pants—bewildered, but unafraid—into the unknown. Charlie, the best of us.”
A bit later, near the end of his editorial, we plan to list a number of specifics in which Playboy believes. You may put one down now, ahead of time: We believe wholeheartedly in the Uncommon Man and his right to be uncommon. There is perhaps no single belief that is more important to us. It is in man’s God-given differences, more than his similarities, that we find the very best of him. And our America was founded on the unique understanding that through man’s differences, and the fullest protection of their free expression, we might create the most perfect society yet conceived.
Playboy has never done much direct editorializing—this present piece is a rare exception—but regular readers have come to know the things we believe in through the subjects we choose to write about and what we choose to say about them. One of the things we believe in is the Uncommon Man, and the magazine has included articles on the Uncommon Men from its earliest issues—Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hemingway, Charlie Parker, Stirling Moss. We’ve commented upon their uncommon natures and expounded their uncommon philosophies.
We have never been big on quotations or precepts, but we have two that we took for ourself in our early teens and they’ve formed a pair of guiding principles by which we’ve tried to shape our own life.
The first: “This above all, to thine own self be true, and thou canst not then be false to any man.”
The second: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for.”
Our article on Chaplin produced more warm compliments and comment from readers than any other personality profile we have ever published: George Jessel wired, “THE PIECE ABOUT CHARLIE CHAPLIN WRITTEN BY CHARLES BEAUMONT IS THE MOST SENSITIVE AND TOLERANT PORTRAIT OF A MAN THAT I HAVE EVER READ, WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION OF BERTRAND RUSSELL ON TOM PAYNE.” Hollis Alpert wrote, “…a wise, balanced and warm description of the artist and his career. About time, too, before his legend and reputation suffer completely from his vituperative, ignorant detractors. Congratulations on Playboy’s judgment and courage in publishing the article.” Paul DeWitt, “…An essay worthy of the highest praise. An eloquent tribute to one of the most misunderstood men of our time.” Dore Schary, “The Chaplin article written by Charles Beaumont is a good piece; a warm and sympathetic recounting of a tragedy.” Charles B. Yulish, “The 'protective’ picketing of Chaplin films will no doubt continue, as well as Philistine panning of his genius. I am truly sorry for those who participate in such. I am more sorry, however, for the millions who will never share the experience of crying during the ending of City Lights, or roaring at Chaplin’s comic mastery in Limelight.” Herman G. Weinberg, “Bravo! I refer to that Chaplin piece by Beaumont. It needed to be said and I’m glad it was Playboy who said it.”
These letters appeared in our July 1960 letters column. We had also recently published an article on the Academy Awards (The Oscar Syndrome, April 1960) by Dalton Trumbo, a man unusually well-qualified to write on the subject, since he is one of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters and had only recently won an Oscar himself, pseudonymously, for scripting The Brave One as “Robert Rich,” because he had been blacklisted in Hollywood and could not write there using his own name. His article was personal, provocative and stimulating of thought. We published it before he succeeded in breaking through the blacklist barrier, so his thoughts were all the more vitriolic and searing. A few months later, his own name appeared on a screen credit, for the first time in 12 years—first on Spartacus and then Exodus. We had also made the serious error of inviting Larry Adler to perform on our television show, Playboy’s Penthouse. Our only excuse, and we must admit it’s a slim one, was because Adler is the virtuoso on the harmonica, the man responsible for getting the mouth organ accepted as a musical instrument instead of a toy, and we felt our viewers would find him entertaining. We had no idea that Adler, too, was on somebody’s little black list, but he was. And we think it only fair to add that if we had known he was on somebody’s little black list, it wouldn’t have mattered a bit.
Nevertheless, the profile on Chaplin, the article by Trumbo and the TV appearance of Adler were enough to prompt a few letters of quite a different sort, and we published those too, in July 1960: A.C. Cohn wrote, “Chaplin in your magazine, Larry Adler on your TV show. You are becoming a stink in the nostrils of the American people.” T.F. Hanson asked, “What’s the matter with Playboy? Is it beginning to follow the Communist party line?” And R.E. Chasen wrote, “Please cancel my subscription at once. First, the hearts-and-flowers for Chaplin, then Dalton Trumbo. As an ex-FBI agent, it becomes impossible to continue.”
All this sound and fury (the ratio ranges nearly 30-to-1 in favor of the Chaplin and Trumbo articles) gave us one of our rare opportunities to spell out (in an answer in the letters column) a portion of Playboy’s philosophy: “Playboy sincerely believes that this nation is big enough, strong enough and right enough to give free expression to the ideas and talents of every man among us without fear of being hurt by any man’s individual weaknesses or follies. We believe, too, that no good idea, no important work of art and no meaningful talent becomes less good, less important or less meaningful because it comes from a doubtful source. You don’t have to be a homosexual to read Oscar Wilde or an alcoholic and a drug addict to appreciate the prose and poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. It is also possible to recognize the comic genius of Chaplin, read an article on the Academy Awards by Dalton Trumbo and enjoy the music of Larry Adler without necessarily approving of either the men or their personal philosophies of life. For the record, of course, none of these men has ever been proven a Communist—a matter of some importance in this country that prides itself on fair play and believing a man innocent until proven guilty. But that’s really beside the point—for we also appreciate Picasso as one of the world’s greatest living artists, and we know he’s a Communist. Politics may be important in government, where national security is a vital consideration, but it has no place in art and literature. Not if America’s art and literature, and indeed the country itself, are to remain free.”
We think it quite important to have a magazine of considerable circulation and influence establishing and re-establishing these basic concepts of freedom upon which our nation is built. If Playboy hadn’t spoken up in behalf of Chaplin in 1960, no one else would have. At any rate, no one else did—no other major magazine—either before or after. Chaplin wasn’t a very popular cause. But it’s important to voice opinions on unpopular causes, too, when there is something that deserves to be said.
Back in the Thirties, there was a certain hue and cry for social reform and some of it was good and some of it wasn’t, but almost no attention was given to the most important single item in a free society—the significance of the individual and his right to be different.
The Invisible Man
Whether the country would have recovered from the psychic depression as readily as it did from the economic depression will never be known: the Second World War ushered in a half decade demanding a high degree of rigid conformity. So Americans gave up willingly what individuality they had left, and gladly, in order to exert a total and unified effort in the defeat of the enemy. In the silence that followed the firing of the last shot and shell, a quiet searching out of the things that we had won (and lost) in the war might have been expected, but instead the shrill voices of extremists at both the far Left and Right shattered any hope of a peaceful time at war’s end. Americans became aware of the Communist threat from without and the demagogues among us used a fear of Communists within to trample human rights and individual liberty in a lusting after power. McCarthyism was born in America in the middle Forties. Congressional committees on un-American activities investigated and interrogated the common citizen, as well as our greatest scientists, our university faculties and our clergy; Americans demanded that other Americans sign loyalty oaths; the communications industry (movies, television and radio) drew up blacklists that permanently barred individuals suspected of politically improper views or affiliations; neighbor spied on neighbor; brother turned in brother. Anyone who had ever been a member of the Communist Party, for whatever reason (except as an agent for the FBI) and at whatever time, was a Red (completely ignoring the fact that many misguided but sincere and loyal Americans joined the Party in the Thirties when Communist Russia was not our enemy and in the Forties when she was actually our ally); anyone who presently belonged, or had ever belonged to any of a hundred different clubs, organizations or affiliations that appeared on any of several hundred different lists (made up by almost anyone who had some names available and a mimeograph machine) as pro-Communist, a Communist front, Communist influences, Communist infiltrated, or sympathetic with any Communist cause, was a Red; and anyone who objected to, and spoke out against, the injustice, defamation and persecution of these individuals was a “Pinko” or a “fellow traveler.” At no time in America’s history was the label-libel technique more frequently, or successfully, put to use. A real, 100-percent, red-white-and-true-blue American was judged not by what he stood for, but for what he stood against. If it was unwise to voice an unpopular point of view during the Depression and War, it was positively foolhardy once the War had been won, for it could cost a man his job and his good name. Conformity was the safest road; to be outstanding or outspoken was to be exposed; to be invisible was to be secure. We had created a nation of conforming, security-conscious, stay-in-line, group-oriented, nonthinking, unquestioning, responsibility-avoiding Invisible Men.
In 20 years of Depression, War and Post-War pressures, we had very nearly managed to destroy the fundamental spirit and social, economic and political beliefs upon which this nation was founded and through which we had prospered and grown.
The Upbeat Generation
Somewhere in America in the late Forties a significant counterwave first began to be felt: A new generation was coming of age that seemed unwilling to accept the current shibboleths, chains, traditions and taboos. It was none too soon, for America was lagging woefully in education, the arts, the sciences and world leadership. There were and are pessimists who believe the nation drifted past the point of no return. We are not among them.
A small portion of this new generation, a colorful fringe only, broke from the fetters of conformity in what has been called a revolution without banners. These were the so-called Beat Generation, modern-day nihilists for whom it was enough, apparently, to flout and defy. For their few number and their profound negativism, the Beats attracted an incredible amount of national attention. So much so, in fact, that the nation was distracted from a much more significant and larger segment of the new generation, a group less colorful on the surface (without the beards, berets and dirty underwear), but sharing the rebellious spirit of the Beats, and equally ready to throw off the shackles of sameness and security. Both groups refused to accept the old ideas and ideals passed along by the previous conformity-ridden generation, but whereas the Beat part of this new generation rejected the old in a negative way, simply turning their backs on society and ceasing to communicate, the rest searched for new answers and new opportunities in a spirit that was positive in the extreme. We’ve named these, appropriately we think, the Upbeat Generation. They are bringing the country alive again and they are, we’re certain, the only hope America has for the future.
Actually, the spirit and attitude of the Upbeats is right out of the first part of this century—it’s the same optimistic viewpoint and zest for living that made America great in the first place. In the Thirties and Forties we lost faith in ourselves, we hid our individual identities in groups, decisions were made by committees, companies were run by boards; today, a younger and less fearful generation seems willing to look the future straight in the face and spit in its eye.
Life calls it the “Take-Over Generation” and they devoted an entire issue to the subject last fall. “Coming hard over the horizon,” Life wrote in its introduction to the issue, “just beginning to make his presence and his power felt, is a new breed of American. He is filled with purpose and he thinks on a scale that often scares his elders. He demands responsibility, not because he craves authority but because he can get the job done. He is, at this moment in history, starting to take over our destiny.
”…Younger men and women [are] pressing into authority: in government, in business, in science, in education and the arts. 'The guy you give the job to is 23. The guy who tells him what to do is 25,’ says the 39-year-old boss of one of the biggest nuclear laboratories in the U.S. where all of the concepts as well as the people are brand-new. Even in older American establishments the take-over has started. In the big corporation, where the old desire for job security is giving way to a new insistence on job opportunity, the daring young idea man is finally starting to lay the Organization Man to rest.“
Life noted that the new generation was moving so fast that of the 1200 freshmen entering Harvard last September, over 10 percent were well-enough prepared to be given the option of starting right off as sophomores. Life quotes young Dr. John Stuart Foster Jr., head of Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, as saying, "You can excel. You just can. There are very few things in this country that can’t be figured out. Most people are just too prone to laziness.” He has made his laboratory, located in Livermore, California, a place “where men have the ability to explore their own abilities.”
“If I went by the book, I couldn’t get a flight off the ground,” says Lewis B. Maytag Jr., 36-year-old president of National Airlines, whom Life describes as having “monumental impatience with anything that stands in his way when he wants to get something done. He has always been equally impatient with himself…. He resents what he considers a too helpful, too protective society. 'Free enterprise,’ he says, 'lets the cream top out. Suppress this, make everybody a common man, and society’s in trouble.’
"Nothing moves fast enough for Richard L. Dorman, Los Angeles architect and designer,” according to Life; Dick, winner of 10 national awards, is co-architect and designer (along with Arthur Davis of New Orleans) of the Hollywood and San Francisco Playboy Clubs. “I want to change everything,” Life quotes him as saying, “my letterheads, my office, the decorations. I want to upgrade everything.”
After 20 years of stultifying conformity, a new generation has awakened America’s natural optimism, rebel spirit and belief in the importance of the individual. A certain enthusiasm, restless dissatisfaction with the status quo, a yearning to know more and experience more is typical of youth in any time, but America is unique as a country in having most successfully put this youthful vigor and attitude to work as a national dream. The dream got lost for a time—but the new generation, the Upbeat Generation, through it grew up through the Thirties and Forties, was relatively unaffected by the profound negativism of those two decades. Its members were too young to feel the hardship and humiliation of the Depression, and without the real fears and frustrations of the Thirties branded deep into their psyches, they were able to shake off the conformity of the War years and the threats of the Post-War period with relative ease.
The manner in which America finally rejected and struck down McCarthyism in the mid-Fifties should have proved the changing temper of the times. But there was other evidence of startling change available as early as the late Forties, for those who could read the signs: The new generation displayed the frisky and romantic side of its nature by starting a love affair with the Roaring Twenties—the decade it has come to most resemble in mood and attitude. It began with the resurrection of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author most associated with the Jazz Age: Fitzgerald had not been popular since before the Depression and when he died in 1940 every one of his books was out of print, but suddenly he was one of the most widely read and talked about writers of the day and his popularity, far from proving a fad, has continued undiminished over the last dozen years. Our women began wearing fashions adapted from those of the Twenties (the Chemise, the Sack) and some of the most popular styles were almost exact copies. We sang their popular songs; acclaimed their 25-year-old slapstick comedies the funniest thing to be seen in movies in our own generation; kept a slight British musical titled, The Boy Friend, running month after month after month on Broadway because it was an enchanting parody of the romantic musicals of the Twenties; made a brief national fad of the Jazz Age’s most famous piece of wearing apparel, the raccoon coat, a craze that was over almos.