This excerpt originally appeared in the January 1994 issue playboy magazine.
In the Spring of 1953, I was leading the secret life of Walter Mitty: I was the mild-mannered 27-year-old circulation director for *Children’s Activities* who imagined himself editor and publisher of a sophisticated men’s magazine called *Stag Party*. In the office at *Children’s Activities*, the editorial staff, mostly middle-aged women, oohed and aahed at my snapshots of baby Christie while I fantasized about sexy Sweetheart of the Month pictorials.
Wherever I earned a paycheck, my modus operandi remained the same–I put in my hours, but my real creative energy was spent in bringing my private dreams to life. While spending my days writing ad copy for the Carson Pirie Scott department store, for instance, I spent my evenings creating my cartoon book, That Toddlin’ Town. Later, when my day job was churning out letters to Esquire subscribers, I devoted all my free time to promoting That Toddlin’ Town. It seems I always had a project. My friend Burt Zollo and I made plans to start a Chicago magazine while I was in charge of newsstand promotion at Modern Man. And now, at Children’s Activities, the longing to publish my own magazine was stronger than ever, but this time I was going to do it alone–with no partners, no prospectus, no approvals from anyone. I had conceived a way, I thought, to launch a smart new men’s magazine, and I had a plan to do it without any significant financing, using a more ambitious version of the strategy I used to launch my cartoon book: I would persuade a printer to delay a portion of the printing and paper costs for a month or two, as I had done with That Toddlin’ Town, and talk a few people into contributing their time and talent–even money, if they had any–in exchange for a piece of the action.
I was the ultimate double threat: broke and inexperienced. So how was I going to get all the help that I knew I would need to pull this off? The odds were stacked against me, but no matter how I figured it, I had nothing to lose. Both at home and at work, I was dying on the vine. Sometimes I would find myself in a crowded elevator or a building lobby, and I would be overwhelmed and demoralized by the notion that I was the only one who was still unplugged and disconnected. I wanted a job that I could love.
I believed there was a large, untapped market of young urban males–city-bred guys such as myself–waiting for the kind of sophisticated men’s magazine Esquire had published during the Depression but had abandoned after the war, partly because of pressure from the Post Office and partly because the original editor, Arnold Gingrich, had wanted to drop the sexy cartoons and pinups and put the emphasis on fiction and fashion.
The new Esquire–and the other mass-market men’s magazines of the period–ignored what I saw as the major preoccupation of most men: women. The most successful men’s magazine of the time was True, an outdoor-adventure magazine with more interest in hunting than in sex. True’s success had taken the men’s magazines–Argosy, Cavalier, Male, Stag and the rest–in a completely different direction, where wrestling alligators was a more manly pastime than dancing with a female companion in your own apartment. A typical men’s magazine story of the era began with a lead such as this one from Man’s Life: “The harsh scream of a ringo bird in the chonta trees behind the tent woke me, and I lay on the cot, listening to the intense, haunting silence of the jungle.” That’s what I was up against.
Like True, Argosy and the others, Modern Man, where I had worked, had an outdoor-adventure orientation, with articles on guns, antique cars and how to operate a bulldozer. But in the center of the magazine was an eight-to-ten-page Modern Man Gallery containing the nudes that really sold the magazine, displayed as artistic photography, complete with the names of the photographers and technical information about lighting and lens openings. There was no reference to the identity of the models.
This impersonal approach to figure photography was perceived as essential to achieve acceptance on the newsstands of America, presumably on the theory that if it’s art, it can’t be obscene. But not even this pretense made these pictures acceptable to the U.S. Post Office in the early Fifties, so Modern Man accepted no subscriptions and was dependent entirely on newsstand sales.
My intention from the outset was to incorporate the sexual content of the magazine into the editorial package, not to relegate it to a sexual ghetto as Modern Man was doing. I wanted the magazine to have the same positive and sophisticated interest in sex that I felt most of my potential readers had–a revolutionary publishing notion in 1953. I thought that if the sexual contents of the magazine were handled with sufficient taste and quality, it wouldn’t be necessary to masquerade my Sweetheart of the Month as art.
There was certainly nothing arty about the title I had in mind. On one of my frequent forays into the dusty stacks of the secondhand bookstores of Chicago, I happened on an obscure volume that inspired the title for my magazine. It was a collection of sexy cartoons published in 1931 called Stag at Eve. On the dust jacket was a leering stag, winking lasciviously at the reader. I knew Stag Party was a title guaranteed to get attention–and if it was perceived as rather ribald, I planned to disarm the critics with the quality of the publication’s contents.
I would demand the highest possible standards from the finest and most famous writers. But with practically no money for an editorial budget, I would acquire high-quality fiction by going after reprints and material in the public domain until I could afford to pay top rates for original work. I would round out the editorial package with exciting lifestyle features–on subjects ranging from sports cars and jazz to food and fashion–that would provide young men such as myself with wish-fulfilling images of the good life that we had just begun to appreciate and pursue. And cartoons. To me, the cartoons would be a vital part of the magazine’s irreverent identity–as indispensable to Stag Party as they had been to the old Esquire, but with one important distinction. Even in its most successful years, Esquire had always been edited for the middle-aged reader, as symbolized by the Esky character–the roué with bulging eyes and walrus mustache who appeared on the cover. I was going after a much younger and more modern audience, men who were growing up in a different era and beginning to break away from the rigid views and conformist values of their parents’ generation.
Since I didn’t have any money to promote or publicize the magazine, I cast about for a gimmick that would draw immediate attention to the first issue. In response to television’s increasing competition for the mass audience, Hollywood was searching for a gimmick of its own to lure the public back into movie theaters. In the early Fifties the motion picture industry introduced Cinema Scope, Cinerama and 3-D movies, and audiences were lining up to view three-dimensional films through red and green cellophane eyeglasses that were handed out at the door. I thought that a nude pictorial in 3-D in the first issue might be just the ticket to get Stag Party off the ground.
I found a studio photographer who owned a 3-D camera. For $200 he agreed to shoot two nude models for me in the process. I planned to bind a pair of 3-D glasses into every copy of the magazine, but my enthusiasm for the idea cooled measurably when I found out how much the glasses would cost.
I was still chafing over the prohibitive cost of my 3-D idea when I noticed an article in Advertising Age about the controversial Marilyn Monroe calendar. According to the story, the John Baumgarth Co. in Melrose Park, a suburb west of Chicago, owned the rights to one of two nude pictures of the actress taken by photographer Tom Kelley in 1949. But Baumgarth wasn’t giving its calendar wide distribution because, according to the Post Office, sending nude pictures through the mail was a federal offense. So while everyone had heard of the Monroe calendar, not very many people had seen it. This was an opportunity too good to be true: A full-color nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe in the first issue of my magazine would certainly be a better gimmick than 3-D pictures of a couple of unknown models.
When she had posed for the pictures, Marilyn was herself an unknown model, an aspiring actress who needed the $50 modeling fee to pay the rent. Since then, she’d become the hottest new actress around, with small but important parts in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, and her first starring role in the current release Niagara. When word of her nude modeling reached the press, Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that had her under contract, feared that the news might ruin a promising career. But Marilyn joked about it. Asked what she had on during the photo session, she reportedly replied, “Nothing but the radio.”
Publicity about her nudes only heightened America’s fascination with her. In a cover story in April 1952, Life published a postage-stamp-sized two-color reproduction of one of the photos. Reflecting the temper of the times, no other magazine had dared to print either of them. But if the calendar company was afraid of the Post Office, I wasn’t. I had read the federal obscenity statute originally conceived by Anthony Comstock and, as far as I was concerned, the law itself was obscene. In 1945, after the Post Office had spent years trying unsuccessfully to take away Esquire’s second-class mailing permit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia–in a decision written by Judge Thurman Arnold and later upheld by the Supreme Court–ordered postal authorities to spend more time delivering the mail and less time trying to censor it.
But the Post Office officials were still acting like a self-appointed censorship board, as if the Esquire case had no meaning and a tastefully posed nude photo was obscene. I wasn’t really certain what obscenity was, but I knew what it wasn’t. It wasn’t simple nudity.
Armed with that conviction, I jumped into my beat-up Chevy coupe and drove out North Avenue to the Baumgarth plant, a couple of miles west of my old neighborhood. I arrived unannounced and asked to see John Baumgarth, president of the company. As luck would have it, he was in and willing to see me. A friendly, middle-aged man, Baumgarth was immediately responsive to the entrepreneurial spirit of a young lad who spoke so enthusiastically about plans to start his own men’s magazine. As soon as I explained what I wanted, he showed me a copy of the calendar, and I was pleased to see that he had purchased the better of the two poses. In the tiny two-color picture in Life, Marilyn had been stretched out diagonally against a red drape. In the Baumgarth picture, she was posed provocatively in a sitting position with one arm curved back over her golden hair, which partially covered her face in a peekaboo fashion. Baumgarth had titled the picture Golden Dreams, and to me it looked like a golden dream come true.
Baumgarth said he would be happy to let me reproduce the picture in the first issue of my magazine for the same price he had originally paid the photographer: $500. Warming to this idea, he said that he would also throw in the color separations. This was a truly generous offer, for good litho negatives could have cost me as much as $1000. It meant that I could now afford full-process color reproduction in my first issue. I just knew that picture of Marilyn would make my magazine a collector’s item.
I left that meeting walking on air. All I needed to do now was create a magazine to go with the picture–and then find someone who would print it on terms I could afford. But first I needed to whip up enthusiasm for Stag Party among the major newsstand wholesalers around the country. If I could get enough advance orders, it would be that much easier to talk a printer into extending me credit.
I set up an office in our apartment, using a card table and my trusty old L. C. Smith typewriter. I had ordered two separate sets of printed-letterhead stationery and envelopes, one for Stag Party and another for something I called Nation-Wide News Co., since I was going to distribute the magazine myself until I could get a national distributor. The return address for both organizations was 6052 S. Harper Avenue, our South Side apartment. I gave myself the title of general manager of Nation-Wide News, and I used several different titles on the Stag Party letters. I would be editor-publisher when it was appropriate, but also publicity director, circulation director, advertising director and so on, depending on the business at hand.
The letterheads hadn’t arrived yet, but I was so excited about the Marilyn Monroe picture that I decided to write a promotional letter to the top 25 wholesalers in the country, most of whom I knew personally from my year at Modern Man. I had no prospectus or dummy. All I had were the reproduction rights to Marilyn’s picture and a distribution list, but that was enough. I sat down and started to type. The letter read:
We haven’t even printed our letterhead yet, but I wanted you to be one of the very first to hear the news. stag party–a brand-new magazine for men–will be out this Fall and it will be one of the best sellers you’ve ever handled. It’s being put together by a group from esquire who stayed here in Chicago when that magazine moved east last year–so you can imagine how good it is going to be. And it will include male-pleasing figure studies–making it a sure hit from the very start.
But here’s the really BIG news! The first issue of stag party will include the famous calendar picture of Marilyn Monroe–in full color! In fact–every issue of stag party will have a beautiful, full-page, male-pleasing nude study–in full, natural color!
Now you know what I mean when I say this is going to be one of the best sellers you’ve ever handled.
Fill out the postage-paid air mail reply card enclosed and get it back to me as quickly as possible. With four-color printing on the inside pages, we’ve got to set our distribution right away.
It will be nice doing business with you again–especially with a title as good as this one.
Nation-Wide News Company
Hugh M. Hefner
What it really came down to was trying to create a distribution company out of correspondence, and I planned to create the magazine in much the same way. I figured I needed at least 35,000 orders to break even on that first issue. Since I had to continue my job at Children’s Activities to make ends meet, my wife, Millie, pitched in and helped me with the typing. From coast to coast, there were about 800 news-dealers to contact, so the correspondence kept her busy. To avoid the telltale appearance of a mom-and-pop operation, Millie even added a secretarial touch to the letters, using the initials of her maiden name, Williams, in the lower left margin: “HMH:mw.” That spring and summer, the entire office and staff of both the magazine and its distributor were me, Millie, that card table and my old L. C. Smith.
Orders were soon filling our mailbox: 25 from Birmingham, Alabama; 40 from Twin Falls, Idaho; 50 from Battle Creek, Michigan; and 100 from Little Rock, Arkansas. San Diego and Los Angeles each wanted 1500; 2000 from Washington, D.C.; 3000 from Boston; 6000 from Chicago; and the largest order, 8000 from New York. Altogether, about 200 newsdealers responded with orders. It was all I could do to contain my elation.
By the end of May, I had orders for more than 50,000 copies of the first issue–all on the promise of the Esquire connection and the Marilyn Monroe picture.