We were on the freeway at the time. I was driving fast, very fast, because my passenger, a world-renowned historian, was late for a seminar. Absorbed as I was in listening to my favorite goldenoldies FM station and its retrospective on the works of Black Sabbath, I was startled when, abruptly, he turned to me and said, apropos of nothing in particular:
“I believe that when the intellectual debris of this era is finally cleared away, the list of names of those who have defined our times will have boiled down to these four: Marx, Freud, Einstein and Hefner.”
I gave this pronouncement a few moments of deep thought, then popped the passenger door and shoved the widely respected savant into the evening rush-hour traffic, where he was immediately run over and killed, thus making this anecdote virtually unverifiable.
Later—in the privacy of my study—I ruminated on the sage’s last words. Was he in fact proposing that we would have suffered through an essentially meaningless century had it not been for dialectical materialism, psychoanalysis, relativity and—what?—Bunnies? As I tossed and turned through a fevered, sleepless night, I returned again to the almost unthinkable question, one that has filled the hours of so many unemployed sociologists: What if playboy had never been?
How, for example, would so many millions of my fellow Americans have been able to appreciate the miracle of our planet’s seasonal dance if they had not had access to those playboy Covers with their paeans to monthly change: blondes in bikinis inevitably giving way to brunettes wearing abbreviated Santa outfits?
What institution of higher learning would inquiring minds of my generation have attended to unlock the intricate secrets of stereo awareness, wine appreciation and comparative fellatio?
Where would we—the men of my time—have gone to gird ourselves for a lifetime of successful gender-bonding without the invaluable guidelines of hundreds of centerfolds’ turnoffs (e.g., liars, cigar smoke, ethnic cleansing) and turn-ons (e.g., moonlight swims, world peace, guys with firm butts)?
And furthermore, what, I asked myself, would the world as we know it have become without the man who invented the most widely skimmed magazine of our time, without the man who has been willing to risk health and eyesight by spending a minimum of 16 hours a day examining minuscule photographic proof sheets of heartbreakingly underdressed women, without the man I have known since childhood and have called variously “H.M.H.,” “Mr. Hefner,” “Hef,” “Chief,” “Your Grace,” “Big Guy,” “Master” and once, only once, in the late Sixties when manners and morals were generally more flexible, “Honeybuns”?
Marx, Freud, Einstein and Hefner. The quartet of names sang in my mind’s ear over and over again, like some exotic mantra.
In all due modesty, I am compelled to suggest that I am in a unique position to evaluate the late historian’s provocative pronouncement. I have known, in one way or another, each of the above-named individuals (Karl, Siggy, Al and Hef, as I call them) and have spent many pleasant hours with each one of them, trading philosophical insights, intellectual gossip and numerous multicultural off-color jokes.
In order to fully appreciate the significance of this magazine’s contribution to world culture, it is necessary not only to examine playboy’s place in historical and literary tradition but also to probe (as I have done so often on these pages) the psyche of its founder and to examine this said psyche microscopically—each nut, each bolt and, if you will, each screw, that fit so cunningly into that dynamo of social energy I like to call the Hefmachine.
Let me begin this analysis by sharing an anecdote from my short but pithy relationship with my buddy from Vienna, Sigmund Freud, prober of the unconscious, analyzer of dreams and allaround coke fiend.
Many years ago I was playing a game of pinochle and sharing a Sacher torte with the amiable Austrian. In spite of an undeniable age discrepancy, we were good pals. Perhaps it was because I was always willing to listen to him ramble on about the id, but more likely it was because he liked to play with my toys (he harbored an unusual fascination for my Erector set). We had what might be called a prickly, even contentious relationship, much like that of Socrates and Plato, minus the flowing robes and the buggery. I remember once saying to him, “But honestly, Uncle Sig, have you ever actually met anyone who killed his father and slept with his mother?” His answer, in a rare display of pique, was to extinguish his cigar on the back of my youthful hand.
At any rate, on this day, while shuffling the cards for the next deal, he looked at me over his spectacles, beard and ever-present stogie, and said, “Weiss du, mein kleiner Freund, Anatomie ist Schicksal.” (He always spoke to me in German, which I didn’t understand and neither do you, so I’ll translate: “You know, my little friend, anatomy is destiny.”) I was to think of the irrefutable truth of this famous aphorism many times, such as the time I was summarily rejected when I applied for a position as one of the Supremes and again during a brief career in the NBA. And though Freud may have originated that aphorism, it was my other, closer friend—the creator of this magazine—who found a way to make money out of it.
Born of a mixed marriage—one man, one woman—Hefner, even as a newborn babe, displayed physiological characteristics that would steer him inexorably to the top of the media heap.
“Look at those eyes,” the attending maternity-ward nurse is alleged to have proclaimed, “those strange, piercing, beady, close-set eyes. They seem to be staring at me.”
“The better,” the proud and prescient father answered, “to read the future and, possibly, to see through cloth.”
“And look at his little hands,” the gynecologist-in-chief insisted, “with those long, almost prehensile, fingers.”
“Ah, yes,” the exhausted mother responded, “the better to grasp things with—a pipe, a Pepsi, a pencil….” She collapsed immediately from alliterative overload.
“And what an amazingly long, slim torso for a newborn,” a consulting physician said.
“The better,” a young intern rejoined, “to spend a happy and comfortable life in pajamas,” a proclamation that drew a snicker or two at the time. Years later that doctor was proven to be uncannily accurate when people around the world responded admiringly to the fashion statement jointly propounded by Hefner and Ho Chi Minh.
“And what about that?” a curious passerby fairly shrieked in amazement, pointing to yet another prominent area of the still-naked babe’s torso. “What will he do with that?”
And here, before the pertinent query is answered, but enlightened by our knowledge that anatomy is indeed destiny, let us draw a curtain of modesty over this moving domestic tableau.
My relationship with Karl Marx was of a different, though equally compelling, order. Once, in an effort to widen my social parameters, I enrolled in Infimate, a uniquely conceived pen-pal-and-dating service that combined demographics with parapsychology. Owned and operated by a family of licensed Gypsies in Trenton, New Jersey, Infimate brought lonely strangers together through a series of scientific séances.
Over a period of six months, costing me the going rate of $20 a session plus the deed to my house and several doctor bills necessitated by a nasty skin condition caused, apparently, from contact with an infected tarot deck, I found myself in communication with a number of legendary and outspoken historical personages.
And what I learned from my conversations with these voices from the past could fill many a best-selling volume.
Helen of Troy, for instance, proved to be a foulmouthed little vixen who discoursed interminably about the sexual inadequacies of Menelaus, Hector, Ajax, Achilles and several dozen other pre-Christian role models. She also had some rather salty comments concerning Trojan table manners and sanitary habits.
On several occasions, I also conversed with William Shakespeare, who insisted that he not only had written all of his own plays but also had helped with (“punchéd up” was the expression he used) several dramas of Francis Bacon and Thomas Kyd. He also claimed to have written and misplaced a first draft of something he would describe only as his one “truly daffie comedie” and to which he had given the working title of The Bridges of Ye Olde Madison-on-Avon.
I spent a fascinating hour or two with Leonardo da Vinci, who insisted that his one great artistic regret was that he was unable to slap that silly smirk off Mona Lisa’s kisser.
Davy Crockett, Cleopatra (“Asp, hell—it was bad clams”), Al Capone, Anne (“It only smarts for a second”) Boleyn, Bix Beiderbecke—I conversed with all of them. But it was Karl Marx, the scourge of capitalism, who offered me one of the most startling insights into the main theme of this rambling discourse. Although he still complained endlessly—even from beyond the grave—about the quality of the fare at the British Museum’s cafeteria, I found him to be possessed of a lively sense of humor and an unexpected penchant for ribald, and somewhat childish, limericks. To wit:
There once was a fellow named Hegel
Who had an affair with a bagel.
Well, you get the picture.
One of his most charming attributes was his persistent optimism about the future, even though he admitted his theory about the imminent perfectibility of humanity failed to account for Jesse Helms and Howard Stern.
Notwithstanding the fact that he was fully aware his concept of the perfectible man was, for the present, an illusion, he insisted that others would carry the torch; others—at least one other—would continue the search for mortal perfection. The search for a race of beings with perfect ideals and perfect morals or—if that seemed unattainable—some special man who would settle for perfect hair, perfect thighs and perfect breasts. Need I say more?
What can I say about Albert Einstein? He was a genius, a scamp and a wag. He loved to dance and sing and bake cookies. Like so many Nobel Prize-winning scientists, he adored the Three Stooges, saying once, as I recall: “Moe is real funny but so is Larry. Curly is just, just—I don’t know, I guess it’s all relative.”
Shortly before his death in 1955, Al invited me to his bedroom, where he got down on his knees, felt around under his bed and came up with his complete collection of playboy. Handling the magazines with the care he ordinarily reserved for certain scientific instruments (such as his thermometer, his Buddy L battery charger and his Flowbie), he asked me if I was familiar with the publication. I answered in the affirmative and added that I was a close friend of the periodical’s creator.
He was amazed to hear that I had played a small part in playboy’s early development. I told him how I had encouraged Hefner to limit Party Jokes to only one side of the centerfold. Einstein was equally impressed when I recounted how, when Hefner wanted to give the magazine a name that would reflect his image, I suggested that playboy might be more eye-catching than Hef’s idea, Tall, Thin Guy.
Although the general theory of relativity, combining notions of space, time and matter, remains a difficult notion for most laymen, Einstein once gave me a dramatically simple interpretation that I am happy to pass on.
“It is like playboy itself,” Einstein explained, “in which we can witness a successful effort to combine man’s ability to handle, at one time, an artistic impression, a literary concept and an actual erection.”
Let me try to put the thesis of this article in another context. Imagine, if you will, what twists and turns the path of contemporary history might have taken had there been no playboy.
• Lacking decades of easy-to-remove centerfolds, gas-station walls all over America would be bedecked with photographs of lovely sylvan scenes and charming animals.
• Tavern customers, deprived of their endless fund of party jokes and barroom tricks, would have had to fall back on such familiar opening conversational gambits as: “Dint I see ya here before?” “Whatcha drinkin’?” and the perennial favorite: “Betcha can’t guess my sign.”
• LeRoy Neiman would have stayed in art school until his teacher suggested a visit to an optometrist. His vision would have been corrected to 20/20, making it possible for him to paint pictures that don’t resemble 3-D movie stills.
• Jessica Hahn would never have met Howard Stern, and La Toya Jackson would still be living off her allowance from Michael.
• The girls next door would have had to settle for taking off their clothes for the boys next door.
• The GNP would be 2.6 percent higher, as a result of company time currently wasted by American workers searching for the hidden Rabbit on playboy covers.
• The rabbit would have maintained its dignity as a cuddly household pet.
• With no Playboy Clubs to offer vicarious thrills to feverish businessmen, the field would have been open for some other periodical—perhaps Mad magazine with a chain of Madhouses. Its customers would be served by waitresses in saucy Alfred E. Neuman outfits.
• If Hef were not footing the bills for meals at the Playboy Mansion, Chuck Woolery would have spent an additional $2,174,293 in restaurant tabs.
• Marilyn Monroe, unable to cash in on publicity from her appearance in Playboy’s premiere edition, would have been relegated to bit parts in B movies. She would never have been invited to sing Happy Birthday to JFK. Kennedy, thus undistracted, would not have been talked into the Bay of Pigs fiasco. His luster undistracted, he would not have visited Dallas to shore up a fading Southern constituency. No Dallas, no assassination. Mr. Zapruder would be boring his grandchildren with fuzzy 8mm films of his afternoon at the Dallas Zoo. Jack Ruby would have settled down with the stripper of his choice. And Oliver Stone would have made a long, controversial movie proving that Lincoln was shot by his wife.
Marx, Freud, Einstein and Hefner. The sense of it, the rightness of it, is enough to make one giddy. Remove any one of those names from history’s roll call and the century falls apart like a savings-and-loan institution.