When Playboy Enterprises, Inc. went public in 1971, its share certificate featured a nude image of a reclining Willy Rey, that year’s Miss February. The Playmate was to have appeared bare breasted until concerns from financiers resulted in the strategic placement of her long auburn locks. By the time Playboy redesigned its certificate in 1990, an estimated 14,000 people held just a single share—apparently more than six times the norm for companies of equivalent size. This enthusiasm for owning “novelty” shares was reported to cost Playboy some $100,000 a year in investor relations and postage.
Like many global brands, Playboy has enjoyed its share of parody. In 1966 The Harvard Lampoon published a spoof entitled Plyby. Printed with assistance from Hugh Hefner, the magazine featured a “Jms Bnd” satire, the parodic comic strip “Little Orphan Bosom” and a Centerfold whose tan was inverted, giving her milky white skin and dark, bronzed breasts. According to the college paper The Harvard Crimson, 545,000 copies of Plyb*y (priced at $1.25 each) sold out within two weeks.
Seventeen years later, the American Parody and Travesty Corporation published Playbore, hoping to sell a million copies at $2.95 a pop. Playbore featured an exclusive interview with Jesus Christ, a John Updike spoof (“Rabbit Is Dead”) and a girls of the PLO pictorial.
Playboy has been published in braille, at the American taxpayers’ expense, since 1970. In December 1985, the Library of Congress removed the title from its roster of 36 braille magazines after Congress voted to cut $103,000 from the library’s annual budget. (It is no coincidence that this sum was precisely what it cost to produce 1,000 braille copies of an annual Playboy subscription.) In August 1986, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ruled this decision violated the First Amendment and ordered braille production to resume. The Library of Congress still publishes braille versions of Playboy—albeit just the text.
The Oxford English Dictionary quotes Playboy to define some 150 terms, including: beer goggles, cockmanship, come shot, gazillionaire, needledick, orgasm, pointy head, postmodernism, schwag, skeezy and zing. Moreover, the dictionary credits Playboy with first publishing backassward (1971), base (free-basing cocaine, 1984), disco (1964), mono-brow (1987), pimpmobile (1971), promo (1966) and snarfle (1985).
“I didn’t believe in reincarnation until I read Playboy. Now I want to come back as a staple.” —ANONYMOUS
From Playboy’s first edition, the staples puncturing its Centerfolds were almost as notorious as the girls. Thus the decision in October 1985 to replace stapling with “perfect” glue-binding made headlines: “Staple-Free Playboy Bound to Be Better” “Playboy Plans No More Punctured Navels” “Cheer for the End of Playboy Staples”
Hunter S. Thompson noted the power of even a forged Playboy photographer press card: “I bought it from a pimp in Vail, Colorado, and he told me how to use it. ‘Never mention Playboy until you’re sure they’ve seen this thing first,’ he said. ‘Then, when you see them notice it, that’s the time to strike. They’ll go belly-up every time. This thing is magic, I tell you. Pure magic.’”
In January 1972, the Reverend Joseph Lupo sought new recruits for the Roman Catholic Order of the Most Holy Trinity by advertising in the East Coast edition of Playboy. Despite criticism damning this decision as “one of the most disgraceful acts of any member of the church in this century,” the order accepted 28 young men for “testing and processing.” As Father Lupo told The New York Times, “I do not feel that Christ’s message is out of place anywhere.”
In its earliest incarnation, play-boy was a theater term for boy actors who took female roles before women were accepted onstage. (Above, Gwyneth Paltrow as a play-boy in Shakespeare in Love, 1998.) In 1612, Ben Jonson wrote, “The rogue play-boy that acts Cupid, is got so hoarse, your majesty cannot hear him.” Our modern use of “playboy”—a wealthy, hedonistic bachelor—derives from Irish English. The word was made famous by the Irish playwright J.M. Synge, whose tragicomedy The Playboy of the Western World caused outrage when it premiered in Dublin in 1907 (and in New York in 1911). The play itself is far from glamorous. The “playboy” is a poor farmer who, claiming to have killed his father, charms the women of a small town. And the “western world” refers simply to the western counties of Ireland. Yet a gilded concept of the playboy endures to this day, and the title has been bestowed on a range of men, including Porfirio Rubirosa, Lapo Elkann, Warren Beatty, Stavros Niarchos III, Silvio Berlusconi, Jack Nicholson, Prince Azim, Albert von Thurn und Taxis, Paris Latsis, Al-Saadi Gaddafi, Kim Dotcom and Sean Parker.
(Marilyn Sheppard called her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, “the playboy of the western world” before her murder in 1954. Dr. Sheppard’s controversial conviction for this crime may have in part inspired the TV series and movie The Fugitive.)
The government’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment listed seven gangs that use “Playboy” in their name: Southside Playboys (California), Playboys (Colorado), Playboy Crew (Florida), Playboy and Playboy Gangsters (Missouri), Playboy Gangster and Playboys 13 (Washington). Over the years, a host of other gangs have appropriated Playboy’s name and branding, including:
PLAYBOY BLOODS-Las Vegas-wear red and black colors and the Rabbit Head logo PEOPLE NATION-Chicago-wear the Rabbit Head logo with both ears erect FOLK NATION-Chicago-wear the Rabbit Head logo with left ear cocked ALMIGHTY VICE LORD NATION-Chicago-have worn the Rabbit Head logo since the early 1960s DIXIE PLAYBOYS-Florida-a 1980s home-robbery gang that wore the Rabbit Head logo PLAYBOY GANGSTER CRIPS*-Los Angeles-a crack-dealing gang that used the Rabbit Head logo *In 1987 the L.A. city attorney made history by filing a civil injunction against this “unincorporated association.”
“Show me any guy, of any age, anywhere in the world, at any time in history, today or tomorrow, that wouldn’t give his left nut to be Hugh Hefner.” —GENE SIMMONS “As soon as I pop this thing out, I want to do Playboy.” —KIM KARDASHIAN, while pregnant “Beyond the incalculable public service Playboy performed by printing pictures of attractive naked women was the way it offered a whole attendant lifestyle. It was like a monthly manual telling you how to live, how to play the stock market and buy a hi-fi and mix sophisticated cocktails and intoxicate women with your wit and sense of style.” —BILL BRYSON, The Lost Continent
“To tell the truth, I never read anything in Playboy. I just look at the naked women.” —RED SMITH, sportswriter “One of the best interviews ever done of me was published in Playboy.… Really, you can read Playboy for the articles.” —KATHLEEN TURNER, Send Yourself Roses “Playboy Centerfolds are an American trophy. The nation’s hood ornament, from the limo of state. Every boy has passed under the shadow of those perfect breasts on the way to adulthood.” —A.A. GILL, To America With Love “Playboy legitimized looking at naked women.” —BRUCE FEIRSTEIN, writer “I have not only been reading it but suggesting it to my clients.’’ —DR. RUTH WESTHEIMER “There are no old men anymore. Playboy and Penthouse have between them made an ideal of eternal adolescence, sunburnt and saunaed, with the gray dorianed out of it.” —PETER USTINOV “Some men read Playboy. I read annual reports.” —WARREN BUFFETT
Alongside Nike’s swoosh, Coke’s dynamic curve and Apple’s bitten apple, Playboy’s bow-tied Rabbit Head is one of the most recognized logos in the world. (Even in 1959, the USPS delivered to the Playboy offices an envelope bearing no address other than the Rabbit Head silhouette.) The logo was designed in 1953 by Playboy’s legendary art director Art Paul; it took him less than an hour. Since then the Rabbit has adorned a diverse panoply of items—from perfume and alarm clocks to lingerie and bottle openers. The Rabbit has also appeared in some form on the cover of every issue of Playboy magazine, apart from the first. In the early years he was often featured as a character in his own right—watching a show, popping champagne, lounging poolside. But as the cover girls gained confidence and prominence, the Rabbit receded into the shadows. Soon, a splendidly curious game developed between the magazine’s designers, who secreted the Rabbit Head logo somewhere on the cover, and the readers, who were challenged to find it. Below are some of the more ingenious places the Rabbit has hidden on Playboy covers through the decades: August 1969 The young and the freckles July 1983 Wood you knot? September 1973 Strap it on August 1989 Hare-raising prices July 1974 Bendy straw April 2006 Buckle up May 1979 Lips incorporated March 2011 Thigh spy
The FBI was tasked with investigating Playboy and Hugh Hefner, according to records published in 2000. Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover first became concerned about the magazine in 1955 when it ran a science-fiction love story featuring space-exploring G-men. Then Hoover’s ire was roused in February 1963 when Hef declared in an editorial that “J. Edgar has always been something of a nut on the subject of sex” and questioned why the FBI was more interested in censorship than “the nation’s thriving crime syndicate.” Hoover demanded, “What do we know of H.M. Hefner?”—a question that led to more than 200 pages of FBI reports during the 1960s.
Hef took delivery of his jet in 1969 and sold it in 1975; below are some specs: Type … McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 Registration … N950PB Nicknames … Big Bunny, Hare Force One Dimensions … 119.3’ (length), 93.4’ (span) Capacity … six crew, 38 passengers
Hef’s quarters were accessed by a private staircase and featured a king-size elliptical water bed finished in silk and Tasmanian possum fur. The three fully trained stewardess-models were known as “Jet Bunnies.”
The publication you are currently reading was to have been called Stag Party, until lawyers representing a men’s adventure magazine called Stag threatened to sue. A range of other titles were considered (including Bachelor, Gentleman, Pan, Satyrs, Sir and Top Hat) before Playboy was born.
Ben Schott is the author, most recently, of Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition (Blue Rider Press); his website is benschott.com.