Working around the clock in rented apartments, Hugh Hefner and his team get the first issue of Playboy to the printers in time for its December 1953 premiere. With its sophisticated-yet-playful sexuality and its nods to highbrow culture, there’s nothing else like Playboy on the newsstands. The undated first issue sells an unprecedented 54,000 copies. Featuring the legendary Marilyn Monroe both on the cover and in a full-color spread within, the attention sets Monroe’s career on fire.
Playboy has become one of the best-selling men’s magazines on the market and Hugh Hefner pushes into licensing. In the same year, having had his magazine deemed obscene and therefore denied the mailing permit used by periodicals, Hefner successfully takes the U.S. Postal Service to court, winning the mailing privileges his magazine deserves. Playboy, and the now iconic rabbit head logo, become symbols of Hefner’s trailblazing lifestyle.
Hugh Hefner introduces the centerfold, simultaneously adding to a growing list of brand-specific catchphrases and creating a new cultural milestone. It becomes an emblem of influence in and of itself, further emphasizing Hefner’s unique grasp on the American man who longs to live like he does.
Hugh Hefner extends his reach into homes across America with his late night talk show, Playboy’s Penthouse. Though the show is relatively short-lived, it spawns a film production company and a follow-up show, Playboy After Dark, a decade later. Also in 1959, Hef organizes the first Playboy Jazz Festival (now an annual event), featuring such legends as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. With the purchase of his first infamous Playboy Mansion in Chicago, Hefner rides his burgeoning empire into the ’60s.
The first Playboy Club opens in Chicago. Featuring world-class and local entertainers alike, the club proves so popular that dozens more crop up across America, inviting the average American man into the Playboy lifestyle. But the glamour isn’t exclusive to the guests; the staff’s distinctive attire and allure gives way to another world-famous cultural icon: the Playboy Bunny.
Christening the long-form Playboy Interview with jazz legend Miles Davis, Hugh Hefner’s creative direction creates another institution that will go on to feature some of the world’s sharpest minds and brightest stars, from Jimmy Carter to Muhammad Ali. Hef writes 25 installments of The Playboy Philosophy, establishing himself and Playboy as activist arbiters of the sexual revolution to come.
With all eyes on Swinging London’s innovative “Cool Britannia” take on fashion, art and music, Playboy officially goes international. Rocking it up a notch and making the summer of love last all year, Hefner opens the London Playboy Club. Capitalizing on the U.K.’s new gambling laws, the club runs an extremely successful casino, rumored at the time to be the most profitable in the world.
Playboy takes to the skies and defines the jet set lifestyle with the Big Bunny, aka Hare Force One, one of the most opulent aircrafts to ever fly. Featuring a disco, a lounge, a sunken Roman bath and 12 onboard beds, the Big Bunny is about the journey, not the destination.
Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Enterprises, Inc. goes public, legitimizing the company as a name to invest in and maximizing profits. Hefner purchases the Playboy Mansion West in L.A. “The Mansion” quickly grabs the public’s attention as an epicenter for raucous celebrity- and Playmate-laden parties.
The magazine hits an all-time high, with the November 1972 issue selling over 7.16 million copies and the introduction of the first international edition: Playboy Germany. Hefner’s brainchild eventually spawns 29 foreign editions sold in more than 50 countries. Licensing deals place the rabbit head logo on everything from cigarette lighters to pinball machines.
Reaching an all-time high of 230,000 key holders, the Playboy Clubs are central loci of the decade’s nightlife zeitgeist. The clubs are an international sensation, and ’76 sees new locations popping up as far off as Asia and the Caribbean. Stateside, the clubs continue to grow with openings in cities all around the nation.
A Solid Future
In 1979 Hugh Hefner celebrates another milestone as Playboy reaches its 25th anniversary. Hefner is regarded as something of a savant entrepreneur, the captain of his own ship. By this time, Playboy Clubs have opened around the world and continue to do so; clubs in London and Cologne remain active to this day. As another anniversary nears—Playboy’s 60th—Hefner celebrates achievements that amount to an indelible bunny-shaped impression on the global pop culture landscape. The empire boasts the publication of some of the most significant authors of the times (Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Hunter S. Thompson) and production credits alongside filmmakers as diverse as the Monty Python crew and Roman Polanski. All of this built from a periodical that hit newsstands without a date because, at the time, the prospect of a second issue was unimaginable. As Playboy Magazine readies its 702nd issue, it’s unimaginable that a project that has grown and changed so fluidly with the times—and effected some of that change itself—might not have taken shape the way it did. Or with anyone else at the helm.