This article originally appeared in the January 1974 issue playboy magazine.
From the moment playboy first hit the newsstands in December of 1953, it was obvious that Hugh Marston Hefner’s new publication-a 48-page, undated issue with a cover and center spread featuring Marilyn Monroe-wasn’t going to be just another magazine. It was Hefner’s own vision of what a men’s magazine ought to be: a judicious blend of fiction, nonfiction, humor, art and photography-all reflecting a healthy appreciation of the opposite sex and of what he called “the great indoors.” There had never been anything quite like it on the market; something about it struck a chord with the 70,000 readers who made the first issue a sellout. Within months, in an era in which publishing empires were crumbling, playboy was thriving; it went on to become the industry’s biggest post-World War Two success. As Time magazine commented in a 1967 cover story about “He was the first publisher to see that the sky would not fall and mothers would not march if he published bare bosoms; he realized that the old taboos were going…. He took the old-fashioned, shame-thumbed girlie magazine, stripped off the plain wrapper, added gloss, class and culture. It proved to be a sure-fire formula.”
So much so, in fact, that in less than a decade, its creator had become not only a multimillionaire but the subject of countless profiles in other publications. He had also become the most flamboyant practitioner of the affluent, sexually uninhibited lifestyle he presented in his magazine. During the Sixties-while Hefner hardly ever ventured out of the self-contained total environment he’d constructed for himself in his Chicago Mansion-the magazine grew into a diversified empire, with a string of Playboy Clubs in 19 cities and hotels in Jamaica, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Chicago and Miami Beach.
As the decade ended, Hefner “came out”-with gusto-purchasing the world’s most luxurious private plane, a customized DC-9 he calls the Big Bunny. He’s used it to take a number of trips to Europe and Africa and to commute from Chicago to the latest addition to his personal and corporate world, the Playboy Mansion West, a five-and-a-half-acre estate from which he supervises the company’s further expansion into films, television, records and other areas of the entertainment business.
Despite-or perhaps because of-the conspicuous success of the magazine and its offshoots, playboy and its Editor-Publisher have been subjected to criticism from various quarters. First there were the sexual puritans, who were shocked at the sight of bare flesh, however tastefully displayed. Then came the religious commentators, who took issue with The Playboy Philosophy. As flak from the right died down, it appeared from other quarters: the radical left, denouncing playboy’s “materialism,” and the shriller fringes of the women’s liberation movement, reviling its supposed sexism. Both leftists and feminists chose to ignore the commitment of the magazine-and the Playboy Foundation, established in 1965 as an activist force in the battle for preservation of constitutional rights-to the very causes they espoused.
Even more than critics, though, playboy has spawned imitators-most of them unabashed rip-offs of what they see as the playboy formula. Some are prospering, but playboy readership, meanwhile, has continued to climb toward an all-time high of some 26,000,000 monthly-more than the total of all its imitators combined.
With playboy approaching the end of its second decade, we decided to ask our Editor-Publisher-who selects all the names for this feature-to approve our suggestion for the subject of this 126th “Playboy Interview.” We couldn’t think of a more fitting occasion than our 20th Anniversary Issue for the controversial target of so much attention from the press to speak for himself in the pages of his own magazine: discussing what the past 20 years have signified to him personally, to playboy and to its readers, and what the next 20 years may hold. Not without some reservations-which he confides in the interview-Hefner agreed.
For this unprecedented assignment, we picked free-lance writer Larry DuBois, a 31-year-old former Time writer and correspondent whose penetrating Playboy Interviews with Jules Feiffer, Jackie Stewart, Roman Polanski and Jack Anderson convinced us that he had the experience, ability, tenacity and good humor we knew this job would entail. We were right about it and him. Here’s his report:
“In the Butler Aviation terminal at O'Hare airport outside Chicago, where the private-plane set is pretty blasé about your average limousine, people still snap to attention when a huge Mercedes 600- license number HH1340-pulls up, and when the owner steps out, the place practically freezes like a snapshot to watch him stride briskly through, followed almost at a trot by a couple of beautiful blondes–one his girlfriend, the other his highly competent secretary, who’s madly taking notes as he dictates a memo on the fly.
"A few hours later, over Los Angeles, he and his friends are finishing their last game of Monopoly, and as his plane zooms in low over the freeway, traffic slows to a crawl when drivers catch sight of that sleek jet-black DC-9 with the Rabbit’s head on the tail. It belongs, of course, to Hugh Hefner; everybody knows that. It’s the most famous private plane in the world, he’s the most famous publisher in the world and he leads one of the most publicized personal lives of anyone in public life.
"Then why do people always ask, when they find out you’ve met him. ‘What’s he really like?’ It’s a good question, and the fact that it gets asked so often is as good a demonstration as any that, while Hefner has managed to make his name perhaps as well known as that of his magazine, the conflicting stories about him have obscured his identity so effectively that most people don’t have a clue to what sort of man he actually is. After getting to know him as well as anyone but his oldest friends, I still don’t have any final answers to that question myself, but I can say that in many ways, he is an even more remarkable figure than his legend. And trying to reconcile one with the other turned out to be an unforgettable experience.
"Last March, I showed up at Hefner’s Mansion in Chicago, expecting to be there for the first of a couple of two-hour interview sessions. I ended up staying six months. I’m still not sure exactly how that happened. Part of it, I must admit, was the irresistible, almost extraterrestrial seductiveness of a sybaritic environment hermetically sealed from the strife and seasons of the outside world. But the main reason I stayed-and stayed-was that I realized soon after arriving that this was the only way I’d ever walk out with an interview I’d want to see published anywhere, let alone in Hefner’s own magazine.
"During our first tape session, he responded to my questions about the magazine and its critics with all the facility and polish of an uncommonly shrewd politician; but it was obvious to both of us, I think, that if we went on like this, I’d have just another slick interview with the thinker and theorist; we’d never pass beyond that. He’s got a tremendous reserve, I found, and he’s not about to surrender much of himself to a stranger. So he invited me to be his guest at the house for a while so we could get to know each other better.
"We quickly became friends, and I enjoyed myself enormously. Hefner’s world really is fun. After months of playing backgammon and pinball, getting to know his friends, feeling the special rhythms and patterns of his private world, the tone of our interview sessions became very personal-sometimes serious, sometimes jocular, always enthusiastic and untiring. 'Being around Hefner,’ one of his friends had told me, 'is like plugging yourself into an electric socket.’ He was right. The man is 47, but his energy is staggering and he seems to know one emotional pitch: flat-out, hard-charging, turned on.
"Some days we’d talk far into the night. Other days, when business matters were piling up, he surrendered himself totally to meetings with executives that turned into 24-hour marathons; and when the last bunch stumbled away at ten in the morning, as likely as not, Hefner would make a dash for the game room to rendezvous with his pals and do a fiercely competitive and often raucous six hours on the pinball machines before retiring to his quarters with a girlfriend. So much for the popular notion that beneath all the glitter, Hefner must be jaded or bored. He’s not.
"Whatever he’s into at the moment, his powers of concentration are-well-overwhelming. Until you’ve had his attention, says one of his old, staffers, you’ve never had attention. His mind is so quick, so totally focused on whatever he’s doing that if it doesn’t involve you, you might as well not exist. One night, a pretty young TV correspondent who had interviewed Hefner earlier in the evening and experienced that riveting attention of his approached him at the Monopoly table to say good night. For at least a couple of minutes, she stood at his side waiting for him to look up and acknowledge her. Finally, growing uneasy, she tapped him on the shoulder; he jerked his head around and practically jumped to his feet to shake her hand. It was one of those moments that could have been interpreted as rudeness, but it wasn’t. He’d been so involved in that Monopoly game that he hadn’t even noticed her standing six inches away from him.
"And so it goes. That kind of energy, enthusiasm and concentration make him an incredibly compelling personality. Though none of these qualities has ever been explored much by writers who’ve tried to portray Hefner, they shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been around him longer than an hour. But there was one tremendous surprise for me, which is a side of him that I hadn’t seen recorded anywhere, even though I’d read everything there was to read about him. When he’s not serious, the man is positively zany. A routine night of playing games with him is as funny and off-the-wall as-and not unlike-a Marx Brothers movie. And in a conversation with him about, say, that day’s Watergate news, he offers the same kind of mordant satirical perceptions you might expect from a Lenny Bruce, who happened to be a cherished friend of his. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Hefner had the kind of personality that opened up in a crowd, he could be a very successful stand-up comic.
"But he saves all this for his close friends and, believe me, it wasn’t easy to get it on tape. Much of what I consider the best of our interview sessions, in fact, came from questions I asked as a result of bantering at the Monopoly table, playing backgammon, splashing in his Jacuzzi grotto in Los Angeles, riding in the Mercedes to and from airports. If he hadn’t been willing to share those moments with me, I wouldn’t have been able to share them with the reader.
"As a result, I think you’ll be able to get some sense, if not of what Hugh Hefner is really like, then at least of what it’s like to be around him. I think you’ll also see that it’s a forceful, funny, absolutely extraordinary experience. Like his legend, Hefner is larger than life, the kind of elusive, contradictory, sometimes maddening, sometimes just mad genius it required not only to build a $200,000,000 business empire and to create a private world that’s been called-rather unimaginatively-a 'Disneyland for adults’ but also to have an absolute ball playing with it all.”
Why are you doing this interview?
It seemed like a natural, if unique, editorial notion for our 20th Anniversary Issue.
Do you have any reservations about being interviewed in your own magazine?
Well, I hope it doesn’t seem like a man talking to himself when it appears in print.
Do you think readers will believe that you agreed to do this without any special controls or limitations?
Certainly. Just don’t bring up anything that might jeopardize your future as a playboy contributor.
What could be fairer than that? Ok, let’s begin at the beginning. How did you happen to start playboy in the first place, and why?
Well, to really begin at the beginning, I got the journalism bug early. I was publishing my own neighborhood newspaper at the age of eight or nine-laboriously typing out each issue on an old Royal-and selling it door to door for a penny a copy. As a child, I spent most of my spare time writing and cartooning–fantastic stuff, filled with mad scientists, monsters, supersleuths, space travel, that sort of thing. I remember being reprimanded by one of my grade school teachers for drawing cartoons in class when I was supposed to be studying She sent the drawings home to my mother with a note saying that if I continued to waste my time this way in school, I would never amount to anything.
In high school, I started drawing a cartoon autobiography called School Daze for the amusement of my classmates, which continued after graduation-through two years in the Army and college after that-and eventually turned into an autobiographical scrapbook that I still update from time to time. In the Army, I became a magazine buff-studying the editorial concepts and contents of various publications. By the time I was graduated from the University of Illinois-where I drew cartoons for the Daily Illini and edited Shaft, the campus humor magazine-I knew I wanted to start a magazine of my own. The only thing wrong with that dream was the money: I didn’t have any.
I tried to sell a couple of comic-strip ideas to the newspaper syndicates, but they weren’t interested, and I wound up working as a copy writer in the ad department of Carson Pirie Scott for $40 a week. That led to my next job, as a copy writer in the promotion department of Esquire, at $60 a week. I thought that would be exciting, because in my early teens, Esquire had represented a world of urbane sophistication that really appealed to me. But the magic I’d found in the magazine wasn’t present in the job. There weren’t any Petty Girls working at Esquire.
Is that story true about your leaving Esquire because they wouldn’t give you a five-dollar raise?
I not only didn’t get the raise, the head of the promotion department spent almost an hour trying to convince me that I wasn’t a good “company man” to consider quitting for that reason. He was right. Anyway, Esquire moved to New York and I started thinking seriously about a magazine of my own.
The most popular men’s magazines of the time were the outdoor-adventure books-True, Argosy and the like. They had a hairy-chested editorial emphasis, with articles on hunting, fishing, chasing the Abominable Snowman over Tibetan mountaintops. I confess that I’m a little more urban oriented than that; I’m an indoor guy and an incurable romantic, so I decided to put together a men’s magazine devoted to the subjects I was more interested in-the contemporary equivalents of wine, women and song, though not necessarily in that order. Esquire had changed its editorial emphasis after the war, eliminating most of the lighter material-the girls, cartoons and humor. So the field was wide open for the sort of magazine I had in mind.
“They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I guess I’ve been flattered more sincerely–and more blatantly–than any other magazine publisher in history.”
What made a guy like you, from a fairly strait-laced Protestant background, want to publish a magazine like playboy?
Perhaps in part it was because of my strait-laced Protestant background. My parents are wonderful people and they instilled in me an idealism for which I’m grateful. As a kid, I remember being moved to tears by such classic movies of the Thirties as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which dealt with the typical American theme of one man against society fighting for the most basic democratic ideals, and so I admired the image of an iconoclastic individual who questions the accepted “truths.” But my parents also raised a son whose skepticism of bullshit included even the bullshit they themselves accepted; they had been reared in a very strict, almost puritan Protestantism. So at a very early age, I began questioning a lot of that religious foolishness about man’s spirit and body being in conflict, with God concerned primarily with the spirit of man and the Devil dwelling in the flesh.
The Puritans thought they could simply repress man’s sexual nature, and they reaped a whirlwind as a result. Their code of sexual morality-which became America’s-was nothing more than a set of rules laid down by people who believed that all pleasure was suspect. H. L. Mencken defined the puritan as a person who is terribly afraid that someone somewhere is having a good time. That carried over into the idea that work was virtuous but that enjoyment of the rewards for that work might somehow lead to decadence. I wanted to edit a magazine that would express my views on these subjects, a magazine free of guilt about sex and the benefits of materialism, a magazine that tried to put some of the play and pleasure back into life. So partly, I guess, I started playboy as a kind of cause. But the other half of it is that publishing a sophisticated men’s magazine seemed to me the best possible way of fulfilling a dream I’d been nurturing ever since I was a teenager: to get laid a lot.
Sorry, that just slipped out. I don’t know what came over me. I remember, in the days prior to playboy walking the streets of Chicago late at night, looking at the lights in the high-rise apartment buildings and very much wanting to be a part of “the good life” I thought the people in those buildings must be leading. I suspect that a great many young men who haven’t yet found what they want in life have had similar feelings. I wanted to be where it was happening-whatever “it” was. When I finally found out, of course, it wasn’t what I thought it would be; it was infinitely better, unbelievably more exciting than I’d ever dreamed. But there was no way I could guess what was coming when I started the magazine.
I still didn’t have any money, but I was 27 years old and I was afraid that if I didn’t try it on my own soon, I might have to learn to be a good company man after all I went to the bank and got a household loan of $200; then I went down the street to Local Loan and put up my furniture as collateral for another $400. Then I went to friends, relatives, friends of friends-anyone who’d listen-and managed to raise another $3000. A hundred dollars here, $50 there; I took whatever I could get. One writer friend contributed an article for the first issue and took his $200 payment in stock. That was probably the most lucrative magazine article anybody ever wrote. It made him a millionaire.
Anyone familiar with the business could have told me that there’s no possible way to start a major magazine on $3600, but I didn’t know that. It’s a good thing I didn’t have any friends who were familiar with the business. As a frame of reference, Time, Inc., started Sports Illustrated about the same time I started playboy, and I understand they went through $30,000,000 before it turned a profit. If I’d known as much about publishing then as I do today, I probably wouldn’t have been foolish enough to take the chance. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
Were you confident of playboy’s success from the very beginning?
On the contrary, I was so uncertain about the magazine’s chances that the first issue didn’t even have a date on it. I figured, well, if it doesn’t sell out in the first month, we’ll leave it on the stands a second month. I was the entire editorial staff; and I didn’t have a single day of professional editorial experience.
We printed 70,000 copies of that first issue-and sold almost all of them in the first couple of weeks. With that initial response, I got a small advance from a distributor and we were able to print a second issue, and then a third, and so on. playboy was a success, as far as I was concerned, when I realized it was going to produce enough profit to permit me to continue publishing it.
On our first anniversary, I remember, the employees of the company-seven of us by that time-celebrated in a booth at a local sandwich shop. I knew we were in business to stay, so I picked up the check. I still had no idea, of course, that in the years ahead playboy would become the most successful magazine of its time and that the Rabbit would become famous around the world as the insignia of a huge, diversified empire. Did you know that I almost called the magazine Stag Party and the symbol was originally going to be a stag? I changed my mind just before we went to press, thank God. Somehow, it wouldn’t have been the same. Can you imagine a chain of key clubs staffed by beautiful girls wearing antlers?
We’d rather not. How do you explain the magazine’s phenomenal success?
I think it was the right idea in the right place at the right time. A great many of the traditional social and moral values of our society were changing, and playboy was the first publication to reflect those changes. We offered an alternate lifestyle with a more permissive, more play-and-pleasure orientation. People get less sense of identity out of their jobs now than ever before, and with increasing affluence, how one spends one’s leisure time and finds value in it is more important than ever. An article in a university quarterly a few years ago offered an interesting comparison of playboy and Poor Richard’s Almanac. Ben Franklin was writing a guidebook for coping with life when a more frugal, work-oriented puritan ethic was essential to survival in a frontier society; playboy came along and offered a new set of ethical values for the urban society. The editorial message in playboy came through loud and clear: Enjoy yourself. Paul Gebhard, director of the Institute for Sex Research, once said that the genius of playboy was that it linked sex with upward mobility, and that’s a sociologist’s way of expressing what I’m talking about.
In the years since he said that, of course, playboy has become much more than that-more than the embodiment of an upward-mobile, pleasure-oriented lifestyle, and more than just a magazine of “entertainment for men.” Since our rather modest beginnings, it’s become not only one of the most popular magazines in publishing history but also-graphically, literarily and journalistically-one of the best in the world. Hell, it’s the best. It may not surprise you to learn that I also think playboy is one of the most important and influential magazines in the world, in terms of the impact it’s had not only on sexual mores but as a champion of individual rights. Somewhere between our covers-though you look like the type that never gets beyond the centerfold-you may have noticed that we’ve devoted a great deal of space, in articles, in interviews, in The Playboy Forum, to championing for others the same freedoms and opportunities we’re lucky enough to enjoy ourselves.
Have you done anything to support these freedoms and opportunities, apart from advocating them in the magazine?
That’s why I started the Playboy Foundation, which backs many of the same causes we espouse in the magazine-especially the ones that are unpopular enough to have been left largely unattended to by the Government and other foundations. We’ve supported countless civil liberties cases, the antiwar movement, Jesse Jackson’s PUSH and other civil rights organizations, political reform, sex research and education, abortion reform before it became popular, prison reform before it became popular, and the continuing campaign to reform our repressive sex and drug laws, as well as any number of charities and community-fund efforts. For a long time, we were the chief sponsor of the Kinsey Institute and the research of Masters and Johnson, and right now we’re the biggest financial supporter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, because I think making criminals out of people who smoke marijuana is very damaging to the social fabric of this society. I’ve made the social commitment through this and a similar foundation formed at the same time; they’re the major beneficiaries of my stock in playboy.
The funds for your Foundation come from profits on what Life called “the house that flesh built.” By talking only of playboy’s editorial and financial commitment to social and political causes, aren’t you downplaying the importance of nude pictures in the magazine’s success?
I never want to be accused of that. I love those ladies. They are, and always will be, an integral part of playboy’s total editorial package, just as sex should be an integral part of the total human experience. playboy has tried to integrate the erotic and intellectual interests of its male readers, and that has proved to be a far more controversial and misunderstood editorial concept than I could have guessed when we began. Even as relatively sophisticated a magazine as Newsweek has criticized playboy for marring its otherwise excellent editorial content with what it termed a “peek-a-boo” interest in sex; but as far as I’m concerned, incorporating the two is playboy’s greatest virtue. There’s a decontaminating process that takes place as a result of the open publication of nude pictures of the human body. I’m convinced that because of PLAYBOY, our society suffers from fewer sexual hangups than it did 20 years ago. There are still people, of course, who insist that they don’t think sex is dirty but that it ought to remain private, a concern of the individual. They fail to understand the nature of human sexuality. If you don’t encourage healthy sexual expression in public, you get unhealthy sexual expression in private. If you attempt to suppress sex in books, magazines, movies and even everyday conversation, you aren’t helping to make sex more private, just more hidden. You’re keeping sex in the dark. What we’ve tried to do is turn on the lights.
But the magazine’s nude photography has been criticized for encouraging not open, healthy sexuality but a voyeuristic, look-but-don’t-touch attitude.
There’s a lovely line in our new film, The Naked Ape: “Voyeurism is a healthy, nonparticipatory sexual activity. The world should look at the world.” We are sexual beings, whether we try to deny it or not, and open, healthy sexuality requires that we not be ashamed of our own bodies. When playboy started, most men probably would have been uneasy, in the presence of a wife or girlfriend, about opening up a magazine with nude pictures in it. What playboy has been saying is that a person shouldn’t feel guilty about an open interest in sex. We’ve taken some of the shame and mystery out of human sexuality, and it’s this kind of repression of our sensual interests that has led to the kind of voyeurism that makes looking a substitute for, rather than a preamble to, touching.
Don’t you enforce a look-but-don’t-touch policy in the Playboy Clubs?
Of course we do. And we’ve been criticized for it by the same people who’d shout even louder if we permitted any other policy. One critic referred to the Clubs as “a bordello without a second floor.” If we permitted members to manhandle the Bunnies, we’d have the equivalent of that second floor, and you don’t need a vivid imagination to see where that would lead. The policy was established for the protection of the Bunnies, and we’ve continued it at their insistence. We don’t attempt to police their personal lives, just keep them separate from the operation of the Club.
In editing the magazine, as well as choosing Bunnies for the Clubs, your taste in women has been criticized as immature, showing an almost infantile preoccupation with big breasts.
Well, I can’t deny that I Prefer big ones to small ones, but to me that’s rather like saying that I prefer girls to boys. I’m very suspicious of the pop psychoanalysts who suggest that there’s something infantile about being attracted by those physical characteristics that most distinguish the sexes. In fact, the way women are built is, to me, one of the inspired notions of creation, and playboy has unashamedly fought the asexual image of female beauty long projected in the women’s fashion magazines with their flat-chested, bony ladies.
It’s been said that playboy is hung up on youth as well as on pulchritude, that it’s doing a disservice to older women by fostering an adolescent taste in men for pretty young girls.
Does that mean playboy would be more mature if it ran photos of 40-year-old Playmates? If I prefer to publish pictures of pretty young women-and I do-it seems to me that says less about playboy’s maturity or mine than it does about our society’s emphasis on youth and beauty. My taste in women isn’t exactly a personal aberration; it happens to be shared with some 26,000,000 playboy readers. playboy’s readers are no different in this regard from the overwhelming majority of the male population of the world. Since time immemorial, youth has set the universal standard of physical beauty, and the reason is simply that a shapely, firm young face and body are more attractive sexually and aesthetically than bulges, sags and wrinkles.
The girls you feature in the magazine may be too young to have wrinkles, but playboy has been accused of retouching its pictures to eliminate every other flaw of nature, thus creating a fantasy of female perfection that the reader will find unattainable in real life.
That’s simply untrue. We do try to pose and photograph our Playmates as attractively as possible, but the editorial emphasis in playboy has always been on feminine beauty that’s both real and natural, with a sort of girl-next-door believability. They may be better looking than the girl who lives next door to you, but that’s only because we have photographers scouting all over the country for candidates for our centerfold. We publish pictures of beautiful women-the most beautiful we can find-because I’m reasonably certain our readers would rather look at a pretty face and figure than a plain one. It’s also healthier, in my opinion, to associate the erotic aspects of our photography with images as attractive as we can make them. But we do relatively little retouching. As a matter of fact, we cosmetize our pictures far less than the women’s magazines do, and probably no more than our ladies do themselves before they go out on a date.
How about the criticism that-until recently-you cosmetized your nude pictures by not publishing any that showed pubic hair?
Personally, I’ve always felt that this hang-up with body hair was so incongruous as to be laughable, even though it was, and still is for some people, what separates obscenity from acceptable erotica. It’s amusing to consider the fetish our society has made of pubic hair in light of the hang-up the older generation has also displayed over the long hair of young people. If these foolish fuddyduddies are to be believed, the fall of Western civilization is imminent because of an excess of body hair. But as society began to mature in its ability to accept reality, I felt we could begin to present photography with more realism, and at the point when frontal nudity became commonplace in both motion pictures and the legitimate theater, I was satisfied that a major part of the public was no longer hung up on hair, and we decided, early in 1969, to “go pubic,” as one wit put it.
Do you think you made the right decision-and at the right time?
It was certainly the right decision, and my feeling that the public was ready to accept it turned out to be right. The initial reaction was mixed, of course; it seemed at first as though we’d be damned because we did just as much as we’d been damned before because we didn’t. But thanks to the taste with which we’ve always tried to edit the magazine, the readers seem to have accepted pubic hair in playboy just as they do on their own bodies. It’s about time.
With or without pubic hair, according to some members of the women’s liberation movement, the girls featured in playboy-particularly the Playmates-are treated as sex objects.
playboy treats women-and men, too, for that matter-as sexual beings, not as sexual objects; not as things but as people. In this sense, I think, playboy has been an effective force in the cause of female emancipation. Gloria Steinem once called me the father of women’s liberation, and I rather liked that. She didn’t mean it in the complimentary sense, of course, but there’s more truth to that interpretation than Gloria would care to admit.
As far back as The Playboy Philosophy, I wrote that the major beneficiaries of sexual emancipation would be women, because they’ve been the major victims of our repressive sexual heritage, which relegated women to the level of chattel-first the possession of their fathers and then of their husbands. Female virginity has been prized in our society simply because an unused possession is valued more highly than a used one. It’s part of our Judaeo-Christian heritage that women are either “good girls” or “bad girls”- on the basis of their sexual behavior.
Women have traditionally been either put on pedestals or damned as the source of all sexual temptation and sin. These are two sides of the same coin, since both place women in a nonhuman role. playboy has opposed these warped sexual values and, in so doing, helped women step down from their pedestals and enjoy their natural sexuality as much as men.
Does that involve their becoming as sexually aggressive as men?
Whatever turns them-and their men-on. But I’m not suggesting that women become like men. Our deepest drives and most fundamental identities are rooted not only in our sexuality but in the differences between the sexes. It’s on this point that I part company with the more radical members of women’s lib who suggest that the ideal we should strive for is some sort of unisex society in which all cultural and behavioral distinctions between men and women cease to exist. What a drab, unexciting world that would be!
Well, no one could accuse playboy’s Playmates of being indistinguishable from men. The trouble is that many women find the image of a pinup nude dehumanizing.
The innovation of our Playmate pictorials was an attempt to humanize the pinup concept. There’s a rich tradition of pinup art in America that goes back to September Morn, the Gibson girl at the turn of the century, the John Held girl in the Twenties and the Petty and Varga girls in the Thirties and Forties. They were all unreal, highly stylized projections of erotic male fantasies. Pinup photography followed in the same tradition, using movie stars and glamor girls of the period-sexual images unattainable to mere mortals-in unnatural poses and artificial studio sets.
playboy changed all that. For our Playmate features, We choose girls from everyday life-secretaries, college students, airline stewardesses-instead of aloof movie queens or professional models; and we pose them naturally, in reallife settings. Accompanying the pictures is a story about the girl that adds to her reality as a person. The entire girl-next-door concept that we created for our centerfold was intended to make the Playmates more a part of real life for our readers. If some people still consider it dehumanizing for a woman to appear naked in the pages of a men’s magazine, they’re really objecting to the sexual connotation in the pictures, and that’s just the same old repressive puritanism under a different label.
As you know, some feminists think that the Bunnies, too, are a male-chauvinist creation and that the costume is demeaning to the wearer.
When we first conceived the idea for The Playboy Club, we simply wanted a distinctive costume for the girls who waited on our members, and an adaptation of our already famous Rabbit trademark seemed logical. The extent to which our Bunnies have become known around the world suggests that we were right; the word Bunny has even entered the language as a synonym for a pretty girl.
The fact that attractive girls are part of a slickly packaged lifestyle/business enterprise convinces many of playboy’s adversaries that you regard women, if not as sex objects, then as no more than an accessory to “the good life,” along with clothes, sports cars, stereos and penthouse pads.
Anybody who feels that way obviously misses the whole point of what playboy is all about. Far from being an accessory to the good life, women-and the romantic liaison between them and our male readers-are the very point and purpose of what playboy espouses as a guide for living. The physical accouterments are there to provide the most pleasant possible environment for the relationship between two people to flourish. And since the magazine has always been an extension of my own dreams and fantasies, it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out what’s most important to me. The fact is that if you could find your way to the very heart of Hugh Hefner, what you would find is a man motivated by romance. More than wealth and power and whatever other primary motivations most men have, what lights my fire is my romantic relationships with women.
Haven’t most men passed that period by the time they reach their 40s?
After their 30s, too many people “settle down” into a kind of dull, gray tedium that’s rationalized as maturity. It’s an aging process that might more rightly be called hardening of the emotional arteries. It dries up one’s enthusiasm, snuffs out our lust for life. When I was in college right after the war, there was a great resurgence of interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I got very caught up in his works, but even then I was struck by his downbeat attitude toward middle age. There were many aspects of his writing I could relate to, but I couldn’t understand that melancholy feeling about life’s being downhill after 40. I refuse to succumb to that. My 40s have been better than my 30s, which were fabulous, and I expect my 50s to be even better than my 40s, because until it actually starts to impair you physically, aging is largely a state of mind. It’s been said that the boy is father to the man, but in my case, I think the boy was father to the boy.
That boyish enthusiasm of yours obviously extends to your relationships with women. What kind of woman are you attracted to?
Well, there isn’t any one physical type, since the most important women in my life have come in a variety of shapes and sizes: some blonde, some brunette, some tall, some short, some big-breasted, some small-breasted-believe it or not. What really turns me on is a woman who is bright, unaffected, enthusiastic, open, sincere and honest. What often passes for sophistication in our society holds no appeal for me whatever.
Aren’t women-even unsophisticated ones-ever put off by your reputation?
Some are, of course, but I’m not apt to come in contact with them in the playboy-oriented world I live in. Curiously enough, a great many women are attracted to a man who has been romantically involved with a number of other women. There’s also something complimentary about being singled out for attention by a man who has numerous lovely ladies to choose from.
Part of the public’s curiosity about you has to do with the nature of your personal relationships with the women you pick as Playmates. Tell us about it.
There isn’t any casting couch involved, if that’s what you mean. I’ve been personally involved with a number of our Playmates over the years, but I’ve never let my personal life interfere with the editing of the magazine, or vice versa. Curiously enough, however, there does seem to be a rather high correlation between our most popular Playmates and those who have been the most important to me personally.
You’re obviously living a life that a great many men relate to in their fantasies, but fantasies are often disappointing in real life. Isn’t there a danger that you’ll become jaded?
No way. If anything, it seems to be working the other way around. I’m more turned on by a romantic relationship today than I would have thought possible a few years ago. I’m more open, more sensually and sexually responsive now than at any previous time in my life.
Most of the women we’ve seen around you are at least 20 years younger than you. Why?
For one thing, I simply find them more attractive physically than women my own age. There’s also something nice about an affair that’s the first serious relationship in a girl’s life; it permits you to recapture your own early romantic responses. It’s a way of holding onto your youth and the enthusiasm you first felt about life and love.
It’s been argued by a number of female writers who’ve written articles about you that what you’re really doing is avoiding more mature women who might challenge you more and demand more equality in a relationship.
I don’t think an older woman is necessarily any more of a challenge than a young one. Young people today have really got it together-in a way that we never did when we were their age. I think it’s a mistake to prejudge any relationship on the basis of the ages of the two people involved. Our society’s condemnation of relationships between older women and young men is particularly strong, and it doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I have a secretary who happens to be into younger guys right now, and I think it’s groovy. Each individual has to decide what’s right for himself or herself, and no one else is really in a position to make that decision for him. Different strokes for different folks.
But let me also add that I don’t go looking for any sort of challenge in a romance. I want a woman who complements the person I happen to be, not one who wants to make me over or demands a kind of relationship I’m not comfortable with. I’m not looking for a female Hugh Hefner. A romantic relationship for me is an escape from the challenges and problems I face in my work. It’s a psychological and emotional island I slip away to-away from the trials and tribulations of the rest of my life. I pity the man who goes home from the hassle of his workday to a wife or girlfriend who also gives him a hassle. I’m not going to pattern my life after some fashionable notion of an emancipated relationship in which both partners are equal. If that works for others, that’s OK. bin it wouldn’t work for me. I admit to being a rather strong-willed individual. I make most of the decisions in my life, and I like it that way.
Do your girlfriends like it too?
If they didn’t, they wouldn’t stick around. But I tend to be attracted to the sort of woman who isn’t competitive and doesn’t feel frustrated or resentful because she isn’t in charge. There are still a great many women around who want a man to call the shots, establish the nature of the relationship, and so forth. If that’s male chauvinism, so be it. It’s the way I am, and I don’t apologize for it.
But that doesn’t mean I exploit a woman with whom I’m involved or that I’m insensitive to her interests or desires. Quite the contrary. All I’m saying is that each individual ought to seek the kind of relationship that most satisfies his or her needs-with a partner who complements him rather than competes emotionally.
Surrounded as you are by women, there must be a great temptation to simply play the field. Yet, over the years, you’ve always had a girlfriend with whom you’ve preferred to spend most of your time. Why?
While variety certainly has its own rewards, I’m essentially a sentimental, quite sensitive, romantic fellow, and I need the kind of emotional rapport that’s possible only in a long-term relationship.
Your most publicized romance in recent years has been with Barbi Benton. What drew you to her?
Barbi is something special-bright, spirited, with an enthusiasm for whatever she’s into that’s really quite contagious. She was a college kid when I met her-a Sacramento girl, straight-A student, ex-cheerleader, ex-Miss Teenage America contestant-who’d gone down to Los Angeles to study premed at UCLA. She was working part time as a model and I met her on the set of our TV show Playboy After Dark early in the first season.
We started rapping while they were setting up the lights and cameras to tape the next segment, and I invited her to come along with me and a few friends to the Candy Store, a local discothèque, after the show. I already had a date, but that night I only had eyes for Barbi. One of my friends-I think it was Shel Silverstein-asked her whether she ever dated older men. She said she’d never been out with anyone over 24, and I told her that was OK; neither had I.
So we started dating, but it remained rather casual for a while, because she really wasn’t sure she wanted to get involved with a guy with my reputation. I remember the first night I picked her up at her college dorm, I pulled up in a limousine, which really freaked out her girlfriends, and instead of being impressed by that sort of status things, she made a point afterward of driving her own car and meeting me someplace else for our dates. I dug that.
It took a while for the relationship to get serious; there was a college boyfriend in the picture, and she was also getting the rush from guys like Jimmy Caan. But once she decided our relationship was what she wanted, it was wonderful.
She’s a sports nut-an expert skier, swimmer and gymnast-and I, as I’ve said, am a very indoor guy. I remember one trip we took to Acapulco, soon after our romance got going, when some of the gang decided to go kiting over the bay. Naturally, Barbi had to be the first one to try it and, romantic fool that I am, not to be outdone by my new girlfriend, I decided to try it, too. So there I was, high above Acapulco Bay, hanging onto that kite for dear life, wondering if the motorboat that was pulling the kite would be able to put me down safely on the little raft where I’d started. From that height, the raft looked about the size of a postage stamp, and I can’t swim a stroke. Fucking incredible!
You must have been crazy.
Love-crazy. My life is too sweet to be risking it with such daredevil foolishness, but there I was, just the same. The only other time I got involved in such a dangerous sport was when I was in college. I learned to fly, got my pilot’s license and spent one summer learning to do stunts in a Stearman trainer-doing stalls, spins, loops, Immelmanns, everything. But even then, I never went stunt flying over any lakes.
There’s also been considerable publicity recently about your concurrent relationship with Playmate Karen Christy, who lives in the Chicago Mansion. Time reported, “Long a two-of-everything consumer, Hefner has lately extended the principle to his romantic life…. Somehow the arrangement continues to work.” Does it?
Not as well as it did before the press started playing around with it. Some of the gossip columnists in Hollywood have made it sound as though Barbi is being replaced, which isn’t the case at all.
Isn’t any involvement with more than one girl at a time bound to cause complications?
It depends on the relationships, I think, and what sort of understanding you have with the girls involved. There’s always the chance of someone’s being hurt in any romantic situation, and if you care about the feelings of others, that can produce conflicts and tensions–some of them self-imposed, some imposed by circumstances. I’m aware that any woman with whom I’m involved may have needs or desires that are different from my own, and when that happens, you have to adjust the relationship accordingly.
Does the subject of marriage ever come up?
How do you handle it?
By simply being open and honest about it. But I have the advantage of being preceded by my reputation, which announces that I’m not apt to be getting married in the near future and that my lifestyle isn’t apt to dramatically change as a result of any new relationship. So in most cases, a girl has different expectations with me than she might with another man, and that makes it easier for me to avoid disappointing her.
You know, I tried marriage once a long time ago, right after I got out of college, and I took the idea of being married very seriously. I don’t enter into anything halfheartedly. I expected to be married to the same woman the rest of my life, but even then the misgivings were there, the feeling that something was missing: I knew it was less than what I really wanted, but I thought that was one of those things you had to settle for. My marriage was like the jobs I had before I started playboy-the kind of compromises most of us make in the adult world. And, like those jobs, the marriage wasn’t a happy experience. It had nothing to do with Millie, my ex-wife. She’s a great lady. We’re still close friends and we have dinner together regularly with our two children: our daughter Christie, who’s a Phi Beta Kappa at Brandeis; and our son David, who’ll be graduating from high school this June. It turns out Hefner’s a family man. How about that? I sure love those two kids. But when the marriage was over, I felt like I had broken out of prison. I obviously wasn’t ready for marriage then, and maybe I never will be.
Is it even a possibility?
Of course. But I do enjoy the advantages of bachelorhood without most of the disadvantages. I don’t have to do my own cooking and cleaning, and I don’t have very many lonely nights. I’m not saying my lifestyle is the one that’s right for everybody. There are legitimate reasons for getting married; but there are also legitimate reasons for notgetting married, and in my case, those are rather dominant. I have this keenly developed sense of personal freedom, a portion of which you inevitably give up when you accept the responsibilities that go with marriage. It would mean that I’d be living much of my life according to a preconceived set of expectations that-at this time, at least-I’m not willing to accept. I think most people wind up living their lives according to other people’s expectations and forgetting about what it is they really want for themselves. All that would drive me up a tree.
In other words, you’re selfish.
Everyone is, and should be. It’s just that we all have different ways of expressing our self-concern-some of it enlightened and some of it hurtful-to ourselves and to others, as well as to society at large. “This above all: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” I think there’s considerable merit in that, and it was a favorite quote of mine as I was growing up.
I expressed some of my views on enlightened self-interest in The Playboy Philosophy, and some of the critics claimed I was advocating a form of selfish hedonism, which isn’t the case at all. What I’m saying is that every one of us needs a personal sense of identity and self-worth in order to function satisfactorily in society. If you haven’t worked out your own needs, how can you successfully deal with anyone else’s? If you don’t like yourself, you’re not going to be able to like those around you. As one who has learned to like himself just fine, I think I’ve taken an important step in getting myself together as a person. It’s amazing how, once you take that step, a lot of the need to throw your weight around disappears, because if you’re content with who you are, you don’t need to prove anything-to yourself or to your subjects.
One of my little jokes.
Then why did you make us kiss your Playboy ring when we arrived at the Mansion?
I heard you’ve got a kinky thing for jewelry.
The public has heard, in numerous stories about your personal life, that you have a kinky thing for a lifestyle that’s one continuous round of champagne and caviar, communal sex with wall-to-wall women, water beds, baby oil, vibrators, mirrors on the ceiling and video-tape equipment for instant replay.
Sounds OK. But you ought to come to one of my wild parties.
Frankly, in the weeks we’ve spent at both Mansions, we haven’t seen anything wilder than a couple of your pet flamingos humping on the lawn in L.A.
Sorry I missed that. But for real excitement, you should take a dip in the fish pond when the carp are spawning. You know, Art Buchwald, who’s a friend, once wrote a very funny column about the first time he stayed at the Chicago Mansion. He had all these wild expectations, and he described how he ended up spending all night playing gin rummy with me and some of the guys. He went downstairs to the pool, he said, and it was empty. He checked the steam room and there, barely visible through the haze, was what he thought must be one of the Bunnies who live in the house. It turned out to be Shel Silverstein.
Buchwald spoofed the playboy mystique, but other reporters have seemed genuinely disappointed not to find a full-scale orgy taking place in the ballroom on their arrival. They’ve dismissed the tales of revelry in the Mansion and attempted to create an image of Hefner as a square rather than a sybarite.
Which image is the true one?
The truth is somewhere in between.
You have two dozen Bunnies living in the Chicago Mansion, plus visiting Playmates and others aspiring to be Playmates or posing for various pictorials for playboy. Doesn’t that create any problems?
Nothing we can’t handle.
Guests who stay at the Mansion-celebrities, writers working on assignments for the magazine, personal friends-must expect some fun and games with these girls.
Gloria Steinem did an article-interview on me for McCall's a couple of years ago in which she described a writer arriving at the Mansion being asked by a playboy executive if he would like a Bunny sent to his room. A few minutes later, the executive supposedly called the writer’s room and asked, “Well, how was she?” That was a complete fabrication.
My male guests usually know me well enough to be aware that whatever happens in the house is a matter of individual initiative and the personal preferences of the people involved. The sort of impersonal exploitation suggested by the story in McCall’s is completely foreign to me. It’s simply not my style.
Do you find that that sort of misrepresentation occurs very often in stories about you and playboy?
I think writing about playboy and the lifestyle of its publisher is rather like a Rorschach test. Our society suffers from so many hang-ups related to the enjoyment of sex and materialism that writers frequently produce pieces that are more a projection of their own prejudices and fantasies-or those of their readers-than they are about us.
In an article for Esquire, Rust Hills marveled at the private world you’ve managed to create for yourself-a controlled environment in which, in contrast to the world outside, everything works. Is he right?
Nothing always works. But mine comes about as close as humanly possible for a total environment as complex and ambitious as the one I’ve created. Hills saw that the Playboy Mansion is more than just an elaborate pleasure palace; it’s a place in which I can both work and play without unnecessary interruptions or inconvenience. Man is the only animal capable of controlling his environment, and what I’ve created is a private world that permits me to live my life without a lot of the wasted time and motion that consume a large part of most people’s lives.
The man who has a job in the city and a house in the suburbs is losing two or three hours a day simply moving himself physically from where he lives to where he works and back again. Then he has to take the time and energy to go out for lunch in some crowded restaurant, where he’s more than likely dealt with in a rushed and impersonal fashion. He’s living his life according to a preconceived notion-certainly not his own-of what a daily routine ought to be. I’ve eliminated that problem by having my office, personal staff and a conference room here on the premises. In addition, I have a video-phone hookup with the Playboy Building a few blocks away, which permits me to hold instant minimeetings with fellow Playboy executives when necessary.
The details of most people’s daily regimen are dictated by the clock. They eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at a time generally prescribed by social custom. They work during the day and sleep at night. But in the Mansion it is, quite literally, the time of day that you want it to be. I happen to be a night person, so if I want to begin my day in the late afternoon, as I often do, I can. The round-the-clock services of the Mansion permit me, or any of my guests or any of the Bunnies, to order breakfast at midnight or dinner at noon if we wish. With our video-tape equipment, I can watch a TV special when it’s actually aired or the following day, if I prefer. A pool table, pinball machines and other electronic games in the game room, a bowling alley, gym, swimming pool and steam room are all available to anyone in the house at any time of day or night. We also have a library of feature films on hand for our guests that ranges from Disney to Deep Throat. Norman Mailer observed, after staying at the Chicago Mansion, that it was like being in a spaceship “outward bound and timeless,” and I think that captures the feeling of the place very nicely.
Isn’t your fascination with fancy electronic gear more than a matter of personal convenience? In one interview, you were quoted as saying, “Next to beautiful women, I like gadgets best.”
Next to beautiful women, I like beautiful women’s gadgets best. The electronic equipment simply makes life more enjoyable as well as more efficient–providing everything I need for work and play right here at my finger tips. OK, I admit that I’m also intrigued with the James Bondian gadgetry that can enhance any man’s mid-20th Century lifestyle. But where Bond used his gadgetry for death and destruction, mine is intended for living and loving.
Tom Wolfe called your ultimate gadget-that rotating, vibrating circular bed-“the center of the Playboy world.” Is it?
It’s certainly the center of my world when I’m in Chicago, since I work in it, play in it, eat and sleep in it.
Is there really any advantage to a round bed?
Well, it gives me something to do with all those round sheets in the linen closet.
Much of the control you exercise over your environment-including the electronic gadgetry that’s built into and around your bed-has been made possible only by the technological advances of the past 20 years.
That’s true. And I think that increasingly, others will be applying advances in electronic technology to the same ends. Marshall McLuhan predicted that improved methods of electronic communication will make it possible for more people to avoid the inconvenience of separating where they work from where they live and to turn their homes into electronic entertainment complexes. Our homes will become the centers for most of our activities. In that respect, I suppose you might say that the controlled environment of the Playboy Mansion is the shape of things to come. But you’re going to have to find your own Bunnies.
Why is control so important to you?
I’d like to hear the arguments on the other side. What virtues are there in being without control? One of the greatest sources of frustration in contemporary society is that people feel so powerless, not only in relation to what happens in the world around them but in influencing what happens in their own lives. Well, I don’t feel that frustration, because I’ve taken control of my life–and I’m even lucky enough to have some influence outside it as well.
Some people might wonder whether it’s possible to get the most out of life when the private world you’ve created seems to cut you off from so much of the rest of it.
Physical insulation isn’t the same as psychological isolation. A private world that manages to minimize wasted time and motion actually permits greater attention to individual interests and matters of greater importance. During one period in the Sixties, when I rarely ventured outside the Chicago Mansion, I developed a reputation as a Howard Hughes-style recluse. We’ve both chosen to live in self-contained, separate physical worlds, but Hughes has purposely cut himself off from all contact with other people, and the Playboy Mansion was conceived as an environment in which I could more readily enjoy the company of others.
When playboy first started, I was a familiar part of the social scene on Chicago’s Near North Side. Then the magazine began growing so rapidly and I got so totally immersed in it that I found it more convenient to live at the office than to go home to an apartment. That arrangement worked for a while, but by the end of the Fifties I’d decided I needed a place to escape to when the work was done–a house elegant and elaborate enough to make me want to leave the office routine occasionally, and that turned out to be the first Playboy Mansion.
The concept worked so well that within a year I was doing almost everything in the Mansion. I moved my office and a secretary in and, with the arrival of the Bunnies, my social life was increasingly concentrated there, too. The house soon became a favorite hangout for friends, associates and visiting celebrities. Instead of going out for a few drinks in some crowded, smoke-filled bar, we relaxed and rapped in front of the fireplace in the main room, ordered our favorite food and drink from kitchen and bar facilities superior to most of the restaurants in town, played pinball or pool in the game room, took a swim or a steam, or unwound in the romantic comfort of the underwater bar, which can be reached most easily by sliding down a fire pole from the floor above. The pole was typical of the playful innovations I introduced as a contrast to the grand turn-of-the-century elegance of the house. Such a place should also have secret passageways, I figured, and since there weren’t any, I added them. The Mansion ended up working so well that going out came to seem like a useless exercise. What the hell was it I was supposed to go out for?
Perhaps to visit places that couldn’t be brought to you.
Places hold no interest for me. A friend recently suggested driving up from L.A. to San Simeon, the old Hearst castle. He thought I might be interested in seeing how another famous editor-publisher had lived. But I don’t relate to Hearst, and the grandeur of his old domain is now something for the tourists. What I’m interested in is relationships with people. Visiting the most beautiful or historic spot in the world would have no meaning for me unless it were shared with someone I cared about. Visiting Paris just to see the sights would bore me. But if a girl I was romantically involved with were there and couldn’t come to me, I’d go halfway around the world to be with her.
Click here to read the rest of Hef’s 1974 Playboy Interview.