A brief look at our founder's long life and the lust for reinvention that fueled it. It all started with a woman, of course. It was 1942, and a teenage Hugh Marston Hefner had just suffered his first broken heart after his crush, Betty Conklin, chose another boy to accompany her on the fall hayride. Dejected, the young Hefner hid in his parents’ Chicago home and vowed to remake himself. He would dress cooler, learn to dance and write a music column for the school newspaper. He would turn himself into the type of teenager he saw in movies: the hippest, most popular kid on the block. The guy everyone wanted to be around. The life of the party. Hugh was gone forever; from now on, he would call himself Hef, and his life would never be the same.
Within weeks, he’d quit his job. He began to assemble a new magazine at a card table in his Hyde Park apartment, having pawned his furniture and borrowed money from friends and family to raise the $8,000 needed for printing. Envisioning a smart, sophisticated and sexy men’s publication, he pasted together the first issue of playboy. (He dropped the original title, Stag Party, after a copyright dispute.) He paid a suburban calendar company $500 for the rights to a nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe—but even with that feature in place, Hef felt so unsure of his fledgling enterprise that he didn’t print a date on the cover of the first issue in case there was never a second. The week the magazine launched, he roamed the Chicago streets, watching newsstands, delighted whenever he saw someone buy a copy.
To Hef’s surprise, millions around the world felt the same way he did and would come to emulate the playboy lifestyle. The war was over, and the country brimmed with young men returning from overseas and finding American culture stifling. Like Hef, they desired more from life than job security and matrimony with their first sweethearts. Fueled by a postwar economic boom, they spurned the mores of their parents and moved to big cities, where they filled bachelor pads with new suits and stereos, cocktail bars and well-used beds. They would look to playboy to guide them through this change, and Hef would challenge them to question what they believed about sex and sexuality, about personal freedom and civil rights.
By year five, magazine circulation topped 1 million, and Hef felt the urge to change again. “I thought it was time to come out from behind the desk and live the life that I was promoting,” he later explained. He would end his first marriage and reemerge as Mr. Playboy, outfitting himself with silk pajamas, a pipe and a wildly luxurious bachelor’s mansion. Over the decades that followed, he would transform into a businessman, a TV host, a nightclub owner, a philosopher, a movie producer, a husband and father (again), even a reality-TV star. Change would come easily to him, and he would inspire it in others.
He was Jay Gatsby without the tragedy…. A man who envisioned a different world, reshaped the world in that image and loved living in it until the end.
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