Women too would use playboy as a means of reinvention. Librarians and lawyers, actresses and even playboy’s own subscription manager would become celebrities in the pages—and Centerfolds—of the magazine. Women around the world would become Bunnies at Playboy Clubs. But it wasn’t just the women who donned Bunny suits or graced the magazine’s pictorials who felt the change. Female readers responded to playboy’s support of female voices from Ayn Rand to Betty Friedan and to its mission to de-stigmatize sex in America. “If you don’t encourage healthy sexual expression in public, you get unhealthy sexual expression in private,” Hef would say. By talking openly about sex and suggesting that women enjoyed—and even desired—it, Hef accelerated the nascent sexual revolution. It would take the rest of America nearly 15 years to catch up.
Even then, not all of America welcomed this change. Conservatives would attack playboy from its earliest days and never stop. The world would compel Hef to change again—this time to reinvent himself as an activist. He would openly clash with religious leaders, politicians, feminist groups and governments. There would be court hearings and debates, protests and lawyers. Even delivering the magazine to subscribers became a battle: In 1954, the U.S. Postal Service, led by Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, refused to deliver copies of playboy on grounds that it was obscene. Hef took it all the way to the Supreme Court and won. “We don’t think Postmaster Summerfield has any business editing magazines,” he would later say. “We think he should stick to delivering the mail.”
Hef would push himself to the front lines in the wars for sexual rights, First Amendment rights and civil rights. He established the Playboy Foundation to assist with legal fees for Roe v. Wade and to strike down laws that violated our sexual freedoms or restricted access to birth control. He supported lawsuits to combat sodomy laws used to discriminate against the gay community, signed on as the chief sponsor for groundbreaking sex research at the Kinsey Institute and became the largest donor to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Civil rights remained a personal issue for Hef, a lifelong jazz aficionado who remembered his days trekking across Chicago to African American music venues. He met with Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders, encouraging them to write for playboy and donating money to their causes. In an age when U.S. nightclubs were segregated, he hired Aretha Franklin to perform for her first big white audience and signed Dick Gregory for a stint at the Playboy Club in Chicago, prompting The New York Times to write, “And, just like that, with little fanfare or protest, nightclub comedy was integrated.” When he discovered that Playboy Clubs in New Orleans and Miami did not allow black members, he bought the franchises back.
His media empire expanded to include a movie studio, a record label, a book imprint and more. But the magazine remained his passion, and he filled its pages with allies. He hired feminist writers such as Margaret Atwood, Germaine Greer and Erica Jong and featured prominent African American writers from Alex Haley to Walter Mosley. He would publish the greatest fiction writers of the century, including Graham Greene, Gabriel García Márquez and Vladimir Nabokov. The magazine would launch James Bond, Fahrenheit 451 and Shel Silverstein. Hef was driven and demanding, working from his famous circular bed and summoning the magazine staff to midnight editorial meetings. Art directors were ordered to revise and re-revise layouts, and his constant demands for a brighter red prompted playboy’s printer to rename the color “Hef Red.”
Women would remain his muse. He would get to know thousands of them, but he never stopped being a hopeless romantic. Barbi Benton would guide him through the 1970s and out of Chicago to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. “I think that Barbi was the romanticized, Hollywood reincarnation of my great unrequited love in high school, a girl named Betty Conklin,” he said in his 2000 Playboy Interview.
“With Barbi, I got to complete a relationship that never was.” In 1989 he married Playmate of the Year Kimberly Conrad and became father to two more children, Marston and Cooper. After he and Kimberly separated, he would date in increasingly wild combinations and find massive success with the reality-TV show The Girls Next Door
before marrying his third wife, Crystal Harris
To the end, he was still the Hef he invented in his childhood home all those years earlier: the host, the focal point, surrounded by friends for weekly movie nights or gin nights or backgammon nights. He was Jay Gatsby without the tragedy, padding around his Mansion in his pajamas and hosting outrageous parties for an ever-growing family of pals and associates. A man who envisioned a different world, reshaped the world in that image and loved living in it until the end.
“I would like to be remembered as somebody who has changed the world in some positive way, in a social, sexual sense, and I’d be very happy with that,” he once said. “I’m a kid who dreamed the dreams and made them come true.”
All for the love of a woman.