According to the Washington Post’s obituary of the 91-year-old publisher, who died last week, Hugh Hefner “turned the world on to sex. As the visionary editor who created Playboy magazine out of sheer will and his own fevered dreams, he introduced nudity and sexuality to the cultural mainstream of America and the world.”
Sexually-charged shots of scantily-clad girl-next-door types may have been central to the magazine’s appeal. But Playboy, which at its peak in the 1970s sold seven million copies per issue, wasn’t designed to deliver mere titillation, and Hefner always resisted being described as a pornographer. The publication was intended as a well-rounded reflection of the life and enthusiasms of a modern, urbane (very probably heterosexual) gentleman — women being just one of them.
“We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex,” Hefner wrote of his imagined Playboy guy in the 1953 debut issue. This he’d cobbled together in his Chicago kitchen after quitting his job as a copywriter for Esquire, and loaning a few thousand dollars from family and friends to cover the expenses of launching what would turn out to be one of the most influential magazines, and brands, of all time.
It’s safe to say that there would be no Rake were it not for Playboy, which reshaped not only men’s magazine publishing, but the very idea of contemporary manhood. In a New York Times op-ed following Hef’s death, under the headline ‘How Hugh Hefner Invented the Modern Man,’ historian Amber Batura wrote, “The masculine ideal of (the 1950s) was narrowly defined: aloof, outdoorsy, a breadwinner, ‘manly’. Showing too much of an interest in culture, fine food or travel was anathema. Mr Hefner felt trapped by conformity and designed a magazine that promoted a very different idea of what made an individual a ‘man’ through its features and advice on clothing, food, alcohol selections, art, music and literature.”
Although “I only read Playboy for the articles” became a nudge-nudge, wink-wink cliché, the publication was legendary for the quality of its ‘non-visual’ content. Hefner printed stories by literary greats including Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Germaine Greer and Martin Amis. Playboy also previewed excerpts from Alex Haley’s Roots, Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, and featured lengthy, in-depth interviews with luminaries such as Stanley Kubrick, Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, Miles Davis, John Lennon, Vladimir Nabokov, Steve Jobs, and Martin Luther King, Jr. There was much more to the magazine than centrefolds.