When Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died Wednesday (September 27) at 91, it was more peaceful than not.
He died of natural causes late at night in his bed surrounded by loved ones. Without having to explain who he was and what he did, it should be noted that opinions have already been formed. Still, here I am writing and telling in the hopes of keeping him alive just a little while longer.
Hefner leaves behind more than just a publication. Free speech and sexual freedom are just two descriptions attached to his reputation. His legacy and how people view it might be complicated, but cultural pioneers with that much fame and success are magnets for controversy. Before the multimillion-dollar empire emerged, the mogul got his start working for Esquire magazine in Chicago. After being turned down for a $5 raise, he quit his job as a cartoonist with the magazine and began his own venture.
How Playboy Got Its Start
In 1953, Hefner used $600 of his own money to create Playboy magazine. In addition to his savings, he managed to collect $8,000 from 50 investors. His mother – who was the first to invest – contributed $1,000 after his dad declined to take part. As a devout Protestant, she did so, not because she believed in the venture, but because she believed in him.
“My mother took me aside and said that she had some money of her own, and she would give me $1,000,” Hefner said in a 2003 interview with Fortune. “She didn’t believe in the magazine, but she believed in her son.”
For $500, Hefner bought a 5-year-old photograph of a nude model from a Chicago calendar company. That model was Marilyn Monroe before she found fame. Sitting at his kitchen table, Hefner got to work on what would become the most iconic men’s lifestyle and entertainment magazine of its time.
The first issue of Playboy hit the stands later that year and sold more than 50,000 copies in a matter of days. It was an instant success.
The Reputation of Playboy Enterprises
Five years later, in 1958 the magazine’s annual profit was a Hef-ty $4 million. Hefner skyrocketed to fame and intrigued more fans and readers than ever. A collection of diverse views on what the magazine stood for began to overlap. Many loved the concept and appreciated the beauty, art and profound journalism, while others could not look past the three-page spread of profanity. The 1950s was a conservative era. Of course, Playboy was the opposite – it was about sex, liberalism, booze and the start of popular culture.
Depending on how you see it, the magazine was either blamed for or credited with inducing a cultural revolution throughout America. The magazine was the first domino in the row of several successful Playboy-inspired ventures. Once flicked, there was no going back.
In 1960, the publication led Hefner to open many Playboy Clubs across the country. Hefner ensured everything under his brand stayed “actively involved in the fight to see the end of all racial inequalities.” In 1961, he regained control of two nightclubs which were denying memberships to African Americans.
During a time where segregation was normal, he hired African American comics like Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby. He created opportunities for African American leaders, celebrities, and models in his publication. Alex Haley, the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was the first to be interviewed for Playboy. Hefner also spoke to Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jim Brown and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he granted Playboy with the longest interview he had ever given. In 1965 Jennifer Jackson became Playboy’s first African American Playmate.
Still, Hef’s personal life overshadowed his forward-thinking and good deeds.
In the 1970s, Hefner and Playboy were widely accused of demeaning women to sex objects. He was no longer seen as a liberal activist. With feminism surfacing, Playboy always seemed to be in between critics – in between remarkably liberal and too raunchy.
“I recognize that I remain — even after half a century — a controversial figure, but America has always had conflicts related to things related to sex. In other words, we remain essentially a very Puritan people,” Hefner told NPR. “I think you ought to talk to the women who’ve been in the magazine and see how they feel about that.”
Naked and Not Afraid
As popular culture evolved, Hefner was widely viewed as an anti-feminist. Circulation of Playboy took a hit, Playboy Clubs closed and in the 1980s he stepped away from it all together. Hefner’s daughter, Christie Hefner, took control of the magazine while he lounged in his SoCal mansion and hosted lavish parties by the grotto.
Several things can be said and resaid about “Hef” but none of it is valid. Regarding his life, true are the feelings he felt and views he had. Nonetheless, there is no doubt this man created something monumental. His reputation will continue to be told in many ways without rhyme or reason, each dependent on perspective.
“I mean, what is more Puritan than somebody who has a strong opinion about somebody else’s life and who disapproves of it because somehow or other it’s not their particular way,” Hefner said in an interview with NPR.