Hugh Hefner was one of the most influential media figures in the second half of the 20th century. The company he founded announced his death which is only fitting as »The Hef« and his brand were nearly inseparable. In many ways, he was one of the key figures to path the way for the sexual revolution and an important champion of racial equality and bitter enemy of social intolerance, bigotry and the still existing American hypocrisy towards sex. Up until this day, this made his company as well as himself a target for social and religious conservatives and many feminists. At first, he was dismissed as vulgar or pornographic, later on as exploitative and finally as a senile cartoon of his former self. None of the criticism seemed to bug him much nor hurt his brand. The man’s life was a success from the moment he started his magazine in the early 50s up until his death. Along the way, he made himself an icon and global brand names like Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Michael Jackson.
Hugh Hefner was 27, recently married and a fresh father when he published the first issue of Playboy, an endeavor that would make him immensely rich and maybe the best-known entrepreneur in adult entertainment.
Hefner financed the first issue of Playboy with $600 of his own money and several thousand more in borrowed funds, including $1,000 from his mother. The Hef had something up his sleeve that was an extremely valuable asset: He had bought the publication rights to a nude calendar photograph of Marilyn Monroe for $500.
There were, of course, other men’s magazines that published nudes of women but they were all pornographic or crude and censors could easily ban them. Hefner’s plan though was to go mainstream. He wanted to have his magazine next to other magazines on a traditional newsstand, he wanted to be part of the cultural life of his nation.
The first issue in 1953 had a press run of 51,000 copies and got quickly sold. Hugh Hefner became instantly famous – and of course, with time, a wealthy man. Five years later Playboy had an annual profit of about $4 million and the magazine was a globally known sensation.
From the get-go, the aspirations for Playboy magazine were clearly cut towards a lifestyle, mixing joy, hedonism, the finer things in life, art and philosophy. Hefner wrote: »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.«
The magazine was an instant success and brought Mr. Hefner powerful enemies, among them J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime chief of the F.B.I. By the early 60s, the magazine reached a circulation of one million copies per issue. In the 70s it peaked at 7 million copies, Hugh Hefner was at the height of his power. It was the dawn of the computer age.
The most famous invention was the nude »Playmate« of the month centerfold, responsible for probably a lot of wet dreams as well as many careers. At the height of his success, Hugh Hefner governed not only over his magazine and his mansion but also over a media conglomerate ranging from movie production, television channels, licensing, and even to clubs, resorts and casinos. The brand is still universally known even today while the magazine itself declined in circulation and the empire he built is in crisis for more than a decade. Circulation of Playboy magazine is down to less than a million copies. But there are still international spin-offs running relatively healthy. As virtually all print-based companies from the 20th century, Playboy is struggling to find a profitable way into the digitization. While Hugh Hefner remained editor in chief at Playboy up until his death he handed over the day to day operations to his son Cooper Hefner.
In order to fully understand the revolutionary act that the publication of Playboy marked in the 50s and well into the 60s one has to remember that it was a time where American puritanism and hypocrisy was at its height. Doctors could refuse to hand out contraceptives to unmarried women, Hollywood movies were governed by strictly clean productions, Doris Day’s prude depictions were the blockbusters of the time.
And while the publication itself was a revolution Mr. Hefner’s initial years with Playboy were marked by an abundance of fun and lighthearted hedonism for the finer things life has to offer. That is also why one of Mr. Hefner’s first editorials contained the following sentence: »We don’t expect to solve any world problems or prove any great moral truths.«
The early 60s also saw an increasingly political stance by Hugh Hefner who by that time started to use his magazine’s influence to fight for political causes. He started a series of articles called »The Playboy Philosophy« in 1962. In these articles, he argued for abortion rights, the legalization of cannabis and for the abolition of old-fashioned sex laws. And even though the US still seems to be divided about social issues today more than ever, the prevailing values and morals today are essentially libertarian, consumerist and hedonistic: probably the core message of The Hef.
Hefner was an absolute champion for the freedom of speech and fought for progressive social causes and his influence increased when he got his own television show basically consisting of his parties and get-togethers with celebrities, starlets, singers, artists, and authors. He didn’t back down when several sponsors withdraw because of his frequent invitations toward black guests.
»Playboy’s Penthouse« was the title of Hefner’s syndicated television show. There he was shown, pipe in hand surrounded by stars and starlets. The set of the show was a recreation of his first mansion and among his guests were iconic stars like Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and authors like Norman Mailer.
Therefore it was and still is wrong to accuse the influential interview section in Playboy Magazine as a mere fig leaf for a pornographic magazine. Social activism and the arts were an integral part of the mix Hefner created. Among the interviews, some became famous: Jimmy Carter, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and Malcolm X. Hefner published fiction by authors like Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates.
At its height, Playboy got a lot of competition by more aggressive competitors like Penthouse and Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine. The nude depictions in Playboy looked prude compared to the crasser pictures found at the competition. For a while, Playboy tried to keep up, started to showcase pubic hair. At some point, Hugh Hefner decided to stop the competition and focus on the brand itself. Playboy never became pornographic and was still a winning company throughout the 70s. 1971 marked the IPO of Playboy. Hefner needed capital to create resorts and clubs in Jamaica and gambling casinos in London and the Bahamas.
The company got into troubles in the 80s and never fully recovered. Playboy lost its casinos in London for violations and couldn’t get a gambling license in Atlantic City. The company shut down its resorts as well as a recording studio, the corporate jet and sold its Playboy building in Chicago on Michigan Avenue a magazine called »Oui«. All Playboy Clubs were closed and the circulation of the main asset, the Playboy magazine took a huge hit.
After finishing his university degree Hefner went on to work as a copywriter for Esquire Magazine. He married his first wife, Mildred Williams, in 1949. The couple had two children.
The private Hefner had a turbulent life once he started his iconic magazine. He left his family in 1959 and bought a lavish apartment house in Chicago. During an interview, he told the interviewer that in the magazine’s first decades »everybody was coupling with everybody«. He estimated that he had had sex with over 1,000 women. His friends describe him as charming, shy even and a very loyal person.
In 1963, Hefner was arrested on obscenity charges after publishing nude photos of Jayne Mansfield but the charges were dropped after the jury failed to reach a verdict.
In 1974, his longtime personal assistant Bobbie Arnstein committed suicide. At the time she was being targeted by investigators in an investigation about drug abuse within Playboy’s network. Hefner was furious and depressed about the death of his assistant. He left Chicago and created a new home for himself in Los Angeles: the lavishly Playboy Mansion became a legendary and frivolous party location. The famous grotto and a zoo were the backgrounds for Mr. Hefner’s later years as a playboy who constantly wears bathrobes, surrounded by two or more girls in his arms.
The New York Times wrote »Mr. Hefner relied more and more on his daughter, Christie Hefner, named company president in 1982 and then chief executive, a position she held until 2009. Mr. Hefner suffered a stroke in 1985, but he recovered and remained editor in chief of Playboy, choosing the centerfold models, writing captions and tending to detail with an intensity that led his staff to call him the world’s wealthiest copy editor.«
Hefner married a second time in 1989. His new wife was Kimberley Conrad, Playmate of the Year 1989. She was 38 years his junior. The couple had two sons: Marston Glenn, born in 1990, and Cooper Bradford, born in 1991.
The marriage did not last, they divorced in 2010, and Hefner re-committed nearly all his energies to his work. He edited the book »The Century of Sex«. He also became a vocal fan of Viagra and told a journalist that »it is as close as anyone can imagine to the fountain of youth.«
In June 2011 he was set to marry again. 25 year Crystal Harris agreed to marry him and the wedding was set to be filmed by the cable channel Lifetime. But a few days before the wedding date the bride canceled the event. Hefner announced this on Twitter. He just typed out the words: »Crystal has had a change of heart.«
That though wasn’t the last word on the relationship. Crystal Harris married Hugh Hefner on New Year’s Eve 2012. She will not inherit any stock in the company, but Hefner bought a house for her valued at around $5 Million. Next to his widow, his survivors include his for children.
In 1992 the New York Times asked Hugh Hefner what he was most proud of. He answered: »That I changed attitudes toward sex. That nice people can live together now. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction.«
Hefner’s son Cooper, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, released a statement to the press: »My father lived an exceptional and impactful life as a media and cultural pioneer and a leading voice behind some of the most significant social and cultural movements of our time in advocating free speech, civil rights, and sexual freedom. He defined a lifestyle and ethos that lie at the heart of the Playboy brand, one of the most recognizable and enduring in history.«
In 2016 Playboy Mansion was sold for $100 Million to Daren Metropoulos, a billionaire who inherited a family fortune built on food companies and the hipster Pabst brewery. Part of the deal was that Hefner was allowed to live in the Playboy mansion for the rest of his life.
Hugh Hefner will be buried in Los Angeles on the cemetery Westwood Memorial Park and there he will make one last extravagant splash: He had bought a mausoleum next to Marilyn Monroe’s. Rest in peace bunnyhunter!