Recently, my good friend Lisabet Sarai posted a testimonial about the late Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine. This reminded me of a similar piece I wrote several years ago about the passing of Hugh Hefner. I was working as a freelance writer for an alternative newspaper at the time, and was assigned to write an op/ed about whether Hefner made a significant impact on modern culture. Many people labeled him as a flesh peddler who exploited women and promoted sexual freedom, but his legacy goes much deeper than that.
The question before the board isn’t whether or not Hugh Hefner objectified women. I won’t dispute that, because his signature magazine and its spinoffs showcased the female physique, with and without airbrushing. He introduced the word centerfold to the lexicon, and exemplified a sophisticated Libertarian lifestyle. But he also promoted open dialogue on a wide variety of subjects that would become a part of the American fabric.
Many people overlook the fact that Hefner took chances and pushed the boundaries of what was considered “the norm” in conservative America beginning in the 1950s. With Playboy magazine, he made a point to feature not only attractive women, but thought-provoking ideas and cutting- edge fiction from some of our best writers. He also pushed the civil rights agenda and tolerance in an era when those weren’t popular notions. He continued that push into the new millennium when he supported same-sex marriages and transgender rights. Hefner claimed to be politically independent, and his editorial stance rarely favored one side over the other.
Hefner was color- and gender-blind when it came to his magazine’s contributors, and he chose to put talent first. Writers featured in Playboy over the years included Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Sexton, Germaine Greer, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Shere Hite, and Alex Haley, who contributed some groundbreaking interviews. Haley’s interview subjects included Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and George Lincoln Rockwell.
The Playboy interview set a new standard and soon became the hot ticket for celebrities, athletes, and political figures. The reclusive John Lennon and Yoko Ono sat down for a lengthy talk that touched on subjects that were far removed from their music. In an eerie twist of events, the issue featuring Lennon’s interview was on newsstands when he was assassinated in 1981. Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter was interviewed during his 1976 bid for the White House, where he raised eyebrows and the blood pressure of his campaign staff when he stated “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Even the media-hating Frank Sinatra agreed to an in-depth chat in 1965. If you think Trump has a toxic relationship with the press, check out Sinatra’s pedigree and you’ll understand why this was a noteworthy event.
Over the years, Hefner expanded his empire to include nightclubs, merchandise, and television. He encouraged new talent in the entertainment field, and two of his early TV shows, “Playboy’s Penthouse” and “Playboy After Dark,” featured musicians and stand-up comics in need of exposure. In 1963, he gave a career boost to a young Black comic named Dick Gregory by hiring him to work at the Playboy Club in Chicago. Gregory later claimed that his career took off after that gig. Hefner also sponsored the Playboy Jazz Festival, where lesser-known performers were given a chance to play before a large audience.
Hefner may have promoted sexism through his magazines, clubs, and Playboy Bunnies, but in retrospect, he was simply going with the times. He didn’t start the sexual revolution in the 1960s–he just took advantage of it. To the current generation, Hugh Hefner will likely be remembered as the Botox- and Viagra-addicted old man in the silk pajamas and bathrobe, surrounded by young women who were paid to act like they were having a good time. In reality, he should be remembered as someone who got people thinking and talking about issues that they normally wouldn’t.
And that’s significant.