The Conventional Mr Hefner

August Kleinzahler

In 1977, at the age of 51, Hugh Hefner endured an existential crisis when he found himself choking on a metal Ben Wa ball, one of a pair that had been in his girlfriend Sondra Theodore’s vagina in order ‘to enhance her physical sensations’. The ruler of the then considerable Playboy empire ‘fell back on the bed, choking and unable to breathe, and was about to lose consciousness when she squeezed his chest and finally dislodged the sphere’. (I’m quoting from Steven Watts’s 2008 biography, Mr Playboy.) ‘Is this what it has all come to?’ Hefner later wondered aloud. Then: ‘What will all the newspaper headlines in the world say tomorrow morning?’ Finally, regaining his composure, he asked: ‘Are we getting this on videotape?’

Hefner’s death yesterday at the age of 91 made many if not all the world’s newspaper headlines. In a number of ways he was a conventional Midwesterner of his generation. His somewhat strict Methodist upbringing was in no way out of the ordinary. The family’s circumstances were modest but never strained. Hugh, the older of two boys, was a bright, if easily distracted, pupil. He worked for the high school paper, the Steinmetz Star, as a reporter, cartoonist and circulation manager. On graduating from high school his class voted him ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, ‘Most Popular Boy’, ‘Class Humorist’, ‘Best Orator’, ‘Best Dancer’ and ‘Most Artistic’. He was still a virgin though.

The first issue of Playboy appeared in November 1953, featuring photographs of Marilyn Monroe taken four years earlier with, as she joked, ‘nothing on but the radio’. Hefner bet everything he had on it, along with quite a bit of what his friends and his mother were willing to part with. It sold 54,000 copies of its print run of 70,000. In its best year, 1972, Playboy’s circulation was 7,161,561.

Hefner spent most of his life wandering round the Playboy Mansions in Chicago and LA, in his pyjamas and slippers, pipe in mouth, a bottle of baby oil in one hand, a Pepsi in the other. He was a very late riser, eating the same breakfast, prepared by Cordon Bleu chefs, every day; likewise the same dinner every night, fried chicken, prepared exactly to his specifications. He liked board games, pinball and movies, which seemed to take up most of his time, when he wasn’t working on the magazine, hosting parties or shagging. He favoured bosomy, blonde, leggy girls between the ages of 18 and 22. He didn’t seem to like them terribly bright and was quite forthright on the subject, explaining that if he wanted to have a serious conversation with someone, he had plenty of men friends around to chat with.

The so-called Bunnies, by and large, seem to have liked ‘Hef’. He appears never to have bullied any of them into having sex with him. Some of the women from the Playboy Mansions or Clubs have gone on to serious careers in the arts, government, higher education. One of Bill Clinton’s initial picks for attorney general, Kimba Wood, was shot down in part because she’d once worked as a Playboy Bunny, which seemed unfair even at the time. Gloria Steinem published ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ in Show magazine in 1963. She portrayed the Playboy Club as a demeaning, exploitative work environment. But Deborah Harry thought that ‘being a Bunny involved a rare combination for a woman in the workplace – beauty, femininity, sexuality, and at the same time, ambition and intelligence.’ Lauren Hutton described the Bunnies as ‘pre-feminist pioneers and extraordinarily brave for their time … We were like sisters learning together how to take charge of our own lives.’

In 1969, Steinem interviewed Hefner for McCall’s. She pointed out that his girlfriend Barbi Benton was ‘so young’. And young she was, just 18; Hefner was 42. Later, a wounded Hefner asked friends, over and over, why Steinem had to say that about Barbi; why couldn’t she have just used the word ‘fresh’? Steinem told Hefner during the interview that ‘there are times when a woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.’ The comment seems to have perplexed Hefner as much as it annoyed him.

Hefner and Benton were finished as an item by 1976, but not before he’d turned up in a limo and a white suit with Barbi on his arm at his daughter’s graduation from Brandeis in 1974, upstaging the commencement speaker, another Chicago celebrity, Saul Bellow. Christie Hefner, aged 23, a year younger than Barbi, who’d graduated summa cum laude, had reconciled with her long-absentee father on a visit to the Playboy Mansion only the year before. Six years later he put her in charge of the foundering Playboy Enterprises, a position she held until 2009.

As well as Mr Playboy, Steven Watts has written biographies of Henry Ford and Walt Disney, both Midwesterners like Hefner, and both, unlike Hefner, brilliant, visionary monsters. There was nothing especially monstrous about Hefner. And though he was an astute, risk-taking, hard-working magazine man in Playboy’s early days, there was nothing brilliant or visionary about him. The idea for Playboy came directly from Esquire, the magazine young Hefner most revered and for which he briefly worked. Esquire, at least in its heyday under Arnold Gingrich, was a literary magazine with a few sexy photos, directed at the ‘sophisticated’ adult male. Playboy is a porn mag with a bit of literature for cachet, directed at the wanker who would like to think of himself as sophisticated. In 1969, Rollo May argued in Love and Will that Playboy reflected a ‘new puritanism’ and a repressed anxiety among American men about impotence and intimacy with women. ‘You see a strange expression in these photographed girls,’ he wrote: ‘detached, mechanical, uninviting, vacuous … Playboy has only shifted the figleaf from the genitals to the face.’

Hefner, at heart, was a small-time provincial and the worst sort of parvenu. A poster-child of arrested development, he was a shameless exhibitionist and boaster, who kept a detailed log, many volumes long, of his every sexual encounter. From the beginning he was in thrall to a rube’s notion of Jazz Age glamour, craving to mix with and be thought well of by the famous and well-born. He was the happiest, richest, oldest 14-year-old jerk in America.


  • 28 September 2017 at 7:03pm
    John-Albert says:
    Perfect summation.

  • 29 September 2017 at 6:07am
    philip proust says:
    I do not think the text succeeds in redeeming any part of the claim that Mr Hefner was "conventional". However ridiculous and hollow they might appear to the sophisticate, neither the lifestyle, nor the worldview that underpinned it as outlined in the article, is remotely conventional by any standard definition of that term.

    On the other hand, the ad hominem point of view used to attack Hefner is certainly conventional: he is accused of being the "worst sort of parvenu" [on a par with Albert Speer?]; a "shameless exhibitionist and boaster"; and a "jerk". And although the author appears to decry neo-puritanism, he apparently feels safe in abusing those who use soft porn to masturbate. What's wrong with that, August?

    While Playboy and Hefner were manifestly sexist, and thus worthy of condemnation, the role they played in the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s was more ambivalent than August Kleinzahler allows. Despite leveraging the sex guilt of the generation raised in the 50s, Hefner's approach went some way to spreading a kind of middle-class permissiveness, which ultimately played a part in undermining the prevailing version of church-inspired puritanism.

    The article rightly canvasses feminist critiques; however, there is no mention of the outrage Hefner provoked among the sex reactionaries, whose numbers and power were once legion. From the vantage point of this century, the liberalisation of sexual attitudes in the West appears inevitable; that was not true in the era of the culture wars of the 50s and 60s, when victory was far from certain.

    Our understanding of Hefner and his time gains nothing by calling such a man "conventional", when he was in reality a transgressive and out-and-out eccentric, who played a role in a massive cultural change.

    • 2 October 2017 at 9:08am
      semitone says: @ philip proust
      I guess Mr Kleinzahler is less comfortable with (in Hefner's words) the 'celebration of women as sex objects' than he is with the sexual objectification of schoolboys.

    • 4 October 2017 at 2:16pm
      shosha shuldeiner says: @ philip proust
      I think the answer to your query as to why has the adjective 'conventional' been attached to Mr. Hefner's description, lies in the the observation of Rollo may quoted in the blog post. How can a magazine which features pictures of nude ladies, be reflective of 'new Puritanism'?, you seem to be wondering, sir. But if a magazine or a film - or any other form of mass media for that matter- features images of skimpily clad women with 'detached, mechanical, uninviting, vacuous' expressions on their miens, does it not make you ask, why? There is a difference between being an advocate of sexual liberation (for all genders), and a promoter of a visual culture that reduces women to sex objects, to artifacts which are conventional precisely because they don't challenge the typical heterosexual male fantasies in the remotest way, but rather confirms to and piques them. Would you not call such representation of the feminine -'bossomy, blonde, leggie' as the blogger puts it - conventional?
      Also would you not acknowledge that such monochromatic depictions of women, confirming to a particular male fantasy, does not vouchsafes an acknowledgement of the then newly emergent feminist consciousness in the discourse of sexual liberation which called for the celebration of bodies of all shapes, sizes, ages, and colours, and of all sexual orientations?
      Does sexual liberation even for the straight, visit woman, have to be the freedom to be a pleasing object of desire for the male gaze?
      Maybe the Playboy magazine freed the middle-class western male from the shackles of guilt which the church wound around him, but I doubt if it emancipated him in a manner that he could appreciate others, including the heterosexual women, as independent, thinking people with their own sets of sexual and emotional eccentricities and predilections, and not merely titillation for his own very conventional, very heteronormative fantasies.

    • 15 October 2017 at 7:16am
      philip proust says: @ shosha shuldeiner
      "Conventional" is not a synonym for bad, shosh. August K. is using the word 'conventional' as a means of belittling Hefner. [Like writing Stalin's obituary and accusing him of being a liberal.] In the early 1950s, Playboy presented pictures of semi-nude women at a time when it was very far from the done or accepted thing. If his photographs objectified women that does not turn his behaviour in the direction of convention.

      This raises an obvious question: Is it possible to present photographs of men and women that do not objectify? All pornography objectifies in that it provides visual objects for the titillation of the observer. Critics of Hefner would be more honest if they tried to present the case against all pornography.

    • 18 October 2017 at 9:32am
      John Cowan says: @ philip proust
      Or indeed all photography, or indeed all art depicting human beings. To be pictured is to be an object.

  • 1 October 2017 at 3:55pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    I had one encounter with Playboy. I had written a profile of Stanley Kubrick for the New Yorker that centered on chess. I was visiting Oxford and was surprised to get a call from Chicago from someone who identified himself as an editor from Playboy. He had read my Kubrick and said that Heffner had become interested in the Fisher Spassky match in Iceland and would I go. I said yes providing I could write under the assumed name Jay Amber. This was agreed to and I spent a good deal of the summer in Iceland on Playboy's dime. I wrote a brilliant article which was never published in Playboy because Heffner had lost interest in chess. Sic Transit

  • 8 October 2017 at 2:17am
    randalstella says:
    Common sleaze with uncommon opportunity.

    The enduring obscenity was the intellectual pretence.

  • 25 October 2017 at 1:58pm
    Parissing says:
    May I be so bold as to enter this exchange not on the grounds of whether Hefner was or wasn't conventional or a jerk of some sort - but simply to point out that Playboy kept many, many fiction writers and journalists alive through his lavish spending on their work? He paid 2,000 for short stories back in the 80s to names and unknowns alike. Now we're mere content providers and get paid nothing. In my humble O, that's the new conventional jerk.

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