If you don’t swing, don’t ring

Christopher Turner

  • Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics by Beatriz Preciado
    Zone, 303 pp, £20.95, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 935408 48 2
  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny by Holly Madison
    Dey Street, 334 pp, £16.99, July 2015, ISBN 978 0 06 237210 9

‘Without you,’ Hugh Hefner said to the Playmates he’d assembled for a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Playboy, ‘I’d have been the publisher of a literary magazine.’ Hefner founded Playboy in 1953 with a loan from his mother, who had hoped he’d become a missionary. The 27-year-old secured the rights to a previously unpublished nude of Marilyn Monroe, her skin flushed against red velvet, for $500 from a calendar company in Chicago. He wanted to publish the image in 3D, to be viewed with special glasses, but abandoned the scheme because of the cost. It was the year Monroe starred in How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. Kinsey’s research was helping to undermine America’s puritan pretensions. The inaugural issue of Playboy had no date on the cover; because of the strict obscenity laws, Hefner wasn’t sure there would be a second. He is now 90, and still editor-in-chief.

Prone to self-mythology, Hefner claimed he was Kinsey’s ‘pamphleteer, spreading the news of sexual liberation through a monthly magazine’. For all this supposed reforming zeal, it was only in the 1960s that Hefner began defining ‘The Playboy Philosophy’ – a kind of ‘hedonistic utilitarianism’, as William F. Buckley put it. The magazine was originally designed, Hefner admitted, as a ‘romantic reflection of earlier times’. His achievement was to associate sex with upward mobility by making his readers feel they were part of an elite gentlemen’s club. To this aim, alongside the scantily clad women and salacious cartoons, he published (or rather, mostly republished) work by John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, Arthur Conan Doyle, Margaret Atwood, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, Saul Bellow, P.G. Wodehouse, Anne Sexton and John Updike. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was first serialised in the magazine. ‘I only read it for the articles,’ joked subscribers, of which there were more than a million by the end of the decade. A lifetime’s supply cost $150, and the first issue would be hand-delivered by a Playmate.

In 1960, in an article for the Architects’ Journal – ‘I’d crawl a mile for … Playboy’ – Reyner Banham claimed he only read it for the architecture and design. ‘Playboy over the years has discussed and illustrated quite a lot of furniture,’ he wrote in the magazine’s defence, arguing that it had done more for design in the US than House & Garden. Every centrefold was portrayed in a design-savvy interior that hinted at a man’s presence just outside the frame: a tie hanging over a mirror, a cigar still smoking in an ashtray. But alongside these buxom ‘girls next door’ were full-colour spreads featuring the ‘simple, functional and modern’ designs of Eames, Saarinen, Nelson and Knoll. There were also laudatory articles on contemporary architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. The architects were themselves portrayed as playboys, the architectural and sexual revolutions intimately enmeshed.

In Pornotopia, Beatriz Preciado writes that in 1950s issues of Playboy, ‘there were more architecture plans, interior-decoration pictures and design objects than naked women.’ She sees all this design porn – with its blueprints for hip, hedonistic, bachelor-pad ‘dens of seduction’ – as an attempt to reclaim the domestic sphere for the metropolitan male. As feminists sought to escape the home, which Betty Friedan described as a ‘comfortable concentration camp’ for women, Hefner’s man-about-town moved in. His first editorial made this clear:

Most of today’s ‘magazines for men’ spend all their time out-of-doors – thrashing through thorny thickets or splashing about in fast-flowing streams. We’ll be out there too, occasionally, but we don’t mind telling you in advance – we plan on spending most of our time inside. We like our apartment. 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 second issue defined Playboy specifically as an ‘indoors magazine’. One article began: ‘Some say you can judge a man by the way he furnishes his home.’ Barbara Ehrenreich thought the pin-ups were a cover for a style-conscious interest in the domestic interior: ‘The breasts and bottoms were necessary not just to sell the magazine but to protect it.’

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