The Reprobate is genuinely gutted this morning to wake to the news that Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has died. At 91, he certainly had a good innings – but Hef was such an icon for everything we believe in, his passing is no less sad because of that.
Playboy launched in 1953 – a magazine literally scraped together by Hefner with small investments. He was one of the first genuinely independent magazine publishers, and certainly the most successful – at its peak, Playboy was selling seven million copies an issue. The Playboy empire stretched to films (he produced Polanski’s Macbeth among others), home video and television, books, records, nightclubs and casinos, and in more recent years, a merchandising empire that predictably riled up the moralists – the ubiquity of the Playboy bunny on T-shirts and jewellery worn by girls a slap in the face for those who want all young women to be angry, porn-hating RadFems.
Moreover, Playboy paved the way not only for a whole generation of adult magazines – from Penthouse to Hustler and Mayfair – but also created a whole new style of magazine that would have been revolutionary even without the nudes. It’s easy to scoff at people who read Playboy ‘for the articles’, but why wouldn’t you? This was a magazine that had some of the best, most important interviews with leading figures in art and politics – from Martin Luther King Jr to Jimmy Carter, Miles Davis to Stanley Kubrick – and featured writing from the likes of Ray Bradbury and Norman Mailer. Much of this was material that would never have appeared elsewhere, and the Playboy interview is rightly regarded by non-idiots as the pinnacle of the art form.
Along the way, Hefner deliberately re-invented himself, setting out to live the dream that his magazine offered. It’s easy to scoff at the old man with blonde bimbo, gold-digging girlfriends a quarter of his age – but Hefner clearly knew what he was getting into, as did they… and much of the sneering was as much to do with petty jealousy as much as anything else. Perhaps you are the sort of fellow who would turn down the chance to be Hefner when you were 80 – but if so, I’m wondering what you are actually doing reading The Reprobate.
And it’s easy – far too easy, given how much people do it – to forget, dismiss or even deny the great role Hefner played in the sexual revolution, his support for civil rights, his battles against archaic censorship laws and his huge contribution to shaping a world where anyone can be who they want to be. Hefner was at the forefront of dragging up out of the 1950s, and he deserves considerably better than the grubby, nose-holding obituaries that the BBC and the like, ever-determined to disapprove of anything they perceive as sexism, have been publishing.
In a society that didn’t have backward, religious, moral fears about sexuality, Hefner would be unquestionably regarded as a giant. He’s one of the true icons of the 20th Century, and his death is a terrible loss.
We suggest you check out Amazon’s brilliant American Playboy series – a fine drama-documentary about Hefner’s life that counters all the sniffy, hateful and bullshittery writing about him that you’ll probably come across over the next few days.