The legendary Hugh Hefner passed away yesterday at his infamous Playboy mansion, leaving behind one of the World’s most iconic brands, and a lifetime of advocating for sexual freedom, as well as progressive causes including civil rights, gay rights, and free speech.
Hefner is known, of course, for Playboy Magazine, and the scantily clad bunnies that still grace their pages. If you think eroticism, sexuality or sexual equality are at all controversial now, imagine how much heat Hefner must have taken back in 1953 when he borrowed $8,000 to publish the first issue of Playboy. Always savvy about marketing, Hef paid for a naked photo of Marilyn Monroe (shot for a 1949 calendar prior to her fame), and put her on the cover as the “Sweetheart of the Month.” Sex, apparently, sells. Within a few weeks the first issue had sold over 50,000 copies, and Mr. Hefner never looked back.
Many opposed Hef’s magazine, of course, for the “dirty pictures,” the objectification of women, and for his openness in embracing singlehood, swinging, free love and more. Feminist Gloria Steinem summarized her disgust for some of his sexual ideas in 1970: “What Playboy doesn’t know about women could fill a book. … There are times when a woman reading a Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.” Hefner had fans and opponents all sides. Famous feminist Camille Paglia understood his libertarian tendencies (and good intent), calling him “one of the principal architects of the social revolution”.
And while you may disagree with images in his magazine or his use of sex in his branding, Hefner himself believed absolutely in women’s equality, a woman’s right to choose (even helping finance the Rowe v. Wade lawsuit in 1973) , contraception, Planned Parenthood, as well as highlighting fortification. “Sex is not the enemy. It is the beginning of civilization, family and tribe,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Sex can be twisted and exploited, but in its most essential form, it’s the best part of who we are. And it frightens us.”
The man was an entrepreneurial machine (and like most entrepreneurs, a good majority of his projects crashed and burned): Hefner opened clubs, partnered with casinos, hosted cable TV shows (Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark), backed feature films (including a personal favorite, Monty Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different) even collaborated with an airline that had Bunnies as flight attendants.
Hefner never saw Playboy as a sex magazine. “I always thought of it as a lifestyle magazine in which sex was one important ingredient.” Playboy magazine was always ahead of its time, not just for pushing sexual boundaries, but for the interviews inside (with Fidel Castro, Miles Davis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter, Ayn Rand), cartoonists and artists featured (Art Paul, LeRoy Neiman, Alberto Vargas) and the authors he paid to write for him (including Kerouac, Vonnegut, Alex Haley, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood, Saul Bellow, and so many more…)
It wasn’t just the magazine or Playboy Enterprises where Hefner put his money, he was a generous philanthropist: in addition to helping start the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), he also gave comedian and activist Dick Gregory funds to help find the bodies of three slain civil rights organizers who had disappeared in Mississippi in 1964. Hefner also supported environmental organizations around the globe, even having a species of rabbit, the Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, named in his honor.
Hefner and his vision for Playboy was also an inspiration for my own media brand called Higher Ground. “The goal is to Elevate the Dialogue with sophistication, style and humor – but instead of the sexual revolution, we’re advocating the legalization (and decriminalization) of cannabis.”
Playboy magazine peaked in the 1970s, but it was the ideal of the lifestyle and attitude that lived on. Pretty much every single American straight man at one point or another has wanted to embody the “Playboy” that Hefner created: hanging out in a luxurious mansion with the world’s most beautiful women as groovy tunes play in the background….doesn’t suck. We also all have favorite Playmates (or Pinups): Farrah. Barbie Benton. Jenny McCarthy. Hiromi Oshima. Anna Nicole Smith. Ida Ijungzvist. Donna D’Errico. And mine, the not-exactly girl-next-door Pamela Anderson. (Hey. It was 1990, Ok?)
Not everyone needs to be on board with all that Hefner represented: you may not like an elderly man having three girlfriends, you may oppose free love, you may not like people who smoke, or spend too much time in their pajamas. And Hugh Hefner would be the first one to support your right to protest these notions or lifestyle. It’s why he hired controversial comedian Lenny Bruce (and, sadly, Bill Cosby) to play at his clubs. The pipe-smoking, robe-wearing genius was consistent in his openness and ideals. He did not want freedom for one race or gender, and not for another. He did not support free speech for one group, and oppose it for individuals or organizations with ideas he did not support. The Hugh M. Hefner Foundation gives First Amendment Awards (and grants) to individuals who have dedicated themselves to upholding their First Amendment Rights.
Looking back 50 years at Hefner’s early support for ideas that are still being debated nightly on CNN illustrates his nonconformity and vision.
Hefner was also a visionary even when it came to his own death. He told the New York Times in 2011 that he had already selected a spot to be buried: He’d purchased a plot in a crypt in Westwood, California…right next to Marilyn Monroe.
If we’re lucky, the World will catch up with Hefner’s awareness and advocacy of equality, openness, freedom of expression ….and, yes, recreational sex. If nothing else, we’ll always have the articles.
Photo Credit: Getty Images