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Remembering Hugh Hefner, American mogul of sex

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died Wednesday at 91. First published in 1953, the magazine made Hefner the face of sexual liberation in the 1960s and a subject of feminist critique. Jeffrey Brown looks back at Hefner’s legacy with Amanda Marcotte of Salon and Todd Gitlin of Columbia University.

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    But first: the life and times of the founder of Playboy, Hugh Hefner.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • HUGH HEFNER, Founder, Playboy:

    Well, I remember, you know, with great fondness the very beginnings of it all, the days in which I held the first issue of the magazine, realized that I was going to be in the business for a while.


    The first issue of "Playboy" was published in 1953, when Hugh Hefner was just 27, and only recently moved out of his parent's house in Chicago.

    But when it hit the stands, "Playboy"'s 51,000 copies featuring naked photos of Marilyn Monroe sold out. In a 2011 interview with his then-fiancee, Crystal Harris, by his side, Hefner looked back.


    The fact that it would be so successful and that it wouldn't only succeed, but also would become such a phenomenon in the '60s, literally change the world, who could have possibly imagined that?


    With its centerfold and Playmate of the month, circulation shot up quickly, reaching seven million by the 1970s.

    Hefner himself was a walking advertisement for his product. In his signature silk pajamas, smoking his pipe, he fashioned himself, and "Playboy," as the face of the sexual liberation.

    Here, in a 1966 interview with William F. Buckley:


    What it really comes down to is an attempt to establish a — what has been called a new morality. I really think that's what the American — this thing called the American sexual revolution is really all about.


    Hefner launched his company into movies, TV, and clothing, and opened clubs, resorts and casinos crammed with Playboy Bunnies with rabbit ears and fluffy tails.

    An expanding empire, but also a rising chorus of critics who saw the Playboy fantasy as exploitative and vulgar. In 1963, then 28-year-old feminist Gloria Steinem briefly worked undercover at the New York Playboy Club, And published "A Bunny's Tale," an article that described how the women were overworked and underpaid, the atmosphere rampantly sexist and "tacky."

    Feminist blasts never abated, but Hefner was unrepentant.


    The suggestion that somehow or other Playboy exploits women is really a political point of view. The truth of the matter is, we celebrate sexuality, and we celebrate the sexuality of the women who appear on the pages of the magazine.


    In 1985, Hefner suffered from a mild stroke and turned his empire over to his daughter, Christie.

    Still, he remained editor in chief of "Playboy." Just last year, he handed over creative control to his son Cooper.

    In the Internet era, readership has fallen dramatically. Hefner at one point turned to reality TV with the show "The Girls Next Door," focused on the adventures of his three young blonde girlfriends who lived with him at the Los Angeles Playboy Mansion.


    I think a best life is one where one pursues one's own personal dreams.


    In 2012, at age 85, Hefner married his third wife, Crystal Harris. She was 60 years his junior.

    In addition to Crystal, Hefner is survived by his four children from previous marriages.

    Hugh Hefner died yesterday at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. He was 91.

    And we take a closer look at Hefner's complicated legacy with Amanda Marcotte. She writes about politics, feminism, and culture for Salon.com. And Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, his numerous books include "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage." He joins us via Skype.

    And Todd Gitlin, Hugh Hefner begins as one claiming to push against the conformity and puritanism of America of the '50s. And it worked, right? Give us a little bit of that background.

  • TODD GITLIN, Columbia University:

    He was the great anti-puritan.

    He made sex for men respectable. That is to say, it was no longer or really a kind of pornography. The magazines that preceded "Playboy" were kind of trashy-looking. They were printed on crummy paper. You always had the feeling that the ink was rubbing off on you, sort of something to read furtively. And they had no great literary pretension. They were full of stories about hunting and war.

    And then suddenly here was slick, smooth, airbrushed, high-color "Playboy," that it sort of attached an idea of women as Playmates to a way of life. The way of life was, you are a bachelor, you have your own pad, you have a good record player, you have a nice sports car, you have soft jazz, and sex.


    But, Amanda, this was always sex as commodity, right, selling the idea of sexual freedom, but always as a brand, the Playboy logo. It is a commercial venture. What was he selling?


    I mean, he was selling, like Todd said, a lifestyle. And it was very much a male lifestyle.

    It wasn't really — women were seen as another accessory, like the car, like the record player. They weren't really kind of seen as full partners in the sexual revolution. And it was really just one more object to buy. And, you know, unfortunately, to the end, Hefner was treating women in his own life that way.


    Todd, the old joke was — about "Playboy" was, people would say, I'm reading it for the articles.

    But it really did have lots of important interviews and great writers working for it.


    Yes, it did.

    He paid lots of money for writers. He had a huge circulation. And I think he must have been serious about trying to convey the idea that his idea about sexuality was somehow harmonious with or of a piece with the lifestyle.

    So, you are playboy and you are reading Isaac Bashevis Singer, and that is all part of the same thing. You are not some dumb cluck, you know, reading crummy hunting, fishing stories. You are an advanced citizen, Mr. — you lucky man. And you get to read the greats. You get to interview most people you are interested in.


    But, Amanda, we start off talking about him starting against this idea of conformity, but then clearly running into another kind of cultural phenomenon of the time, feminism.


    Yes, he was in conflict with feminists from the beginning.

    And I think it is a little bit unfortunate, because I think that created this sense that feminists were against the sexual revolution. They weren't. They just wanted women to be included as equals and as full human beings, and not treated as objects.

    And I don't know if Hefner ever really completely understood that criticism. He always seemed to just bristle against it, instead of really listen to it.


    I mean, the charge, obviously, the sexism, this idea of privilege that Todd has been talking about, that is what came at him all the time.



    And, I mean, he think, you know, he leaned into it, if we're going to be honest. The Playboy Mansion was like an icon of his privilege, his notion of himself as a sophisticated man.

    And he would have these huge parties where he would let his friends enjoy food and drink and drugs and the beautiful pool and the women. And it was all sort of held out as one piece.


    Todd Gitlin, even if I think, decades ago, he already appeared to many people as a kind of an anachronism. He turned to reality TV at one point. But he just went on.


    Yes, and the fact that his empire was actually crumbling, and he was sort of outdone by raunchier, you know, more vile publications like "Hustler," and then eventually by the whole sea of pornography that was available everywhere.

    So, he was actually less of a figure. But he sort of, I think, basked in his sort of glory as sort of the founding letch, the founding keeper of the harem, so that, at one point, a certain president of the United States in an earlier incarnation brought some of his people from "The Apprentice" to the Playboy Mansion and said to Hefner, "I can't tell which of your girls or which are mine," which I think tells you a lot about both men.


    Well, Amanda, just in our last minute, when you think about that legacy, and you think about what Todd was just talking about, how the Internet sort of brought a kind of sex to our — sort of every moment of anybody's life, if they want it, where does that leave Hugh Hefner's legacy?


    I mean, I think it leaves it mixed.

    I think you can't deny that he played a huge role in the mainstreaming of porn and sexual talk in our culture. On the other hand, I think he is an anachronism, and he will mostly be forgotten in a world where our sexual culture just has very little to do with the way Playboy was conducted.


    All right, Amanda Marcotte of Salon, Todd Gitlin, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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