Commentary Magazine

The Playboy and His Western World

Most every man in the known world has at least glimpsed a Playboy centerfold, and thereupon has vowed to go out and get himself something similar in a real live girl, or perused the luscious goods until the magazine has fallen into tatters, or run to confess his pollution to unsympathetic religious personnel, or cried “Death to America” and placed his hope in the eternal succor of 72 virgins, each of whom is the spitting image of the whorish temptress in the picture. Hugh Hefner, the inventor of Playboy, has sold his idea of what sex should be with the winning fervor of a true believer, and while not exactly everyone has bought into it, he has enticed multitudes into his fold with the promise of as much pleasure as a body can manage in a lifetime, all of it perfectly innocent, of course. And what sensible person, playboy or playgirl, could possibly want anything better?

He has written, “In this century, America liberated sex. The world will never be the same.” Hefner himself is the Great Emancipator and the most influential figure that American popular culture has produced; no actor or movie director or singer or athlete has moved the life of our time as potently as he. Indeed, one is hard pressed to name more than three or four figures from the more serious precincts of our modern public life who have had an effect of comparable magnitude. Only in America can a man whose declared ambitions were to bed innumerable beautiful women and get rich in the process make a mark deeper than those left by great writers or leading thinkers or most presidents. That this should be so might well appall writers and thinkers and most presidents, but they would have to acknowledge that Hefner got hold of the fundamental American longing as no one else had before. Americans have always pursued happiness, usually without any clear idea of what they were after; Hefner demonstrated that it could be not only pursued but also captured, and he posted photographs of the quarry for proof. The sexual revolution, the defining uprising of our time, is his brainchild; others stand at his shoulder in the leadership, but he is the founding father of the orgasmic republic.

Two recent books examine Hefner’s own life and the life of common desire that he has manufactured for mass consumption: Steven Watts’s Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (Wiley, 2008) and Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (Oxford, 2009). Watts, a professor of history at the University of Missouri, has written a life so admiring of its subject’s energy, intelligence, and innovation that one almost forgets that these were also Lucifer’s salient qualities. Fraterrigo, an assistant professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago, focuses on the fiction, movies, sociology, and feminist polemics that nourished Hefner’s project or set out to destroy it; she too has little to say against Hefner, though she scrupulously does report that there are those who feel otherwise.

Both volumes demonstrate how Hefner’s way of thinking has impregnated the culture and remind the reader that it is above all the idea of free and easy sexuality that has transformed American life. For behind the beckoning images of creamy willing nudes and the erotic heat they have helped inspire for the past 56 years—heat that has become so pervasive we scarcely notice it any more—there lies the force of animating theory. It is often said that the mind is the ultimate erogenous zone, and there is no surer proof of this than the world Hugh Hefner has made for us.

The brave new world demanded an end to the timorous old one. “Puritan repression is really the key that unlocks the mystery of my life,” Hefner has averred. His parents provided the formative object lesson in what Puritanism is, and in what Hef wanted to rid the world of. Glenn Hefner and Grace Swanson met in 1911 at a Methodist church social and become high school sweethearts in rural Nebraska. They were married in Chicago in 1921, and Hugh Marston Hefner was born five years later. The parental chill of severe emotional decorum frustrated the boy’s yearning for tenderness and intimacy. Glenn never said a word about sexual matters to Hugh or his younger brother; Grace provided rudimentary instruction in the encounter of sperm and ovum, without informing Hugh precisely how the meeting was facilitated. And then there was the unsavory matter of Glenn’s father, who at 61 was imprisoned for fondling 10-year-old girls. Grace feared she had married into depravity and thought of leaving her husband; Glenn’s patent shame and heartache at his father’s disgrace convinced her to stay. When Hugh found out years later that Grandpa was a pervert, he blamed the puritanical sexual tyranny that twisted good people into sad deformity.

Hugh ached to bust loose, and did so little by little. His schoolmates voted him at or near the very top of his class as best dancer, best orator, best comedian, most popular, most artistic, and most likely to succeed. He dated several girls, he necked and cuddled and petted, but he graduated intact and not especially happy about it. With theory outstripping practice, he insisted to his disbelieving mother that sexual intercourse for high school students was nothing to worry about; she thought the danger of pregnancy sufficient argument against it, but he said that could be avoided easily enough.

After an uneventful stateside tour of duty as an Army clerk, he followed his high school sweetheart, Millie Williams, to the University of Illinois. Two and a half years of sexually strenuous but noncoital courtship issued in engagement: the big night that followed was a disappointment to them both. Then one day Millie confessed in tears that she had slept with another man. Hefner was shattered. He forgave her, they married, but his faith in romance and female virtue was never the same. Marriage brought the couple two children, but Hef soon knew that the wholefamily thing was not for him. Kids were a drag; being the breadwinner bored him; Millie was a dud in bed; he craved sexual conviviality on a grand canvas.

He had a delirious idea of how he wanted to live, of how he thought everyone really wanted to live. Playboy was the natural extension of that guiding idea.Hefner funded its publication with doggedness and ingenuity born of desperation, and it debuted in December 1953, featuring nude photos of Marilyn Monroe. The first issue sold 70,000 copies, the next 185,000; by 1959 a million monthly copies were in circulation, and sales would eventually top out in 1972 with 7 million copies a month, as Playboy Enterprises Inc. was establishing a business empire, with Playboy Clubs, hotels, resorts, books, records, and films.

Hefner was seducing his readership with a whole novel way of life. To fulfill “modern man’s need for a new, more realistic, rational, human, and humane sexual morality” was his grand aim, as he would state in “The Playboy Philosophy,” a series of 25 turgid essays that ran from 1962 to 1965. The new practice would have a prolix if not exactly profound theoretical foundation. Hefner wanted to restore the primal innocence of the two things Americans had endowed with the glamour of wickedness: sex and money. Sex outside of marriage was to become the norm; the playboy was to be a materially successful man who knew how toenjoy his wealth, largely by spending it on delicious playgirls. Hef sought to save other men from the trap in which he had been caught. The nude centerfolds, called Playmates, served the project handsomely: the subjects were “the freshest, most all–American looking girls we can find,” “the photographic dream girls for a large part of our male population,” and their eagerness to expose themselves to public view proved that “nice girls like sex, too.”

With Playboy’s success, Hef had the opportunity to discover how much he too liked sex, and not just in theory. He started slowly but soon was jumping every pretty girl who passed, and he was, after all, in thepretty-girl business. Divorce in 1959 was a mere formality, and he never looked back. He even indulged in one homosexual encounter: what the hell, it was experience. He drew the line, however, at intelligent women; those, he said, he didn’t know what to do with.

It was not all wham bam. There were girls—girls is the right word, for some were barely women, others hardly women—whom he would romance for a few months; but while they were expected to remain faithful to him, he considered himself free to do just as he pleased. Perhaps he even fell in something like love with favorite Playmates Barbi and Christy, though that did not stop him from insisting that they share him, customarily one in Chicago and one in Los Angeles, but sometimes both under the same roof, while naturally he managed numerous ancillary flings. The heart that got broken was almost never his own.* As many as six Playmates at once would join him in his famous sultan-sized rotating bed, where he worked as well as played; and then such moral wonders would transpire, as Hef and the girls learned so much about themselves and their capacity for sharing and joy, without judgments or boundaries.

At 63, Hef thought he might be in the mood for some boundaries and married the exquisitely beautiful Playmate Kimberly in 1989. The exquisitely beautiful Playmate and previous love Shannon remarked, “He’s done it all and this is what’s left.” The new embodiment of family values declared, happily, “I think I have come full circle to living life very similar to my parents.” His parents, however, never got divorced; Hef did, once again, after nine years. He claimed he had been faithful all that while; Kimberly admitted she had not, and it was she who declared the marriage finished. It can be a troublesome thing for the regenerate playboy when his playgirl is not quite so regenerate as he.

Hef got over it. He dropped a hit of Viagra on his 72nd birthday and retired to the love-grotto Jacuzzi with four young beauties. Then commenced the epoch of Brande, Sandy, and Mandy, who joined him in the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles as his consorts in triplicate. When they had served their purpose, Buffy, Tiffany, Cathi, Zoe, Cristal, Izabella, and a rash of their kind rushed in to fill the vacancies. Marriage had been an inauthentic effort to resurrect the Puritan ideal,Hefner explained: “The way I’m living now is who I really am.” He is 83, and there look to be no resurrections in his future.

Most important, Hefner’s way of living—and his private life has essentially been lived in public—has shaped who we really are, whether we see transcendent gladness or only doom in the freedom he has brought about. Hefner’s signal achievement is in making not just pornography respectable but also the grab-it-and-go sexuality it bespeaks. For years now most porn has been far lewder than anything one can see in Playboy; serious degradation is only a mouse-click away. Some say Playboy is so tame that it is not porn at all. But it is Playboy’svanguard role in promoting sexual license as the ethical norm, in touting promiscuity as the essence of urbane distinction, that singles the magazine out. We all live in Hef’s world now. In Hooking Up (2000), Tom Wolfe reported that junior high schools both in slums and in the toniest suburbs were having to deal with “a new discipline problem. Thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls were getting down on their knees and fellating boys in corridors and stairwells during the two-minute break betweenclasses. One thirteen-year-old in New York, asked by a teacher how she could do such a thing, replied: ‘It’s nasty, but I need to satisfy my man.’ Nasty was an aesthetic rather than a moral orhygienic judgment.” Hygienic, if not moral, concernsinevitably do enter the picture, however, even for the obliviouslypubescent:gonorrhea of the throat now rivals mononucleosis as adiseaseafflicting sophisticated adolescents.

Meanwhile, television commercials flogging a pill for genital herpes remind the viewer that one in five Americans has the disease, that it can be spread even when there are no eruptions, and that the treatment is not a cure. One in five offers the adventurer worse odds than Russian roulette. Still, the adventurer is grateful when an incurable venereal disease is usually only a nuisance. Everyone knows there is worse out there than herpes.

One hopes that such public health hazards can eventually be fixed by pharmacological ingenuity; we’re good at that, and success there would surely ease our troubles. But it would not end them. For what of the sweeping moral claims that Hef made for the healthy-minded overthrow of Puritanism and the ascendancy of well-reasoned pleasure? In his debut novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), Martin Amis put a suggestive riposte in the mouth of his narrator, the 19-year-old Charles Highway:

“The so-called new philosophy, ‘permissiveness’ if you like, seen from the right perspective, is only a new puritanism, whereby you’re accused of being repressed or unenlightened if you happen to object to infidelity, promiscuity, and so on. You’re not allowed to mind anything any more, and so you end up denying your instincts again—moderate possessiveness, say, or moral scrupulousness—just as the puritans would have you deny the opposite instincts.”

Charles is pointedly directing these dinner-table remarks at his father, who with brazen insouciance has brought his mistress home for the weekend, though his wife, Charles’s mother, is there. Charles’s moral position is complicated, however. He is in hot pursuit of the fetching Rachel, who is also there, but he is deliberately slowing the pace, chivalrously waiting for a dose of trichomonas, contracted from one of 10 girls he has slept with, to clear up before he tries to seal the deal. In due course the deal will be sealed, and Charles and Rachel will profess their love; but soon Charles will dump Rachel when he observes skid marks on a pair of her panties. Some indignities high romance cannot survive. With precocious brilliance—he was 24 when the novel appeared—Amis lays open the slick and alluring surface of the very latest in sexual relations and bares the crassness and pathos beneath. Amis is Hefner’s worst nightmare—a child of the sexual revolution who knows all its piggishness and cruelty from the inside.

In a 1985 article, Amis turned his wit to the high romance of Hugh Hefner. It has always been Hefner’s assertion that he is a thoroughly decent man; and this putative decency, Amis writes, dwells somewhere between cynicism and delusion.

Three points need to be made about Hefner’s oft-repeated contention that Playboy is like a family. First, it is a family in which Poppa Bear gets to go to bed with his daughters. Secondly, it is a family in which the turnover in daughters is high. Thirdly, it is a family in which no tensions, resentments or power-struggles are admitted to or tolerated: at Playboy, everyone is happy all the time.

Hugh Hefner has wanted nothing less for all of us: that the endless happiness he has known should be shared byeveryone, like the most sportive girl at the orgy. Of Hefner it can truly be said—and of how many persons can it be said?—that he has lived precisely the life he always wanted, the life of his dreams. The private man and the public one have both known utter fulfillment; in literally spending most of his life in his bedroom, Hefner has become a world-historical individual, a moral arbiter of the age. Of course, if one speaks of him in such grandiose terms, it is not without contempt for the world and recent history, which have so demeaned greatness that a porn magnate can attain imperial rank. His eminence soils us all. For what could be more trivial than a life like his? And what can be sadder for the rest of us than to aspire to live likewise?

Even those who renounce Hefner and his works bear his imprint. The Playboy ethos is triumphant in America and in much of the rest of the world. Old-school sexual virtue, of the sort embodied by Glenn and Grace Hefner, who never slept with anyone but each other and who did not really mind that sex was not especially exciting, has met its end. Nobody today really wants to be like them. Even decent people feel entitled to a scorching time between the sheets and believe it reasonable to try out several partners before bunking down with just one.

Nor does this desire for some degree of sexual freedom have anything necessarily untoward about it. One can be scrupulous and careful about premarital sex, have a good time, preserve one’s soul, learn to distinguish love from its simulacra, and even marry happily in the end. Lining them up and mowing them down by the hundreds Hef-style is an ugly business that likely disqualifies one for any real happiness in love; hooking up for oral sex at 13 doesn’t augur well for one’s romantic future, either. But such pathologies are not the whole story: one must grant that Hefner’s war against pseudo-Puritanism has not been altogether a bad thing.

There are those, mostly religious zealots, who make no concessions whatsoever to Hef’s world, but their numbers are ever punier and their long-termviability is dubious: these hard-line virtuecrats ofnecessity define themselves against an overwhelming force and conduct a hopeless rearguard action. Moderation is a surer precept just now than undying antipathy toward any easing of the oldstrictures.

But the ideas of equality and freedom, especially when applied to sexuality, are inherently immoderate, aspiring to the absolute. In the name of equality and freedom, and in the democratic belief that nothing human is alien to us, everything that can be done eventually will be done, loudly and vividly and in public, and children will learn in school how admirable that is, and everyone will be expected to get used to it, or indeed to applaud. Decent people have an unprecedented degree of freedom, and want to keep it. There are many who are far from decent, however, and they too claim respectability and acceptance as their inalienable rights: in good time, the incestuous, the polygamists, the pedophiles, the animal lovers, will all insist on their day in court.

Ten years ago in the New York Review of Books, a novelist of some distinction wrote about a memoir of gay life in New York that described the scene in a club called the Mine Shaft: men engaged in conventional sodomy, stuck their members through “glory holes” to be anonymously sucked, lay in a communal bathtub to be urinated on, and were suspended in harnesses so that their partners in entertainment might invade them with fist and forearm. Some might think he was describing hell, but the reviewer, John Banville, who confessed his own timid heterosexuality, remarked on the moral daring and even nobility of the participants. The Mine Shaft’s heyday was in the 1970s, before AIDS subdued the rampaging lustiness somewhat; Banville did have his reservations about the rampage, and AIDS made him particularly queasy, but nevertheless he could not resist a thrill of envy at seeing sex taken so seriously that so many were willing to risk death for its sake. His obeisance to the fundamental principle of the sexual revolution is every bit as telling as the worst of the sadomasochists’ behavior: here is that irresistible idea of sexual pleasure as the ultimate good, an idea taken to its inevitable extreme.

This is the very idea that Hugh Hefner launched with the promise of innocent ecstasies, underwritten by the surefire erotic magnetism of the lovely and wholesome girl next door. The full-service whorehouse is now next door, with Hefner’s name on the deed; and there will be more to come. We all live in Hef’s world now, for better and for worse, and he has both our gratitude and our abhorrence.

About the Author

Algis Valiunas, a frequent contributor, last wrote a consideration of Arthur Koestler for our February issue.

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