Hugh M. Hefner
Founder of Playboy Enterprises Inc.
"If you have to sum up the idea of Playboy, it is antipuritanism. Not just in regard to sex, but the whole range of play and pleasure."-Hugh M. Hefner
Hailed as a groundbreaking crusader by his supporters and derided as an irresponsible hedonist by his critics, Hugh M. Hefner was one of the harbingers of the sexual revolution that swept through the United States in the 1960s. He was also an extraordinarily astute entrepreneur who, in addition to publishing one of the world's most successful magazines, built a tremendously profitable business empire-a conglomeration of clubs, casinos and resorts known as Playboy Enterprises Inc. In the nearly half-century since the Midwestern son of a puritanical mother and workaholic father began espousing the playboy lifestyle, Hefner would watch as the tremendously successful business he masterminded nearly crumbled in the 1980s, only to be revived in the late 1990s.
From the very beginning, Hef, as he likes to be called, knew he wanted to be involved in publishing. His first experience came in high school, when he wrote and drew cartoons for his high school newspaper. He even started his own magazine. But at graduation time in 1944, instead of pursuing his dream of a job in publishing, Hef enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he spent the next two years working stateside as a clerk.
Upon his return to civilian life, Hefner was unable to find employment as a journalist, nor could he sell his idea for a comic strip about a college student named "Fred Frat." Instead, he was forced to take a number of more mundane jobs, including one as the personnel director for a Chicago cardboard-carton manufacturer and one as an advertising copywriter for a Chicago department store. But just when he was ready to give up his dream, he received a job offer from Esquire magazine that he hoped would turn his life around. During his tenure at Esquire, Hefner learned how to publish and distribute a magazine. Esquire, however, would prove to be another dead end. In 1952, the magazine moved its offices to New York City, leaving the would-be publisher behind in Chicago.
Even though his departure from Esquire was a disappointment, Hefner left armed with the conviction that the time was ripe for a new men's magazine that catered to urbane tastes like Esquire did, but was more daring, especially in the area of sex. He began this new project with the kind of zeal he hadn't experienced since his days writing for his high school newspaper. "For the first time in my life, I felt free," Hefner reveals in a Saturday Evening Post interview. "It was like a mission¬-to publish a magazine that would thumb its nose at all the restrictions that had bound me."
Unlike Esquire, Hefner's magazine would feature photographs of nude women. And despite a plan to publish the first pictorial in 3-D, the focal point of the premiere issue was an infamous nude calendar photo of Marilyn Monroe. The blonde bombshell had posed for the picture prior to becoming a star, and while just about everyone in America knew of the photo's existence, no magazine dared to publish it. The risk of being prosecuted for distributing obscene material through the U.S. mail was too great. But it was a risk Hefner was willing to take.
With a personal investment of only $600 and enough charm to convince his printer to give him credit, the 27-year-old Hefner published the first issue of Playboy in December 1953. It was an instant success, selling out its entire press run of 53,991 at 50 cents a copy.
The success of the first issue proved that Playboy did have a future, and Hefner began refining his creation. Wanting Playboy to be known for more than just its photos, Hefner turned his attention to improving the literary content of the magazine. Soon Playboy was publishing fiction and nonfiction articles from such acclaimed writers as Ray Bradbury, Vladimir Nabakov, Carl Sandberg, Tennessee Williams, P.G. Wodehouse, John Kenneth Galbraith and Ken W. Purdy.
The combination of nude photos of "the girl next door," high-caliber writing, and columns geared toward helping young urban men enjoy a sophisticated lifestyle proved to be a popular mix. By 1960, Playboy's circulation exceeded 1 million and was growing rapidly.
Inspired by his success, Hefner ventured into other fields. Two other magazines failed, Show Business Illustrated and Trump, as did a TV show, "Playboy's Penthouse." But several other ventures succeeded, most notably, Playboy Clubs International, a chain of members-only nightclubs whose main attraction was "Bunnies"-gorgeous hostesses and waitresses dressed in satin corsets with "bunny ears" and cotton "tails." Hefner also opened several casinos in London, which became major moneymakers for the Playboy empire.
Throughout the 1970s, Playboy's success spawned a host of imitators, including Bob Guccione's Penthouse and Larry Flynt's Hustler, which began eating away at Playboy's circulation base. Hefner's response was to search for a way to separate Playboy from what he considered to be "lowbrow" competitors. He found it in 1977, when Playboy published an article in which presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted to having "lusted in his heart." The interview stirred one of the biggest controversies of the campaign, reinforced Playboy's reputation as a publication of substance, and clearly separated it from its imitators. With his empire once again secure, Hefner spent the rest of the disco era living the "California dream" in his West Coast mansion.
But as the '70s rolled into the '80s, Hefner's dream rapidly became a nightmare. With the election of Ronald Reagan, a new wave of conservatism swept the nation and circulation figures dropped. In addition, Playboy Enterprises was dealt a crushing blow when complaints from competitors forced the closing of its lucrative London casinos. To make matters worse, in 1982, the New Jersey Gaming Commission denied Hefner a license to operate his recently constructed $150 million hotel-casino in Atlantic City. The overwhelming success of the casinos had been masking the losses Playboy had incurred in other business areas, including its resorts, clubs, and record and movie ventures. The final blow came in 1985, when Hefner suffered a stroke.
Hef recovered, but Playboy was in crisis. It needed new leadership. A new direction. So in 1988, Hefner turned over the business operations of Playboy Enterprises to his daughter, Christie. Under Christie's direction, Playboy magazine broadened its editorial focus by featuring special sections on fashion and entertainment. She also started the premium cable channel Playboy TV. The success of these ventures was furthered in 1994, when Playboy launched its own pay Web site. While the company may never again reach its former grandeur, Playboy Enterprises is still a major player in the adult entertainment world. As for Hefner himself, even though he has officially stepped down as chairman of Playboy Enterprises after nearly 50 years of fostering unprecedented social change, he continues to play an important role in the empire he created, and plans to do so well into the next millennium.
Hef's First (Magazine, That Is)
Like many entrepreneurs, Hugh M. Hefner began pursuing his dream at an early age. As a child, he wrote mystery stories and drew cartoons. His favorite topics, mystery and horror, formed the basis of his first publishing effort. While in high school, he started a magazine called Shudder, which featured short stories, comic strips, book and movie reviews, a "monster of the month," and, in a preview of things to come, offered readers a chance to join a members-only club with annual dues of 5 cents.
The Naked Truth
Hugh M. Hefner certainly wasn't the first to publish a magazine that featured photos of nude women. But what set Playboy apart was the philosophy behind it. From the very beginning, Hefner intended the magazine to be a handbook for single urban men. His goal was to emphasize the fact that you could live life with a little style, to show that sex was not a major hang-up, and to make sex be considered a natural part of life. The result was a magazine that projected the model of a sophisticated man of the world, for whom sexuality was just one of many pleasures to be enjoyed.pleasures which also included expensive stereo equipment, good food and fine wine. As sociologist Camille Paglia points out, "The apparent hedonism of the Playboy ethic was a real turn for the first time against America's Puritan heritage."