Family & Companions
Arguably one of the most important figures in midcentury American popular culture, Hugh Hefner was the founder and editor-in-chief of Playboy, one of the most widely recognized and influential publications of the twentieth century. Playboy encapsulated Hefner's vision of the modern American male's mindset, which was as fascinated by sex as it was with politics, art, and social commentary, and with its first issue in 1953, appealed to all of these interests in a tasteful and mature presentation that established it as both head and shoulders above the average "stag" magazine and a worthy competitor with publications like Esquire. The combination of nude layouts, award-winning literature and insightful interviews quickly made Playboy one of the biggest selling magazines of the postwar period, and was cited as both a positive and negative influence on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and into the freewheeling 1970s. Its runaway success also allowed Hefner to pursue a wide variety of ventures - from nightclubs and jazz festivals to movie and television productions. Though Playboy's fortunes and significance in the cultural landscape rose and fell in the ensuing decades, the image of Hefner - frequently clad in his trademark silk pajamas and smoking jacket - remained an enduring icon of sexual freedom and the pursuit of "the good life" in its many varied forms. His death on September 27, 2017 brought forth a spirited debate about the role Hefner and Playboy had played, for better and worse, in American culture.
Born Hugh Marston Hefner in Chicago, IL on April 9, 1926, he was the son of Glenn and Grace Hefner, whose ultraconservative attitudes - they were direct descendants of Massachusetts' Puritan governor William Bradford - had a direct influence on their son's future career path. A decidedly average student, Hefner's interests lay outside the classroom, where he devoted himself to publishing a school newspaper, as well as writing and drawing cartoons. Bestowed with the nickname "Hef" at an early age, he graduated high school in 1944 and joined the Army, where he served as an infantry clerk and cartoonist for military newspapers. After his discharge in 1946, he studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago before enrolling at the University of Chicago, where he displayed a tireless work ethic by graduating early (after only three years of study) with a major in psychology and a double minor in creative writing and art, while contributing cartoons to the school newspaper and editing the campus humor magazine Shaft. Among his more notable contributions to the latter was a regular feature devoted to the "Coed of the Month." Hefner followed his undergraduate studies with a semester at Northwestern University, where he became keenly interested in the Kinsey Institute's recent studies in human sexuality, as well as state and national laws regarding personal freedom and sexuality. Hefner also married fellow Northwestern student Marion Williams, with whom he had two children, daughter Christie (born 1952) and son David (born 1959).
Life after academics proved challenging for Hefner; he hustled to sell his cartoons to publications and struggled to make ends meet as a personnel assistant and advertising copywriter. Relief came in the form of a job in the subscription department of Esquire magazine, which led to a stint as a copywriter, but when the publication decided to move to New York, he requested a $5 per hour raise and was denied. Sensing that he was moving into a make-or-break position, he decided to remain in Chicago and put into motion his long-simmering plan to launch his own magazine.
Prior to 1953, he had attempted to launch a sophisticated publication for men - one that would combine the cheesecake photography of the popular but lowbrow "stag" magazines with upscale editorial content that would reflect the interests of the modern middle-class male reader. These would include interviews with leading personalities, as well as literature and lifestyle coverage, but he failed to secure funding. After taking a job as circulation manager for Children's Activities magazine to provide for his growing family, Hefner began to assemble the first issue of his dream publication in the kitchen of their tiny apartment. After finding a publisher and distributor for the magazine, he culled $8,000 from investors (including his mother) and the lease of his own furniture to publish the first issue of what he initially dubbed Stag Party. The title was nixed at the insistence of an outdoor magazine named Stag, but co-founder Eldon Sellers devised a new moniker - Playboy.
The first issue was published in December of 1953 and was an immediate success. Much was made of the magazine's content, which was highlighted by a nude calendar layout of newly minted Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe shot in 1948. And though conservative outlets decried Playboy as little more than a glossy cousin of stag magazines, more even-handed observers noted that its approach was entirely different from other men's magazines - there was humor in its pages, solid writing, and a decided polish to its production. Most importantly, Playboy sought to regard its readers with intelligence by covering the latest in all fields - from politics and finance to the best in jazz, alcohol, men's clothing and hi-fi equipment. And Hefner extended that approach to the magazine's nude layouts as well - the hard-bitten stripper types so common to men's magazines of the period were nowhere to be found. Instead, there were young, healthy, and very normal-looking young women photographed in an appealing but tasteful manner which included a removable centerfold. Playboy soon caught on with readers seeking to emulate the lifestyle featured in its pages, as well as those too embarrassed to purchase more explicit pornographic material.
By the end of the decade, it was selling over a million copies each month, and Hefner was expanding its brand beyond the pages of the magazine. He organized the first Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959, which attracted the top names in the field, and launched the first Playboy Club, an upscale retreat that featured its waitresses in the notorious "Bunny" costumes, the following year. A tuxedoed and charmingly nervous Hefner, clutching his trademark pipe, also turned up on syndicated television with "Playboy's Penthouse" (1959-1960), a talk show of sorts designed to emulate the parties given at his new million-dollar residence in Chicago. For much of male America - and soon the world - Hefner symbolized the best that life had to offer.
However, the Playboy lifestyle did not come without a price. A 1963 issue featuring nude photos of zaftig actress Jayne Mansfield resulted in Hefner's arrest, though the subsequent trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict. In response to the arrest and other similar issues, he launched the Playboy Foundation, which bestowed grants to organizations that fought censorship and conducted research into human sexuality. And though Hefner endorsed a rich and varied sexual appetite, his own dalliances resulted in divorce from Williams, who later admitted that she had allowed Hefner to sleep with other women in an attempt to remain married to him.
As the repressive Fifties gave way to the exploratory Sixties, Hefner continued to improve the quality of Playboy's content and brand. The Playboy Interview became a consistent destination for in-depth conversations with important figures of the day, including Martin Luther King, Billy Wilder, Albert Schweitzer, the Beatles and even President Jimmy Carter, who infamously admitted he "lusted in his heart" outside of his marriage. Authors ranging from John Updike and Ray Bradbury to Vladimir Nabokov contributed fiction and essays to its pages. Hefner also refused to make the nude pictorials more explicit, despite changing cultural standards regarding nudity and sexuality. The quality of the magazine's production and editorial helped to make it one of the best-selling publications in the world by decade's end.
Hefner reacted to the universal acclaim by diverting the Playboy empire into nearly every aspect of popular culture. He returned to the airwaves in 1968 with a revamped version of "Playboy's Penthouse" called "Playboy After Dark" (syndicated, 1968-1970), and launched a book publishing firm, a limousine service, a record label and a movie production office which guided several notable (if not particularly successful) features, including Roman Polanski's adaptation of "Macbeth" (1971) and the Monty Python film "And Now for Something Completely Different" (1971). When Hefner took the company public in 1971, it counted a vast number of clubs, casinos and hotels among its fortunes.
In 1975, Hefner relocated the Playboy offices to a sprawling mansion in Holmby Hills, which quickly became ground zero for no-holds-barred parties with major players from the Hollywood film industry. Hefner himself indulged in the hedonistic lifestyle that took root at the mansion; he squired countless Playmates, as well as aspiring actress Barbi Benton, who was featured in its pages. The good times also took a dark turn in the mid-1970s with the overdose death of Hefner's secretary, Bobbi Arnstein in 1975, as well as the brutal 1980 slaying of that year's Playmate of the Year and possible movie star Dorothy Stratten by her controlling manager/husband, Paul Snider. The whole sordid murder cast a pall over the mansion and the company in general, as Stratten was widely loved within the Playboy family. It took Hefner a good while to get over the death of the one Playmate who he felt had the best chance to break into the mainstream, following her brief movie career in films like "Galaxina" (1980) and Peter Bogdanovich's "They All Laughed" (1980).
Though Hefner's image became irreparably associated with partying during the snorting seventies, the magazine maintained its lead in the men's magazine field. Hefner also expanded his philanthropic interests by spearheading a campaign to restore the Hollywood sign, which earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and inclusion in the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce's Hall of Fame. In 1979, his daughter Christie, who began working for her father in the late 1970s, established the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards to honor individuals who worked to preserve the First Amendment.
But by the 1980s, Playboy's fortunes began to experience a downward turn. The proliferation of hardcore pornography in the video market ate away at its readership and relevance, as did a slew of more explicit competitors like Bob Guccione's Penthouse and Larry Flynt's Hustler. The Playboy Clubs - long a destination for high rollers in numerous cities - closed down en masse by 1986, and even Hefner himself took a bad turn in 1985 when he suffered a mild stroke, following the publication of an indicting tell-all from former friend Bogdanovich, who in writing his Stratten memoir The Killing of the Unicorn, blamed his lover's death as much on her murdering husband as Hefner and the Playboy mentality of women as sexual objects. The stroke - coupled with the very public bad blood with Bogdanovich - later caused the veteran publisher to re-evaluate his life, which resulted in him naming daughter Christie as president and later Chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises. Four years later, the avowed bachelor married Kimberly Conrad, his 1989 Playmate of the Year. Their union produced two sons, Marston and Cooper, in 1990 and 1991, respectively. He also began contributing extensively to film-related organizations and causes, including the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, where he funded a course on censorship, as well as an endowment for the study of film and an exhibition space in its new headquarters. Hefner also sponsored the "American Cinema" (1995) series on PBS, and was a regular contributor to film restoration projects, as well as producing documentaries on Golden Age sex symbols who had fascinated him, including Clara Bow and Louise Brooks.
As he entered into his sixth and seventh decade, Hefner began collecting tributes and recognition from his peers and the world at large for his successes and struggles in the publishing field. He was the subject of an engrossing documentary, "Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time" (1996) by producers David Lynch and Mark Frost, and a two-hour special, "Hugh Hefner: American Playboy" (1996), for the A&E Network. That same year, he received the International Publishing Award from the International Press Directory in London, and was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame in 1998. And in 2002, he received the Henry Johnson Fisher Award, the highest honor of the Magazine Publishers of America.
In 1999, Hefner and Conrad separated, though she maintained a residence with their sons on the grounds of the mansion. The 73-year-old raised eyebrows by quickly taking up with a rotating selection of Playmates, all in their early 20s, and who dated Hefner in packs of up to seven at a time. His escapades with this gaggle of girlfriends later became the focus of "The Girls Next Door" (E!, 2005-09), a reality series which followed the girls' experiences at the mansion, with Hef remaining at slight stage left as a bemused eminence grise. In 2003, Playboy celebrated its 50th anniversary with a slew of television specials and events that paid tribute to its legacy and the achievements of its founder. And though the magazine had not rebounded to the heights of success it experienced in the late 1960s and throughout the decade of the 1970s, Playboy managed to weather countless aspirations to its throne - including the wave of "lad" magazines like England's FHM and Maxim in the 1990s - and maintain a viable presence in the marketplace. However, the 21st century edition of Playboy Enterprises drew only a third of its income from the magazine; most of its revenue was generated from electronic sources such as DVD and the Internet, as well as its revitalized hotel and casino ventures. A large majority of this content was devoted to hardcore pornography, which flew directly against the policies Hefner drafted for the magazine five decades prior, but he was a cagey enough businessman to realize that the modern American male's tastes had changed since 1953.
In 2007, a biopic of Hefner's life and achievements was announced by Brian Grazer and Imagine Entertainment; the producer optioned Hefner's story and collaborated with several screenwriters and filmmakers (including Oliver Stone) before settling on Brett Ratner as director. Hefner was portrayed on film and in television several times prior to the film, including two features about Dorothy Stratten - Bob Fosse's grim "Star 80," with Cliff Robertson as Hefner, and the 1981 TV movie "Death of a Centerfold," with Mitchell Ryan as Hefner. Randall Batinkoff played Hef in the 1999 TV movie "Hefner: Unauthorized," while Sean Thibodeau contributed a brief comic turn to "The Ladies Man" in 2000. In addition to his appearances in "The Girls Next Door" reality show, the real Hefner made cameos in countless television programs, documentaries, music videos and commercials throughout his long and storied career - always starring as himself, with pipe in hand and beautiful, buxom blondes on either arm. Hugh Hefner died on September 27, 2017 at his home. He was 91.
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Was a writer for a military newspaper in the U.S. Army
Worked as a copywriter for <i>Esquire</i> magazine; left in 1952 after being denied a $5 raise
Briefly worked as a circulation manager for <i>Children's Activities</i> magazine
Published the first issue of <i>Playboy</i> magazine, featuring Marilyn Monroe on the cover
Organized the first Playboy Jazz Festival at the Chicago Stadium
Hosted the popular syndicated television show "Playboy's Penthouse"
Opened the first Playboy Club on the North Side of Chicago, featuring its waitresses in the now famous 'Bunny' costumes
Returned to the airwaves to host the syndicated show "Playboy After Dark"
Took his company Playboy Enterprises public
Produced Roman Polanski's adaptation of "Macbeth" and the Monty Python film "And Now for Something Completely Different"
Relocated the Playboy offices to a sprawling mansion in Holmby Hills, California, which came to be known as 'The Playboy Mansion'
Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame after he championed the reconstruction of the Hollywood sign
Was profiled in A&E's two-hour special, "Hugh Hefner: American Playboy"
Starred on the E! reality series "The Girls Next Door"
Partnered with Palms Casino Resort and the Nine Group to develop a Playboy themed nightclub, casino and sky villa located in the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas
Was the subject of Brigitte Berman's documentary "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel"
Announced that his son Cooper would be replacing him as the public face of Playboy
Hefner sold the Playboy Mansion to private equity firm Metropoulos & Co for $100