Hugh Hefner On Early 'Playboy' And Changing America's Values

Sep 29, 2017

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, died Wednesday at his home, the Playboy Mansion. He was 91.

In 1999, Hefner told Fresh Air that his iconic magazine was inspired by his own repressive upbringing — he described his parents as typical "Midwestern Puritans."

"I saw things in growing up in my own home and in society around me that I felt were hurtful and hypocritical," he said. "... I believe and hope that Playboy [has] played some small part in changing the values — social and sexual — of our time."

First published in 1953, Playboy's pages mixed serious journalism and literary talent with titillating centerfolds. Hefner, meanwhile, seemed to live a life pulled straight from the pages of his magazine, with multiple girlfriends who were decades younger than he was.

Feminist critics pointed to the magazine — and to its founder — as the epitome of a culture in which women were expected to be naked, airbrushed and air-headed, but Hefner steadfastly maintained that the criticisms were misdirected.

"The women's movement, from my point of view, was part of the larger sexual revolution that Playboy had played such a large part in," he said. "The reality is that the major beneficiaries of the sexual revolution are women."


Interview Highlights

On what he initially wanted Playboy to be

Men's magazines in the period immediately after World War II were almost all outdoor-oriented. They were connected to some extent in the male bonding that came out of a war. ... And what I tried to create was a magazine for the indoor guy, but focused specifically on the single life; in other words, the period of bachelorhood before you settle down. And that magazine, or that concept for a magazine, was the revelation.

On launching Playboy with a naked photo of Marilyn Monroe, which he bought for $500

I was looking for some kind of a gimmick for the first issue. ... I thought about actually putting a 3-D pictorial in the magazine, and we actually shot it, as a matter of fact. Then I discovered that putting those 3-D glasses in each issue would be very expensive and something I couldn't afford.

And at the same time I was going through that, I discovered that the already famous Marilyn Monroe calendar picture — which nobody up to that time had seen — was owned by the John Baumgarth calendar company out of the West Side of Chicago, very close to where I grew up.

So ... I got in my beat-up Chevy and drove out there and met with John Baumgarth and talked him into letting me publish it in the very first issue.

On Monroe's reaction to the photo's publication

We didn't need her permission. The photos were shot by Tom Kelley, and those in turn — one of them, in turn — was sold to the calendar company. But it was her reaction, of course, that changed everything, and indeed, I think, was very key to her own successful career thereafter.

Her famous comment was, "I had nothing on but the radio." And that classic reaction in that very repressive time — because one must remember ... how really conservative the '50s were — for a major star to appear in the altogether and to treat it in such a casual way with humor was a revelation, and a very welcome one.

On developing the Playboy bunny emblem

Originally it was going to be a stag, and it was a stag right up to just weeks before publication. As a matter of fact, the illustration ... for the very first issue was a stag. And at the very last minute we simply had the cartoonist draw a rabbit's head and paste it on top of the stag.

So if you look very closely at that the picture, the first rabbit actually has a stag's hoofs. So with the rabbit as our emblem, when we got to the point in 1960 of opening the first Playboy Club ... one of our executives suggested the possibility of a bunny costume. We tried it out, and I made some modifications — added the cuffs and the bow tie and collar — and the bunny was born.

On the critics who felt he was objectifying women

For a long time, I didn't have the language to respond to those accusations. ... I really felt as if it was an attack from the rear.

The enemy, it seemed to me, prior to that was clearly the right wing and, you know, Moral Majority and the puritan part of society. When it came from what was called the liberal left, specifically as a part of the women's movement — when the women's movement became anti-sexual, it was a very confusing time for me then. It isn't now. ...

That point of view is understandable in the context of male-female relations historically. ... It is women who have traditionally, historically been given non-human roles, perceived as simply the daughters of Eve, perceived as either Madonna or whore. And I think that it is the sexual revolution that plays one part in female emancipation.

Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted this interview for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Hugh Hefner published the first issue of Playboy in 1953 when he was 27 years old. The magazine's first cover girl and nude centerfold was Marilyn Monroe. This past Wednesday, Hugh Hefner died in his Los Angeles Playboy Mansion at age 91. In between, he sparked a publishing revolution, positioned himself on the front lines of the sexual revolution and, for a few decades at least, stirred about as much outrage and publicity with his magazine's candid and provocative in-depth interviews as with its allegedly salacious photographs.

Terry Gross phoned Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion in 1999 after he had just edited a book called "The Century Of Sex: Playboy's History Of The Sexual Revolution." She asked him what he thought Playboy magazine's greatest contributions were to the sexual revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HUGH HEFNER: Well, Playboy from the very beginning has been a very personal magazine, and I think that it is a direct result of my response to my own Puritan upbringing. My parents are - or were typically Midwestern Methodist Puritans, and our roots go all the way back to William Bradford and the Pilgrims. And I think that I saw things in growing up in my own home and in society around me that I felt were hurtful and hypocritical.

And after World War II, I thought that things were going to change. I think to some extent, I had a romantic notion of a time that I had missed in the roaring '20s because I grew up during the Depression in the 1930s. And I expected the post-war, post-World War II period to be rather like the period after World War I, and it wasn't. And I think that I started Playboy in response to all of that. And I believe and hope that Playboy has played some small part in changing the values of social and sexual of our time.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Now, you worked briefly I think at Esquire magazine before starting Playboy. When you started Playboy, what was the initial emphasis? What did you think this magazine was going to be about?

HEFNER: Well, it was - men's magazines in the period immediately after World War II were almost all outdoor-oriented. They were connected to some extent in the bonding - in the male bonding that came out of the war. And there was a great deal of emphasis on getting women back into the home. World War II had brought them out into the workplace. And everything from the government to TV to - there were powerful forces urging women to return to the home.

And you know, the ideal kind of relationship, the togetherness that existed back then was mother and children in the home, father the breadwinner and spending time with other guys, you know, playing poker, bowling, hunting, fishing, things that had no real interest for me.

And what I tried to create was a magazine for the indoor guy but would focus specifically on the single life - in other words, the period of bachelorhood before you settle down. And that magazine or that concept for a magazine was a revelation.

GROSS: Were you a bachelor at the time?

HEFNER: I was coming out of a bad marriage.

GROSS: How old were you when you lost your virginity? Was it before marriage?

HEFNER: No. As a matter of fact, it was typical. I lost it with the girl that I was planning on marrying. And after about two and a half years of foreplay while we were in college, she was graduating, and we had sex shortly before we got married. We graduate - we had sex right after - at the same time that she graduated from college. And I think that's typical. I was - I had sex for the first time with the woman that I planned on marrying.

The bad news is that she went off while I finished the last semester of college, and she went off to teach and promptly had an affair and then confessed that affair a couple of months later. And that was the single most devastating experience of my life.

GROSS: So you ended up not marrying this woman.

HEFNER: I went on and did marry that woman.

GROSS: Oh, in spite of the affair, the relationship stayed together.

HEFNER: Yes. I think my reaction was too far from being - I think the notion of ending the relationship - because that would have been unthinkable - but my reaction was actually almost the opposite. It was sort of like, you know, wanting to put my arms around her and protect her and - but it was a devastating experience for me.

GROSS: The first issue of Playboy had a centerfold of the now-famous photo of a naked Marilyn Monroe. How did you get that?

HEFNER: Well, I was looking for some kind of a gimmick for the first issues. And the first thing I came up with, as a matter of fact - 3-D movies were very popular at the time. So I thought about actually putting a 3-D pictorial in the magazine. And we actually shot it, as a matter of fact. Then I discovered that putting those 3-D glasses in each issue would be very expensive and something I couldn't afford.

And at the same time that I was going through that, I discovered that the already famous Marilyn Monroe calendar picture which nobody up to that time had seen was owned by the John Baumgarth calendar company out on the West Side of Chicago very close to where I grew up. So I got up, and I got in my beat-up Chevy and drove out there and met with John Baumgarth and talked him into letting me publish it in the very first issue.

GROSS: How much did you have to pay for it?

HEFNER: Five-hundred dollars.

GROSS: Oh, wow, gosh. (Laughter) That's nothing.

HEFNER: And he threw in the color separations. And the color separations would have cost me over a thousand dollars by themselves.

GROSS: Why did he give it to you so cheap?

HEFNER: Well, I think it was a very good and special day for me. I think that he saw in me perhaps a young entrepreneurial kid, some variation of himself at a younger time.

GROSS: What about Marilyn Monroe? What was her reaction when you published it, and did you need to get her permission? Did you ask for her permission?

HEFNER: Well, we didn't need her permission. The photos were shot by Tom Kelley, and those in turn - one of them in turn was sold to the calendar company. But it was her reaction of course that changed everything and indeed I think was very key to her own successful career thereafter. Her famous comment was, I had nothing on but the radio. And that classic reaction in that very repressive time - because one must remember what - how really conservative the '50s were. For a major star to appear in the altogether and to treat it in such a casual way with humor was a revelation - and a very welcome one.

BIANCULLI: Hugh Hefner speaking with Terry Gross in 1999. The founder of Playboy died Wednesday at age 91. We'll continue their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON AND GARFUNKEL'S "SUNPORCH CHA-CHA-CHA")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1999 interview with Hugh Hefner. The founder of Playboy magazine died Wednesday at age 91.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: What was your reaction when some feminists started to describe Playboy as exemplifying, you know, woman as sex object, woman as accessory or the image that women's main function in the world is to give sexual pleasure to men?

HEFNER: Well, I think for a long time I didn't have the language to respond to those accusations because, quite frankly, the women's movement from my point of view was part of the larger sexual revolution that Playboy had played such a large part in. So I really felt as if it was an attack from the rear.

The enemy, it seemed to me prior to that, was clearly the right wing and, you know, Moral Majority and the Puritan part of society. When it came from what was called the liberal left, specifically as a part of the women's movement - when the women's movement became anti-sexual, it was a very confusing time for me then. It isn't now.

GROSS: Don't you think that some of the feminists then and now who had certain objections to a certain type of men's magazine were actually - that these women were actually pro-sex but they thought that, you know, Playboy at the time and some other men's magazines had a kind of backwards idea of women, that sexuality was seen as something that - that women weren't seen as equals to men either in bed or out of it?

HEFNER: Yes, and I think that that - and you know - and that point of view is understandable in the context of male-female relations historically. But the reality is that the major beneficiaries of the sexual revolution are women. It is women who have traditionally, historically been given non-human roles, perceived as simply the daughters of Eve, perceived as either Madonna or whore. And I think that it is the sexual revolution that - well, that it plays one part in female emancipation.

GROSS: But I think the emancipation came far beyond, you know, women being seen as, say, a sex toy. It became women to define their own sexuality, use it independently as they pleased and also be equals in the workplace and at home and so on.

HEFNER: Yes, yes, all of that. And the notion that simply because they are perceived in some quarters as sexual objects does not necessarily deny any of that. We are sexual objects. At our best, that's part of who we are. But it's only a part of who we are. We want to be attractive to members of the opposite sex.

GROSS: Well, now that you're single again, I've read you're involved with four women.

HEFNER: That's true.

GROSS: And two of them are twins.

HEFNER: That's true.

GROSS: They're 21. A third woman is 25, and the other is I think around 30.

HEFNER: No, the other's also 21. She's a classmate. The three - the twins and the other girl, Jessica, are all college students.

GROSS: So you're about 52 years older than they are (laughter).

HEFNER: It's true.

GROSS: You know, does that make you feel younger 'cause you're with younger women or older because you're so much older than they are?

HEFNER: It makes me feel much younger. It's a real revitalization process. The connection with younger people and with younger girlfriends, without question, whether it's politically correct or not, definitely is a reconnection with youth. And age by and large is for me - if you're healthy, is largely a number. It's just a point of view.

GROSS: Well, here's something I sometimes wonder about couples in which there's a really big age disparity between them. Like, if you're 52 years older than the woman you're seeing, she - in some ways, she couldn't possibly be your equal because you've lived, you know, a long time. You've been very successful. You've amassed a fortune and published this world - you know, world-renowned magazine whereas they're not even out of college yet. So you know, it just, like, wouldn't be possible for them to function as your equal.

HEFNER: Is that of some importance?

GROSS: Well, if I was the woman in the relationship, it would be important to me. I mean...

HEFNER: Well, I think quite frankly that people are attracted to one another for a variety of reasons. And again, there's more than one kind of equality. In my relationship with women - with the women that I'm seeing now, there's a very real equality in terms of, you know, who makes the decisions in the relationship and what we do and how we spend our time, et cetera.

But I would say that the relationships are more complementary than equal. Each of us brings something different to the relationship. I bring the experience and the years and the wisdom and whatever, and they bring a very special joy related to life that is not so sophisticated, not so cynical and very refreshing.

GROSS: Let me know if this is too personal. But when you have a relationship with a woman, how much of that relationship is solely about sex, and how much of it is about, you know, a relationship about other things - sharing things in common, having, you know, intellectual interests to talk about or experiences to share and so on?

HEFNER: I don't think that you can have a good relationship with a woman if it isn't primarily connected to common interests. If you don't really like the person, sex isn't going to hold it together.

GROSS: A lot of people would assume that the reason why your current lovers are so much younger is because they're so sexually attractive to you because of their youth.

HEFNER: True, but it is, as I said, something beyond simply sex. In other words, there is a romantic connection that has to do with my own childhood. I think that being a dreamer, a lot of my relationships are projections of dreams and needs and yearnings that come right out of childhood, you know? And I stay very much connected to those dreams. And I have attempted in the last few years to reconnect as much as possible with the boy.

GROSS: What about the wisdom of the man, though (laughter)?

HEFNER: What's that?

GROSS: What about the wisdom of the man who's lived 73 years?

HEFNER: This is the wisdom of the man.

GROSS: To go back to the boy?

HEFNER: You bet you.

GROSS: Forgive me for asking this, but I know it's the kind of thing a lot of people wonder. Do you think that your girlfriends who are in their 20s are - do you think that what they find most attractive is, you know, your body or your fame and money and image?

HEFNER: I think they're most attracted to me because of who I am.

GROSS: The whole package.

HEFNER: I think that - you know, it's kind of like - you know, some of it obviously has to do with money and power, but most of it I think has to do with the fame. I think it's an attraction to who I am. And I don't have any problem with that because I spent a lot of time becoming who I am.

BIANCULLI: Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, speaking to Terry Gross in 1999. He died Wednesday at age 91.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURINDO ALMEIDA'S "RECADO BOSSA NOVA")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's FRESH AIR - New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. She has a new book called "Going Into Town: A Love Letter To New York." It's a collection of panels and cartoons about all the things she loves about New York and some of the things that freak her out. And we'll speak with writer and professor Daniel Mendelsohn. His new book "An Odyssey" is about the time his 81-year-old father took one of his courses. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seaver-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURINDO ALMEIDA'S "RECADO BOSSA NOVA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.