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Florian Boitin, editor-in-chief of German Playboy, once interviewed Hugh Hefner. His very personal obituary:
Hugh Hefner. Magazine founder, enlightener, civil rights activist. A man said to have slept with at least 1,000 women. What now for Hef, as his friends were allowed to call him? A final rendezvous: “Marilyn will be my final date – and I really hope we’ll make it work”, Hugh Hefner once told an interviewer with a smile. Not only did the Peter Pan of the sexual revolution share his birth year with Marilyn Monroe (1926), his life’s work is inextricably linked with the world’s most famous blonde.
The world’s first nude magazine
After completing his Psychology studies, the then 27-year-old worked as a copywriter for the men’s magazine “Esquire” in the early 1950s. The young family man had little money, but a big dream. To make it come true, he borrowed 1,000 dollars from his mother and invested half of it in a calendar photo of a very young Marilyn Monroe, rolling around on a red velvet sheet. She was not yet a peroxide blonde, but she was completely naked. The world’s first nude magazine launched in 1953. Playboy’s début issue, with Marilyn on the cover, sold out within a matter of days. It was America’s highest-circulation magazine in the 1960s and soon became a global brand. So it’s no wonder that, following Marilyn’s death in 1962, the Playboy founder bought the grave next door to the woman who started it all.
But what was it that made Hefner not only one of the most important magazine impresarios of our time, but also one of the most influential civil rights activists? It is common knowledge that Hefner fought tirelessly not only for sexual liberation, but against every form of suppression, exclusion and discrimination. A look back at Playboy’s origins sheds some light on his work.
For enlightenment and freedom of thought – against racism and intolerance
In the America of the 1950s and 60s, Hefner found himself surrounded by prudery, censorship and racism. The American dream was largely restricted to affluence – an affluence generally only available to the white population. In his 1962 book “The Playboy Philosophy”, Hefner contrasted this with the ideals of the country’s founders and the US Declaration of Independence: “All [people] are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. While Hefner was most concerned with sexual self-determination, he was always aware that this would not be possible without political emancipation and equal rights for all races. “For me”, he once said, “the American dream means personal, economic and political freedom.”
And he didn’t stop there, launching the Playboy Foundation to pay the legal costs for sensational actions against press censorship and puritanical sexual laws. Hefner also used his position as editor-in-chief to call for enlightenment and freedom of thought – against racism and intolerance. From 1962, every issue of Playboy contained a feature that remains a key part of the magazine’s DNA: the Playboy interview. Opinion leaders such as activist Malcolm X, notorious author Vladimir Nabokov (“Lolita”), Cuban head of state Fidel Castro (whose interview recording had to be smuggled into the USA) and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre discussed their views with Playboy openly and in depth. One particularly impressive example of Hefner’s beliefs comes from 1966, when an interview was planned with the US neo-fascist George Lincoln Rockwell. Having been told that Rockwell refused to speak to a Jewish reporter, Hefner sent Alex Haley (“Roots”), a writer of colour, to do the interview.
“In his own way, he is a genius”
Raimund Le Viseur, the first editor of German Playboy, who passed away in 2015, was deeply impressed by his first meeting with Hefner: “Hefner was anything but the caricature of a sex magazine tycoon; he was a sensual, instinctive, dreamy composer of the exotic plant that is a magazine. Yes, since this night I can dare to say that, in his own way, he is a genius.”
Hef brilliantly blended dedicated journalism, entertaining lifestyle topics and high-quality nude photography in a way that has been maintained to this day. His centrefold, the fold-out Playmate poster in the middle of the magazine, was later immortalised in a number 1 hit by the J. Geils Band. His instinct to transform Playboy from a mere magazine into a globally successful empire in just a few years – with nightclubs, merchandising, TV shows and numerous licensed editions – also demonstrated his vision.
The legacy of Hugh Hefner
Hefner’s final years saw plenty of upheaval. In 2016, the company sold his famous home in Beverly Hills where he had lived since leaving his native Chicago: the Playboy mansion, his castle-like sanctuary, the symbol of the legendarily extravagant Playboy lifestyle. And Hefner could not prevent his magazine from being led temporarily – and fatally – astray: Although high-quality naked photography had been one of Playboy’s USPs since the very first issue, the US magazine last year decided to stop publishing totally nude images – and suffered a severe decline in sales. Cooper, Hefner’s youngest son, has been responsible for US Playboy since the start of the year, lifting the ban on nudity as his first official act.
When asked why America should be most grateful to his famous father in an interview with German Playboy, the 26-year-old Chief Creative Officer answered: “Einstein once suggested that we look at physics from a different angle. My father said: Hey, why don’t we look at sex from a different angle.” That is his legacy.
Hugh Hefner died on 27 September, aged 91.