This is not a comprehensive biography nor a critique on his life. This is a bullet point of things I liked about Hefner.
1. His simplicity
Hef was a romantic and an idealist. In the years after the war circa 1955, the aspiration of young men and women was to fall in love, get married and build a family. To find stability. Hef was part of this moment, he pursued a girl and ended up marrying his High School sweetheart
2. His passion and ingenuity
He was very passionate about culture and social commentary and this remained his main focus throughout his life. During his teenage years, he produced comics of humor and social critique. He went on to work for Esquire, a magazine that resonated with him because of its clever mix of sophistication, entertainment and current issues. This format was unique at the time.
When he felt like he couldn't do more under their employment, he set out to produce a lifestyle magazine of his own. He wanted it to have everything that men liked and found interesting, with subjects that encouraged thinking and discussion, and visually pleasing pages.
The first issue of Playboy (December 1953) was written entirely by himself with the help of just a few people on production, and investors. He even drew the comic pages. The idea was brilliant: It was a magazine about the cosmopolitan lifestyle, geared towards the new male youth, to entertain and educate them. It touched on art, literature and current issues. It wasn't mindless entertainment: It contained excerpts from classic novels, humor, political discussion, and was frank about the big taboo of sex.
The idea to include a photos of a girl within its pages was spontaneous, to make the project more commercial and appealing. And this is how it all started, with that famous picture of Marilyn Monroe, which was actually an old shot of hers that he negotiated with a photography agency for a good price.
Contrary to what most people are led to believe, Playboy did not intend to be a pornographic magazine at all, that was not its manifesto. But it eventually became more focused on portraying nudity, partly because sex is relevant to lifestyle particularly during the sexual revolution, and partly because of the sales boost.
There was a turning point in the 70s, when competition got serious. A new publication launched with the slogan "we hunt down bunnies" obviously geared at disarming the empire that Playboy had become. It was quickly gaining subscribers by showing more of the female body and it was heavily affecting Hef's business. Playboy recognised that they could do that too and could do it better, they had every model and and major photographer wanting to work with them, and it was this competitive spirit that forced them to show a lot more, acknowledging that they were altering its direction.
3. His courage
In the way that he didn't compromise his nature or beliefs to appease the crowd. He stood firm on what he wanted, and led the way on many controversial topics, including african american rights, gay rights, and unconventional relationships.
which brings me to the fact that
4.He was effectively an activist
- He was a big supporter of musicians, in particular jazz artists which was the new thing at the time. Back then they were not well recognised, and a lot of them were African American which was another taboo. He was a patron and helped them into the mainstream. He featured Louis Amstrong, Nat King Cole, some of them he would book to perform live by funding festivals, TV shows and eventually in his own clubs
- In 1962 he famously sent an African American, Alex Hayley to interview Miles Davis and this inaugurated a series of important conversations with leading black cultural and political figures
- in 1955 he published a story that dealt with the issues of homosexuality and aimed to normalize it. Esquire had not dared to take it so Playboy ran it. This is remarkable for the time. He took risks. The response from readers was very negative, but that didn't stop him. He went on to talk about AIDS. He published pictures of a transgender model in the 80s
- He also published a black model as a playmate, Jennifer Jackson in 1955, breaking the stereotype.
"The playboy philosophy makes a case of life as a celebration. The suggestion that there's more to life than simply a veil of tears" H. Hefner
5. His fantasy
As the magazine progressed in popularity, he built a world around the brand, a mood, that was beautiful and entrancing, an inspiration. Everything that the magazine was suggestive about, he would materialize- as a rolemodel for his readership and also as an advertisement strategy. He became the person he wanted others to see him as, and filmed a Tv/Variety talk show called Playboy's Penthouse in 1959 where the words turned into visuals, in his own living room.
He would be impeccably put together, he suited himself like a Bond character both in dress and behaviour. The show would encourage intelligent conversations between special guests, with an emphasis on topics of interests and music performances, and it was notoriously non PC. This is miles away from what we can expect from TV hosts today. There is literally nothing ocurring off script
6. His eye for beauty
His command of visuals and beauty, his perfectionism and the importance of detail. In his first club in Chicago for example, everything was thought of so that it was perfect: The decor, lighting, the uniforms, the mood and the way the bunnies would expertly serve a cocktail with unique little dance moves. It was incredibly exact and specific.
7. His uncompromising way to do relationships
He wasn't shy to organise his romantic life to his own liking. The Girls Next Door was a big show, there have been plenty of bunny biographies since that have explained in every way what went on in the mansion. He didn't try to hide it even though from the current social standpoint, what he did is strongly condemned. But he remained truthful to his particular idea of excellence.
The history of his relationships with women has often been awkwardly simplified, chronologically naming the succession of blonde bimbos that he had living in a few bedrooms. This way of describing his life is shallow and kind of irrelevant. From what I know, he developed many meaningful relationships with many women: His first secretary Bonnie, his ex wife Barbie, Mary o Connor who took care of him and the mansion....all of these relationships were very real and different to one another, some of these never ended. Some were platonic, some purely sexual, some overlapped and everything in between. I don't see a lack of nobility in this profile, in principle, and I like that.
This way of pursuing relationships is widely documented throughout history and has been discussed at length by philosophers and writers, and it always makes for an interesting discussion. There is an excellent book about this called Sex at Dawn if you want to look it up, and another one called Sapiens. Because a relationship between two people is complex and must not be judged from the outside. I admire that someone already back in the 60s would be badass enough to do his own thing, because the 50s was pretty much when this strict Christian trend started, and the last 100 years have been the hardest for human relationships, the most asphyxiating.
8. His involvement in the arts
He was devoted to the arts and was prolific too in cultural ventures. He was interested in talent. He booked Woody Allen to perform in his show back when he was a comedian. In 1971 he opened a production company, where he produced an adaptation of Macbeth directed by Roman Polanski, as well as the first movie of Monthy Python. In his record label, he was the first to sign Abba.
He was a pioneer and I liked that.