Will Hugh Hefner Be Remembered as a Visionary or a Flesh Peddler?
Even in his golden years, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner made headlines like celebrities a quarter of his age. After his bride-to-be Crystal Harris left him at the altar in 2011, he rallied with a new show on NBC, The Playboy Club, and reduced the October issue of Playboy to its 1961 price of 60 cents to help buzz the TV show.
In 2010, Hefner attended the premier of a film commemorating his life called Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel at the Gene Siskel Film Center, part of Chicago’s Art Institute. Looking more like a seasoned Maurice Chevalier or elder statesman than Bathrobe Erectus, Hefner received a standing ovation. (I did not stand.) The movie, directed by Brigitte Berman, was one of several to chronicle Chicago history, including Disturbing the Universe about Chicago 8 lawyer William Kunstler and Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger, Chicago’s best-known activist priest.
Some Playboy history may be new to the public––that Playboy sponsored one of the biggest jazz festivals in history, and sent the Playboy jet to retrieve Vietnam orphans who were nursed back to health by bunnies (out of costume). Playboy supported Children of the Night, a group that helps runaways evade prostitution. TV clips from Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark feature folk singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez in rare performances.
But halfway through the movie, a creep factor sets in, led by appearances of Kiss’ Gene Simmons—known for telling NPR’s Terry Gross to “open your legs” in an interview—and a leering James Caan, who was linked to Hollywood prostitute broker Heidi Fleiss.
What, for example, is the Rev. Malcolm Boyd, author of Are You Running With Me Jesus, doing at an establishment where half the sky, as Nicholas Kristof puts it, is deemed worthy of wearing animal tails? The same can be asked about Bill Maher. Hefner says in the film he feels pride for “liberating” the segregated New Orleans Playboy Club so that African-American men could enjoy “cottontail” service. Bunnies donned bunny ears and a white tail and were supposed to serve customers with a back-arched, knees-bent “bunny dip.” Thanks for the liberation, Hef. (“Always remember,” said the job manual, “your proudest possession is your Bunny tail. You must make sure it is white and fluffy.”)
An admitted sex, Dexedrine, Pepsi and work addict, Hefner oozes narcissism and grandiosity in the film. He says he “deserved” seven girlfriends because he had been monogamous for eight years before that. He says the death of playmate Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her husband, Paul Snider, months after she was named the 1980 Playmate of the Year, caused his stroke and that it was a “miracle,” he survived it. He says the suicide of his former secretary, Bobbie Arnstein, who was found dead in a Chicago hotel room after an overdose of drugs in January 1975, was the fault of federal drug officials and hurt the Playboy brand and image.
Some credit Hefner, with his eternal bathrobe and pipe, with helping the nation lose its 1950s puritanical streak and gray flannel workaholism and enjoy recreational sex and drugs. Women, whose lives could be ruined at the time by unwanted pregnancies, were no longer “bad” if they consented to sex, thanks to the Playboy philosophy.
By the 2000s, however, laddie magazines and cyber porn carved away most of the Playboy market. Hefner took the brand hardcore in 2001 over the objections of daughter Christie, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, who told the Daily Telegraph that as a “feminist” she would not take the magazine in that direction.
Of course, the half the sky who became doctors, judges, senators, astronauts, scientists, House speakers, secretaries of state and magazine publishers also helped retire the Playboy brand and start a backlash against commodification capitalism and mindless consumerism. It is no surprise, for example, that Bill Cosby was a frequent guest at the Playboy Mansion with bunny girlfriends.
When considering Hefner’s legacy, daughter Christie can be seen as the ultimate casualty of the Playboy philosophy’s second-class view of women. She was not pretty enough to pose in the magazine, yet not male enough to rate the Playboy stock that Hefner bestowed only on his sons in 1997.