In December 1953, the inaugural issue of Playboy
magazine hit newsstands without a date. Hugh Hefner, its creator, was unsure whether it would be a success and have a future, so by withholding the date he hoped he could continue to sell that issue until he sold out of that first run.
Mr. Hefner, who died on Wednesday at 91, had nothing to worry about.
In its prime, the magazine ranked among America’s top-selling publications, alongside Life and Time, sometimes beating their subscription rates. The magazine, intended for men, quickly transcended Mr. Hefner’s target audience, with a subscriber base that cut across gender, race, class and ideology.
Today it’s easy to write off Playboy, and Mr. Hefner, as the last remnants of a more sexist age. But seen from the perspective of the 1950s and ’60s, they were progressive icons — not just in the libertine styles they promoted, but in the causes that they featured. The magazine became central to what it meant to be a modern man.
The masculine ideal of the era was narrowly defined: aloof, outdoorsy, a breadwinner, “manly.” Showing too much of an interest in culture, fine food or travel was anathema. Mr. Hefner felt trapped by conformity and designed a magazine that promoted a very different idea of what made an individual a “man” through its features and advice on clothing, food, alcohol selections, art, music and literature. Though it quickly became a cliché, many male readers really did “read it for the articles,” telling surveys that they enjoyed features on the ideal bachelor pad even more than the centerfold.
Of course, Playboy
was never just about the articles. From the beginning, its goal was to combine and appeal to men’s entire range of interests — the intellectual, the entertaining and the erotic. Hence the Playboy
Playmate, which Mr. Hefner modeled after Esquire’s Vargas Girls, popular among servicemen during World War II. Women in the magazine, he said, were intended more as the girl next door than as sex objects.
Still, the fact that they were often topless (full nudity didn’t appear until 1972) brought criticism that Mr. Hefner objectified women; promoted an unrealistic standard of female beauty; and promulgated the idea that women should be subservient playmates for the modern man. To Mr. Hefner, women were simply one of the interests of most heterosexual men. The magazine featured discussions of equal rights, contraception and reproductive choice. Mr. Hefner never saw that as a contradiction.
As the magazine’s editorial style evolved, Mr. Hefner and his editors delved more into politics and current events. By the 1960s, he was writing a frequent installment, “The Playboy
Philosophy,” in which he addressed topics like the First Amendment and sexual mores. He advocated gay rights. He pushed for women’s access to birth control and abortion. He discussed censorship as well as what constituted “obscene” in the United States, and he promoted the free exchange of thoughts and ideas.
And readers responded. So many wrote in that the magazine created “The Playboy
Forum,” where it published readers’ letters discussing the content of the “Philosophy.” Playboy
became more than just a magazine, but a place that facilitated dialogue among a wide variety of readers: Men, women, veterans, draft dodgers, congressmen and clergy all wrote into the Forum.
Mr. Hefner went beyond the pages of Playboy
to spread his message. He created the Playboy
Club franchise to bring the atmosphere of the magazine to life for its readers. They could buy good food, good liquor and good entertainment.
He integrated his staff and membership; he hired men and women of all races, and often provided black comedians and musicians their first chances to perform in front of white audiences. When a New Orleans and Miami club owner segregated the membership, Mr. Hefner bought those franchises back. The clubs provided female employees with tuition reimbursement and encouraged them to attend college.
Mr. Hefner also set up the Playboy
Foundation, which supported First Amendment rights, often contributing to defendants in free-speech cases. The foundation went on to support other works, including research on post-traumatic stress disorder, commissions on Agent Orange and programs and organizations for veterans.
Those latter causes were no coincidence: Playboy
played a major role in the American war in Vietnam. For hundreds of thousands of young men “in country” — their average age was 19 — the magazine made them feel as if they were back home. The centerfold pages hung on tent flaps and office walls, and could be found stashed in pockets, helmets and packs. The interest went beyond the women: Young soldiers eagerly perused the glossy advertisements for the latest stereos, cars and fashion, which they could buy at one of the mall-like PXs on the military’s sprawling bases (yes, even cars, which the government would ship home). It acted as a how-to guide for consumption and consumerism for many young men who had never had disposable income before.
Articles and interviews in the magazine were some of their only sources of real news about the growing antiwar and counterculture movements stateside. They went beyond the headlines, too, discussing and critiquing strategy, the draft and the politicians who moved the chess pieces. But the magazine also remained supportive of the men fighting the war. Countless letters from servicemen to the magazine, now stored in the Playboy
archives, reveal how much the magazine lifted morale, how it brought a welcome respite from the boredom, terror and chaos they endured on a daily basis.
While the magazine deserved criticism, its evolution reflected changing norms and values in American society.
In August 1967, a soldier named Donald Iasillo wrote to Playboy
thanking the magazine for literally saving his life. An issue folded in his chest pocket had prevented a bullet from entering his heart. “Usually for reasons other than its value as armor plate, Playboy
is by far the biggest morale booster in Vietnam,” he wrote. “For this, we all thank you.”
©2017 The New York Times News Service