Hugh Hefner, the man who made “Playboy” a household word, died Wednesday of natural causes, according to the magazine he founded. He was 91.
He died surrounded by loved ones at his iconic Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, a temple to the lifestyle he had exemplified and had normalized since his 1953 first issue published naked photos of America’s biggest movie star (Marilyn Monroe).
Mr. Hefner and his magazine were widely credited/blamed — indeed he even boasted of it — with doing more to make pornography mainstream than any other institution, prompting a generation of men to joke about “buying Playboy for the articles” rather than for naked pictures of women.
Jokes aside, the magazine did frequently give over major space to in-depth interviews with major newsmakers and artistic and cultural figures, ranging from conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh to film director Stanley Kubrick. The magazine also published fiction by such canonical authors as Ray Bradbury, John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov.
Perhaps the biggest such interview came in the November 1976 issue with Jimmy Carter, then the Democratic presidential nominee. In the interview’s most famous exchange, Mr. Carter was asked whether he’d ever committed adultery.
Mr. Carter replied that he’d “looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” a formulation conforming to one of Jesus Christ’s admonitions and second nature to an evangelical Christian such as Mr. Carter but playing very strangely coming in America’s most-famous porn magazine.
Mr. Hefner made his living and his fame mocking and undermining such “puritanical” attitudes on sex. He claimed to have had sexual intercourse with more than a thousand women, including many of his models.
“I changed attitudes toward sex: That nice people can live together now. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction,” Mr. Hefner said in a 1992 interview with the New York Times.
He founded the magazine on the eve of the Sexual Revolution and normalized the nudity by selling it as part of a “playboy lifestyle.”
Wielding a cocktail glass, holding a pipe in his hands or mouth, and clad in a silk smoking jacket, Mr. Hefnerportrayed the persona of the wealthy man who has the best of everything — including the sexiest of women.
There was the Playboy Mansion, first in Chicago and later in Los Angeles, which were used for events ranging from Hollywood star parties and Rolling Stones concerts to professional fight cards. The magazine invited — and received— advertisements and lifestyle articles for every manner of high-end consumer goods.
There were the Playboy Clubs, featuring the “bunnies” — buxom, scantily-clad women with rabbit ears and fluffy white cottontails. Hefner’s private jet — a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 — was dubbed “The Big Bunny” and had a giant bunny decorating its tail.
Like the magazine, the Clubs featured plenty of legitimate entertainment. According to the Associated Press, comedians such as George Carlin, Rich Little, Mark Russell, Dick Gregory and Redd Foxx appeared at them.
But the last closed in 1988 — partially a victim of a general decline in supper clubs and nightclubs, Mr. Hefneracknowledging them as “passe” and “too tame for the times.”
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem worked undercover as a Bunny in one of them though and her article “A Bunny’s Tale” became a key early-60s feminist text.
Ms. Steinem described the bunnies’ dashed promises and degrading treatment. “Here bunny, bunny, bunny!” one guard called out to her; she overheard another bunny saying a customer is “a real gentleman. He treats you just the same whether you’ve slept with him or not.”
One such customer throughout the decades was comedian Bill Cosby, a friend of Mr. Hefner‘s. Several of the women who have accused Mr. Cosby in recent years of drugging and raping them were bunnies, including Chloe Goins who sued Mr. Hefner as well as Mr. Cosby.
In 2014, Mr. Hefner issued a statement on the Cosby charges saying he “would never tolerate this behavior.”
Years after her article, Ms. Steinem said, “I think Hefner himself wants to go down in history as a person of sophistication and glamour. But the last person I would want to go down in history as is Hugh Hefner.”
But sex sells.
Just a year after the Monroe pictures, the monthly run was almost 200,000 and by the late-50s it had topped 1 million and peaked at 7 million during the 1970s. Like all print outlets, only more so because of the ease of access the Internet offers to pornography, Playboy suffered major circulation losses in recent decades, even giving up in 2015 for a short time on printing nude photos of women.
After a 1985 stroke, Mr. Hefner began to hand over the day-to-day running of his empire to daughter Christie Hefner, although he continued to own a majority of Playboy’s stock and continued to choose every month’s Playmate and cover shot.
Mr. Hefner was married three times and had four children, two by each of his first two wives. His second wife was young enough to be his daughter; his third, his granddaughter.
On the eve of one of his marriages, Mr. Hefner was asked whether he would have a bachelor party. “I’ve had a bachelor party for 30 years,” he said. “Why do I need one now?”
He acknowledged, at age 85, that “I never really found my soulmate.”
In this decade, Mr. Hefner himself made a stab at a cable reality-TV show — “The Girls Next Door” — set at the Playboy Mansion and featuring three live-in girlfriends. He also tried his hand at network TV but NBC canceled the drama series “The Playboy Club” after three episodes.