It’s not exactly Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” but still it’s fair to say if Marilyn Monroe had never posed nude for a calendar in 1949 and if, in 1953, Hugh Hefner, trying to start a magazine for the sophisticated male, had not bought the rights to the Monroe photos for around $500, we wouldn’t be talking about this today, the day after Hefner died at the age of 91.
Those photos of Monroe, pink and unabashedly nude and naked, assured that the fresh-start magazine would sell 50,000 copies and launch Hefner (or Hef) and Playboy Magazine, with its centerfolds, jokes, intellectual and literary ambitions, into icon status, as part of the not-so-smooth but slick sexual awakening of a generation of American boys-to-men.
In 1992, Hefner paid considerably more for a crypt next to Monroe’s at Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery: $75,000.
Still, it looks like a bargain of some ironic proportions. For that generation of quasi-ignorant young Americans, who were getting their first initiation into sex, nudity and being a kind of hipster cool, Monroe was probably the queen of natural, unashamed sexuality for them, the woman-child they fantasized about.
You might guess that how you feel about Hugh Hefner has a lot to do with age, generation and gender, and even then he defies category or simple sluffing him off as a kind of sleaze. He always hated being called a pornographer, explaining that sex itself was never on display in his magazine. He may have been right about that. Today, with unlimited access to the internet, and with it a deluge of porn, Playboy looks almost innocent by comparison.
The image of Hefner — bon-vivantish, stylish, pipe, those pajamas, living in the Playboy mansions, those parties, movie stars and politicians, the Playboy Jet, Playboy Clubs, Playboy bunnies — practically screams self-indulgence, living the sexually loose and entitled good life of upwardly mobile frat boys.
Most of the young men who were the first readers, subscribers and customers for Hefner’s empire in fact used that very kidding but also serious excuse for picking up the magazine: “I read it for the interviews, or the short stories, or the advice or the political articles.” But, in truth, many of its readers did buy it for just that. The interviews were every bit as good as Rolling Stone. The fiction included stories by Joyce Carol Oates and a memorable story by Calder Wallingham. Dick Gregory, the civil rights activist who died recently, was partly launched as a comic in Playboy. The Playboy Club itself attracted Hollywood’s slick elite, including members of the Rat Pack. And there was Playboy After Hours on television.
Feminists including an outraged Gloria Steinem, who went under cover (and a little undercovered) as a Playboy Bunny, despised Hefner’s hedonist lifestyle; she found it demeaning to women and misogynistic and rightly so.
He was something of a contradiction. His Methodist upbringing, which he called tyrannical and puritanical, clashed with his literary bent (he majored in English and wrote a multi-part Playboy philosophy). His support of civil rights and free speech left their marks almost as much as the sexual revolution in which Hef and Playboy swam.
The interviews — they included President Jimmy Carter’s famous admission that “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times — were in-depth, often tough and revealing.
The magazine, derided by some but embraced (often secretly) by others, was a major cultural and social part of the 1960s and 1970s, but collapsed somewhat due to mismanagement and, later, changing times and technology.
Hefner was married three times. After a stroke, he regrouped to continue to be the man he was, living mostly in his rotating bed at the mansion.
As Hefner aged, the style seemed more and more anachronistic; it distanced him from that same generation. In a sense, he outlived it (until now). Hefner had the resources to live his youth over and over again, Dorian Gray with a pipe. It was said, in a Fox News report, no less, that that he passed away surrounded by loved ones. That might have been quite a crowd.
As for all of us graduates of the Playboy era, we should perhaps wish him a pleasant, grateful adieu and hopefully and finally move on. Here’s to Hef and Marilyn: perhaps they meet at last.