Hugh Hefner has gone to the great playpen in the sky, leaving behind a world changed by his life and work. He believed that he had helped to birth the sexual revolution, hitting the right buttons in an America tired of boring “family values” and ready to embrace freedoms, from the pill to uniform civil rights. He even wrote an “Emancipation Proclamation” for the revolution, a libertarian tract. But his claim to pioneer status has been contested, most effectively by Gloria Steinem. Long before she founded Ms magazine, she followed peers like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe into embedded journalism, and took employment with Playboy. Her account, A Bunny’s Tale, revealed that Hefner’s empire ran on exploitation rather than liberation ideology.
Eventually, Hefner was upstaged by the internet, and in recent years, Playboy properties went nude-free for a bit. But Hefner had hedged intelligently. His most visible achievement was the gentrification of commercial sex but on the side, he also invested in literature thematically related with his political agenda. Yes, part of Playboy’s million-strong readership did read the stories. The magazine has featured writers of the order of Nadine Gordimer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joyce Carol Oates and James Baldwin, and serialised Fahrenheit 451 in its entirety. In addition, the Playboy clubs handled the outsourced needs of rich, under-confident men, who dared not be seen without “arm-candy”. These markets will never fade away.
While many dismiss Hefner’s claim to have triggered the sexual revolution, there is no denying that he developed his brand in time to ride the wave. And his own life reads like a graph of social history, from the family man who launched Playboy to the fabulously overdressed sybarite amidst a bevy of underdressed women, the enduring image that he leaves behind.