In spite of the hedonist image he earned from hosting all-night parties at his lavish mansion, flying in private jets, and being constantly surrounded by an armful of blondes, Hugh Hefner wanted to be remembered as someone who played a role in changing the sexual values of his era. While many saw his lifestyle and his magazine as misogynistic, the media mogul thought of himself as a pioneer in the sexual revolution and would often point out how, in the early 1960s, he helped finance the Kinsey Institute and later supported the pro-choice movement. Hugh Hefner, the original playboy whose centerfolds epitomized sexual liberation from the post-war years to the age of the Internet died at his home, the Playboy Mansion, on September 27, 2017. He was 91.
The son of midwestern Protestants, Hugh Marston Hefner was born in Chicago on April 9, 1926. He spent a stint in the army before graduating from the University of Illinois with a psychology degree. After college, he tried to earn a living as a cartoonist, but soon turned to copywriting. He was working in the promotions department at Esquire in the early 1950s when he decided to start his own magazine.
Since he had been earning only $60 a week, Hefner had to borrow money from friends and family in order to raise the $8,000 he needed to launch his publication. At 27, he cobbled together the magazine on the kitchen table in his South Side apartment, writing much of the copy and drawing all of the cartoons.
The first issue of Playboy featured a Sherlock Holmes story and an article about office furniture. The magazine was priced at 50 cents and didn’t have a date on the cover because Hefner wasn’t certain there would be a second issue. A master salesman, Hefner had purchased a picture of a nude Marilyn Monroe from a local calendar printer and featured the actress on the cover (and in the centerfold). Hefner sold over 54,000 copies and the magazine grew quickly in the years that followed. Riding the wave of sexual awakening that characterized the post-war years, Hefner was selling more than a million copies a month by 1960.
Throughout the swinging sixties, Hefner built on the success of his magazine by launching a chain of Playboy Clubs across the country. For a $25 fee, members enjoyed food, music, and drinks served by corset-wearing young women, called “bunnies.” At its peak, there were over 22 clubs across the United States and about 750,000 members. But the clubs, with their scantily clad employees, began to draw criticism as feminism took hold. Gloria Steinem famously published an expose in 1963 after working undercover at a Playboy Club.
It wasn’t the only setback for Hefner. Business suffered in the 1970s with increased competition from such publications as Hustler and Penthouse, while a sagging economy drove down his subscribership. In 1985, Hefner suffered a stroke, which he said was brought on by the publication of a book implicating him in the death of a Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy centerfold who was killed by her boyfriend.
Never accused of being a serial monogamist, Hefner was married three times. In 1949, he married classmate Mildred Williams and had a son and daughter. Forty years later, he married playmate Kimberley Conrad. The couple had two sons before they divorced in 2010. Just two years later, at 86, Hefner married the 26-year-old playmate Crystal Harris. But while he claimed to find love, it was clear that when it came to romance, the playboy had grown to become a realist.
When asked if he thought his relationship would last forever, he said, “No. Nothing goes on forever. I think that's one of the illusions of life. When I talk about my life being an extension of my dreams and fantasies, there's a tendency to think of them as immature. I live in a mature world. The majority of the people in this society live with delusions and illusions much more irrational and hurtful than mine. They deal with mortality, with fantasies relating to heaven and hell, and they don't really deal with their problems at all. I'm dealing with the same bittersweet realities of life that we all have to deal with.”