It is a covert rite of adolescent passage, and also the life’s work of an unapologetic old horn dog. It can be read for literate articles, or gawked at for pixel-perfect crotch shots. Tom Wolfe calls it one of those "one-handed magazines", and yet it has also engaged both sides of the brain for over six decades. It is Playboy.
In December 1953 Hugh Hefner printed 60,000 black and white copies of a magazine that was nearly published under the title Stag. This first issue of Playboy was financed with a loan from Hefner’s mother, a Methodist nurse who wanted her son to be a missionary, and sold-out due to snaps of Marilyn Monroe with nothing on but the radio. That issue now sells on eBay for $7,000 (copies of the January 1955 edition with sexpot Bettie Page as centerfold top the rankings at $17,000).
While it began small and focused on nudie pictures, by November 1972 Playboy was established as a popular literary heavyweight. It had more than 7 million paid subscribers, and published top-rank writers such as Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and John Updike.
In 1962 Miles Davis starred in the first of the now-famous “Playboy Interview” series, a regular, in-depth Q&A. The subject choices and timing, while tilting towards Hollywood in recent years, have generally been prescient. Interviews have included Jimmy Hoffa (1963), Jean-Paul Satre (1965), Germaine Greer (1972) and Lech Walsea (1982). Jon Stewart was featured in March 2000, and Alex Hayley got his biography Autobiography of Malcolm X off the ground with a 1963 interview.
It is a common quip that husbands only read Playboy “for the articles.” While this may hold true for the 45 percent of readers who are over 35, the 18 to 35 year-olds are probably reading it for the pictures. Of girls. With big breasts. In the nude. Hefner defends his girly pictures as “tasteful” compared to competitors such as Penthouse who depict explicit sex. Airbrushing women in the pursuit of perfection is also part of the Playboy package, which explains the 1990 case of Pamela Anderson’s disappearing labia.
While Playboy’s pictures may today appear tame, the first issues were unequivocally radical as no one had dared challenge postal obscenity laws before. Hefner is quick to share credit with Alfred C. Kinsey for the sexual revolution. For this social project Kinsey gave his brains, while Hefner brought the porn.
Playboy is inseparable from its owner and publisher, who lives the lifestyle his magazine espouses. Hef, as he is known, is today 78 years-old and lives in a Los Angeles mansion-cum-harem enjoying polygamous relationships with an endless rotation of young blondes. He told Esquire that, "I wake up every day and go to bed every night knowing I’m the luckiest guy on the fucking planet."
And when he wakes he drinks Diet Pepsi for breakfast, prefers working from bed, and wears silk pajamas when he chooses to eventually rise. While no longer running the day-to-day minutiae of Playboy, he retains the title of editor-in-chief and writes cartoon captions and edits the regular Party Jokes page.
The subjects of the magazine’s advertisements and lifestyle features can kindly be called the “finer things” in a man’s life. There’s booze (rum, single-malt scotch, tequila, vodka and beer), cigarettes and cigars, chic male underwear, trucks and motorbikes, and a whole host of in-house merchandise (clothing, books, and even a videogame: Playboy - The Mansion).
Today the magazine is hemmed in by the bawdy and adolescent lad-mags such as Maxim and Stuff on one side, and on the other by XXX pornography on the internet (although Playboy was, in 1994, the first national magazine with a website). Paid circulation has been in steady decline, and today is around 3 million. The editorial director has been changed three times in five years, at the behest of Hef, who maintains ultimate control.
Because of this long oversight by one man, the magazine hasn’t dramatically changed over the past 52 years. Today it reads not as radical, but as a monument to what radical once was. Like the Harley-Davidson featured in its advertisements, Playboy has become an American classic.