Hugh Hefner is dead
Hugh Hefner, whose sex-oriented media empire is credited with changing American morals regarding premarital sex, died at the age of 91.
He died at the Playboy Mansion – emblematic of both his business and personal life that seemed to be one, seamless whole for several generations of men.
Mr. Hefner began excoriating American puritanism at a time when doctors refused contraceptives to single women and the Hollywood production code dictated separate beds for married couples. As the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, an early Playboy contributor, saw the 1950s, "People wore tight little gray flannel suits and went to their tight little jobs."
"You couldn't talk politically," Mr. Feiffer said in the 1992 documentary "Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time." "You couldn't use obscenities. What Playboy represented was the beginning of a break from all that."
Playboy was born more in fun than in anger. Mr. Hefner's first publisher's message, written at his kitchen table in Chicago, announced, "We don't expect to solve any world problems or prove any great moral truths."
Still, Mr. Hefner wielded fierce resentment against his era's sexual strictures, which he said had choked off his own youth. A virgin until he was 22, he married his longtime girlfriend. Her confession to an earlier affair, Mr. Hefner told an interviewer almost 50 years later, was "the single most devastating experience of my life."
In "The Playboy Philosophy," a mix of libertarian and libertine arguments that Mr. Hefner wrote in 25 installments starting in 1962, his message was simple: Society was to blame. His causes – abortion rights, decriminalization of marijuana and, most important, the repeal of 19th-century sex laws – were daring at the time. Ten years later, they would be unexceptional.
"Hefner won," Mr. Gitlin said in a 2015 interview. "The prevailing values in the country now, for all the conservative backlash, are essentially libertarian, and that basically was what the Playboy Philosophy was.
"It's laissez-faire. It's anti-censorship. It's consumerist: Let the buyer rule. It's hedonistic. In the longer run, Hugh Hefner's significance is as a salesman of the libertarian ideal."
There is much glossing over in this obit by the Times. The 1950s were not as bad as liberals always make them out to be. For all the lack of sexual freedom and a somewhat stifling political conformity, there were also safe communities, safe children, schools that cared about educating kids, suburbs with affordable housing – in many respects, the 1950s saw America bestride the world with unchallenged power both military and economic. This led to a national confidence that we lost in the 1960s and never got back.
What was Hefner's role in this transformative America? Actually, he was a lot less impactful than certainly Hefner would have us and the media believe. He did not initiate the sexual revolution. We can thank the Pill for that. Rather, Hefner rode the wave of changing morals and mores by creating bankable images of nearly nude women, along with sharp political and cultural commentary from some of the best liberal writers in America. He made it cool to be a cad and reinforced the male fantasy of consequence-free sex.
Playboy, the magazine, quickly went out of style. But the brand Hefner created carried a naughty aura that proved very popular. The feminist critique of Hefner and Playboy was pretty much spot on – at least as far as the way Hef and the magazine treated women like cattle and exploited their bodies to the fullest. In that sense, rather than helping to create a modern society where men and women were to be equal, Hefner actually made it harder for women to be taken seriously.
In later years, he became a caricature of the aging rogue. But he had the foresight to get into cable, film, and digital enterprises before any other magazine made such a move. That marks Hefner as a savvy businessman – a truly and uniquely American institution.