Hugh Hefner gave off a more airbrushed quality than the girls in his magazine.
The founder of the most popular men’s magazine in history appeared as the personification of the libertine, do-your-own-thing age he created and then inhabited. But an authoritarian, do-my-thing streak pervaded the Playboy Mansion.
A fun-loving flock appeared at Hefner’s side and on his lap. But they discovered that not all blondes have more fun.
Hefner imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on his harem. He banned them from the Playboy Mansion’s kitchen. He required them to wear uniform flannel pajamas. He tracked them with monitors and videographers.
Hefner’s mania for control showed itself in an obsessive-compulsive disorder applied to people rather than, say, a book not flush with the rest of the shelf or the wrong number of Jolly Ranchers in the jar. The magazine mogul religiously clubbed at Las Palmas on Wednesdays (just not this Wednesday), deemed Thursdays restaurant night, scheduled sex for Fridays, and screened classic movies on Sundays. Rather than spontaneity in a smoking jacket, Hef lived his life as a creature of habit in the extreme.
In tell-all memoirs, the girlfriends who received his allowances (an unkind name exists for women in such arrangements) turned on their ostensible benefactor. Izabella St. James described less than 20 minutes of intimacy in her two years as a mansion girlfriend. She reflected, “I may as well have lived in a convent.” Girlfriend Holly Madison claims that despite a half-dozen or so blonde beauties there for the taking, Hefner, perhaps in solidarity with his readers that made him rich, generally finished the sexual ritual by himself.
All this rebelled against the image that rebelled against societal norms. Hefner performed a sort of plastic surgery on his own image that evoked the plastic surgeries he bankrolled for his paramours. This cognitive dissonance afflicted his glossy, too.
He called his creation Playboy despite the availability of Chronic Masturbator as a magazine name. Soon pornographers trafficking in ugly rather than the beauty highlighted by Hefner followed suit by euphemistically naming low-rent, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination nudie journals High Society, Penthouse, Swank, and other monikers misleading their readers (users?) into mistaking seedy for classy. That Guy who warned against the “glamour of evil” a long time ago was on to something.
But one does a violence to Hugh Hefner’s good bad name to say it in the same sentence as Al Goldstein. Ray Bradbury fittingly first published what became Fahrenheit 451, a book ostensibly about people who burn them, in his magazine that so many wanted to burn. Milton Friedman, Jimmy Carter, Rush Limbaugh, Malcolm X, Saul Bellow, Ansel Adams and other luminaries sat for interviews. Playboy became the one skin magazine subscribers could straight-facedly say, “I read it for the articles.”
When the world that Playboy created proved inhospitable for Playboy, it pivoted away from nudes in 2015 before returning to them this year. If you can’t beat ‘em, don’t be them. Playboy, to its credit, never became Club International. The demand for naked women, never particularly low, eventually failed to pay the bills because of the oversupply of them. Ironically, Hugh Hefner struggled once the Eden of his imagination became a reality. Our dreams become nightmares like that.
In U2’s song “The Playboy Mansion,” after pondering “if O.J. is more than a drink” and “a Big Mac bigger than you think,” Bono wonders, “Have I got the gifts to get me through/The gates of that mansion.”
After a sybarite existence for most of his 91 years, Hugh Hefner, described as kind and fiercely loyal by friends, perhaps wondered, as most do, whether he possessed the gifts to get through the gates of that mansion. Surely he grasped that you can’t take the grotto, or the girls, with you.