You know this man. If you don’t, you’ve been living under a very prude sort of rock for the last sixty years or so. He’s a perverse pioneer, and I mean that in the most glowing way possible. He’s championed democracy, free speech, civil and homosexual rights, and has a rabbit named after him. This man is the sultan of swimsuits, the king of kink; alpha and omega of the Playboy Empire.
Hugh Marston Hefner was born on April 9, 1926 in Chicago to strict Methodist parents. He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and graduated in two years with a BA in psychology, and a double minor in creative writing and art. After graduation, he took a few graduate courses that sparked his interest (women and gender studies and sociology), but soon dropped out. He worked as a copywriter for Esquire, but left in January 1952 he left Esquire after being denied a $5 raise.
In 1953 he decided to go into business for himself, selling his furniture for $600 and raising $8,000 from 45 investors including $1,000 his mother and $1,000 from his brother. Naturally his strict, Methodist mother didn’t approve of the venture he was undertaking, but still wanted to support him. His magazine was originally going to be called Stag Party; after discovering that Stag was the name of an outdoor living magazine, and wanting to avoid confusion, the title was changed to the simple, iconic Playboy.
The business model of Playboy is simple: give the wang, and the brain, what it wants. Keep the peepers enthralled and the readers interested. The articles were informative, the short stories inspiring, and the pictures scintillating. Not willing to settle for the lowest common denominator kept Playboy fresh, entertaining, and by including well-written – and sometimes controversial – articles, Hefner expanded his readership with those who might not just be interested in scantily clad women.
Of course, having Hefner as the head of Playboy added some free publicity; his sexual exploits and conquests are legendary. He refined this image through his magazine and through his two TV shows: Playboy Penthouse and Playboy: After Dark. These days, Hefner is more a figurehead than an acting member of the Playboy executive, but he’s kept it in the family. His daughter Christie now runs the Empire, but Hefner isn’t going quietly into the night. He’s been a guest star on the Simpsons, and voted worst supporting actor by the Razzies for Miss March. Three of his Playmates were featured on a reality TV show called The Girls Next Door.
In a world where the magazine is dying, and scintillating images are a dime a dozen on the internet, Playboy runs the danger of falling behind. For it to survive it needs to become relevant again, and that will take far more than a few stories – it will take a thorough re-imagining of the magazine and its medium. The entire print industry is going through a difficult transition, and whether Playboy will make it through is anyone’s guess. All told, it’s been a pretty good venture for someone with only $8,600.