Hugh Hefner, the silk pajama-wearing founder of Playboy who helped escort nudity into the American mainstream, has died at age 91.
OPINION: Way up among the crows in the highest towers of the oldest of the European churches you can find pornography.
The stonemasons who worked up the ladders hundreds of feet above the cobblestones used to carve pictures, knowing that only their workmates would ever see them, of women and the local priests in what old Leonard Cohen would have called “Various Positions”.
There’s porn in the pyramids too. And carved around the ancient temple walls of Asia. There’s even what can only be called “porn” daubed on cave walls in England and Germany that might date back to 9000 BC.
So let’s not get too hung up on the idea that Hugh Hefner invented pornography. Porn and erotica were around a long time before Mrs Hefner’s boy first met the world in 1926. And it was around a long time before he published his first issue of Playboy magazine in December 1953. Hef’s own Mum, a teacher from Nebraska, was an investor.
Hugh Hefner was a man who shut down two of his signature nightclubs when he found out – in 1961 – the franchisees were not admitting non-whites.
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Hefner didn’t invent porn. But he did bring it out of the shadows, out of the caves and down from the towers. Hefner made porn mainstream. You could argue that by doing so he sanctioned and made possible the commercial exploitation and commodification of women in a way that might otherwise never have happened. And maybe you would be right.
Someone, somewhere in America, was always going to do what Hef did. To stop hiding nudity under the counter and put it on the newsstand. But maybe we are lucky that person was Hef.
Hugh Hefner hosts the very first Playboy Penthouse in Chicago in 1959.
Hefner spent his life and chunk of his wealth campaigning for freedom of speech and freedom of expression in a way that not many American activists or philanthropists will ever match. It seems to me that his entire reason for starting the magazine at all was so that he would have something to read.
He wanted the best of the American “new journalism” that was just starting to break cover in the 1950s. He wanted to read articles and also fiction that covered ground that was too risky, controversial or blatantly sexual to ever make it into the mainstream of American publishing. And he wanted his magazine to be so beautifully designed, photographed, art-directed and illustrated that no man or woman would ever be ashamed to be seen with it.
Sure, remember him today as the guy who made his millions out of mainstreaming pornography. Or write him off as the pyjama-clad caricature, doddering around his gaudy estate jacked up on Viagra and sycophancy while his kids and 20-year-old girl-friends hawk his name around in the hopes of one-more reality TV deal.
Playboy was founded in Chicago in 1953 by Hugh Hefner and his associates and grew into one of the world’s best known brands.
But I like to think of Hef as the civil-rights champion. The man who shut down two of his signature nightclubs when he found out – in 1961 – the franchisees were not admitting non-whites. Who featured a long interview with musician Miles Davis in the first issue of his magazine, which focused explicitly on race and civil-rights. Whose clubs were the first in the American mainstream to book black musicians and comedians in utter defiance of the “Jim Crow” laws that were still in effect across the South.
Hef’s early TV show Playboy’s Penthouse was banned by many US TV stations because it showed black and white audience members mingling and interacting as equals.
Or how about the Hefner who used his money to fund court cases in defense of a woman’s right to abortion and birth control in States in which those rights were not recognised.
Many people have a simple image of Hefner as doddering around his gaudy estate jacked up on Viagra and sycophancy while his kids and 20-year-old girl-friends hawk his name around in the hopes of one-more reality TV deal.
Or the Hefner who championed and continued to support the careers of Alex Haley (Roots), Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Kerouac.
Hugh Hefner was a complicated bastard who defies any easy categorisation. He considered himself a lion of feminism, yet he made his millions – let’s be honest – by hawking photos of naked women packaged as “bunnies” and “playmates” to a generation of men so repressed the very word “woman” would have made them blush. And by doing that, maybe Hef is partly to blame for the rivers of toxic sludge that flow though the internet today. He seemed to acknowledge as much himself in a couple of his last interviews.
Judged by what he looked for, not what he found, Hef emerges as a champion of freedom-of-expression, worship and speech. He had a bravery that didn’t sit well with post-war American ideals and a libertine’s approach to sex that was never going to be as easy and heartbreak-free as he might have hoped. He was divisive, polarising, flawed as hell and probably murder to be around for too long.
Hugh Hefner wanted his magazine to be so beautifully designed, photographed, art-directed and illustrated that no man or woman would ever be ashamed to be seen with it.
Like King Lear (King Leer?) Hef remade his world and then lived to see it outgrow him. He was a Zuckerberg of his age. And writing this now, with Facebook and Twitter chuntering away and holding court in the background of my laptop, Hefner’s vision suddenly seems downright dignified and conservative compared to what came after. Go figure.
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