That Old Feeling: Your Grandfather's Playboy

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BUNNY BUSINESS: Hef and his Bunnies at the Playboy Club in London, 1969

I remember when Playboy magazine was forbidden fruit — Eve and her apple in the Garden of Guilt. This was in the 50s, when everything priapic was prohibited, and when I was just grazing my teen years. Like a boy sidling up to the pharmacy counter to ask for, demand, his first condom, the 13-year-old Child Corliss sought out Playboy at distant drug stores, put my 50 cents in the palms of blind newsies. Before Playboy, the only magazines I had bought were comic books. Hugh M. Hefner had connived to introduced me both to the publishing industry and to public stealth at a single ... stroke.

From the unslaked lust of millions like me, Hefner built an empire. He boldly expanded and accessorizing the magazine's concept of "entertainment for men" into a multimedia conglomerate. TV: he created and hosted two syndicated TV shows, "Playboy Penthouse" and "Playboy After Dark." Books: Playboy Press published collections from the magazine and original material like Lenny Bruce's "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People." Nightclub-restaurants: Playboy Clubs soon straddled the globe and franchised his centerfold Playmates into real live (but clothed) Bunnies. Movies: Playboy Productions financed Roman Polanski's "Macbeth" and Monty Python's "And Now for Something Completely Different," and Hefner negotiated with screenwriter George Axelrod to make a movie of his life, called "Playboy."

With the January 2004 issue, Playboy has turned 50 — 15 months after the golden anniversary of Mad, eight months after TV Guide hit the half-century mark. All have fought mid-life crises so critical they could have been end-life crises. TV Guide, unable to cram 500 channels of listings into its pocket-size format, has seen its circulation (9 million) drop to less than half of its 1960s numbers. Mad, which long ago lost the monopoly on irreverent kid humor — where isn't adolescent ribaldry nowadays? — sells only about 250,000 copies, a tenth as many as it did in the early 70s. (This year will see the 50th anniversary of another Eisenhower-era magazine, Sports Illustrated, which is still doing fine.)

Playboy is surely the most robust of these golden-age magazines, its legacy the longest-lasting. Not only did the Bunny Book make a fortune and an empire for its founder and true mascot, Hugh M. Hefner, but it left a smudged thumbprint on American society. That's because Hefner had more than a business model; he had a Philosophy, which he expounded in his magazine each month for more than a decade. He may have been after something more enlightened than an empire. A republic. Playboy's Republic.

In the past three decades Playboy has faced a raft of problems. The Clubs suffered financial embarrassments, lost their gaming licenses in some venues and are now closed. Playboy Productions never became the alternative movie studio Hefner hoped for; it produces softcore videos for pay cable. The 80s saddled Playboy with the challenge of home video, which made sex with moving bodies available on television. The 90s unleashed the Internet, which made sex accessible, nearly unavoidable, on the computer. Then there are the "lad books," including Maxim and FHM, which have taken the Playboy format with one exception — they keep some clothes on their models — and devoured a huge chunk of the male market. (A PG13-rated sex magazine: I will never understand that.)

Hefner, with the help of his business-savvy daughter Christine, faced those dragons and survived. The magazine still sells 3.2 million copies a month; it still makes money, while Penthouse files for bankruptcy. But looking at the 50th anniversary issue, on newsstands now, and looking back at some of its 600 issues, I think of Playboy as I think of myself: a child of the 50s. The magazine's dreams of smart clothes and fantasy babes are as much a part of that complicated decade as Ike, Marilyn, the H-bomb, the Edsel and Barbie.


That's what men said, in a defensive, defiant or ironic voice. The magazine had text too, though it wasn't likely to be thumb-tacked to a fraternity wall. "You can't see the forest for the tease,' Ray Bradbury said on "Playboy's 50th Anniversary Party," a self-celebrating special on A&E. Forget about the naked ladies. Let's talk about Playboy: The Words.

The magazine's roster of contributors was as distinguished as any in English-language journalism. Vladimir Nabokov, John Cheever, John Updike, Irwin Shaw, William Styron, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and such cartoonists as Dedini, Barsotti, Kliban: they could be the front table at a New Yorker banquet. Skeptics suspected that Hefner got the second-best from the best, or work the New Yorker had rejected, and that Playboy settled for B material from the A team in order to appropriate their literary celebrity. Some folks in publishing had a dismissive term for Playboy fiction: "shit from names."

But that depends on your definition of shit. In the 60s and 70s, much New Yorker fiction had a sere, affectless style — embodied (or disembodied) by the stories of Donald Barthelme — that spoke to a narrow band of Manhattan intelligentsia. Playboy spread its net to include all forms of fiction, from Styron and Ken Kesey to the science fiction of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. Further, The New Yorker could intimidate readers into accepting its crabby tone, because the magazine knew best; it really was written for a certain kind of New Yorker. Playboy had to sell each story to consumers from every level of sophistication. They bought the magazine to look; often they stayed to read.

They did so because the prose was a seamless part of the glamour package. Playboy ran an Ian Fleming story in 1960, before Sean Connery and Jack Kennedy made James Bond (and themselves) the most famous man of action and passion — the model for the man who read Playboy, and the man who published it.

In comic writing, The New Yorker had the edge with (to choose four names spanning seven decades) S.J. Perelman, Woody Allen, Bruce McCall and Steve Martin. But I had a fondness for Playboy's comedy stars — Jean Shepherd, Harvey Kurtzman, Jules Feiffer, Lenny Bruce, Arnold Roth, Shel Silverstein — in part because I'd followed and loved their earlier work from, respectively, WOR radio, Mad, the Village Voice, Fantasy LPs, Humbug and Look. They were the guys I'd have chosen if I were Playboy's humor editor. (In which case, I'd have dropped the designation of "humor" heading each piece; making readers guess if a story was supposed to be funny was part of the fun.) Into the 80s, Playboy kept finding smart comic writing. Bruce Fierstein's "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche" appeared there first.

In one sense, Playboy was the anti-New Yorker. It was the Chicagoan. Playboy was founded at about the time the Second City was becoming the Third, after Los Angeles, in population and cultural import. But from the first, home-town boy Hef pursued Chicago writers and artists, perhaps because he could hustle them personally. Nelson Algren, Ben Hecht, Silverstein, LeRoy Neiman, and later David Mamet, gave Playboy a Midwestern voice to go with its middle-American notion of pulchritude.

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