That Old Feeling: Your Grandfather's Playboy

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

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I have to mention, sheepishly, one more Playboy contributor: me. When I was still in school, I submitted a gag for the Party Jokes page, and they printed it. Here it is: "The doting father came home one night and was shocked to find his daughter and his friends smoking marijuana. Pulling the stick of pot out of the girl's mouth, he exclaimed, ‘What's a joint like this doing in a nice girl like you?'" At the time I was tickled to have received $50 for 43 words. Today, I look back in chagrin, to see I was once so naive, I didn't know "joint" had a phallic meaning. More embarrassment: glancing at that page in the July 1967 issue, I see that the word "Richard's" is written next to the joke — in my mother's handwriting.

For an enjoyable survey of the magazine's prose in its first decade, get "The Bedside Playboy": all words and drawings, no Playmates. Or pick up one of the collections of The Playboy Interview. You'll see: you could read it for the articles.

But maybe you read it for the pictures — surely the most avidly studied photographs of the second half of the 20th century. So how about those?


Lenny Bruce called the pre-Hefner girlie magazines "stroke books" — instruments of onanism, marital aids for those far short of marriageable age and barely on the cusp of puberty. The typical girlie mag was tatty, printed on coarse paper, with only a few pages of runny color; they were the Ace paperbacks of voyeurism. Their meager, TV Guide-size dimensions meant that any model on display in their cramped surroundings had no acuter definition than a woman undressing across the courtyard, behind a screen, in the dark. I suppose that the dingy quality of the girlie pix, like the furtive circumstances of their purchase, was part of their appeal. In the 50s, guilty pleasures were almost obliged to convey more guilt than pleasure.

Hefner's early bolt of gonadal genius was the gatefold. The center of the magazine kept opening, like the promise of erotic deliverance on a summer night, until the 24-inch Playmate photo was displayed — more than a third of her actual height, and four times the size of a shot in the cheap magazines. Foldouts were a feature of Life as well, but those were typically illustrations of the Stone Age, suitable for schoolroom use. Hefner had in mind a more tactile edification. His Playmate centerfolds, in addition to giving males the opportunity to strengthen their eye-hand coordination and prompting too many jokes about staples, achieved its goal: it undressed the all-American girl.

The first centerfold subject — not yet called a Playmate — was Marilyn Monroe, in the notorious though little-seen calendar nude she had posed for a few years earlier. According to Joe Goldberg's 1967 book "Big Bunny: The Inside History of Playboy," Hefner had bought that photo (with its color separations) and a batch of others for $5,000. For that modest amount he got not only fabulous publicity for his first issue but the next year's worth of centerfold photos. Only at the end of 1954 did he start assigning "original art" from such cheesecake shutterbugs as Russ Meyer and Bunny Yeager. Even then, Hefner was like Columbus in the New World: he didn't exactly know what he'd discovered. Some models appeared more than once as Playmates, and — bonus points for this — the March 1955 issue had no centerfold.

Gradually, the Playmate minutiae accrued: the surrounding photos and brief biographies of the subjects, the Party Jokes page to close the section. The first star Playmate was Janet Pilgrim (July and December 55), a Playboy employee whose name stayed on the masthead for a decade or so as readers' liaison. She cued the notion of the Playmate as hometown houri: not a showgirl or call girl but the girl next door (or next-office), the succulent embodiment of ordinary Americana. The job of posing for a girlie magazine was now not a shame for a young woman but a kind of honor, like being chosen Homecoming Queen. What John Skow wrote of the Playboy Club Bunny — that she was "half geisha and half double-malted" — applied even more to the Playmate gestalt. Brilliantly, and bit by bit, Hefner had domesticated the nude.


A revolutionary, if that's what Hefner was, has to take attacks from all sides. He got it from the puritan right and the feminist left, though both made the same point: that Playboy objectifies women. The Playmate, one clergyman fumed in the early years, is "the symbol par excellence of Playboy sex, for she may be folded when not in use ... the Playboy girl is detachable and disposable." Benjamin DeMott denounced Hefner in the Jewish-intellectual magazine Commentary: "In place of the citizen with a vote to cast or a job to do or a book to study or a god to worship, the editors offer a vision of the whole man reduced to his private parts. Out of the center of this being spring the only substantial realities — sexual need and sexual deprivation."

Hefner would say his magazine was designed to appeal to the whole man — if the whole man was Hefner. With a zeal that led Paul Krassner to dub him "the secular Billy Graham," Hefner promoted the religion of urbanity, or, as Newsweek tagged it, "Urbunnity." And apparently, many of his readers enjoyed imagining themselves as the Hefner male: the man who wanted fine wines, chic cars and smart clothes to go with his beautiful women. All were accessories to the good life that Playboy promoted as necessities. Madison Avenue quickly saw that Playboy was the ultimate consumer magazine: the editorial and the advertising were one.

Consider that the rise of Playboy coincided with the new status of the automobile: its elevation from a vehicle of practical transportation to a fantasy symbol of male potency and freedom. Women and cars were the American man's primary sex objects: fast, shiny, glamorous and aerodynamically smooth. Madison Avenue sold the car as woman. Playboy sold the woman as erotic machine. The Playboy man could drive her as NASCAR speeds, stop when he felt like it, trade her in for a new model as the whim drove him — not once a year, as Detroit pressed him to, but every month, in the Playboy centerfold.

The connection was everywhere evident to observers of the Playboy phenomenon. Examining the infrastructure of the Bunny costume worn by waitresses at the Playboy Clubs of the 60s, Norman Mailer called it "a phallic brassiere — each breast looked like the big bullet on the front bumper of a Cadillac."

Mailer, who would write the keynote piece for the magazine's 50th anniversary issue, was no feminist; he would tangle loudly and instructively with them over the years. But he knew the drill: that staring at women for an erotic rush demeans and dehumanizes them, robs them of the equality they deserve. On the Dick Cavett Show in the 70s, feminist Susan Brownmiller told Hefner his magazine exploited sex. To which he replied, "Playboy exploits sex like Sports Illustrated exploits sports!" (Yep: It's Sex Illustrated.)

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