Many of the eulogies for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner seem small and inadequate, like a play-by-play sportscaster remembering a great athlete. Most commentators are focusing on Hefner’s later life, after Playboy was established and he became something of a pajama-clad joke. “The only lesson of Hef is contained in the arc from his ‘jazz and Nietzsche’ aspirations to the senile orgies in a packrat’s lair,” Ross Douthat of the New York Times tweeted.
Yes, Hugh Hefner mainstreamed pornography into the culture and often set a bad personal example, despite being forward thinking on civil rights. Yet in Playboy’s early years he introduced an important idea into the culture, an idea needed today more than ever.
Namely, Hefner once argued that there is a time period between college and adulthood when a man should be free to explore radical ideas, cool music, art, novels, good parties, and women. This was a liberating departure from the how-to-kill-a-bear men’s magazines of the time. As Hefner wrote in Playboy’s inaugural 1953 issue: “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”
Douthat may mock, but Hefner’s idealized bachelor is something to aspire to today. With the plague of man-children in Hollywood, epicene college snowflakes on campus, and kill-a-snake conservative video tough guys like Gavin McInnes, it would be quite refreshing to have young men who were interested in music that isn’t pop, ideas that require some digging, and art that isn’t in a video game. I daresay there are even some feminists who would agree.
Hefner was mostly liberal, but he could also lean conservative when the left pushed too hard. Hefner dismissed early rock ‘n’ roll in favor of jazz, a stance he stuck to his entire life, and one that seems prescient given how much pop music these days is garbage. Hefner also published a story, “The Crooked Man” by Charles Beaumont, that depicts a dystopia ruled by intolerant homosexuals—something no editors today would be bold enough to risk. In her book Bachelors and Bunnies: the Sexual Politics of Playboy, Carrie Pitzulo argues that Playboy celebrated not porn, but “the sweet girl next door.” Going through the advice columns of the magazine from the 1950s and 1960s, Pitzulo found advice that often favored love and faithfulness over promiscuity.
The classic Playboy had interesting coverage of books, art, movies and philosophy. Salon once noted the staggering lineup from Playboy’s December 1968 issue: “The table of contents includes the following: A quartet of short stories by Alberto Moravia; a symposium on creativity with contributions from Truman Capote, Lawrence Durrell, James T. Farrell, Allen Ginsberg, Le Roi Jones, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, Norman Podhoretz, Georges Simenon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, William Styron and John Updike; humor pieces from Jean Shepherd and Robert Morley; an article on pacifism in America by Norman Thomas; a piece on how machines will change our lives by Arthur C. Clarke; an essay on ‘the overheated image’ by Marshall McLuhan; contributions from Eric Hoffer and Alan Watts; an article in defense of academic irresponsibility by Leslie Fiedler; a memoir of Hemingway by his son Patrick; Eldridge Cleaver interviewed by Nat Hentoff; a travel piece by the espionage novelist Len Deighton; and the first English translation of a poem by Goethe.” That’s a much richer meal than Vox, Huff Post, or The Atlantic serves up today.
Hefner’s flaw was that he wasn’t content to make his point and move on. A defender of man’s natural desires, he fought against the truth that man’s desires change and take on new depth and color with age. Hefner got old, and the models in his magazine went from girls-next-door to cosmetically-enhanced Hollywood hangers-on. Remarried several times, Hefner looked ridiculous and eventually pathetic walking around with a college-aged piece of eye candy on his arm. As feminism and liberalism became more punitive and hostile, he didn’t fight back the way he did in the 1960s and 1970s. He simply became a sad parody of his younger self. For all of its controversial charms, the one thing Playboy didn’t teach men, or Hef himself, evidently, was how to age gracefully.