The Monthly

Hugh Hefner is world-famous as the chief editor of Playboy, the most iconic men's magazine in the world. He is not only the most recognizable magazine publisher of all time, but also the longest running, according to the Guinness Book of Records. He has remained its chief editor and creative advisor from Playboy's first issue in 1953 until his son Cooper replaced him in October 2016. Hugh Marston Hefner was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1926. His parents were very conservative Methodists who both worked as teachers. Hefner showed an interest for publishing at a young age. As president of the student council he founded a school paper for which he wrote articles and drew cartoons. Hefner's favorite comics during his youth were Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon' and Milton Caniff's 'Terry and the Pirates'. He even acknowledged that he started pipe smoking because of the 'Terry' character Pat Ryan. In 1944 he was drafted in the U.S. Army and worked for their newspaper. Back in civilian life Hefner studied at the University of Illinois, where he achieved a bachelor of arts in psychology and a double minor in creative writing and art. He contributed cartoons and articles to The Daily Illini, the campus newspaper, and founded a humor magazine of his own, named Shaft.

Hefner's school cartoons rely heavily on inside jokes. They are all comic strip adaptations about daily life in school or on campus. He scribbled them during the day, making notes on what his fellow schoolmates said, did and even wore that day. As the evening fell he worked everything out in little humoristic narratives. The drawings are somewhat stiff and at times chaotic since Hefner didn't always use frames to separate each individual image. He hand-coloured everything with simple crayons. Hefner's early artwork was saved from obscurity and possible destruction by a school friend, Jane Sellers, who would remain a close friend for his entire life. She kept everything, knowing he "was destined to do amazing things." His fellow students agreed. The council voted Hefner as the "Class Humorist", "Best Dancer", "Best Orator", "Most Popular Boy", "Most Artistic" and "Most Likely to Succeed in Life". This prediction only came half true.


High school diary by Hugh Hefner

Hefner managed to get some of his cartoons published in the satirical book 'That Toddlin' Town: A Rowdy Burlesque of Chicago Manners and Morals' (1951), but they were rejected everywhere else. It's not hard to understand why. Despite looking more professional than his earlier work, many look quite unimpressive. They lack funny punchlines and only show glimpses of the persona that Hefner adapted later in life. Realizing his own limits, Hefner pursued a career as editor instead. He worked as an assistant personnel manager for the Chicago Carton Company in 1949. A year later he became advertising copywriter for Carson Pirie Scott Department Store and, from 1952 on, for Esquire. Low payment eventually convinced Hefner to found his own magazine, which he called Playboy.

Playboy was a serious gamble. Hefner mortgaged all of his furniture on top of all his other loans. He was so unsure that the first issue wasn't even dated. As fate would have it became an unprecedented over-nite sensation. Sales rose with every issue until it became one of the most recognizable brands in the world. The secret of Playboy's success was uncensored female nudity. Each issue featured photos of beautiful naked women, including the monthly centerfold (a neologism coined by Hefner) spread over two pages, which displayed the Playmate of the Month. Hefner had found a genuine hole in the market. Most media in the 1950s and early 1960s were so prudent that sex was a complete taboo. Playboy not only showed nudity: it also discussed and embraced sex in an open-minded way. A rabbit in bowtie was chosen as their logo, because of its association with sex. Special bunny suits were made for the young females who spent time in his company. Hefner cultivated the idea of the "playboy", a cool and suave man who was popular with the ladies. His main goal in life was the fulfillment of his personal dreams. He gave the good example himself. The succesful editor bought a large luxurious house - the Playboy Mansion - where all-night parties were held. Fancy dinners, cool drinks, smooth jazz, game activities, celebrity guests and very willing young women were present at every occasion. Hefner felt so comfortable in his self-created little world that he wore nothing but pajamas and slippers, even during public appearances. Regular broadcasts of late-night TV shows such as 'Playboy's Penthouse' (1959-1960), 'Playboy After Dark' (1969-1970) and 'The Girls Next Door' (2005-2010) further popularized Hefner's playboy image. He sparked the imagination of many men and became a hero in their eyes.


Some of Hugh Hefner's Chicago cartoons

Naturally Hefner also drew criticism. Not just from puritans, but also from feminists who felt he objectified and downgraded women as mere sex toys. In 1963 Hefner was sent to court for selling obscenity, based on an issue with nude pictures of Hollywood actress Jayne Mansfield. He won the case. In the 1980s a special commission by U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese held a crusade against pornography, backed by the religious right. Playboy was targeted too. Hefner sued Meese and won, forcing the politician to publicly clear the magazine of all accusations. Nevertheless Playboy is still banned in many countries, particularly in most of Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia. Even Ireland only allowed publication in 1995. Both Playboy's own hedonistic image as well as this bad press have often led to the misconception that it is nothing but a porn magazine. In reality it has a far more classy reputation than publications like Hustler, Screw or Penthouse. The featured nudity is never vulgar and doesn't feature actual sex, just women posing with their clothes off. Various high-profile professional photographers such as Ken Marcus, Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton have been hired to make the pictures elegant and tasteful. As such, it has become less of a shame and more of an honour to be published in Playboy. Even for women! Many female celebrities have posed for the magazine over the years, either directly or by having pre-existing photos published: Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page, Jayne Mansfield, Nancy Sinatra, Kim Basinger, LaToya Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Samantha Fox, Carmen Electra, Sharon Stone, Charlize Theron, Madonna, Lindsay Lohan... The huge pay undoubtedly plays a major part too.

The centerfolds are also just a small aspect of the actual content. As Hefner put it, Playboy advocates "entertainment for men" and this has a much wider scope than just sex alone. Playboy gained recognition for featuring serious quality in-depth interviews, articles and reviews by renowned journalists, novelists and critics. The multi-million dollar enterprise has its own nightclubs (Playboy Club, 1960), jazz festival (1959), record label (Playboy Records), radio channel (Playboy Radio, 2006), TV channel (The Playboy Channel, 1982) and philanthropic organization (Playboy Foundation, 1965). Their film company, Playboy Productions Films, has produced such pictures as Roman Polanski's 'MacBeth' (1971) and the Monty Python debut film 'And Now for Something Completely Different' (1971). Hefner has also played a significant part in addressing social and political issues. He advocated freedom of speech, sexual liberation and support of African-American and homosexual civil rights. In 1955 Playboy broke new ground by publishing Charles Beaumont's short story 'The Crooked Man' which criticized homophobia. 'Playboy's Penthouse' (1959-1960) broke new ground by having white and black performers sharing the same stage on television. The Playboy Clubs pushed the same policy, despite the segregation laws in some states. When Playboy started publishing its praised interviews in 1962 African-American jazz legend Miles Davis was the first candidate. Other notable black celebrities interviewed in those early years were Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Hefner has raised money for various charitable causes and established the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award in 1979 for people who protect and enhance the first amendment of the American constitution. In 1970 Playboy became the first men's magazine to be printed in braille.

Hefner quit drawing cartoons as soon as Playboy became a full-time activity. Yet he always remained fond of the medium. Many cartoonists, comic artists, illustrators and designers were invited to decorate the pages of his magazine. Already in his second issue he received permission from Milton Caniff to publish 'Male Call' in Playboy, a comic rejected by other magazines for being too sexy. Among the most regular contributors were Rowland B. Wilson, J.B. Handelman, Al Stine, Jules Feiffer, Erich Sokol, Gahan Wilson, Charles Rodrigues, Gardner Rea, John Demsey, Kiraz, Alden Erickson, Charles W. Miller, Claude, Jerry King, Don Flowers, Alberto Vargas, John Held Jr., Doug Sneyd, Richard Taylor, Phil Interlandi, E. Simms Campbell, Marty Murphy and Roy Ramonde. Jack Cole, best known as the creator of 'Plastic Man', worked four years for the magazine until his untimely suicide in 1957. Hefner was one of only two people (the other being Cole's wife) whom he sent a suicide letter. Some of the longest-running comics series in Playboy were Dean Yeagle's 'Mandy', Eldon Dedini's 'Satyr & Nymph', B. Kliban's 'Cat', Robert "Buck" Brown's 'Granny' (1963-2007) - and perhaps the most iconic - Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's 'Little Annie Fanny' (1962-1988). Shel Silverstein drew 23 comic strip-versions of travels he made across the world for Playboy under the title 'Shel Silverstein Visits...'. Bobby London's 'Dirty Duck' found a haven in the magazine between 1976 and 1987. People like Jack Davis, Paul Coker, John Caldwell, Art Spiegelman, Zack Poitras, John Jonik, Roger Licot, Natalia Forcat, Arnold Roth, Rogério Vilela, P.C. Vey, Cau Gomez, Murad GumenBill Asprey, Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson and Charles Burns have all at one point published erotic cartoons in Playboy's pages.


Cover of the first issue of Playboy, with autograph by Hugh Hefner

The typical Playboy cartoon or comic strip features naughty, but tasteful gags about young, attractive women, often with barely any clothes on. Like all other articles in the magazine Hefner kept a close watch on the overall look and style. He often wrote back suggestions for possible improvement. It wasn't enough for a cartoon to be funny: both the women and the erotic situation had to look fun, appealing and titillating. A compilation of these cartoons was made available in 2004 under the title 'Playboy: 50 Years: The Cartoons'. In 2009 Playboy featured the first fictional character on its cover, namely Marge Simpson from Matt Groening's animated TV series 'The Simpsons'. Inside she could be seen in more revealing poses. Hefner was special guest voice in the Simpsons episode 'Krusty Gets Cancelled' (1993). Another episode, 'All's Fair in Oven War' (2004) is a homage to Playboy, where Bart and Milhouse remodel their treehouse based on the magazine's lifestyle. Hefner also voiced himself in Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy', namely the episode 'Airport '07' (2007) and was one of the interviewees in the cult documentary 'Comic Book: The Movie' (1989).

Other honours that Hefner received throughout the decades have included a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1980, a marsh rabbit species that was named after him in 1984 and two entries in the Guinness Book of Records. One for the aforementioned longest run of any magazine editor ever, the other for owning the largest personal scrapbook collection in the world. The same year he was also subject of Brigitte Berman's documentary 'Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel', where celebrities like Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, Pat Boone, James Caan, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson, George Lucas, Bill Maher, Pete Seeger, Gene Simmons and Dr. Ruth all made contributions.

Playboy's heydays were the 1950s until the late 1990s. As the market flooded with magazines who were more explicit in their erotic content it started to lose readers. The anti-pornography campaigns in the 1980s, as well as the higher availability of porn on video and the Internet from the 1990s on also hurt its sales. In 2009 it had to reduce its publication schedule. By 2016 it even quit featuring its claim to fame: the full frontal nudity (although they came back on that decision by February 2017)! While Hefner didn't mind dropping this aspect from its pages he did resist the removal of its cartoons. Eventually even these had to go to remain financially saviable. Those interested in Hefner's own cartoons can read them in Taschen's book 'Hugh Hefner's Playboy' (2013).

Also interesting to mention is Chester Brown's graphic novel 'The Playboy' (1990), an account of his memories and guilt when reading Playboy as a teenager. Dutch comics artist Dick Matena made a series of one-shot comics about celebrities in the 1980s, one of which starred Hefner.

Hugh Hefner by Robert Crumb
From: Robert Crumb's Art & Beauty Magazine #2, 2003

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