Upon hearing the Wednesday-night announcement that Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner passed away at 91, this writer searched on YouTube for an episode featuring Nina Simone of Playboy’s Penthouse. The series was a cocktail party televised live from 1959 to 1961, hosted by tuxedo-clad, pipe-smoking Hugh Hefner extolling the sexually free good life promoted by Playboy magazine (founded in 1953!), aesthetically informing Mad Men five decades later. Couldn’t find Nina Simone, but what the search did turn up was footage of Hef with such celebrity guests as Lenny Bruce, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat “King” Cole, and dozens of stacked pre-bunny-suit Playmates. Hefner would eventually shed the tux for his signature smoking-jacket-over-pajamas ensemble.
At the party center of Playboy’s Penthouse and his later TV show Playboy After Dark (airing 1969-1970) were world-class jazz artists (with Bill Cosby a lurking presence, oh oh), an appreciation which blossomed into the prestigious Playboy Jazz Festival, held once in Chicago in 1959 before restarting in 1979 to continue annually at the Hollywood Bowl.
As Thursday morning tributes pour in, correctly calling the legend the person who “changed the face of America,” and a “cultural pioneer” who advocated “free speech, civil rights and sexual freedom,” Hefner himself said he would like to be remembered as “someone who played some positive part in changing the social and sexual values of his time…and had a very good time doin’ it.”
Hefner was married three times, first to Mildred from 1949 to 1959, with whom he had two children: Christie Hefner who would eventually become CEO of the Playboy empire until she stepped down in 2008, and low-profile David Hefner who is rumored to be gay. In 1988, two years after a mild stroke prompted him to slow down as a party animal, he wed Kimberly Conrad. Hef and Kim have two sons, Marston and Cooper. Hefner announced in 2012 Cooper would be the new public face of Playboy.
The sexual revolution pioneer stated in 1971 he had dabbled in bisexuality.
The first issue of Playboy in 1953 featured nude photos from Marilyn Monroe’s 1949 calendar shoot, selling over 50,000 copies, and establishing the magazine as a harbinger of lifestyle movements.
Although Hefner on the topic of feminism has been both hailed and criticized, his position on gay rights has been documented since 1955. The short story “The Crooked Man” by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont was rejected by Esquire magazine. The plot entails a straight man persecuted in a society where homosexuals are the majority. Hef published it in Playboy, spawning a flood of letters expressing outrage. He wrote in response: “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society then the reverse was wrong, too.”
Since Playboy’s inception, the magazine has maintained high-caliber editorial content by consistently publishing short stories by outstanding literary figures (Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, John Le Carré to name three).
In 2009 on the subject of same-sex marriage, Hefner’s comments to The Daily Beast showed his progressive views on sexual inclusiveness remained steadfast.
“Without question, love in its various permutations is what we need more of in this world,” he said. “The idea that the concept of marriage will be sullied by same-sex marriage is ridiculous. Heterosexuals haven’t been doing that well at it on their own.”
In a 2012 conversation with Politico, Hefner continued to voice support for marriage equality.
“The fight for gay marriage is, in reality, a fight for all of our rights. Without it, we will turn back the sexual revolution and return to an earlier, puritanical time. Today, in every instance of sexual rights falling under attack, you’ll find legislation forced into place by people who practice discrimination disguised as religious freedom. Their goal is to dehumanize everyone’s sexuality and reduce us to using sex for the sole purpose of perpetuating our species. To that end, they will criminalize your entire sex life.”
Poetically, Hugh Marston Hefner will be entombed in the mausoleum drawer (purchased in 1992) next to the crypt of Marilyn Monroe in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
Check out The Ike and Tina Turner Revue on Playboy After Dark from 1969: