Hugh Hefner, Playboy founder who seduced America, dies at 91

Hugh Hefner’s wish was to be buried in a crypt he bought next to the grave of Marilyn Monroe in Los Angeles. Photo: Reuters
Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine who turned his swinging lifestyle into a professional calling and taught Americans to be more open about sex, has died. He was 91.

Hefner died from natural causes surrounded by friends and family at his home, the Playboy Mansion, in Los Angeles, according to a post on Playboy’s official Twitter feed and a news release published on the PR Newswire. Hefner’s wish was to be buried in a crypt he bought next to the grave of Marilyn Monroe in Los Angeles. Pictures of a nude Monroe catapulted Playboy to success with its first edition in 1953.

The direct descendant of a Puritan who arrived in America on the Mayflower, Hefner shattered traditional attitudes to sex in the 1950s and ‘60s with centerfold pictorials of semi-naked women and articles on gender relations. Playboy’s celebration of the female body and redefinition of male pastimes transformed sex from a forbidden topic into dinner-table conversation.

His monthly publication with the rabbit-head trademark and photos of girl-next-door Playmates remained the US’s most popular men’s magazine for four decades, driving sales for a single issue to 7 million by the early 1970s. He claimed Playboy had a profound effect on American society by advancing the cause of press freedom, racial equality and women’s rights. Critics, including many feminists, disagreed, condemning him for objectifying women.

“He was perhaps the greatest counter to the Puritan ethic we’ve ever seen,” Garth Jowett, a professor of communications at the University of Houston, said in a 2003 interview in the Houston Chronicle. “One of the greatest social forces in the 20th century in the United States was Playboy magazine.”

“Hef,” as he called himself after unrequited love triggered an image makeover during his college days, became one of America’s most recognised bachelors. He spent much of his adult life with multiple live-in girlfriends, attending to work matters from his mansions in Los Angeles and Chicago.

The pipe-smoking womaniser became a symbol of the 1970s zeitgeist, bedding countless females half his age. In 1968, Hefner met actress Barbi Benton, who would remain his favourite girlfriend for much of the next decade. When Hefner, 42 at the time, asked her for a date, Benton, who was 18, said she had never been out with anyone older than 24. “That’s all right,” he replied. “Neither have I.”

Dressed in silk pajamas and a velvet bathrobe, Hefner promoted the single life with magazine tips on fashion, apartment living and entertaining. Before Playboy appeared, such topics were excluded from mainstream men’s publications, which focused on leisure activities such as hunting and sports.

“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 for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex,” he wrote in the first issue of Playboy.

Hefner enraged feminists, moralists and family groups alike. A young Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Club bunny and wrote a magazine expose. She criticised the club’s “phony glamour” and work policies, including only being allowed to date certain customers. He rejected claims that he exploited his Playmates of the Month, such as Pamela Anderson and Anna Nicole Smith, who carved out celebrity careers of their own. A centrefold shoot in the 1950s paid $500, and a half-century later about $25,000.

Playboy exploits sex the way Sports Illustrated exploits sports,” Hefner said on “The Dick Cavett Show” in the 1970s.

Hefner, whose 70 per cent ownership of Playboy stock was valued at $399 million in 1999, shifted Playboy Enterprises’s focus to licensing and entertainment in later years to offset declining magazine sales. As Playboy magazine’s paid US circulation shrank to less than a quarter of its 1970s peak, he increasingly turned to celebrities to pose for the publication, including Madonna, Daryl Hannah, Drew Barrymore and Charlize Theron.

In 2010, he proposed to take the company private by buying the outstanding shares he didn’t already own in order to protect the brand. An investor group led by Hefner completed the buyout the following year.

Hugh Marston Hefner was born April 9, 1926, in Chicago. The elder son of conservative Methodist parents, he was a direct descendant of William Bradford, a Massachusetts Puritan.

After serving as an infantry clerk and army newspaper cartoonist at the end of world war II, Hefner received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He took a semester of graduate courses in sociology at Northwestern University where he studied the findings of Alfred Kinsey, a pioneer in human-sexuality research and the author of the famous Kinsey Reports, two books on sexual behaviour that shocked American society.

After marrying Mildred Williams, a former college classmate, in 1949, Hefner tried his hand at various cartoonist jobs and as a copywriter at Esquire magazine, where he earned $60 a week. His request for a $5 pay increase was denied, prompting his decision to start his own magazine.

Originally carrying the working title of “Stag Party,” it assumed a different name with its famous logo to reflect the “playboy” of the animal world: The rabbit. The magazine’s success was assured when Hefner paid several hundred dollars for some calendar photos of a naked Marilyn Monroe taken in 1949. Four years later, Monroe starred in the Hollywood thriller “Niagara,” and Playboy’s first edition appeared in December of the same year.

Hefner added a high-brow veneer to the magazine with contributions from authors such as Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, spawning the joke that some men buy Playboy “just for the articles.” He also introduced regular interviews in 1962, pitching questions to Miles Davis, Fidel Castro, John Lennon and future US President Jimmy Carter.

“I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust,” Carter, the governor of Georgia at the time, said in his 1976 Playboy interview. “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

As Playboy turned into a cultural phenomenon, Hefner promoted his Playboy philosophy as host of a cable-television program called “Playboy’s Penthouse,” in his nightclubs and at jazz festivals. Yet the most vivid symbol of the Hefner lifestyle became the Playboy mansions. He spent $400,000 to renovate a 70-room house he had bought in Chicago in 1959. The property included an indoor pool with a glass side, so that guests could observe others enjoying a nude dip.

In 1971, Playboy Enterprises became a public company and Hefner purchased a 26-room mansion in Los Angeles. The grounds, located in Holmby Hills, included a mini-zoo, waterfalls and the “grotto,” a cave-like aquatic maze with Jacuzzis, where visitors could act out their sexual fantasies. He sold the estate for about $100 million in 2016.

Hefner was married three times, the second time to Kimberley Conrad, a former Playmate with whom he had two sons, Cooper and Marston. The couple separated in 1998 and divorced about a decade later. In 2012, Hefner married 26-year-old Crystal Harris, a former Playmate.

Christie Hefner, his daughter from the first marriage, was chief executive officer of Playboy Enterprises for two decades before announcing her resignation in 2008. Hefner also had a son, David, with his first wife.

Hoping to attract more advertising, Playboy magazine in 2016 stopped showing nudity, a move the company said was “the next step in its brand evolution.” The experiment lasted about one year.

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