It’s hard for some to remember that, before he was a regular punchline on The Soup, Hugh Hefner was one of America’s most controversial figures. The longtime editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine, who started the men’s lifestyle magazine in the early fifties with a small amount of money he had scraped together, has obviously been at the center of the censorship debate for decades, but he also played not insignificant roles in the other pivotal struggles of the fifties and sixties. It is that side of Hefner that is highlighted in Brigitte Berman’s Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel, which looks at Hefner’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement as well as his willingness to confront other controversies head-on. “It’s more sexy than the Playboy side,” Berman says, who, despite being friends with Hefner, was given carte blanche by her subject to feature criticism of him in the film and was also given access to his notoriously detailed scrapbooks. “It was important to show his critics in the film,” says the director. “But the one thing they can’t take from him is that he changed America.” Hefner recently took some time to talk to Vulture about his critics, his proudest moments, and whether he considers Playboy pornography.
This film was made with your seal of approval, so I was surprised at how many of the talking heads in the film were actually critical of you.
Brigitte felt she needed to give a balanced picture, and she had the freedom to do what she wanted. I had known her for a while. I met her originally when she did that Academy Award–winning doc on Artie Shaw. We became friends, and along the way she thought that there was a part of my life that was not reflected in the other films and shows people had done about me, and she asked if she could make that film. I told her to go right ahead. As I like to say, “My life’s an open book. With illustrations.”
Which of those criticisms — and God knows you’ve had a lot over the years — stung you the most, personally?
The criticisms that troubled me the most came from the feminists, from liberals, at the very beginning. I was blindsided by them and didn’t know what they were talking about. The notion that I had demeaned women, or slighted women — I didn’t have any clue as to how to respond to that, I didn’t know how to make any sense of it. I saw myself as being on the side of female liberation. I always felt that the sexual revolution was something Playboy played a part in — and that went hand in hand with the women’s movement. Women were the beneficiaries, clearly, of the sexual revolution — because it was they who’d been held in bondage and treated like chattel for thousands of years.
But can you understand why so many in the women’s movement were troubled by Playboy?
Once I figured out the politics of it, I understood it, and I realized how misconceived it was. Historically, it was very understandable. There is a puritan element within most things in America, and there certainly was a puritan element in the women’s movement. Historically, the suffrage movement and the prohibitionist movement were bedfellows; they went hand in hand. So, why wouldn’t there be some puritanism in the women’s movement? That’s who we are as Americans. My own forefathers — I am a tenth generation descendant of William Bradford, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. So some would say my life has been kind of a reaction to exactly that Puritan heritage.
In the film, to the accusation that you represent women as sex objects, you say that they are sex objects. Can you elaborate?
Women are sex objects, but that’s only a part of who they are. If women weren’t sex objects, then we’d never have a second generation. It’s that interaction between the two sexes that makes the world go ‘round. It is the center of civilization. It’s why women wear lipstick. And it’s playing a game of semantics to take the notion that women are objects of desire, which they are, and to then infer that that is dehumanizing to them. Clearly it isn’t. Quite the contrary, it’s the essence of being human. It’s the attraction between the sexes. It’s the celebration of that sexuality. And I think we need more of that, to be honest with you. The notion that images of that kind are considered obscene while images of war and maiming and killing aren’t indicates how sick we are. That too is a reflection of our puritanical attitude towards sexuality. It indicates how sad and confused we are.
You’ve described your parents as being very conservative. Your mother lived well into the seventies, your father well into the nineties, so they got to see who you became and what Playboy became. What did they think?
They believed in their son, but they weren’t particularly crazy about the magazine. At the same time, though, my father came to work for the company and became the treasurer. And my mother helped out at the beginning, when I was looking for money — it’s one of the more memorable moments of my life. In the summer of 1953, when I was trying to put together enough money to launch the magazine, I went to my folks and asked if they would loan me some money or invest in the magazine. My dad, who was a conservative accountant, said it was not a good business deal. My mother took me aside. She had worked during the war. She said she had some money of her own, and that she was going to give me a thousand dollars. And that thousand dollars was how I bought the rights to the Marilyn Monroe image. Because of that thousand dollars, my parents became very wealthy. Many years later, an interviewer asked my mother if she was proud of me. And she said, “Oh yes, but I would have been just as happy if he’d been a missionary.” That’s because a number of people in our family had been missionaries in other parts of the world. And I said, “Mom, I was.” And the other happiest moment of my life related to all that was my father. When my father passed away, I learned that he had left one-third of his estate to the Playboy Foundation, which is our activist, nonprofit arm that supports the good work that the magazine believes in.
Was there any criticism that really made an impression on you? That made you think, “You know, this person has a point.”
No. I will say, quite frankly, I consider myself a one-eyed man in a blind world. As far as controversies related to Playboy go, I think my critics are dead wrong. It was clear to me then; it’s clearer to me today, because I think history has proven me right. As George Will pointed out some time ago, I’ve won. We now live in a Playboy world.
Do you think people are happier today?
Depends on the people, obviously. I certainly think people are freer in their skin now than they were in the fifties. At the same time, there are still a lot of things in the world that I’m unhappy about and want changed. Right now I’m sure a lot of people aren’t too happy because we’re going through some tough economic times.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer says something interesting in the film, that in some ways it’s harder to take you seriously now, because of things like your E! Show, The Girls Next Door.
Ray Bradbury, a longtime contributor to the magazine, said maybe some people don’t see the force because of the tease. I think that’s true of my life as well. And Dr. Ruth’s comments in the film I think are that some of her colleagues don’t take me or Playboy seriously because of the whole lifestyle. I understand that. But my life is a Rorschach test, an inkblot test. People project their own fantasies and dreams and prejudices and hang-ups onto my life. And it says something about who they are as much as it does about who I am.
So, how much of the Playboy lifestyle do you actually subscribe to?
I have never attempted to live up to some preconceived prototype. I think my tastes are very close to what’s reflected in the magazine. And I always felt I had a sense of what’s cool: good jazz, for example, which is the music I listen to. I have good taste in terms of furniture and design. We featured a lot of designers like Charles Eames in the Playboy pad and in the magazine. There was actually an art exhibit that traveled the country last year called “Birth of the Cool,” that was all about that kind of design and furniture, which Playboy did a lot to promote in the magazine back then. But at the same time, I wear pajamas and smoke a pipe. That’s not exactly someone’s idea of cool.
Is Playboy pornography? And what, in your opinion, is pornography?
Very clearly Playboy isn’t pornography. Pornography, I think, is a very negative label for erotica. I think that erotica or pornography is explicit sexual imagery. Playboy doesn’t publish explicit sexual imagery. What we do is basically pinups. Sure, there are some images in it that could be considered erotic. But it’s not pornography.
Of all the people and events that you and the magazine have been associated with over the years, which one are you proudest of?
Probably the connection and association with Martin Luther King. The last piece he wrote before he died was published by Playboy; his widow edited it for us. We had developed a relationship with Dr. King during the sixties. He did the Playboy interview, then he did a bylined piece for us, about civil rights.
You’ve obviously been in the magazine world for a long time now. What’s your take on the crisis in magazines right now?
Print is obviously in trouble. Technology has changed the very nature of entertainment. What we have right now is the same as reading a great article in a magazine. I hope that books and magazines and newspapers will continue in some form. I think younger generations maybe don’t read as much, and I think we’re the poorer for it. And young people don’t have as much of a sense of history — and if you don’t have a sense of who you were, then you’re not going to have a good sense of who you are.