Remembering Hef and Playboy
April 9, 1926-September 27, 2017
A women's college grad and wave two feminist, I crossed paths with Hugh Hefner and Playboy several times through the years and they left a surprisingly positive impression...
I went to an all girls prep school and later, a 'Seven Sisters' women's college. I wrote my MA dissertation on women in French film and culture. I have always considered myself a feminist but in the context of today's extremist environment I would perhaps be labeled just about status quo. I'm ok with that.
I had a powerful, negative, knee-jerk reaction to the cultural institution that was Playboy in its most relevant days and Hugh Hefner, its emblematic impresario. Yet, both have in small ways crossed my path through the years and left me — against my once perceived better judgements — with a strongly positive impression.
Straight out of university, I got my first break as an editorial assistant on the book The Bunny Years by Kathryn Scott. It followed the life of a few ladies who had had other big dreams but worked as bunnies in the original Playboy clubs in the '60s to support themselves. Their opinions of Mr. Hefner, who put quite a few of them through school, were high.
A few years later, my friend Randy, then-editor of the legendary music magazine Raygun, invited me to go to the Playboy Mansion with him to see Nancy Sinatra perform her famous tune 'These Boots Were Made For Walking.' The fete featured a parade of old stars — from Mel Tormé to Dick Van Patton. At some point, I walked through one of the otherwise empty corridors leading to the bathroom, and found myself facing Hef, who was walking towards me. I stopped and introduced myself to him. He seemed very gracious.
After moving back to New York for a spell, I went on a job interview at Playboy. My would-be boss was an older male executive in the international licensing department, Henry Marks. It was a secretarial post but I thought it would be a start and jumped in with gusto. But midway through the interview Mr. Marks stopped me: "You're a writer, not a secretary, you should be writing. This job isn't for you, it's secretarial. I'm going to give you some referrals." And that he did - one at Hearst, the other at a trade magazine. I got my first job as a result.
To me, this reflects both what a great man Mr. Marks was but also the way Hef ran his company and the company he kept. While his enterprise undeniably fanned the flames of the male fantasy of ornamental women, its founder ran it with ethics and professionalism, employing honorable people who could be (and in this case were) mentors to young women — no strings attached! After I wrote Mr. Marks a thank you note for getting me the job he returned the favor with a beautiful letter including his tips for having a great career and life. People don't take the time to do that anymore.
Later, when I moved to Amsterdam, I was asked to write for a Playboy custom publishing magazine project. I had little interaction with the company and Hef wasn't involved but it was solid work, and paid well and on time.
In 2004, I covered the Playboy bunny reunion in Las Vegas for the Los Angeles Times. Girls (frankly now older women) with differing connections to Playboy (bunny, model, etc.) were there, from various eras — it was like a high school reunion for pin-ups. At some point prior to writing up the piece, I had contacted the then-editor of Playboy with dual journalistic intentions. I let him know I was researching and writing a piece for LA Times but also asked if his magazine needed coverage of the event. He vehemently stated that Playboy was in no way affiliated with the reunion (his words smacked of dismissal) and said if they had been interested in covering the event, they would of course have done so themselves. His demeanor and attitude hardly reflected the Playboy I had vaguely come to know.
When I wrote up the finished piece, which ended up being my first cover story in the Calendar arts section, I mentioned briefly that the editor said the bunny reunion was not at all affiliated with Playboy magazine. At the time, a friend of mine was working at Playboy so I got the inside scoop. 'Hef is furious,' she said. The editor had been on the outs with Hef and co. but his preemptive dismissal of the event and these veteran bunnies without checking in with the Playboy founder, had infuriated him. You see, whether anyone wants to believe it or not, Hef cared about his past employees, these now aged former sex symbols. The idea that someone was suggesting they could be summarily discarded seemed to go against everything he believed in.
While I was never a fan of the empire Mr. Hefner built, it was a symbol of a bygone era, and on a pop cultural level as relevant as new wave or bra burning. On the plus side, it ushered in a literary wave that positively altered glossy magazine forever. Ultimately, I remember being impressed at how loyal Hef was to the women who worked for him; they were basically family. He supported them via work study programs and other benefits and they continued to stay in his thoughts and heart decades later (some of them went on to start their own businesses too).
Several days after my piece ran in the paper, I received a letter from Hugh Hefner, typed out on Playboy stationary (a keeper, which I have treasured and preserved in laminate). In it, he praised my article but acknowledged 'the incident,' and even referred me to another editor at Playboy for future writing gigs. I remember though his curt but powerful words about that arrogant employee of his: "The editor who was unresponsive is now gone." And shortly after that, I learned from my friend who worked at Playboy that he had indeed fired the guy.
I never got to meet Hef again to thank him for the small kindness of his personal letter. To me he was a larger than life figure who lorded over a sexy bombshell empire, whose core message does not resonate with my beliefs or pop culture sensibilities. But he was brought down to size for a few fleeting, human personal moments. And certainly his company, which the young women's college student feminist in me would have loved to have torn apart, was a class act operation which valued the women who had worked there, even if they were now a bit greyer, older, heavier, less dewy... and no longer pin ups.
And so, by some ironic and funny twist of faith, Hugh Hefner and the Playboy empire have become inextricably linked to my own backstory and memories of coming of age in editorial as a young writer. RIP Mr. Hefner.