Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Playboy and His Western World

How Hugh Hefner—yes, Hugh Hefner—became the moral arbiter of our age.

Liberating the Goyim

Most every man in the known world has at least glimpsed a Playboy centerfold, and thereupon has vowed to go out and get himself something similar in a real live girl, or perused the luscious goods until the magazine has fallen into tatters, or run to confess his pollution to unsympathetic religious personnel, or cried “Death to America” and placed his hope in the eternal succor of 72 virgins, each of whom is the spitting image of the whorish temptress in the picture. Hugh Hefner, the inventor of Playboy, has sold his idea of what sex should be with the winning fervor of a true believer, and while not exactly everyone has bought into it, he has enticed multitudes into his fold with the promise of as much pleasure as a body can manage in a lifetime, all of it perfectly innocent, of course. And what sensible person, playboy or playgirl, could possibly want anything better?

He has written, “In this century, America liberated sex. The world will never be the same.” Hefner himself is the Great Emancipator and the most influential figure that American popular culture has produced; no actor or movie director or singer or athlete has moved the life of our time as potently as he. Indeed, one is hard pressed to name more than three or four figures from the more serious precincts of our modern public life who have had an effect of comparable magnitude. Only in America can a man whose declared ambitions were to bed innumerable beautiful women and get rich in the process make a mark deeper than those left by great writers or leading thinkers or most presidents. That this should be so might well appall writers and thinkers and most presidents, but they would have to acknowledge that Hefner got hold of the fundamental American longing as no one else had before. Americans have always pursued happiness, usually without any clear idea of what they were after; Hefner demonstrated that it could be not only pursued but also captured, and he posted photographs of the quarry for proof. The sexual revolution, the defining uprising of our time, is his brainchild; others stand at his shoulder in the leadership, but he is the founding father of the orgasmic republic.

Two recent books examine Hefner’s own life and the life of common desire that he has manufactured for mass consumption: Steven Watts’s Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (Wiley, 2008) and Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (Oxford, 2009). Watts, a professor of history at the University of Missouri, has written a life so admiring of its subject’s energy, intelligence, and innovation that one almost forgets that these were also Lucifer’s salient qualities. Fraterrigo, an assistant professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago, focuses on the fiction, movies, sociology, and feminist polemics that nourished Hefner’s project or set out to destroy it; she too has little to say against Hefner, though she scrupulously does report that there are those who feel otherwise.

Both volumes demonstrate how Hefner’s way of thinking has impregnated the culture and remind the reader that it is above all the idea of free and easy sexuality that has transformed American life. For behind the beckoning images of creamy willing nudes and the erotic heat they have helped inspire for the past 56 years—heat that has become so pervasive we scarcely notice it any more—there lies the force of animating theory. It is often said that the mind is the ultimate erogenous zone, and there is no surer proof of this than the world Hugh Hefner has made for us.

The brave new world demanded an end to the timorous old one. “Puritan repression is really the key that unlocks the mystery of my life,” Hefner has averred. His parents provided the formative object lesson in what Puritanism is, and in what Hef wanted to rid the world of. Glenn Hefner and Grace Swanson met in 1911 at a Methodist church social and become high school sweethearts in rural Nebraska. They were married in Chicago in 1921, and Hugh Marston Hefner was born five years later. The parental chill of severe emotional decorum frustrated the boy’s yearning for tenderness and intimacy. Glenn never said a word about sexual matters to Hugh or his younger brother; Grace provided rudimentary instruction in the encounter of sperm and ovum, without informing Hugh precisely how the meeting was facilitated. And then there was the unsavory matter of Glenn’s father, who at 61 was imprisoned for fondling 10-year-old girls. Grace feared she had married into depravity and thought of leaving her husband; Glenn’s patent shame and heartache at his father’s disgrace convinced her to stay. When Hugh found out years later that Grandpa was a pervert, he blamed the puritanical sexual tyranny that twisted good people into sad deformity.

Hugh ached to bust loose, and did so little by little. His schoolmates voted him at or near the very top of his class as best dancer, best orator, best comedian, most popular, most artistic, and most likely to succeed. He dated several girls, he necked and cuddled and petted, but he graduated intact and not especially happy about it. With theory outstripping practice, he insisted to his disbelieving mother that sexual intercourse for high school students was nothing to worry about; she thought the danger of pregnancy sufficient argument against it, but he said that could be avoided easily enough.

After an uneventful stateside tour of duty as an Army clerk, he followed his high school sweetheart, Millie Williams, to the University of Illinois. Two and a half years of sexually strenuous but noncoital courtship issued in engagement: the big night that followed was a disappointment to them both. Then one day Millie confessed in tears that she had slept with another man. Hefner was shattered. He forgave her, they married, but his faith in romance and female virtue was never the same. Marriage brought the couple two children, but Hef soon knew that the wholefamily thing was not for him. Kids were a drag; being the breadwinner bored him; Millie was a dud in bed; he craved sexual conviviality on a grand canvas.

He had a delirious idea of how he wanted to live, of how he thought everyone really wanted to live. Playboy was the natural extension of that guiding idea.Hefner funded its publication with doggedness and ingenuity born of desperation, and it debuted in December 1953, featuring nude photos of Marilyn Monroe. The first issue sold 70,000 copies, the next 185,000; by 1959 a million monthly copies were in circulation, and sales would eventually top out in 1972 with 7 million copies a month, as Playboy Enterprises Inc. was establishing a business empire, with Playboy Clubs, hotels, resorts, books, records, and films.

Hefner was seducing his readership with a wholenovel way of life. To fulfill “modern man’s need for a new, more realistic, rational, human, and humane sexual morality” was his grand aim, as he would state in “The Playboy Philosophy,” a series of 25 turgid essays that ran from 1962 to 1965. The new practice would have a prolix if not exactly profound theoretical foundation. Hefner wanted to restore the primal innocence of the two things Americans had endowed with the glamour of wickedness: sex and money. Sex outside of marriage was to become the norm; the playboy was to be a materially successful man who knew how toenjoy his wealth, largely by spending it on delicious playgirls. Hef sought to save other men from the trap in which he had been caught. The nude centerfolds, called Playmates, served the project handsomely: the subjects were “the freshest, most all--American looking girls we can find,” “the photographic dream girls for a large part of our male population,” and their eagerness to expose themselves to public view proved that “nice girls like sex, too.”

With Playboy’ssuccess, Hef had the opportunity to discover how much he too liked sex, and not just in theory. He started slowly but soon was jumping every pretty girl who passed, and he was, after all, in thepretty-girl business. Divorce in 1959 was a mere formality, and he never looked back. He even indulged in one homosexual encounter: what the hell, it was experience. He drew the line, however, at intelligent women; those, he said, he didn’t know what to do with.

It was not all wham bam. There were girls—girls is the right word, for some were barely women, others hardly women—whom he would romance for a few months; but while they were expected to remain faithful to him, he considered himself free to do just as he pleased. Perhaps he even fell in something like love with favorite Playmates Barbi and Christy, though that did not stop him from insisting that they share him, customarily one in Chicago and one in Los Angeles, but sometimes both under the same roof, while naturally he managed numerous ancillary flings. The heart that got broken was almost never his own.* As many as six Playmates at once would join him in his famous sultan-sized rotating bed, where he worked as well as played; and then such moral wonders would transpire, as Hef and the girls learned so much about themselves and their capacity for sharing and joy, without judgments or boundaries.

At 63, Hef thought he might be in the mood for some boundaries and married the exquisitely beautiful Playmate Kimberly in 1989. The exquisitely beautiful Playmate and previous love Shannon remarked, “He’s done it all and this is what’s left.” The new embodiment of family values declared, happily, “I think I have come full circle to living life very similar to my parents.” His parents, however, never got divorced; Hef did, once again, after nine years. He claimed he had been faithful all that while; Kimberly admitted she had not, and it was she who declared the marriage finished. It can be a troublesome thing for the regenerate playboy when his playgirl is not quite so regenerate as he.

Hef got over it. He dropped a hit of Viagra on his 72nd birthday and retired to the love-grotto Jacuzzi with four young beauties. Then commenced theepoch of Brande, Sandy, and Mandy, who joined him in the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles as his consorts in triplicate. When they had served their purpose, Buffy, Tiffany, Cathi, Zoe, Cristal,Izabella, and a rash of their kind rushed in to fill the vacancies. Marriage had been an inauthentic effort to resurrect the Puritan ideal,Hefner explained: “The way I’m living now is who I really am.” He is 83, and there look to be noresurrections in his future.

Most important, Hefner’s way of living—and hisprivate life has essentially been lived in public—has shaped who we really are, whether we see transcendent gladness or only doom in the freedom he has brought about. Hefner’s signal achievement is in making not just pornography respectable but also the grab-it-and-go sexuality it bespeaks. For years now most porn has been far lewder than anything one can see in Playboy; serious degradation is only a mouse-click away. Some say Playboy is so tame that it is not porn at all. But it is Playboy’svanguard role inpromoting sexual license as the ethical norm, in touting promiscuity as the essence of urbane distinction, that singles the magazine out. We all live in Hef’s world now. In Hooking Up (2000), Tom Wolfe reported that junior high schools both in slums and in the toniest suburbs were having to deal with “a new discipline problem. Thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls were getting down on their knees and fellating boys in corridors and stairwells during the two-minute break betweenclasses. One thirteen-year-old in New York, asked by a teacher how she could do such a thing, replied: ‘It’s nasty, but I need to satisfy my man.’ Nasty was an aesthetic rather than a moral orhygienic judgment.” Hygienic, if not moral, concernsinevitably do enter the picture, however, even for the obliviouslypubescent:gonorrhea of the throat now rivals mononucleosis as adiseaseafflicting sophisticated adolescents.

Meanwhile, television commercials flogging a pill for genital herpes remind the viewer that one in five Americans has the disease, that it can be spread even when there are no eruptions, and that the treatment is not a cure. One in five offers the adventurer worse odds than Russian roulette. Still, the adventurer is grateful when an incurable venereal disease is usually only a nuisance. Everyone knows there is worse out there than herpes.

One hopes that such public health hazards can eventually be fixed by pharmacological ingenuity; we’re good at that, and success there would surely ease our troubles. But it would not end them. For what of the sweeping moral claims that Hef made for the healthy-minded overthrow of Puritanism and the ascendancy of well-reasoned pleasure? In his debut novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), Martin Amis put a suggestive riposte in the mouth of his narrator, the 19-year-old Charles Highway:


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