Hugh Hefner’s got a new crusade

A new film highlights the Playboy founder’s other legacy—activism


Hugh Hefner is on the line from the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles. It’s mid-afternoon and, yes, he’s wearing silk pyjamas. As a pioneer of the home office as boudoir, he used to wear pyjamas for comfort as he edited Playboy. Now he owns hundreds of pairs, tailor-made, and they’re as integral to his image as the iconic bunny.

Stubbornly un-retired at the age of 84, the grandad of America’s sexual revolution is working on his legacy. But then, he always has been. Hefner’s meticulous scrapbooks of clippings and photos, which began with a cartoon autobiography in high school, now run to almost 2,500 volumes—a treasure trove that Oscar-winning Toronto filmmaker Brigitte Berman discovered only after she decided to make a documentary about the legendary lothario.

Berman’s film, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, reveals another side of the man who built an empire on fantasies of bachelor-pad opulence and airbrushed blonds. It portrays him as a valiant crusader who leapt to defend blacklisted artists, battled racial discrimination, and championed women’s issues such as legalized abortion.

That’s what Hefner is on the phone to talk about. But first there’s a more timely matter to discuss. Last week, he made the startling announcement that he wants to buy back his publicly traded company, Playboy Enterprises. Hefner, who owns a controlling interest, offered to take it private with a bid of US$123 million. Then Marc Bell, CEO of FriendFinders Network Inc., which owns Penthouse, said he’d make a competing offer. Hefner dismisses that as a publicity ploy. “Most of the press have got it wrong,” he says. “Playboy is not in play.”

Why bother to buy up the rest of the shares when he already controls the company? “I’m concerned about the future of the company, and the legacy,” he says. “We’re at the threshold of a lot of possibilities but we need partnering and growth, and it’s difficult to do it in its present form.” Hefner adds that he wants to “make sure we’re going in the right direction,” which he defines as “increasingly mainstream.” That means stripping the hard-core porn from the company’s video fare and making its Web presence “more like the magazine.”

Perhaps Hefner, who has prolonged his sex life with Viagra, hopes to give his brand a similar extra-innings boost. “We enjoyed our greatest growth in the 18 years of the company when it was private,” he says. Buying it back “assures the longevity.” Playboy’s circulation, which peaked at 7.2 million in 1972 (the year after the company went public), is now down to 1.5 million. The magazine produces just a third of the company’s revenues, which also stem from nightclubs, porn on the Web and pay-per-view, and licensing the bunny brand. “The magazine carried the brand; now the brand carries the magazine,” says Hefner. “But the magazine is still the heart and soul of the company.”

Hefner still closely oversees it. And Berman’s film makes it clear that he has micro-managed Playboy with a sharp eye ever since he discovered a nude pin-up of Marilyn Monroe to launch the first issue in 1953. He began serializing Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s now classic tale of a book-burning dystopia. In the censorious climate of the 1950s, that was an apt symbol as Hefner helped ignite what’s now called the Culture War. Singer Pat Boone, a right-wing Christian, argues that Playboy “contributed more than any other single ingredient to the breaking of the moral compass.”

While the magazine’s nudity caused offence, so did its articles. Hefner published writers blacklisted by senator Joe McCarthy. On his late-night TV show, which was staged as a hipster party-in-progress, he encouraged a racial mix of guests and performers, which was taboo on television at the time. He was the first to introduce black comics like Dick Gregory to white audiences. And when comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested in Chicago for obscenity in 1962, Hefner hired a lawyer for him and defended him in print.

In its prime, the magazine had a remarkable pedigree. It published fiction by writers ranging from Ian Fleming to Margaret Atwood. And the Playboy interview pioneered the in-depth Q & A. Alex Haley, whose landmark miniseries Roots originated in Playboy, interviewed African-American icons like Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson—and Martin Luther King Jr., whose last essay was published posthumously in the magazine. Haley also interviewed American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, who didn’t know Haley was black until he showed up.

As a man who combines a serious sense of history with the life of a libertine pasha, Hefner personifies the split personality of his magazine. In both cases, sex has overshadowed substance. Ray Bradbury once told him that with Playboy, “people don’t see the forest for the tease.” In the same way, it’s hard to see beyond Hefner’s hokey harem lifestyle. “But my life,” he insists, “is an ink blot test. It reflects other people’s dreams and fantasies.”

Berman first met Hefner six years ago after he asked for a copy of her 1981 documentary on jazz great Bix Beiderbecke. Hef’s pet passion, aside from nubile blonds, is jazz, which he has nurtured since 1959 with the Playboy Jazz Festival. After attending Hef’s 80th birthday bash, Berman proposed the documentary, and says Hefner granted her complete freedom and access while remaining “hands-off” creatively and financially. Though it includes some of his critics, the film is a flattering portrait, depicting Hef as the perfect host of a cultural revolution. Priceless clips show worlds colliding with surreal incongruity—such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger serenading the lounge lizards in the faux soiree of Hefner’s TV show.

Berman’s original title was The Paradox of Hugh Hefner, alluding to a mystery the film doesn’t try to resolve. You do have to wonder how this sophisticated advocate of literature, music and civil rights could cling to such a square, retro vision of female sexuality. But mention the word “objectification” and Hefner lets fly with an unrepentant rant about feminists: “They were wrong! The part of the women’s movement that was anti-sexual was ill-conceived. The notion that women, in escaping from the bondage of over 2,000 years, should view Playboy, which helped set them free, as the enemy is an indication of real confusion. Historically, it’s understandable: we are a puritan people in America, and women’s suffrage was directly connected to the prohibitionists.”

So there. Hefner has his own ideas about liberating women. His new girlfriend is Crystal Harris, 25 and blond. Since his first wife, they’ve all been blonds, something he blames on the influence of Hollywood icons. Hef says he now gets tired of the parties, but has Viagra sex twice weekly. The secret to his longevity is “picking your parents well.” His mother lived to 101. He hopes to die in his sleep and doubts there is an afterlife: “If there is,” he says. “I’m probably already there.”

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