Magazines weren't polybagged back when Kevin Brady and I were kicked out of Shore's Candy Store in fifth grade for glancing and giggling at Miss April 1972 in Playboy. But the hardest part of reading that magazine remains the buying process. At my local Barnes & Noble, I slipped it under a copy of Mother Jones, and the clerk's smile quickly faded when he found the poly-bagged November issue underneath. His odd look implied he was wondering if my shopping spree included Aqua Velva, whiskey sour mix, and a new needle for my hi-fi.
What Kevin and I didn't know is that Playboy would hit its circulation peak the very year we snuck a peek. More than 7 million copies of the November 1972 issue ran off the presses, though today's circulation of just under 3 million is not exactly shabby in the post-Internet world. But that's been the odd quality about Playboy throughout its historic publishing run of 55-years-and-counting -- it's at once unconventional and mainstream, veering from avant-garde to self-parodying and back again, like Marilyn waving from the cover of the first issue.
Founder Hugh Hefner is 82 now, and the magazine has taken to using old photos of him, just as the jut-jawed 50-year-old caricature of Jerry Lewis must confuse younger telethon viewers. All is not well for Hef, as recent financial woes have led to corporate cutbacks and the news that he has been forced to sell tickets to parties at the Playboy Mansion. And yet the magazine goes on.
The November issue weighs in at 152 pages, though the usual gravitas is somewhat lacking. There's a fine piece by Will Blythe about the effect Barack Obama's candidacy has had on a younger generation. It's the type of fearless and thoughtful work Playboy has always done well. There's also an introspective examination of voter turnout by Tavis Smiley. The cover blurbs are all about epidermis, however.
Often a magazine's advertising says more about its readers than the editorial content does. A Canadian Club whisky ad seems to address the retro-ness of Playboy head-on: Amidst grainy 1960s and '70s Kodak images, the copy reads, "Your dad never used a bridge [on a pool table]. He didn't wheel his luggage. Drive an automatic. Or drink anything rimmed with sugar. He drank whisky cocktails." All true, though no mention of whether Dad died too young. either.
Then again, the November issue contains plenty of self-promotion. Long before the term "multimedia" entered the lexicon, Playboy was the king of cross-marketing, and it continues on page 22's interview with the author of "Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream." Meanwhile, the advertorial-ish Mantrack column promotes everything from tequila to battery-powered bikes. But the photos on the Hangin' with Hef page are downright eerie, as the editor in chief, in sunglasses and captain's hat, looks like a cardboard cutout of the editor in chief in sunglasses and captain's hat. As for the Q&A, current 007 Daniel Craig is somewhat short on personal history and doesn't quite measure up to previous subjects.
So if it seems as if Jimmy Carter's 1976 "lust in my heart" interview hit newsstands in another era, it's because it did. Everyone's heard the old joke about buying Playboy for the articles, but it never was much of a joke since the articles have often been terrific. In addition to the former President, the Playboy interview has snagged iconic figures ranging from Albert Schweitzer to Malcolm X, Jean-Paul Sartre to Muhammad Ali, Ralph Nader to Fidel Castro, Salvador Dali to Ayn Rand, Martin Luther King to the Beatles. The magazine's list of original fiction includes work by James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, and Norman Mailer.
Yet try to name another serious publication that would print a letter like this one in the November issue:"Ashley's pictorial is amazing. She has to be one of the hottest-if not the hottest-female tennis players ever." That's not an excerpt of a letter; that's the entire letter.
I used to think this juxtaposition of high-brow and low-brow indicated a certain schizophrenia on the part of Hef and/or his most devout readers. Then I finally realized that Playboy isn't about reaching two audiences, it's about reaching the little boys inside grown men (it is Play-BOY, after all). These subscribers may be capable of cracking open a chest, flying a jet, or even splitting an atom, but they're not much older than fifth graders when they unfold pages 95 through 97 and behold the 34C-21-32 form of November's Playmate, whose turn-ons include shaved heads and turn-offs include poor tippers.
In another time, there was a certain peephole quality to the nudity -- while the girls were always beautiful, many were imperfect, especially by today's rigid standards. Yet paradoxically, those imperfections increased the sexiness factor, as in: Hey! Doesn't she look like that secretary down in Accounts Payable? Or that young mom across the street? Today's models don't seem remotely average -- and therefore accessible -- to anyone working outside a plastic surgeon's office.
So these days it's harder than ever to make the case that Playboy is about the nude photography. If objectifying females is all one is seeking, well, just surf to Google Images and type in the body part of choice. For now at least, that remains free. As for Playboy, at $5.99 for a polybagged newsstand copy, it sure ain't free. But nearly 3 million Americans still make the commitment.
Published by: Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
Frequency: 12 times per year, plus special issues