Hugh Hefner, the controversial publisher and entrepreneur who made a fortune by both promoting and embodying the changing sexual mores of the postwar generation, died last night at 91 of natural causes in his Los Angeles mansion, surrounded by family.
“Hefner the man and Playboy the brand were inseparable. Both advertised themselves as emblems of the sexual revolution, an escape from American priggishness and wider social intolerance. Both were derided over the years — as vulgar, as adolescent, as exploitative, and finally as anachronistic. But Mr. Hefner was a stunning success from his emergence in the early 1950s. His timing was perfect,” writes Laura Mansnerus for the New York Times.
His first issue, in 1953, famously carried a photo of Marilyn Monroe, taken before she became a star, in the nude. All 50,000 copies sold out (and go for about $2,500 today).
“His concept was to present the image of a worldly and well-read man, surrounded by beautiful women, expensive cars and the latest high-tech gadgets. He initially wanted to call the magazine Stag Party but at the last minute changed the title to Playboy,” writes Lukas I. Alpert for the Wall Street Journal.
“Affairs of state will be out of our province. We don’t expect to solve any world problems or prove any great moral truths. If we are able to give the American male a few extra laughs and a little diversion for the anxieties of the Atomic age, we’ll feel we’ve justified our existence,” he wrote, Alpert reports.
“Beyond helping nudity go mainstream, Hefner also ushered in upscale consumerism with gadget reviews that would anticipate by decades magazines such as Gear. “The lesser known fact is that Hefner was as responsible for the consumer revolution as he was the sexual revolution,” Steven Watts, author of Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, tellsUSA Today’s Marco della Cava.
“His monthly publication with the rabbit-head trademark and photos of girl-next-door Playmates remained the U.S.’s most popular men’s magazine for four decades, driving sales for a single issue to 7 million by the early 1970s. He claimed Playboy had a profound effect on American society by advancing the cause of press freedom, racial equality and women’s rights. Critics, including many feminists, disagreed, condemning him for objectifying women,” writes David Henry for Bloomberg.
But citing examples such as Hefner turning the empire over to his daughter, Christine, in 1988, Damon Brown writes in Inc. that “he was an early, uneasy ally to the feminist movement” and “also set the pace for diversity and inclusion.”
Indeed, “for Hugh Hefner, gay rights were part of the sexual revolution,” a Washington Post headline informs us. Derek Hawkins writes that in 1955, Playboy published a short story that “depicted a dystopian future where homosexuality was the norm, heterosexuality was outlawed and angry anti-straight mobs marched through the street chanting ‘make our city clean again!’ Even the relatively progressive Esquire magazine had rejected the piece because it was too controversial.”
Asked in 1994 if he were a gay rights activist in an interview with The Advocate, Hefner proclaimed that “he had been a ‘human rights activist’ from the magazine’s inception. He said he had campaigned against the nation’s sodomy laws, which criminalized certain sexual acts, Hawkins continues.
“If the pursuit of happiness has any meaning at all as it is written in the Constitution, the government’s intruding into one’s bedroom, into personal sexual behaviors, is as unconstitutional as anything can be,” Hefner said.
Tributes and jabs from celebrities, former Playboy Bunnies and Playmates, and just-plain readers, are flowing in social media, Karen Mizoguchi reports for People. They range from sincere to flip to disparaging.
“He was a creepy patriarch,” Jenny Landreth tweets.
“As per his wishes, Hugh Hefner’s body will be left in a fort in the woods for other kids to find & pass around,” Patton Oswalt quips.
Actually, “Hefner will reportedly be buried next to Marilyn Monroe at the Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, Calif.,” Jessica Chia tells us in the New York Daily News. He “famously bought the crypt next to Monroe’s for a reported $75,000 in 1992.”
Hefner is survived by his third wife, Crystal, and four grown children: Christie, who served as CEO of Playboy Enterprise for more than 20 years, David, Marston and Cooper, who is chief creative officer at the company.