Playboy Founder Hugh Hefner Dead at 91

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Playboy founder, media mogul, and the world’s most-famous international man of leisure, Hugh Hefner, was announced dead this Thursday. He died at the age of 91 of natural causes. Hefner, better known as ‘Hef,’ was a controversial and divisive figure for over six decades. Loved and hated equally for his creation of a magazine which popularized and mass-marketed pictures of women in the buff, it can also be said that he played a pivotal role during a period of American history characterized by dramatic change in civil liberties, artistic expression and sexuality.

Hefner began his journalism career after joining the US Army right out of high school, writing for a military magazine. After his military service, he became a copywriter for Esquire Magazine, and that’s when he got the idea to publish a magazine of his own. He wanted to see something with content aimed at younger, hipper people like himself.  “Esquire was always for older guys, but … it was very much devoted to male bonding and outdoor adventure,” Hefner told CNN. “And I wanted to read a magazine that was a little more sophisticated and was focused really on the romantic connection between the sexes from a male point of view.”

He funded the first stages of Playboy with $600 of his own money, then raised another $10,000 from private investors. That seed money turn the dream into printed reality with 54,000 copies of the premier issue that featured articles alongside racy pinup images. Fingers crossed, Playboy Magazine was launched in December of 1953 with no date or volume info on the cover – just in case it didn’t sell well and needed to be dumped later by other means. Fortunately for him, the first issue was an instant success and sold over 50,000 copies.

Hefner understood what his market wanted at the time. He capitalized on something that is commonplace today, but unheard-of in magazines back the 1950s: leaked nude images of famous people. The first issue featured Hollywood’s reigning super-starlet, Marilyn Monroe, elegantly dressed on the cover but with the tease of “FULL COLOR the famous MARILYN MONROE NUDE” on the inside pages. Before that, the boys could only stare at her on the silver screen and wonder what was under the hood, so to speak. Now Playboy was lifting that veil and breaking taboos, and the publication world was forever changed.

Monroe wasn’t even involved in the magazine; Hefner purchased rights to existing nude calendar images of the actress, who was young, brand-new to Hollywood, and badly needed the money when she posed for them in 1952. Playboy compiled these images with blurbs from interviews by other publications, and the first Playboy Playmate was born. Although at that time, the magazine didn’t use the term ‘Playmate’ but rather, ‘Sweetheart of the Month.’

As times and tastes changed, so did Playboy. The magazine’s circulation numbers grew and so did the Playboy empire as it expanded into television, Playboy clubs and more.  The quality and importance of the articles grew as well as A-list celebrities, politicians and other notables lined up for their feature. “Read it for the articles” suddenly became a catchphrase and advertising slogan. But after peaking in the 1970s and 1980s, times and tastes changed again and began to erode at Playboy’s foundations. The clubs began closing their doors, circulation numbers were down, and television shows cancelled. Despite a rash of publicity stunts and televised vignettes into Hef’s love life – which always involved multiple women 50 and 60 years younger than him – the Playboy name became a pale shadow of it’s former glory. More recently, the magazine removed nudity from it’s pages in an attempt to appeal to a new generation more interested in Instagram selfies than airbrushed beauties. But the move failed, and the publisher admitted that was a mistake and brought back the nudity that was always it’s core product.

So the question remains: was Hefner exploiting women for a profit? Was he helping to set them free by loosening our tight-nit views on sexuality? Or did he just dumb-luck himself into a good thing? There never will be a definite answer. But the fact that over 600,000 copies of Playboy Magazine are still sold every year, six decades after it’s first issue… that reveals a lot more than the images inside.

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