NEWS & ANALYSIS

The Stalin of the sexual revolution?

Andrew Donaldson writes on the passing of Playboy founder Hugh Heffner

A FAMOUS GROUSE

SO long, then, to the world’s greatest ever bachelor-guy, a man-child who, in the crusty silk pyjamas he’d worn for the last half-century, has shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 91, a libertine to the last.

A giant of our age has indeed fallen and, as you’d imagine, there has been much animated discussion here at the Mahogany Ridge on the legacy and cultural impact of Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire and, because that was the kind of guy he was, the personal embodiment of its louche “philosophy”.

The barmaid, for one, is not impressed and thinks it risible that he’s regarded as some sort of pioneer of the pants department. “If there was a sexual revolution,” she suggests, “then he was its Stalin, a monster who grew rich off the bodies of women.”

But then she would say that, for she is a young person and has adopted the fashionable position that Hefner and his publication were crude, adolescent, exploitative and anachronistic rather than crusaders against social intolerance and priggishness.

It is perhaps odd that there should be such vehemence in these parts. When South Africans were finally allowed to read the thing in South Africa, Playboy was a mere shadow of its former red-blooded and virile self. 

This was some 30 years after its heyday, when it published, along with other American magazines like Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post, truly groundbreaking, provocative journalism and exceptional fiction. 

I’m sorry, Virginia, but yes, in those days they really did read the articles.

The magazine had no chance here. Men didn’t read magazines in the 1990s. They looked at the pictures. And they got that in spades from hardcore publications like Hustler, Asian Babes and Loslyf that cluttered the corner cafes in the great porn wave that came with the scrapping of censorship in South Africa. 

Tame and somehow wholesome in comparison, Playboy gamely refused to outfilth the filth, suffered the consequences and quietly disappeared.

Today, though, the more wizened among us can vaguely recall the thrill of anticipation upon reading Hefner’s editorial in the first ever issue of Playboy: 

“We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”

Who knew of anyone, let alone a female acquaintance, with whom such a discussion was even possible in 1971? 

And yes, we’re well aware that the first Playboy came out in 1953, but it was only after going through our late uncle Lenny’s things that we found this dog-eared magazine under some newspapers in one of his old suitcases.

Dated though it may have been, we were nevertheless in thrall of this sophisticated, swinging lifestyle. Hors d’oeuvres? That’s cheese and small sausages on toothpicks, right? And cocktails? Obviously brandy and coke. Or, for the ladies, something with gin.

As for seductive mood music? Could that have possibly been Les Baxter’s Ritual of the Savage album, a classic of the exotica genre, or maybe some Mediterranean ocarina jams with a strong ethnographic edge?

Not a man among us, I tell you, wouldn’t have swapped his safari suit for a smoking jacket there and then, dumped his old vellies for carpet slippers and start to chapsplain about Slim Gaillard’s piano chops. If we had any idea who Slim Gaillard was, that is.

It is true that Hefner was something of a joke towards the end of his life. It was difficult to recall, for example, his championing the civil rights movement in the 1960s when, 50 years later, he turned out to bat for Viagra. “It is,” he told a British journalist, “as close as anyone can imagine to the fountain of youth.”

There was much sniggering at that. It was hardly the sort of comment one expected from the subject of Brigitte Berman’s 2010 documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, which portrayed him as a champion of First Amendment rights rather than a purveyor of soft-core smut.

In an interview at the time of that film’s release, the New York Times asked him about the rewards of marriage. “Unfortunately,” Hefner replied, “they come from other women.”

Hefner is to be buried alongside the woman who made him: Marilyn Monroe. In 1953, he paid $500 for the rights to some cheesecake photos she posed for as a struggling actress. In 1992, he paid $75 000 for the mausoleum drawer next to her’s in the Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. 

So ends an American story.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.