This very Web site was founded on Hugh Hefner's 70th birthday, and inasmuch as his 80th is imminent, he's getting more mentions in blogdom. As a twenty-year Playboy subscriber (albeit one who is utterly incapable of predicting the Playmate of the Year) with a sheaf of back issues far older than that, there's at least a slight chance that I might have a vague idea of what I'm talking about.

Or maybe not. Here's Dean Esmay on the birthday boy:

I simply don't have a problem with nudity, or looking at people with nice bodies. And I think calling what Hefner's Playboy does "pornography" is a bit strong. At least when I was young, there was precious little sex in Playboy, just pictures of nude women and occasionally men.

Did it really make our society more depraved? I honestly don't think so. The sexual revolution was a giant national spasm, one we got over so far as I can see, and it seems to be one where Hefner got in front of a parade that was rolling along on its own anyway. The invention of the pill meant sex less dangerous for women than it had been in the past ... until we all realized that there are more consequences to licentious behavior than just pregnancy.

I do have a very negative view of the porn industry, not the light stuff like Playboy but the side where people are constantly practicing sex acts for the camera. It's pretty clear that's not an emotionally healthy life for most of the people who live it: like prostitution, a few people may be well cut out for that life but most come in with emotional scars and will likely leave with more.

But it seems a bit much to dump that all in the lap of old Hef and his daffy, shallow "Playboy philosophy." Don't you think?

It does, but perhaps not for the obvious reasons.

The thing is, sex was only part the part that got the most attention, of course of the Philosophy. But here's the crux of it, right from the December 1962 issue, the editorial that spawned the entire 25-installment Philosophy:

What is this "particular point of view," then, that Playboy shares with its readers? We wrote about it in a subscription message in the April 1956 issue, under the question, What is a Playboy?: "Is he simply a wastrel, a ne'er-do-well, a fashionable bum? Far from it: He can be a sharp-minded young business executive, a worker in the arts, a university professor, an architect or engineer. He can be many things, providing he possesses a certain point of view. He must see life not as a vale of tears but as a happy time; he must take joy in his work, without regarding it as the end and all of living; he must be an alert man, an aware man, a man of taste, a man sensitive to pleasure, a man who without acquiring the stigma of the voluptuary or dilettante can live life to the hilt. This is the sort of man we mean when we use the word playboy."

And yes, it turns somewhat defensive later on:

Some seem to feel that a happy, even frisky and romantic attitude toward life, and a savoring of its material pleasures, preclude seriousness, work, sensibility, a viable aesthetic. In our book (literally and in the slang sense) this position is untenable. It belongs with such other evidences of semantic dysfunction as the unreasoning suspicion that medicine can't be good for you if it doesn't taste bad; that robust profanity bespeaks a limited vocabulary (rather than one equipped with condiments as well as nutrients); that dullness is the ordained handmaiden of seriousness; that the well-dressed man is an empty-headed fop, perforce, and that conversely, the chap who can't distinguish a fine Niersteiner from a plebeian bottle of hock is probably possessed of more intellect of character than the man who can.

The rest, I think, may be fairly attributed to the Law of Unintended Consequences: those who sought to follow Hef's lead in these matters quickly discovered that their pursuit of the Good Life, inasmuch as it inevitably incorporated the acquisition of Stuff it is no accident, I believe, that there is now a lad mag called Stuff which has even more gadget porn than girlie pictures created an environment in which the lovely Kim or Susan or Victoria (the three most common Playmate names over the years) wound up being every bit as much of an accessory as the obligatory B&O audio system and that fine Niersteiner. It was as though Hef had handed out lists for a scavenger hunt, and whoever showed up with the most items was declared the winner.

Playboy, the magazine, has not been entirely true to Hef's vision. I complained about this last summer:

Playboy, godfather to all the lad mags, has sacrificed a few IQ points in the past forty years. (Playboy Interview, April through June 1965: Art Buchwald, Jean-Paul Sartre, Melvin Belli. Playboy Interview, April through June 2005: Les Moonves, James Spader, Lance Armstrong.)

And I think there's always going to be a certain amount of conflict when you're trying to put together a magazine that must simultaneously serve as a guide to the epicure and as unabashed wank material: the two goals, if not polar opposites, surely intersect at odd angles.

But Dean is very likely right when he says that the parade was already under way when Hef clambered to the front of it: all sorts of hitherto-unimagined phenomena the Kinsey report, Christine Jorgensen, Dr. Reich's goofy "orgone box," the President threatening to kick a music critic in the balls had already come down the road before Hef ever printed that shot of Marilyn Monroe in the altogether. And if Hefner served as lightning rod for feminists well, obviously there was a storm going on already.

The Vent

  8 April 2006

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 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill