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Hefner created a fantasy world and then lived in it: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream

I wonder if there’s a chapter that covers how Playboy paid millions out the ass for the overvalued ClubJenna franchise…

In 1953, Hugh Hefner was a young man in Chicago with an unimpressive resume and big plans. He would start a men’s magazine geared toward young urbanites such as himself with lifestyle tips and racy pictures.

He would call it Stag Party.

A legal snag forced a last-minute name change to Playboy, but Hefner stayed true to the idea. The magazine quickly became a huge success and gave new meanings to the words playmate, bunny and centrefold. Hefner — with his pipe, his pyjamas and a girl on each arm — became a symbol of the sexual revolution. But a symbol of what? Hefner is either the swingingest hep cat, a pornographer, a sexual liberator or a lecher, depending on the observer.

Watts aims to give a full account of the man, his magazine and their place in social history. Hefner co-operated, giving the author access to everything from his personal scrapbooks to a 1972 memo from a Playboy administrative assistant on the Rolling Stones’ four-day romp at the old Chicago Playboy mansion (they left behind burned towels and clogged pipes; it’s unclear why).

Watts presents Hefner’s life as a sort of X-rated Horatio Alger story. A boy growing up in the Midwest falls in love with the fantasy world of movies. As a young striver, he creates his own fantasy world with Playboy. Then he moves into the world he created, leaving a wife and kids for the swinging life.

Watts argues that Playboy is more than a girlie magazine: It “comprised a historical force of significant proportions.” It’s arguable whether Hefner mostly made waves or rode them. But it’s clear that Hefner took seriously his role in offering a philosophy to counteract Puritanism. When Hefner calls himself a missionary, he’s not punning. Along with the naked women, Playboy early on featured the likes of Dave Brubeck on jazz, Evelyn Waugh on abstract expressionism and an interview with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Try to find one of those guys mentioned in the current crop of dumbed-down “lad mags.”

Oh, and Hefner really, really likes sex. Women come and go from his round bed like the sheets were made of Flubber. It just never stops. Even into his old age, the Viagra-fuelled magnate stays on the prowl. Watts reveals that Hefner narrowly avoided an ironical death when he almost choked on a partner’s sex toy. A quick-thinking Playmate saved him with a chest compression.

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This is a fun book. How could it not be? But it bogs down occasionally. Watts tends to over quote the many news articles he has researched, and too many sentences sound as like they should be read by the narrator on Behind the Music, such as this one on the 1980s: “But the haven of female companionship provided no refuge from the storm of this dark decade.”

If nothing else, the reader comes away admiring the staying power of Hefner, now 82. Playboy is no longer the cultural force it used to be, but it made a stamp on society. Conservative columnist George Will got it right. Watts reports that when he greeted Hefner for a 2003 interview, Will said, “Congratulations. You won.”


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