Amazon has produced a dramatized version of the rise of Playboy magazine and its founder, Hugh Hefner: American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story. Like everything else Amazon does, it is pretty awesome in my opinion!
Why should anyone care about this? The social issues and conditions that enabled Playboy to thrive are no longer relevant. Even if you don’t care about what might have interested men back in the early 1950s, I think the series is rewarding for its coverage of a rapidly growing startup company. Though he didn’t do it all while wearing a bathrobe (that came later?), Hefner did an amazing job of managing growth, extending the brand into television and physical clubs, and achieving his vision.
The series is interesting also for a seamless blend of documentary footage and modern dramatized footage. A lot of cameras were rolling back in the 1950s and there are also some interesting retrospective interviews from the early 1990s.
If you’re interested in a genetic basis for success, as explored in The Son Also Rises, the story is kind of interesting. Hefner was a remarkably successful person and his children, notably former Playboy Enterprises CEO Christie Hefner, turned out to be remarkably capable as well. (Young Cooper Hefner has recently taken over as Chief Creative Officer.) The practical genius behind the Playboy Clubs, Arnie Morton (later founder of Morton’s steakhouses), had a son who co-founded the Hard Rock Cafe chain and additional children and grandchildren who have been successful in the notoriously challenging restaurant business.
Students of cultural change will also be interested in the series. Footage from the 1950s shows a nation (well, at least hundreds if not thousands of Americans as the cameras panned around) of thin people. Americans who were out dining and drinking every night were as slender as today’s Hollywood actors. Lay off the Cheetos when watching…
What about economic change? Detroit and Baltimore were thought to have sufficient promise, in the 1960s, that Playboy developed Clubs in both cities. How about real estate? The company supposedly paid $2.7 million for a 37-story skyscraper, the Palmolive Building, in downtown Chicago! (Wikipedia makes it sound as though Playboy bought only “the leasehold of the building”.)
Some things haven’t changed as much as we might think. As covered in The History of Divorce, the big no-fault revolution in family law statutes happened in the 1970s. But Playboy’s first issue, December 1953 (available on archive.org), describes a system in which divorce can be easily obtained by a plaintiff (i.e., a de facto no-fault system). Pages 6-8 contain an article “Miss Gold-Digger of 1953.”:
subtitle: when a modern-day marriage ends, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame. it’s always the guy who pays and pays, and pays, and pays.
[unlike in the old days when only rich defendants paid] alimony has gone democratic. .. Even the simplest wench can make a handsome living today. … The wife may be a trollop with the disconcerting habit of crawling in and out of bed with the husband’s friends. … When the judge grands the divorce, he will also grant the little missus a healthy stipend for future escapades and extravagances.
it’s important to remember that the modern gold digger comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. She’s after the wealthy playboys, but she may also be after you.
As in today’s family courts, judges 64 years ago were calculating a plaintiff’s profits according to a hypothetical theory of what a defendant might be able to earn:
a wife asked for an allotment that exceeded what her ex-husband was earning. … [The judge] ordered the man to “stop fooling around [with a commission-based sales job] and get a regular job.”
As with nearly all U.S. states (see Real World Divorce for the specifics), alimony profits varied with the judge:
there are very few actual laws regulating alimony. Most states don’t have statutes that set requirements for alimony payments. That leves each case in the hands of the presiding judge.”
The alimony deck is heavily stacked against any man in the game.
The economic incentives around divorce, custody, and child support haven’t changed…
The courts aren’t interested in whether a woman is capable of earning her own living. In fact, their decisions discourage any thoughts an ex-missus may have of returning to work. They penalize the girl who is willing to earn her own way by reducing or eliminating her alimony payments. It doesn’t take a very sharp sister to figure it’s a lot easier to stay home afternoons and play Scrabble with the girls and let the ex-hubby pay the bills.
Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton’s narratives of women being victimized in the workplace counterbalanced against statistics showing that many women actually do work was being played out in 1953 more or less word for word:
The whole concept of alimony is a throwback to the days when grandma was a girl. A couple of generations ago, this was a man’s world, and a nice young woman without a husband had a difficult time making her own way. Nothing could be further from the truth in 1953.
In other words, the 1950s that we look back on as a period when women stayed home was perceived by at least some contemporaries as a time when women were peers in the office! (The series actually shows that Playboy depended heavily on women in creative and managerial roles, though top managers were mostly men until Christie Hefner took over.)
The series shows Hef being challenged by interviewers as a smut peddler. His mind was in the gutter while well-bred American men were occupied with loftier topics than sex. Hef’s standard reply seems to have been “I am making a magazine that covers the interests of men today and men are keenly interested in sex.”
It is pretty obvious that the Hefner family leaned on the scale during the production. At times, the magazine is portrayed as being primarily about social justice. Hef and associates were colorblind and working practically hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King, Jr. If true, why did the first black Playmate appear in the Centerfold in 1965, 12 years after the magazine’s founding? Wikipedia(!) says that the first Asian Playmate was in 1964. The bias is so obvious, however, that it doesn’t really take away from the series. You know that you’re getting the founders’ and insiders’ view of the project. It is a bit wearing to see Playboy’s quest to free Americans from the horror of having sex with the same person day after goddamn day aligned with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quest to free Americans from race-based discrimination. And sometimes it is misleading. For example, the series implies that the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan had something to do with a reaction against the civil rights movement.
Politics and government control the company’s fortunes to a large extent. Playboy has to pay a $100,000 bribe to New York officials to get a liquor license, without which its $7+ million investment in a Manhattan club would have become worthless. The magazine is nearly shut down by local officials in Chicago and Hefner is tried on obscenity charges. He doesn’t exactly beat the rap; the jury was deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of acquittal.
The series proves that nobody cares about aviation. In a long segment about the company’s private jet, the type (turns out to be a DC-9) is never mentioned. It sure look as though Hef had more fun in his converted airliner than did Donald Trump!
If the series covers the decline of Playboy I haven’t gotten that far yet. I don’t think it is fair to blame Hef for the fact that Playboy had only 20-30 years of being culturally significant and commercially vibrant. The company was an expression of one person’s vision and when Hef got older it wasn’t reasonable to expect that young men would want to adopt his vision. Perhaps more significantly, Playboy set itself up in opposition to the conventional-in-1953 idea that every American adult should aspire to be part of a married couple with kids in a suburban fortress. In the 1960s, however, the Federal government began a multi-trillion-dollar assault on this idea with a welfare system that made single motherhood a smarter economic choice at the low end of the income spectrum. By 1980, nearly every state had adopted no-fault divorce. By 1990, many states had adopted child support guidelines that made single motherhood a potentially smarter economic choice at the high end of the income spectrum (e.g., because a brief sexual encounter with a high-income partner was more lucrative than a long-term marriage with a middle-income partner). Once the government opened its treasury and courthouses for the purpose of destroying traditional ideas of family, how would it have been possible for any private individual to have a significant ongoing impact?
Another way to measure Hef’s success as a thinker is to consider that Friedrich Nietzsche‘s views on religion shocked contemporaries, but only a few decades later they made people shrug. Hefner’s ideas remained fresh for about as long as Nietzsche’s. That’s not a bad run for anyone.
One interesting question is why there isn’t a successor to Playboy. Perhaps today’s young men wouldn’t be interested in the same things that Hef found interesting circa 1953, but why isn’t there a mass-market magazine catering to men in general? Aren’t we kind of back to where things were in the early 1950s, with Esquire and a bunch of hunting, fishing, and sports magazines? Playboy peaked at roughly 7 million issues sold in 1972. These circulation figures show that no men’s magazine today comes close to that, despite more than 50% growth in U.S. population. Is today’s population more fragmented? More androgynous? More static so that there is no point in learning about changes in the social environment?
- Milton Friedman Interview
- Steve Jobs Interview (don’t forget Bill Burr on this subject)
- Malcolm X Interview
- MLK Interview
- a full list of interview subjects, which include, incredibly, Bertrand Russell (he is not mentioned in the series; but perhaps we can measure the trajectory of American thought by noting that it was the 20th century’s greatest logician in 1963 and Bill O’Reilly in 2002)
- The People vs. Larry Flynt (great 1996 movie about the Americans (Deplorables?) who thought that Playboy was elitist)