/ 9 December 2003

So Hef, how does it feel to have won?

It all started on a kitchen table in Chicago 50 years ago when Hugh Hefner, a former scribe at Esquire magazine decided that the men of America deserved better.

With $600 of his own money and $8 000 more in loans he put together the first issue of the men’s magazine Playboy in December 1953. It featured Marilyn Monroe on the cover and a hitherto unprecedented mix of airbrushed nudes and intellectually stimulating articles inside.

For those too old or young to remember these times, here’s a little reminder of just how straight-laced society was before Playboy shook some time-honoured conventions: There was no Beat movement or counterculture, the political climate was dominated by McCarthyism intolerance, and the movie world was dominated by the saccharine-sweet road flicks of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.

There were a few girlie magazines, but they were no more vulgar than a red-light peep show, while the other men’s magazines were angled at uber-macho readers with articles about fishing, hunting and poker-playing.

It’s hard to know now whether Hefner really was a prophet of sexual liberation, or just stumbled on to a winning formula. But in interviews held to mark the 50th anniversary of his cultural icon he claims again and again that Playboy was a conscious attempt to break down the barriers of puritanism, and give men the intellectual and cultural sophistication they would need to thrive in the coming sexual revolution.

It was, as in the joke that is almost as old as the magazine, as much about the articles as the pictures. The articles have included pieces from some of the seminal writers of the last half century.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was first published by Playboy in one of its earliest editorial coups. John Steinbeck, Evelyn Waugh and countless other men of letters soon followed.

But while Playboy can claim to have enlightened its readers about many subjects, it was its frank and open attitude to sex that really set it apart and made it a cultural phenomenon. Its message was perfectly suited to an era that would soon have to deal with the groundbreaking discoveries of sexologist Alfred Kinsey and the profound social implications of the birth control pill.

It’s message was simple: sex is central to human existence so why not celebrate it rather than hide it. Hugh Hefner became, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, ”the swingin’ godfather to three generations of American men” preaching against sexual hypocrisy at the same time as advocating a sexual extravagance that was way out of reach for most of his millions of readers.

Now Playboy’s sexual ethics have taken hold firmly in the mainstream, too firmly it sometimes seems when teenage pop stars and role models cavort near naked on ubiquitous television shows.

But legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson had no such qualms. In one of the many prominent essays in the 30-page anniversary issue he congratulates ”Hef” for creating a world in Playboy’s image. The sentiment was echoed by conservative columnist George Will who in a recent interview asked Hefner and his daughter Christie, who runs the Playboy business empire, ”How does it feel to have won?”

”I think his point was that the world has become a sexy place,” said Christie, who has been credited with diversifying Playboy from its magazine roots to the dominant provider of adult programming on cable television, making it one of the biggest and most influential media companies around.

Playboy has thrived even as a host of other magazines provide hard-core material to appeal to every possible fetish, while the internet provides easy access to pornography and laddie magazines like Maxim compete in the soft-core market.

”Playboy has never been the most explicit because we never really thought about it as a sex magazine,” explained Hefner. ”It’s a lifestyle magazine. But we were there at the beginning, making the case for personal sexual freedom. And I think that we now live in a Playboy world.” – Sapa-DPA