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After 50 years of Playboy, we all live in Hef's world

May 04, 2003|DAVID SHAW

Forty years ago or so, someone bought me a gift subscription to Playboy. For reasons as obvious as they are embarrassing, I quite liked the magazine.

Actually, to be fair to my younger self, it wasn't only the pneumatic nudes that appealed to me. Playboy publishes good prose, both fiction and nonfiction, and as someone who fancies himself as something of an amateur cultural anthropologist, I thought Playboy also did an excellent job of not just inspiring but also chronicling the changing sexual mores of mid-century America.

Indeed, it was with that thought in mind that within a year of receiving my gift subscription, I found myself haunting used magazine stores, trying to track down every issue of Playboy since its December 1953 debut.

I succeeded -- and I continued to read and collect Playboy for the next 25 or 30 years. But about a decade ago, for a variety of reasons, I began to lose interest in the magazine.

So I let my subscription lapse and sold my collection.

I didn't look at Playboy again until two weeks ago, after I received an e-mail invitation to "this year's Playmate of the Year celebration at the Playboy Mansion."

Playmate of the Year? I thought. Do they still have Playmates? And what's to celebrate? Although Playboy is still the top-selling men's magazine, circulation is less than half its 1970s peak of 6.5 million; Maxim outsells it more than 2-1 on the newsstand. And with photos of naked women so ubiquitous on the Internet that they show up on my computer, unbidden and unwanted, several times a day, why would anyone care about Playmates?

But this is Playboy's 50th anniversary year, a cultural milestone of sorts, so I decided to go.

What a gas.

More than 500 people gathered under a big white tent for the Playmate announcement, and while most were -- surprise -- men, largely advertisers and others in business with Playboy, there were many women. Most of them seemed to feel that the nature of the event compelled them to wear dresses with deeply plunging necklines, their age and the amplitude (or absence) of the relevant assets notwithstanding. Never have I been surrounded by so much cleavage.

Because the luncheon doubled as a kickoff to the 50th anniversary festivities, 50 Playmates from years past attended -- among them, Dolores Del Monte, Miss March 1954, still spry and attractive (and modestly dressed) at 71.

Hugh Hefner, the magazine's founder and editor in chief, welcomed them all. Hefner -- graying, two weeks past his 77th birthday, clad in a cream-colored, double-breasted suit and a pink, open-neck shirt -- sat front and center, at a table with his seven nubile girlfriends. All were young, all were blond, all had vapid smiles permanently affixed. The local electronic media were out in force, and almost everyone else seemed to have a camera as well. Every time I turned around, someone was asking to have his picture taken, either with Hefner and his harem or with any one of the many other examples of anatomical overspill.

A 'victory parade'

Before the brief program began, I asked Hefner if he thought Playboy was an anachronism in today's world.

"Just the opposite," he said. "We all now live, to some extent, in a Playboy world. I can see the effects of the magazine ... and its campaign for sexual openness everywhere.

"When George Will was here the other day, interviewing me, he said, 'You won' ... and he's right. It's nice to have gone through the battles with all those Puritans ... all those forces of repression and hypocrisy, and to live long enough to see the victory parade."

Hef -- as everyone calls him, even his daughter, Christie, now the chairman and chief executive of Playboy Enterprises -- quite rightly noted that while Playboy's circulation is down, its "global brand identification" is strong and growing. Profits from the sale of Playboy licensing and merchandising, video and cable programming, and online services now dwarf the publishing operation. Last year, Playboy magazine accounted for only $94.7 million of the company's $277.6 million in total revenue.

But the magazine is the heart and soul of Playboy, and Hefner is determined to "keep it relevant for today's young male." After all, despite its decline, it still sells 3.2 million copies monthly to 2.5 million for No. 2 Maxim.

The Puritans are still among us, of course, and Playboy continues to be a valuable voice against them. If Playboy, at times, takes itself a bit too seriously, Maxim and its ilk are too silly, too frenetic to have (or even want) any real role in the ongoing struggle against what I think of as the "pleasure police," those anhedonics who, as H.L. Mencken put it, suffer from "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

When Arthur Kretchmer, Playboy's editorial director for 36 years, announced his retirement last year, Hefner hired a new editor, James Kaminsky, 42 -- from Maxim.

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