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Playboy at 50: a man's notes

Hef's influential magazine has always been about a disdain for the unsophisticated macho lifestyle more than those glossy pictures.

November 28, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

That first issue, from late 1953, was either an inspired melange or a goofy mixed bag, depending on your tastes. A black-and-white photo of Marilyn Monroe beckoned vivaciously from the cover. An editor's note greeted female readers by flinging down a rhetorical gauntlet: "If you're somebody's sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake," it taunted, "please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion." Inside, the production values were primitive and the illustrations were like something you'd find in a boy's book of adventure stories.

But overall the editorial voice was surprisingly sophisticated -- assured, tongue-in-cheek and vaguely conspiratorial. Readers tempted to flip through the issue for more come-hither shots of Marilyn might've been surprised to find an excerpt from the Decameron, the raunchy 14th century picaresque masterpiece by Giovanni Boccaccio, and Ambrose Bierce's meditative short story "A Horseman in the Sky."

Elsewhere in the slim 44-page magazine, one snappily written feature story honored the jazz world's Dorsey brothers, another offered battle-scarred advice on how to survive an alimony settlement, and a third, "The Men's Shop," touted such essential bachelor-pad props as a stainless steel ice bucket covered in unborn calf skin. Hubba hubba!

It's easy to forget that in the beginning -- before the bunny became a global brand, before Hef became the swingin' godfather to three generations of American men, before anyone had even heard the name Pamela Anderson -- Playboy was simply a magazine. And not the sort that red-blooded all-American guys normally read.

For starters, Playboy was never really about naked women. Seriously. If you wanted to see a bit of skin, there was plenty to ogle in Eisenhower-era girlie mags like Escapade, Caper, Carnival, Night & Day, Bachelor. (Playboy was originally going to be called Stag Party before Hef made a last-minute change.) All sported the same wise-guy, film-noir attitude that seems about as hip today as a headful of Brylcreem. All served up soft-core features with smirky titles like "Minx in Minks" and "The Delicate Problem of Other Men's Wives." It was greasy kid's stuff, Bogart Lite.

What made Playboy stand out from this Rack Pack wasn't its monthly parade of newly minted beauties, as smoothly buffed and well-upholstered as a 1955 Buick Century. It was its unconcealed disdain for the Field & Stream lifestyle, its utter boredom with the macho world of fishing lures, two-man pup tents and Hemingway-style rugged outdoorsmanship.

"The men's magazines were promoting a male-bonding kind of thing that left the women out," Hugh Hefner says. "It was the woman in the home, raising the kids, and you're out there with the guys, playin' poker, huntin', fishin', bowlin'. And these were the things that did not appeal to me."

It's a pale, chilly November afternoon at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, the exclusive Westside enclave where Hefner has spent the better part of three decades living out his male readers' fondest fantasies. At times, he's aware, his reputation as a modern-day pasha has overshadowed the magazine that he first pasted up in his South Side Chicago apartment. The rest, of course, is history: Playboy went on to become a blue-chip corporate empire, Playboy Enterprises International, Inc., now run by Hefner's daughter Christie as chairman and CEO.

But it's Christie's dad, a 77-year-old Viagra enthusiast, who continues to edit the magazine: hand-picking stories, pondering the mix of cartoons and offering well-considered judgments as to whether Miss January's skin tone and pubic hair have the requisite up-market gloss.

Under Hef's half-century of editorial guidance, Playboy has arguably become one of the half-dozen or so most influential magazines in publishing history. The list of writers and artists contributing to its 50th anniversary issue, which goes on sale today, testifies to its continuing clout: Norman Mailer, Jeff Koons, T.C. Boyle, the late George Plimpton, David Mamet, Scott Turow, Hunter S. Thompson.

But what sort of magazine was, and is, Playboy? Once its readers had rifled their way through the monthly menagerie of blonds, brunets and redheads, what else was there to hold their attention? As it turns out, more than you might remember.

When the Bomb was big

Bear in mind that when that first issue of Playboy hit the streets in 1953, the United States had no counterculture to speak of and no recognizable bohemia apart from Greenwich Village. The Beats were still a few years away, and Elvis was driving a truck in Memphis. Toting around a copy of Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" could get you branded a degenerate, maybe even land you on a chain gang busting rocks.

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