The life and times of Hugh Hefner

Posted: May 29, 2003 12:00 AM

LOS ANGELES--Asked how it feels to have won, Hugh Hefner pauses, looks down and almost whispers, ``Wonderful.'' Then he says: ``I guess if you live long enough. ...''

Fifty years ago he was pecking at a typewriter on a card table in his Chicago apartment, preparing the first issue of a magazine he planned to call Stag Party but, because there already was a magazine called Stag, he called it Playboy. The first issue appeared in December 1953. It bore no date because Hefner was not sure there would be a second, such were the troubles the first issue caused with the post office and other defenders of decency.

Four years later, in the nick of time, Searle pharmaceutical company introduced Enovid--``the pill.'' Back then Hefner, the tuning fork of American fantasies, said he wanted to provide ``a little diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age.'' But three emblematic books of the supposedly repressed 1950s--Peyton Place, Lolita, and The Kinsey Report (Professor Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University was another Midwestern sexual subversive)--showed that more than geopolitical anxiety was on the mind of Eisenhower's America.

By 1959 the post office was delivering millions of copies of Hefner's magazine. Playboy's rabbit-head logo is now one of the world's most recognized brands, even in inscrutable China, where Playboy merchandise sells well but the magazine is banned.

Hefner's daughter Christie, who was born 13 months before the magazine, says Playboy was ``a great idea executed well at exactly the right time.'' A no-nonsense executive, she now runs the Chicago-based business she joined 27 years ago, fresh from earning a summa cum laude degree from Brandeis. When she arrived, Playboy was primarily an American magazine publisher. She has made it into an international electronic entertainment company.

The magazine, the 12th-highest-selling U.S. consumer publication, sells 3.2 million copies monthly. That is slightly less than half its 1970s peak, but its 18 international editions sell another 1.8 million copies a month, and it remains the world's best-selling monthly men's magazine.

Still, it provides only about one-third of Playboy Enterprises' annual revenues of $277.6 million. Playboy owns six cable networks that deliver to 38 million North American households movies of a sexual explicitness that would have been instantly prosecuted in all 48 states in 1953.

The magazine, the mere mention of which used to produce pursings of lips and sharp intakes of breaths, is still Hefner's preoccupation, but has been overtaken by the libertarian revolution he helped to foment. In 1953 Playboy magazine was pushing the parameters of the permissible, but it is hard to remain iconoclastic when standing waist-deep in the shards of smashed icons.

Born to ``puritanical'' (Hefner's words) parents in Chicago, city of broad shoulders, Hefner founded an empire based on breasts. What is it about that protean city? Chicagoan Ray Kroc, entrepreneur of McDonald's, did his Army training with Chicagoan Walt Disney--two prodigies of mass marketing, the creator of the Big Mac and the creator of Mickey Mouse, in the same Army unit.

Then Chicago produced the Henry Luce of the skin game--Hef, as everyone, including his daughter, calls him. The Chicago boy recalls that the Sears Roebuck mail order catalogue--another Chicago innovation--was called ``a dream book'' because it brought ``the dream of urbanity to rural communities. Playboy, for young, single men, is a variation of this.''

Recently, dressed in his black pajamas and merlot-colored smoking jacket--it was 1 p.m.--he looked a bit tuckered, but he had been living what Teddy Roosevelt called ``the strenuous life,'' although not as TR envisioned it. Hefner's recent 77th birthday party had rambled on for more than a week, during which he took to dinner--simultaneously--the seven ladies he is currently dating. As F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing of Jay Gatsby, suggested, ``personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.''

An 11th-generation descendant of William Bradford, who arrived on the Mayflower to begin a religious errand in the wilderness, Hefner says, ``In a real sense we live in a Playboy world.'' He lives here in a 30-room mock-Tudor mansion that sits on six acres of posh Holmby Hills decorated with wandering peacocks, among other fauna.

He says, ``I grew up in the Depression and World War II and I looked back to the roaring Twenties and I thought I'd missed the party.'' The party turned out to be a moveable feast.