Playboy: The Little Girlie Mag That Could

The recent announcement by Playboy magazine that it was going “non-nude” come March 2016 is probably the right thing to do from a publishing industry business standpoint, but for longtime Playboy fans, the news hit like a brick being thrown through a plate glass window.

In an age where you can hop on the Internet and go to AnySickAndTwistedThingYouCanImagine.com and see all the porn you want for free, there doesn’t seem much of a point to the type of nude photography that made Playboy famous. Those artistic airbrushed spreads have become obsolete. Maybe they have been for a while, but with the no-nude announcement, Playboy is forever closing the door on an era of great import to the American cultural fabric.

marilyn-monroe-1953

Original first issues of Playboy are now worth thousands of dollars.

Younger lads may not appreciate this, but there was a time when Playboy was deeply engrained in our culture. When the magazine first hit the stands in 1953, no one had seen anything like it. Its depiction of female nudity, its open acceptance of the free-wheeling single lifestyle, and its bold liberal social politics openly challenged the conservative postwar outlook that sought a more low-key, quiet life.

Hugh Hefner recognized the pent up sexual and social energies that were bubbling in society. World War II was over, America was the preeminent power in the world, richer than most all other nations put together. It was the view of many young people, particularly men, that the time had come to celebrate life and shed the old, outdated social views that kept people from thinking and acting freely.

The trouble was that in the early 1950s, there was no vehicle to capture these feelings. The mens’ magazines of the time did not like to court controversy. So Hefner, a low-paid chain-smoking (who wasn’t a chain smoker in those days?) copywriter, decided to do something about it.

Hefner started Playboy magazine on a card table in his kitchen with funds cobbled together from friends and family. The first issue debuted in December 1953 and cost 50 cents ($4.50 in 2015 dollars).

The first centerfold was Marilyn Monroe. No, Hef did not convince her to pose for the magazine. He wouldn’t achieve that kind of pull for years. Instead he secured the rights to a photo shoot Monroe did in 1949 while she was still trying to break into Hollywood.

A naked Marilyn Monroe certainly helped draw attention to his little magazine, but Hefner wanted Playboy to be more than just a nudie rag. He had a grand vision for Playboy as the ultimate brand, a cultural megaphone through which he could share his view of what a liberated society could look like. Over the course of several years, he wrote a series of op-eds that took on religion, sex, politics, free speech, and other hot button topics. This collection would grow to become the Playboy Philosophy.

Playboy grew by leaps and bounds in the late 50s. Hefner smartly employed top notch editors to curate and develop content from some of the leading writers of the time. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Saul Bellow, Alex Haley—the list of talent went on and on. And there was no shortage of beautiful ladies, either. By the time the 1960s rolled around, Hefner had become a millionaire, relocating his operation to Beverly Hills. The Playboy Mansion was born.

Hare Force One

Hare Force One

Hefner embodied the ultimate Playboy lifestyle, dating multitudes of women, flying around the world in the Bunny Jet, and generally sending social conservatives into a frenzy. The turbulent, free-loving 60s were tailor made for a magazine like Playboy, and the brand became a mainstay in popular culture for the next 20 solid years. The magazine, which spread to include over a dozen international editions, consistently maintained some of the highest circulation numbers in America. Playboy Clubs and casinos opened up around the country. There was even a television show.

With all this success, it is often forgotten the impact Hefner and Playboy had on the cultural front. Hefner freely jumped into the battles over sexual liberation, free speech, and racial equality. He set up the Playboy Foundation to support such causes, and he suffered his fair share of lawsuits, gag orders, and regulatory abuse. Hef at workBut he persevered, and his magazine lived on.

Playboy magazine doesn’t hold nearly the circulation it once did, but few long-standing magazines can say that. The brand, however, is alive and well, and the Rabbit logo is one of the most recognizable trademarks in the world, ranking up there with the Nike swoosh, the McDonald’s arches, and the Apple apple.

Playboy may be giving up the one thing for which it is most well known, but there was always a lot more to the magazine than naked women. The Playboy editorial staff said it best:

When Hef created Playboy, he set out to champion personal freedom and sexual liberty at a time when America was painfully conservative. See: any popular movie, TV show or song from that era. Nudity played a role in the conversation about our sexual liberties, and over 62 years the country made great strides politically and culturally.

We like to think we had something to do with that.

They certainly did.