Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Playboy Nation

This week I have been so busy with things I forgot to take any pictures of how my first image for my new seires of art work (see past posts from 3 feb 2009) is coming along. So I thought I share with you the latest book I read. It's a good one, it's Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream by Steven Watts.

Hugh Marston Hefner has been a figure of fascination for me for many years now. Not only have I admired him for bringing the bunny girl into this world (one of the most iconic images of femininity from the 20th Century) but Mr Hefner or Hef for short has acheived the almost impossible. He has spent most of his 82 years living his dream! Love him or hate him he is definately a man who deserves further investigation.

Steven Watts book combines the story of Hef's life along with the effect that Playboy has had on American culture. He has proven beyond doubt that much of contemporary thinking towards sex and gender roles have much to do with the early influence of Playboy Magazine and the later Playboy empire.

Hugh Hefner is well known for blaming his uptight Puritan upbringing for his severe backlash of sex and girls. But as Steven Watts explains the truth is much more interesting than the legend. Hef's parents were strict with old Victorian morals and ethics. But his mother in particular encouraged free thinking in her sons (Hef has one brother named Keith). It was this open minded attitude which allowed Hef's dreamer quality to take hold. He loved attending the cinema as a child and saw the love stories in the films as blue prints to what life should be like. At school he created numerous comics and horror stories and during high school started an autobiography of his life chronicalling the many adventures he and his gang of guy and girl friends got up to.

I found it really interesting to note that Hef has never been naturally out going. He was a shy teen who found it necessary to literally re-invent himself to get what he wanted out of life. This is a quality that he fell back one sevaral times over his career. At college he became a crooner known as the 'Campus Ballard King' often singing with a swing band at dances. He had a strong interest in sex from an early age and read every article and book on the subject he could get his hands on. He hated the prim morals of the time that villified sex as a bad thing which only held bad consequences and guilt before marriage.

After college and the army he married his high school sweetheart Millie and went onto have two children, a son and daughter. But he was restless with life. He hated working everyday 9 to 5 jobs and ached for a career doing something he actually cared about. He dabbled with cartooning and eventually fell into working at Esquire Magazine. After some time he decided to start his own magazine. A publication which focused on his free thinking attitiude to sex with articles on sophistication, elegant dressing, living and philosophy. Hef and friends pooled all their resources to create the first edition of Playboy in 1953. One of his cleverest moves was to purchase the rights to the infamous nude photo of Marilyn Monroe, that years most exciting and sexy up and coming star! She became the very first Playboy centrefold.

The magazine took hold immediatley. The liberal views that it aired about marriage, sex and politics were a breath of fresh air for a society ready for a new way of thinking after the oppressive times of WWII and the strict Victorian mindset it had held for so long. It also promoted a new consumer way of life in a way which had never been done before, equating materailism with fulfilment. Playboy went on to become the most successful publication of all time in the 1950's.

Steven Watts book then goes on to explore the effect the magazine and its ethos had on the coming decades: The swinging Sixties were Playboy's golden years.... to begin with anyway. With a new open minded attitude to love, sex, fashion and just about everything else, Playboy was a beacon of modern thinking. But when the feminism movement began near the end of the decade, Hef was made into a figure of female oppression a villain out to objectify women and strip them of humanity. Hef was deeply hurt by the outbust towrds him as he and Playboy had always promoted sex for both sexes, encouraging sex before marriage as a liberating thing for men and women. He had also campaigned for abortion rights for women, another form of liberation in his eyes.

During the Seventies Playboy boomed but suffered from connections to drugs, although Hef never took them himself, the legendary parties at his Chicago Playboy Mansion were well known for cocaine and crazy orgies. This did nothing for his reputation, but Playboy's success grew and grew, with a new empire of casinos and hotels bursting up around the world!

Playboy's worst decade was the Eighties. By this time society had become cynical about sex, once more wary of it as AIDS took hold and the magazine was seen as an outdated publication with nothing to offer an already liberated culture. The murder of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten only served to lessen the glamour of Playboy and once more gave feminists ammunition to hurl at it's editor, blaming the magazine for the the events that ran up to her death (quite wrongly I have to say).

But by the Nineties the magazine had found its feet once more. The decade of romance and family values with a strong interest in consumerism was a perfect backdrop to the original entertainment magazine for men. Falling back in it's formula of sophisticaion sex and politics the magazine moved into a retro glamour and was seen as THE iconic mens magazine.

Over all these years Hef transformed into a living legend personifying the magazine. With a conveyor belt of girlfiends it would be easy to think he used and consumed all of them like the readers comsumed the the magazine, but Hef was and still is a true romantic. With all his relationships he was known to say, that each one was the love of his life, and I think he truely beleived this too! His many amours over the years each kept a good relationship with him after their split.

Yet Hef can't have been the easiest of men to live with. Obsessed with his new magazine and working long unsocialble hours, Hef eventually left his wife and children in the 50's to pursue the life of a real playboy. He went onto purchase the first Playboy Mansion which soon became the epicentre of wild living and parties, attracting Hollywood elite and entertainers alike. Later in the 70's he moved to Los Angeles to the Playboy Mansion West which he still resides in today. Hef, ever the creature of habit lived life to a schedule of film nights, dinner parties and club nights. No girlfriend could alter this, not even his second wife Kimberley whom he married in the 90's (later to separate from as she felt unable to make her mark on his lifestyle and routine). Throughout his countless relations he also has never stayed true to one female (apart from Kimberley), never making a secret of the fact either.

Now as he heads towards his 83rd year Hef is more a man of intrigue and contradictions than ever. An octogenarian with a bevy of blonde 20 something girlfriends. A true romantic with an inability to stay true to one girl. A visionary who wanted to create a better the world with his liberal ideas but caused a huge morality backlash, and has undoubtedly influenced the feminist movement on both ends of the scale. Hated for degrading women in some peoples eyes but hailed for promoting women's freedom to enjoy sex and advocating ecomonic opportunity and equal rights for women also.
But I think one of the most profound effects his ideas have had according to Steven Watts, has to be his belief in the fantasy of free love, material abundance and instant gratification. He thought these things could only benifit society and encourage happiness, but ultimately we now live in a world where it is difficult to see beyond ourselves and people tend to be less inclined to maintain commitments beyond immediate needs, we tend towards the restless and cynical.

I can't help but like him though. There were definately parts of this excellantly written and facsinating book which made me wince, like Hef's throwaway comments about gender roles during the 50's, but there where more parts that had me nodding along in agreement and even cheering him along! In all I found my values and beliefs backed up by most of what Playboy stands for, and see it only as harmful or corrupting as people want it to be, if anything it was definately an education.

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