HUGH HEFNER: THE MAN WHO LIVED EVERYONE’S DREAM LIFE
Almost a decade after he founded Playboy, Hugh Hefner was arrested for selling “obscene literature”. The verdict, however, was a hung—the jury could not decide what to do with Hefner. With that, the big, bad Rabbit was smiling.
When one looks back now, thinking that Hefner could be arrested for a magazine, it sounds ridiculous. But, then, Hefner knew he was more than that. And he proved it. As Hefner has now passed away at the age of 91, one can only look up to him for having kept his word—to revolutionise how the world saw sex and liberation.
Growing up amidst stringent Catholic or devout religious people was a phenomenon that existed everywhere in the world at the time Hefner founded Playboy in 1953. Hefner, himself, had a few things to say about his own upbringing. Born in Chicago to Grace and Glenn Hefner, he recalled his life as a “repressed Midwestern Methodist Home.” Strong words for someone to describe their ‘home’, but that was Hefner. About his mother, Hefner had said that she had only taught him about sexual biology, not the part where emotional aspects were involved. But from what we know of Hefner, he was clearly more educated than anyone else at his time when it came to sex and its trivia.
His critique of his mother brings me to another very important conversation that Hefner was part of. In 1967, Hefner appeared from his mansion for a conversation with two of the most interesting characters a businessman making money from a semi-porn business could imagine—theologian Harvey Coz and conservative editor William Buckley. Hefner made a point—if America was to progress, it would have to make sure that the country was sexually liberated. “That’s exactly what we at Playboy aim to achieve,” Hefner said, puffin his signature pipe. And oh my, it got tongues wagging. How was a man blatant enough to say that a country’s economic development, which included achieving its own target goals and ensuring citizens lived their lives, make such an overarching statement on the importance of sex and sexual freedom, liberation. But that was Hefner.
Sex was important for him, and it showed. “Sex is the primary motivating factor in the course of human history, and in the 20th century it has emerged from the taboos and controversy that have surrounded it throughout the ages to claim its rightful place in society,” he wrote in The Century of Sex: Playboy’s History of the Sexual Revolution. For many during that time, Hefner did indeed start a revolution. In the case of India, Playboy was banned of course. There came a point where it used to be smuggled into the country and landed in those revolving, sort of temporary libraries around cities. The magazines would be less in number, and hence the diktat for the borrower was to return it within 24 hours, at the max. And people swore by it.
So, what did Hefner achieve in his long, sexually active life? Playboy had women dressed as bunnies, properly with ears and cotton tail. Hefner was the rabbit. The rabbit ate many carrots, and made sure we all ate with him. Symbolic in his silk pyjamas, he was always assumed to sleeping with either one or at least four of his bunnies. While millions all over the world read Playboy, enjoyed looking at pictures that Hefner approved for publication, the man himself was in his bed, in his Mansion, with his bunnies. “I’m the luckiest man alive,” he had once said. And indeed, he was. He enjoyed and almost worshipped his women, and he made sure everyone got a piece of his devotion too.
Beyond sex, Hefner did try hard at a family life. In fact, his transformation from Hefner to Hef allegedly came from his first breakup. He went on to marry Mildred Williams in 1949, with whom he had two children. Their marriage became an open marriage. Mildred had cheated on him while he was in the Army (Yes, he was once a soldier). Out of guilt, Mildred let him sleep with other women, a phenomenon that stayed for long with Hefner and eventually broke their marriage. Hefner went on to being involved with, as he himself admitted, “maybe eleven out of twelve months” with Playmates. He also had a $35 million palimony lawsuit against him filed by one his former lovers, a suit he claimed held no ground as he was, as everybody knew, “the most confirmed bachelor ever of the 20th century.” Hefner and his legendary ways.
His bachelorhood was taken away in 1989 again when he got married for the second time to Kimberley Conrad. They went to have two sons. The Playboy Mansion turned into a family friendly home, but the marriage did not last. Post that, Hefner was back to being Hef. Viagra and playmates became the order of the day and the Mansion was up and running. Years later, he married his runaway bride Crystal Harris in 2012, a marriage that lasted until his last breath earlier today.
He went on to open Playboy clubs, one which lies in the national capital of one of the world’s largest democracies. To think that Hefner’s legacy reached Delhi from America is a story for our grandchildren (when they grow up of course). In the Journal of the History of Sexuality in 2008, Carrie Pitzulo says that Hefner was himself worried about breakdown of gender distinctions. “He wanted women to look like women and men to continue to have the traditional thrill of sexual chase.” Now, if one goes by what Carrie has written, it might be problematic for the whole idea of feminism, keeping into account equality and breaking gender stereotypes. But then, well, Hefner clearly didn’t care. He stuck to the version of feminism that he and Playboy were propagating. He boasted about being a feminist even before feminism as a term was coined. He said he helped those who challenged states that outlawed birth control. But as is with all legends, Hefner’s idea of feminism was and still is challenged by many.
But, as is the case with all legends, Hefner remains a hero to many too. In the cheesiest way possible. Mostly for making sure young men got a good night’s sleep. For many, he was the Secret Santa sitting in United States of America who fulfilled their adolescent fantasies too.