“Will you still love a man out of time?” Elvis Costello once famously asked. Now that he’s out of time, do we still love Hugh Hefner?
Hefner, the Playboy magazine founder and long-time impresario who died yesterday at the age of 91, is an unwieldy figure to deal with in the contemporary landscape of politics and culture. Cultivatedly urbane and socially progressive in his ways, Hef was a dominant figure in the 60’s and 70’s, establishing a publishing empire perfectly suited to an era of ever multiplying permissiveness and what might be generously termed well-intentioned chauvinism.
Playboy in the 60’s through the 80’s remains an admirable institution in American journalism, with its indispensable interviews, reportorial deep dives, and extraordinary bullpen of well compensated writers. It is also diminished not insignificantly by its role in the normalization of the porn industry as something part and parcel of a high-minded pursuit.
Surely porn and culture had met before Playboy, but never in such a deliberate and regular juxtaposition of the newsworthy and the exploitative. Even as the magazine appropriately endorsed the feminist party line regarding sexual freedoms and ready access to birth control, the tone was inevitably one of barely restrained glee at the prospect of further libidinal fevers. Playboy was legendary and Playboy was kind of icky.
Hefner is one of the last publishing giants, a titan who belongs in the litany of world-changing figures like Hearst, Pulitzer, Newhouse, and Wenner. He was a Chicagoan. So much of what he represents is a simpler time: when men were dapper and women acted available and people would pay significant money to read Philp Roth writing about Marxism for thirteen pages.
Now is a different time. Wenner’s for sale, Playboy only publishes online, and there are no more nudes.
Remember Jackie Treehorn from The Big Lebowski? It is said the Coen Brothers based him on Hugh Hefner. A suave, handsome, vaguely criminal pornographer from Malibu. In the picture, he slips our hero a mickey. Our hero passes out.
Remember Hugh Hefner. He was sexy and wrong. He liberated and conscripted and effected change. He slipped us a mickey. RIP.