Now that he’s gone, can we talk about who Hugh Hefner was?
(Spoiler: If you loved the guy, or dreamed of being him, don’t read any further.)
I’m sure it was really cool when Hef was in his heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, all those girls in bunny outfits and guys in suave smoking jackets. By the time I came of age in the 1980s, Hugh Hefner was no longer relevant. It was the age of Jazzercise and Jane Fonda’s workout videos, while in the porn world the hard core stuff had taken over.
I started to pay attention in the late 1990s during Hef’s comeback tour. He was in his 70s by then and managed to convince everyone — including some of my editors — that he was the original feminist. Hollywood alphas and wannabe alphas flocked to the newly energized Playboy Mansion out of a sense of nostalgia and a desire to touch the legend.
The post-feminist logic was that Playboy was always about championing sexual freedom for both men and women, not just for the men who were being served by girls in itty-bitty outfits showing off grandioso breasts. Feminist Camille Paglia pronounced him “one of the principal architects of the modern sexual revolution.”
This point was proven, apparently, by Hef trotting out a half-dozen blonde girlfriends a quarter his age. (Were all of them named Brandy or was that just my imagination?) They gave “interviews” in which they talked about how in love they all were.
In an interview I did with Hef in 1999 for The Washington Post, he was loving this legacy:
“This is the best time of my life,” Hefner says in an interview a few days after the party. He is in his library, where an oil painting of him dressed as a Renaissance prince hangs above the fireplace. He’s in Hefwear — that same burgundy silk pajama jacket over black silk pants — and, despite jowls, is still a handsome man.
“The golden years for me are the golden years,” he exults. “Society has been taking stock. . . . I’ve been getting recognition. Celebration. As good as my life looks from the outside, on the inside it’s better.”
But as I dug into the reporting on that story, I found a lot of things that were odd, and not feminist at all. Some of his personal sexual habits seemed almost cruel, and his personal predilections weird.
As I reported then, Hef would keep videos of his sexual encounters, and play them on two big screen TVs while he was having sex with new partners. Even when the women objected.
Equally odd, he kept stacks and stacks of legal pads chronicling every single one of his sexual acts.
“There were stacks of them,” his live-in girlfriend of many years Carrie Leigh told me at the time. “On the left, it would say the names of the people. Next to that, it would say the type of sex . . . and to the right of that, he would grade it. A-plus-plus-plus was the highest grade, down to C-minus.”
When I asked Hef about this during our interview — an awkward encounter, as I recall — he said it was totally normal and maybe I was the uptight one. “I’m a writer-editor. I’ve done that kind of thing since early childhood,” he told me.
But honestly, what does it say about the sexual confidence of someone who needed to write every act down and give his partner a grade? That’s not very feminist to me.
I don’t care now and didn’t care then that Hef loved beautiful blonde women a fraction of his age. The women who chose to be Playmates or his sexual partners or both may have loved their choices. Or they may have felt used, but that was on them.
But I object to calling him an icon of women’s sexual liberation, and I object to calling him a feminist.
Hef seemed to me to be an Epicurean in the formal sense of the philosophy, embracing experience and sensuality in a rebuke to the harsh Puritanism of American society. In this I agree with him — we are very uptight about sex in this country.
But Hef’s lifestyle was all about the man’s pleasure. This does not make him a feminist.