Love him or hate him, Hugh Hefner is a cultural force. His magazine played an undeniable role in the sexual revolution, and his early legal battles helped to break through puritanical obscenity laws. In her new documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, Brigitte Berman explores the socially progressive side of the Hef. His TV show was the first to feature mixed racial groups on national television, and his Playboy clubs in the South allowed both black and white guests while segregation was still the law. An early Playboy issue even featured a science-fiction story satirizing homophobia, long before that was part of public discourse. Arts Desk chatted with the playboy himself about the documentary and his legacy.
What prompted this documentary—-were you approached about it or was it your idea?
It was not my idea at all. I became aquainted with and friends with Bridget when she did her Academy Award-winning documentary on Artie Shaw. She also did a documentary on Bix Beiderbecke the iconic early jazz cornetist, and we play Dixieland all the time here at the mansion. So we became friends, and three or four years ago she said she was interested in doing a documentary on the parts of my life that people don’t know about.
How did the process of actually making the movie begin?
She said she simply wanted to focus primarily on the part of my life that other people were generally unaware of—the other facts were out there, but people weren’t noticing them for obvious reasons. Ray Bradbury related to the magazine a number of years ago, “People don’t see the forest because of the Ts.” The lifestyle and the girls get the attention, but what she found interesting was the other part of my life—-not just the sexual revolution, but the impact I’ve had on race, abortion reform, drug reform, and such.
I think a lot of people might be surprised to see how progressive you were on a lot of issues. The movie portrays you essentially as an activist—do you consider yourself one?
Yes, of course. Naturally, having played a major part in changing the world, I guess I’d have to be.
You were involved in a fair number of legal issues and seemed to come out ahead most of the time. How has the law changed since you began Playboy?
I think the laws in terms of sexual behavior and censorship and simply the way we live our lives is dramatically different than it was 60 years ago. When I was growing up, and when I was in college, nice middle class kids simply didn’t live together. There weren’t a lot of options in terms of how to live your life. Procreation was just for having babies, and the laws reflected that. I did a paper in post-grad work on sexual behavior and the first Kinsey report. I made the case that if the current laws regarding sexual behavior were actually applied most men would serve prison time. Later on, in the 60s, with the Playboy philosophy and the foundation, I helped to change those laws.
Are there any laws that you find challenging now?
I don’t think the problems now are primarily laws, the problems are behavior. I think in the sexual arena we are much freer than we were before. For good or bad, we’re free to make our own choices.
From the outset, Playboy was involved with a lot of great writers. Was that always a priority for you?
Yes. The whole notion of the magazine was a lifestyle magazine. I never thought of it as a sex magazine. The notion of putting mind and body together was what it was all about. There’s a romantic connection between the sexes from a male point of view, and the good writing was essential.
Do you feel you got lucky, or did you look hard for that kind of talent?
Well, to begin with, for the first year, I went for for the talent and names on a reprint basis. Once the magazine was successful, we paid top dollar for the writing. Certainly, in the ’60s when the mag was second to none—the circulation moved from a million copies per month to seven million—-nobody else was able to touch us. We were able to pay what nobody else was paying.
The movie goes into some detail about your television shows and the various important performers you had on the program—-how were you able to stay on top of what was happening in entertainment at that time?
It was simply who I was and the world in which I lived. A number of my friends were showbiz people, and I was very much connected with jazz and the show business scene. When I was through working every day, I’d go out on the club scene every night, so quite literally, a lot of the people who were on Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark were my friends.
Do you have any favorite moments from those shows?
Overall, they’re very delicious memories. What was unique—-and the concept was mine—-what makes it memorable then and now, was the conceit of the subjective camera which came up an elevator into my apartment. You were watching the talent not on a stage in an impersonal way, but as though you were at a party at my apartment, and that had great appeal. You, the viewer, were a guest in my apartment. It worked, it was delightful, and it’s remembered in a rather iconic way today.
The film also documents how surprised you were when feminists first began attacking you for your work. How do you respond to their challenges now?
I think they were misguided. The notion that we should deny that women are objects are desire, that we ought not to celebrate that sexuality and that connection is naive. I had a problem at the time because I was blindsided by the criticism. In the best sense, we are both sex objects. If women weren’t sex objects, they wouldn’t wear lipstick or dresses. It’s part of who were are. The notion of it as exploitation was a political point of view. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that America is a Puritan nation, we were founded by Puritans, and I myself am a direct descendant of William Bradford, one of the Puritan forefathers. There was a strong puritan strain among the women’s movement. The early part of the movement, the suffrage movement, was intimately connected with the prohibitionist movement. When women got the vote in 1920, we got prohibition. So, the fact that there is an anti-sexual element within the women’s movement is understandable but sad.
Did you ever struggle with the claims of your detractors at all, or were you always certain that you were doing something positive?
I thought that they were misguided then and now. I feel they trapped themselves in an ill-conceived notion. How can you make a serious case for denying the fact that women are sexual beings? How can you make a case for that on the other side? I think it’s politics.
Do you think Playboy has affected men’s expectations of women?
I suppose the case could be made that if you put images of attractive people in a magazine, or in a sports magazine if you show people who are winners, you may make other people feel that they are less. But the whole idea, frankly, is to fuel aspirations and to make people feel more beautiful. It’s worth noting that when we got around to doing a television show within the past few years, The Girls Next Door, a reality show based on my three girlfriends living at the mansion, it became a global phenomenon and the audience was over 70 percent female. I think the case can be made that there is an inspirational side to Playboy and always has been for both men and women.
You took a lot of business risks early on, and you succeeded in part because of that. Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?
I’ve expressed on multiple occasions that I have always been a dreamer. There are a lot of forces in society that urge people to put away their dreams. My recommendation for young people is: if you have dreams, hold on to them. Continue to believe in what you believe in, and try to make the most of it.
Do you have any regrets?
Everybody makes mistakes, business and personal, but the danger is if you change anything, there’s that Ray Bradbury butterfly effect. You change one thing and you don’t know what else comes as a result of it. I realize how very lucky I am. To be here at the age of 84, more than 50 years after the launch of Playboy, to still have the brand so hot, to be in such a unique situation, it doesn’t get better than this.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I hope that I will be remembered as someone who had some positive impact on the social-sexual issues of his time, and I think I’m pretty secure in that position.
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel opens today at E St. Cinema.