Looking back, I realize it’s not only the clothes that make me laugh. The restaurants we went to were “classy” at best. And none of us particularly enjoyed those New Orleans strippers (one looked like a rheumy sharecropper’s daughter). But there was, in all of it, a deliberate effort at contemporary maturity, an effort that was encouraged by Playboy magazine. Maturity was the key to that great Playboy Club of life—your all-access pass to the jumping realm of adult pleasures and preoccupations. We may have come of age clumsily, but no one doubted that it was the thing to do.
Where did those days go?
Several new men’s magazines—led by the laddie triumvirate of Maxim, Stuff, and FHM—have been eating into Playboy’s readership for a decade now, and what they primarily encourage is a lot of boyish grab-assing. (A recent headline from FHM: “Stooge Luge! Now people can ride something dumber than your sis.” And one from Maxim: “Man Punks Nature: Yes, Mother Earth, we are the boss of you.” Stuff, for its part, has offered such puntastic fare as the Yo, Bitchuary! and the Bro-file.) Incidentally, all three magazines are also great advocates of the sort of lite lesbianism that the aforementioned Playboy Advisor discouraged. Even still, they do bear a faint resemblance to Playboy. There’s hardly a trace of the old journalism, and no fiction, but there are the numerous girlie pictorials, in this case teasingly non-nude; the gadgetry and the spiffy autos; the obligatory fashion spreads. However, where the sexes are concerned in lad land, it’s almost completely separate but equal, which is to say equally puerile. These mags are full of bravado (not limited to the guys) about hooking up, but otherwise, basically, the twain never meet: you might score with the opposite sex, but you hang out with your own—which perfectly captures a sensibility people my age (fortyish) tended to ditch before they left their teens, and which indicates that the average lad finds girlfriend scary.
What made Playboy novel in the beginning wasn’t only the newsstand nudity; it was that a men’s magazine would bring the proceedings indoors, in urban (and urbane) settings, and include women in the action as well, as critical players in the social (which is not just to say “sexual”) mix. Many have had an easy laugh at Hefner’s claim that he and his ilk liked “inviting in a female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” One can imagine that after “Nietzsche who?” and “Never mind,” a lot of jazzy sex ensued, and that the Continental touches were a mere “Let me show you my etchings” come-on. But Hefner wasn’t the only American editor partying hearty to the Euro beat. Read Gay Talese’s 1960 essay “Looking for Hemingway,” on George Plimpton and the Paris Review crowd. This sort of multicultural dilettantism was like catnip in those early days of the UN—and, of course, still is in some circles.
When Playboy was establishing itself, most men’s magazines, as revealed in The History of Men’s Magazines, Vol. 2, were still heavy with adventure (war, gunfights, outlawry, cannibalism, man-versus-beast encounters, lots of Nazis). Women, if present, tended to be either damsels in distress (rescue fantasies loom large) or vamps—or else they were mere cheesecake intermissions, like Helen Petroff in the July 1956 Man’s Life, situated as she and her bikini and her stuffed tiger are between “Attacked by a Giant Boa” and “25 Best Fishing Spots.” This class of magazine advertised everything from rifles, knives, fishing tackle, trusses, accordions, and high-paying jobs in meat cutting to Charles Atlas body-building regimens and careers in accounting and real-estate brokering (the March 1958 See even has an article on how to ask for a raise), all of which suggests a readership that ranged from Sam the butcher to Walter Mitty.
Playboy, exhibiting little interest in “Jim Bowie’s Big Knife” (Argosy, August 1956), instead gathered the ladies and set a tone of cheerfully mixed company and sleek cosmopolitanism. The April 1962 issue, for example, has a classic photo essay showing handsome couples out and about in Paris, part of which is reproduced in The Playboy Book: Fifty Years, a gorgeous sampling of illustrations, covers, candids, travel photos, and concept photography as well as the requisite figure studies. It’s an intoxicating collection—provoking no small amount of loopy nostalgia. But that’s all part of its charm. There may be poignancy in Hefner’s bourgeois midwestern dream of the luxe life; witness the stilted grooviness of the old Playboy’s Penthouse TV show, now available on DVD under the blanket title Playboy After Dark, in which Hef, a polite young man turned psychology major, does his best impression of a tuxedoed hipster-host. But is this any more quaintly touching than Plimpton and company’s Ivy-abroad, shabby-chic attempt to relive the Lost Generation? At least Hefner, against all odds (many, many odds), seems to be held in high regard by just about every woman who ever knew him, including ex-wives and ex-girlfriends and all manner of coworker. The Playmate Book has an air of lighthearted reunion, only so much of which can be manufactured. Many of the former centerfolds have submitted biographical updates and family photos, and over the years have returned to the mansion on occasion to see old acquaintances and even pose for reunion pictorials—sometimes decades after their initial appearance, and looking better than ever. (This bonhomie is borne out in testimonial after testimonial in the documentary Hugh Hefner: American Playboy. Yes, it’s an obvious brief for the defense. But still, no one’s forcing first wife, Mildred, or ex-girlfriend Barbi Benton to recall fondly the man who cheated on them prodigiously.) Compare all that with what Patsy Matthiessen, the ex-wife of one of the Paris Review founders, said to Talese about that milieu:
The whole life seemed after a while to be utterly meaningless … And there was something very manqué about them—this going to West Africa, and getting thrown in jail, and getting in the ring with Archie Moore … And I was a Stepin Fetchit in that crowd, getting them tea at four, and sandwiches at ten.
One might argue that the average Playboy belle isn’t sophisticated enough to register such pique, but that would seem only to make Matthiessen’s treatment the worse.