Prudently, Hugh M. Hefner put no date on the cover of the first issue of Playboy, which appeared in December, 1953. Thus he’d be able to leave the magazines on the newsstand until they sold out, which would yield enough money to print the second issue, Marilyn Monroe was the magazine’s first naked “sweetheart”—the term “Playmate” began shortly—an item of calendar art to which Hefner had bought rights for $200. Whether because of the photograph or not, the magazine quickly vanished from the stands, and the January, 1954, issue appeared on schedule. On November 3, 1971, Playboy Enterprises made a public offering of some one million shares of stock. Hefner’s holdings, about 7 million shares, were worth $164,921,190.50.
If the succession of Playmates in the intervening eighteen years could be transformed into a single girl, she would weigh eleven and one half tons and have a bust of 7242 inches. This concept doesn’t come from my imagination but from that of A. C. Spectorsky, the associate publisher and editorial director of Playboy. Spectorsky is a lean, elegant man given to double-breasted suits, who speaks with a dry voice and pronounces his name “Acey,” though he is known as “Spec” to his friends. When he spoke of the big Playmate, he was welcoming guests to the Playboy International Writers’ Convocation, which was held at the Playboy Towers Hotel (adjoining the Playboy Building) in Chicago last October.
About sixty writers, all Playboy contributors, attended the Convocation, a highly various group of talents. Sean O’Faolain, Alberto Moravia, John Cheever were there; so were Donn Pearce, a former safecracker who wrote Cool Hand Luke, and John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger; many political writers; Tom Wicker, Garry Wills, Murray Kempton, Jack Newfield, and Art Buchwald; William Masters, the sex researcher, and Ken Purdy, the sports-car writer; and Herbert Gold, James Dickey, V. S. Pritchett, and Richard Hooker, who is actually Richard Homberger, M.D., author of M*A*S*H. The whole list would begin to take on the sound of the opening pages of Chapter 4 of The Great Gatsby, “From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches . . .” From New York came Bruce Jay Friedman and the Gay Taleses; Studs Terkel and Roman Polanski and the Calvin Trillins were there . . . All these people came to Hefner’s house in the fall.
The purpose of the Convocation was vague (“get to know each other better . . . explore ways in which we believe all of us might work even better and more fruitfully together”) and in some way unopen to questioning. It was lavish, decorous, and a success. It cost, perhaps, $200,000; a guess— Playboy didn’t say, no more than a father would say what his daughter’s coming out cost, a comparison that somehow seemed apt. Something between a debutante party and a sales conference (“We are here,” Nicholas von Hoffman said, “as employees”) begins to describe the feeling of the event. In any case, guests were flown in first class and given Playboy Club keys and unlimited room service; a party at the Mansion and a weekend at the Playboy Hotel at Lake Geneva were offered at the end of the Convocation; caviar-stuffed crépes were followed by rack of lamb; at lunch, abundant turkeys and hams were rolled in on carts and out again; the Writers’ Lounge, a haven of white leather couches, was established, where the bar was open until 4 A M., where the only gin one saw was Beefeater, Heineken’s the only beer.
At the Writers’ Lounge, before the opening evening’s party at Spectorsky’s house, Michael Arlen, who stands with his feet together in a military way and occasionally springs to his toes, said, “Proust is coming, but he won’t be here until later. We’ll be whipped at Spec’s house. Oriental ladies will walk on our spines.”
Spectorsky, with his wife, Theo, the Playboy personnel director, lives in a duplex apartment across Michigan Avenue from the Playboy Building. Spectorsky’s wife attended the party, and so did some of the other Playboy wives, and some of the writers brought their wives, but the rudimentary joke of the Convocation became clear: there are no Bunnies; Playboy has only elegance and art on its mind, whatever the writers have on theirs. A band of flautists wandered across the Spectorskys’ white carpet and at one moment sang all the words to “Winter Is Icummen In.” Looking around the room, Tom Wicker said in his soft voice, “You know Ah really did think there’d be some tushy-pinching.”
Day brought panel discussions: on “Beyond Journalism,” on “Paranoia: The New Urban Life Style,” on “The Future of Sex,” on “Politics ‘72.” Newsweek in its coverage of the International Writers’ Convocation said that the panels resembled in their effect a “Nembutal factory.” Unfair. The panels were faithfully attended. Things of interest were said. There is no possible way to pul a shape on them, but I will happily share some of my notes: William Masters is accused of introducing a world of men ridden with “multiple-orgasm envy” . . . Nicholas Johnson says Nixon’s China trip is conceived “wholly to produce a television show” . . . Garry Wills says that “new journalism” is pale old journalism: “There has never been a better journalist than Dr. Johnson” . . . Arthur Schlesinger remarks that Nixon has a great advantage: “He has no principles.”
There was, for some tastes, all too much seriousness. At Thursday night’s banquet, Arthur C. Clarke (science fictionist, creator of the film 2001) celebrated space exploration: weather satellites . . . earth-resources satellites . . . reconnaissance satellites. Clarke stood erect at the podium in a powder-blue suit. He described a world in which offices will be obsolete: “The slogan will be ‘Don’t commute, communicate!’ ”
John Cheever, at his table, nodded elaborately in approval of this idea. He crafted a piece of paper into a small airplane and sailed it across the table.
At one moment, Calvin Trillin said reflectively, “This is one of those events which, if you understand it, might lead you to an understanding of a great deal. It reminds me of the time I discovered that the best prospects for the Kiplinger report were people who had recently sent away for a product called Clipeeze, a nasalhair trimmer. I thought about that for quite a while.”
Much the same might be said of the magazine that made the occasion possible. Before the end of the Convocation, writers and editors met to “critique” the magazine, though Nicholas von Hoffman said: “How can anybody critique this magazine when nobody reads it? I couldn’t read my own piece. I read the first page and then—boob alley!—I was lost in the boobs.”
There is a way to talk about Playboy, when it comes time to talk seriously about the magazine. You praise its good interviews, good fiction, serious articles. And as for the sex, well, Plavboy is really rather puritan in its attitudes. This last case has been put most forcefully by Harvey Cox in The Secular City. (The magazine has since forgiven Cox, who has written for Playboy and was invited to the Convocation.) Cox suggests that Playboy offers sex as only an accessory to the good life, “reducing the proportions of sexuality, its power and its passion, to a packageable consumption item. . . It is “anti-sexual.”
This argument has a certain appeal. It allows the critic, for one thing, to sound more appetitive than Playboy. But I am inclined to think that Playboy’s interest in sex is sincere, though I agree that other things are going on.
One barrier to sexual pleasure is the conventional codes of behavior that Playboy has warred against tirelessly, and (you would have to guess) with effect. Another is the tenacity of social class. It was the magazine’s genius to elide two yearnings that magazines had before served separately, lust and social aspiration, an urgent combination. In Playboy’s world there are two classes, an under class of would-be Playboys, and the upper class, Playboys. Study of Playboy assures ascendance. The magazine has advised readers from the start: in the fifties you learned that your basic wardrobe should include seven to ten shirts, “assuming you wear a clean shirt every day, a practice we recommend.” This fall, readers learned that for outdoors “leather is still king,” but the horizon has expanded immensely: pictures of desert pleasure domes now give better-off Playboys something unreachable to pine for. The monthly feature asks: “What sort of Man reads Playboy?” and shows what kind of man—young, trendily dressed. He is pictured next to cars or yachts, usually fixed in the gaze of a beautiful girl. There are figures about his income (half of all men under thirty-five earning over $ 15,000 a year read Playboy) drawn from the Simmons reports, a marketing research service. Simmons provides more information than is published. Drawing your own profile of the Playboy reader, you might discover a homebody. Only 6.3 percent of Playboy readers had three or more gin drinks last week, 17.7 percent a glass of wine within the last month. They bought fewer shirts than did readers of Psychology Today. Sixty-four percent of them are married. They served more beer in their homes than did readers of some fifty other magazines.
Hard to say what kind of man reads Playboy; 6,400,000 men read it. The magazine’s attractions depend on the disparity between the life it describes and the one its readers occupy—an empty barracks, an empty marriage are the ideal spots to read it—but it can leave no one wholly unaffected, since the life it imagines no one lives.
Looking back at early issues of Playboy, one is struck less by the changes in the magazine than by the remarkable wholeness with which Hefner’s idea emerged. It is true that the first issue had a somewhat messy layout and that it was forty-two pages long. True, too, that for a time the magazine reprinted material from the library (Ambrose Bierce, Sherlock Holmes stories) and that today there are relatively few writers who would not gladly appear there. But much was just as readers today know it—the Playmate, of course, but also the “party jokes,” the ribald (then “bawdy”) classic, the feature story which is compounded of nude photographs and a text that looks the other way, the how-to-live-in-style articles, and the cartoons.
The remarkable thing, though, is the endurance of a certain voice (presumably Hefner’s: at the start he produced the magazine almost singlehandedly). In the Marilyn Monroe caption, we hear, “There’s no denying the young lady is very well stacked . . . yet her curves really aren’t that spectacular . . . we’ve known girls in our roguish wanderings. . .” The point of the paragraph, an important one in Playboy terms, is that Marilyn Monroe represents “natural sex.” This voice, in an ecstasy of suavity, persists through all change. Not losing its assurance, it can make room even for the moral criticism that is usually directed at the magazine— that is, the objectification of women. A feature consisting of photographs from recent sexually explicit films contains this caption about Carnal Knowledge:
Protagonists Arthur Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson see women as objects, not people—with crippling results. Both bed, but Garfunkel weds. Candice Bergen (top left); in the scene at top right, the condom makes its screen debut. Ann-Margret (above) finally wrings a ring from Nicholson, but that relationship soon shatters, and at the end he’s impotent except with Rita Moreno, who, in an elaborate ritual, performs fellatio for money, not for love (below).
The voice labors under the burden of falseness, but prevails: creates a world of the imagination compounded of sex and upward mobility. But the tension one can feel in the pages of Playboy at the moment also derives from that easeful knowing voice full of “roguish wanderings.” Everywhere—as articles about Vietnam abut pieces on brandy—Playboy searches for a reconciliation between its fresh interest in reality and the fantasy that has made it so successful. Or so it seemed to me, and I think to others in Chicago; but, as I guess goes without saying, these issues were hard to discuss at the Convocation.
Talking with Murray Fisher, the assistant managing editor, late on the afternoon of the editors-writers workshop, I asked him where the magazine is going. “Why not ask that man right there,” he said, and gestured to Hugh Hefner, who was walking by with Herbert Gold. “Well, big breasts are part of human sexuality,” Hefner was saying. “Now we are running a few smaller breasts—a couple of months ago we ran a girl who was little more than a boy—but throughout history breasts have been major erotic symbols. And the publisher happens to like them.” Hefner smiled and jutted his jaw and said a barely audible, “Mm-hm,” as if some part of his mind not previously engaged had heard what he said and approved.
A group of writers formed; Hefner sat down in their midst and took questions and suggestions.
In a mild voice. Gay Talese asked how the decision to include pubic hair in the magazine had come about. Hefner said that the time had seemed right.
Alan Watts suggested to Hefner that he hold a worldwide religious encounter group: “As Lucifer, bringer of light, you should invite the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Dalai Lama to Chicago. They couldn’t refuse you.” Hefner smiled benignly and said that he’d always thought of himself as a humanist, not a Satanist.
A bead of sweat appeared on George Axelrod’s temple as he began to criticize the magazine’s cartoons. “Now the granny with the dangling breasts . . . that’s—and I use the word advisedly, and of course we’re talking about taste and there’s no disputing it—offensive; now, only offensive in the sense that for me it makes sex less attractive.”
Hefner said, “We get very good reader response to those.”
There’s a blank spot here in my memory; for a long moment I was staring at Hefner and not attending. (A fragment comes back: “I’m a very sentimental person . . . perhaps the magazine is too sentimental, too.”) His face is deeper, more dimensional than the cross-eyed official photograph suggests. Impossible not to wonder about him. What does he know, what does he long for?
Now with $164 million in his pockets and tiny stars on the front of the magazine to show, it is said, how many times he has “bedded” the Playmate—does he still yearn for the sanctification of class, sweet class? Is something more complex going on? Surely he knows he is a figure of fun; do the anxious strivers whose patron he is seem comic to him? Imagine the turns a mind could take in his singular spot, living out a parody of success, a life of the fullest absurdity. Tempting to suspect him of sweeping, undisclosed ironical gifts . . . but I think we won’t know today.
Hefner was now talking of the beginnings of the magazine, and he recalled the first slim budget, his modest expectations—never thought it would go over a million in circulation—and the way things somehow come together. He couldn’t recall what inspired the rabbit, which was there in the first issue and turned into one of the most recognizable trademarks in the world. “I’ll tell you something interesting, though,” he said, shifting his voice to a note that suggested intimacy but implied also that it was time to go. “I suppose the Freudians could make something out of this. When I was a little boy I had a blanket, a sort of security thing, and I called it my bunny blanket.”