Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream
Just past the round rotating bed, beyond the hot-tub grotto but before the pajama-draped walk-in, lies … what? If we’re to believe this book, it’s the Truth about Hugh Hefner—and, by proxy, about American life since the 1950s. Of course, the larger legacy of Playboy has been considered long and well (in these pages a couple of years ago, and elsewhere). But Watts, a history professor prone to interpreting American Dreamers (he has written stellar works on Henry Ford and Walt Disney), is wise to draw a narrow bead on Hef qua Hef, dividing his life into tidy quadrants of postwar influence and iconography: as sexual liberator, avatar of consumerism, pop-culture purveyor, lightning rod for feminist ire. He also succeeds in identifying and exploring raging personal paradoxes—hedonist and workaholic, libertine and romantic, provocateur and traditionalist—while resisting the urge to attempt reconciliation. The Horatio-Alger-with-a-libido case he makes—where else but in America could a repressed midwestern boy rise, and fall into so many sacks, while creating and brand-managing a multimedia empire?—is only intermittently convincing. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here, from the factual wealth (Watts was granted access to the vast Playboy vaults and draws heavily on his subject’s compulsively kept scrapbook collection) to the photographs aplenty (some offer revelatory glimpses; others give off the whiff of stale cheesecake) to the fundamental pleasures of watching a larger-than-life figure scuttle social norms and satisfy his own lavish urges.
An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration
Thames & Hudson
Mario Praz (1896–1982), longtime professor of English at the University of Rome, spent most of his life in his native Italy but was nonetheless one of the foremost authorities on English literature, and was knighted for his services to it. Best-known for his pioneering study The Romantic Agony, published when he was still in his 30s, Praz was also a brilliant art critic. This intense study of interior decoration and of domestic life in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (first published in the 1960s and now gloriously back in print) is a distillation of his enormous learning and insight, drawing on paintings handsomely reproduced in this solid volume. Ranging from the famous (who has captured interiors better than Vermeer, or van der Weyden, or Zoffany?) to the lesser-known (Ivanov, Bendz, Gärtner, to name a few), Praz is always original without being eccentric. He’s also adept at finding the apt literary quotation, ranging through sources from La Bruyère to Henry James. The sweep and quality of his mind raises this book far above the level of most others on this well-explored topic.