I worked briefly for Playboy in 1972 (on Little Annie Fanny with Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder) and occasionally visited the Playboy Mansion with Harvey in the ensuing years. I met Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion.
The supposedly sexist Hef (he insisted everyone call him “Hef”) primarily staffed his magazine with bright women, giving them opportunities and responsibilities in the publishing business that were very difficult for women to achieve back then. I saw Hef donate generously, often and early to feminist charities. Hef may have been sexist. If so, he was the most complex sexist I ever met.
Despite what his critics have said, Hefner never denied that females can be sexual their entire lives. One (but just one) of the the key focuses of Playboy in regards to women was on beauty, an ephemeral quality that greatly adds to its very preciousness. I personally find women beautiful at all ages (my beautiful wife is 70) but there is no denying the special attractive qualities of youth, both female and male. They have been celebrated by artists almost since the creation of art began. The cosmetics industry thrives on this quest for youthful beauty.
I was never fond of Hef (I only met him once) but I admired aspects of him from a distance. I had strong issues with the way he manipulated Harvey. I was fascinated, though, by what he had achieved and how he had achieved it and, especially, I admired his honesty and frankness in regards to himself. In service of the truth, he often publicly painted (or allowed to be painted) a seriously honest, unflattering picture of himself (see the Hefner chapter in Gay Talese’s book Thy Neighbor’s Wife; he comes across as pretty pathetic).
Kurtzman told me he loved to bring my wife and I to the Playboy Mansion because he found it boring on his own. What was the Playboy Mansion like? To me, the Mansion was kind of theme parky. I found it fun to swim naked with Harvey and my wife in the infamous Grotto. I was very surprised by the quality of the paintings hanging on the Mansion’s walls. I was expecting Leroy Neiman — not Salvador Dali. The aquarium/zoo was fascinating to me, as I love observing exotic creatures. I realized that this zoo was just a Hefner purchase, though, when I asked him some specifics and discovered he knew almost nothing about the creatures he owned. Did I see movie stars? Yup. I was pretty immune to the charms of celebrity by then, having worked in the film business. I did get an early glimpse of what we now know as the real Bill Cosby back then. Harvey was well aware of Cosby’s sexual proclivities and despised Cosby for his acts, attitudes and hypocrisy. I made a disappointing mental note, then forgot about it until the recent scandals surfaced.
Hef and I shared a deep passion for music. I love the blues; he loved jazz. There are lot of cross-overs between the two musical genres. I sent him a copy of my book Legends of the Blues and received a nice hand-written note of appreciative thanks from Hef in return.
Many reporters have written snarky Hefner post-death columns with extreme tunnel vision, skewing it solely to paint Hefner with one brush using a single color: He was a sexist. Now that Hefner has passed, apparently they feel it is safe to denigrate his memory which, to me, seems a bit cowardly. A little more research on their part would have revealed sides of him that many who never knew or met Hef might have admired.
In the future, I hope that journalists will look a little harder for the truth and all of its facets. That is what the public needs (now more than ever) from journalism today.