Politics & Policy

Played Out?

The magazine that Hef built, at 50.

However good the party, the morning after is always depressing. There will be cigarette ash on the carpet, half-empty glasses in the sink, and, usually, a baleful selection of uneaten snacks on the kitchen table, curling and discoloring as they begin to decay. Seen in the unforgiving light of the hangover dawn, even the memories soon start to spoil. Was that conversation truly so witty, that woman really so attractive? And so it is that studying Playboy’s 50th Anniversary Issue (yup, yet another tough assignment for NRO) left me, well, a little bit sad. Oh, Melba Ogle (July 1964, and was that really her name?), where are you now?

Don’t get me wrong. For a while, a good long while, old Hefner’s wicked carnival looked a lot like fun. No, it was fun. Yes, as only a quick glance at the anniversary issue will remind readers, it was geeky (a caption tells us that “with thoughtful features on food and drink, Playboy assumed its role as a sophisticated handbook for the urban male”), self-important (“conversations with the likes of Fidel Castro, Frank Sinatra, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X established the Playboy Interview as the definitive print forum for the world’s most influential figures”), and responsible for more tacky artwork than the nightmare palettes of Hallmark and Thomas Kinkade combined; yet, for a while the brazen bunny’s mag was sorta, well, groovy.

We’ll never know whether Hef was smart or just lucky–probably a bit of both–but the launch, and the format, of his magazine turned out to be perfectly timed to take advantage of an era where declining (some would say) morals and a rising economy had created the ideal climate for aspirational smut. Even Playboy’s name (with its glamorous hint of cocktail, tuxedo, and blonde), changed at the last minute from the tawdry-sounding Stag Party, was inspired. Up to that point, glossier, designer erotica had been the preserve of the glossier, designer few, for Nick and Nora perhaps, for Frankie and Johnny never. Plebs had had to make do with grittier fare–stag films, Tijuana bibles, and the supposedly racy thrills of a range of forgettable magazines that veered between the clinically functional (if you know what I mean) and the nauseatingly coy.

But the man in the gray flannel suit wanted more than that. He wanted a velvet smoking jacket! He wanted silk pajamas! He wanted to know how to cook food on a sword! He wanted, no, he deserved cool jazz, hot women, and a swank apartment in which he could play. “A 12-page layout of the ultimate bachelor pad…generated hundreds of letters inquiring about the furnishings.” Eros had come to Levittown. All work and no Playboy made Jack a dull boy: In a new age of mass affluence, cheerfully promiscuous sex, or at least the goal of cheerfully promiscuous sex, had become another consumer good, succulently packaged in (or out of) that oddly fetishistic bunny costume, up there with the Cadillac and the color TV, all part of that gorgeous, greedy American dream.

For a neat, in all senses, example of this carnal consumer cocktail, check out the reproduction of a diagram from a 1959 issue illustrating a fantasy bed (or was it one of Hef’s?)–more Circuit than Sin City. Not Evelyn Nesbit, but a television set hangs enticingly from the ceiling, while the immaculately made bed itself, a fortress of solitude that will sometimes welcome visitors, is reinforced with hi-fi equipment, space-age speakerphone, fashionable electric clock, as well as the inevitable drinks cabinet, bottle opener at the ready. There’s no actual, um, girl to be seen (perhaps she was put off by what looks to be a small side table–for the booze presumably–strangely separating the his-and-hers pillows), but, in a reminder that this was the bed of a swinger swinging his way through the Eisenhower era, a pair of slippers is placed tidily to one side: his, not hers.

More than 40 years later, the magazine’s advertising is still following a similar theme, with advertisements for cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, beer, whisky, vodka, and for readers who can stay coherent after trying all that, mobile phones, motorbikes, trucks, DVDs, DVD players, a Panasonic DVD recorder for “total control recording,” and for those whose total control may not be what it once was, Testosterole Maximum, a “male hormone enhancement formula” with Wild Yam, Maca, Yohimbe, Avena Sativa, Androstenedione, and, ahem, Horny Goat Weed. The slippers have gone.

But the bachelor pad (“a hedonistic pleasure dome”) is back, designed this time round by Frank Gehry, the architect responsible for dumping clumps of crumpled metal on luckless cities all the way from Bilbao to Seattle. “The top floor is the bedroom,” explains Gehry, “there’s a pool on the roof. When you’re in bed, you look at the glass on the bottom of the pool. My sons did sexy murals for the walls. The whole place is colorful and has a lot of soft forms. If I were a bachelor…this could really work.” Sure, Frank, 15-feet high full-frontal nudes is always the way to pull in the chicks.

Turning with some relief to the soft forms of Playboy’s vanished heyday, (Avis! Terre! China!) it doesn’t take long to discover that other glories of that lost epoch are well represented underneath the shiny black cover of the anniversary issue. The Playboy jet! June “The Bosom” Wilkinson! The martini glasses balanced on June “The Bosom” Wilkinson’s bosoms! Lenny Bruce! The Playmate parties! The swimming pool! The mansion!

But, wait a minute, look who’s back. In a faint echo of Playboy’s storied literary past (Kerouac! Bradbury! Ian Fleming!), the anniversary issue boasts none other than “America’s leading literary light,” Norman Mailer (“the nation’s smartest–and ballsiest–writer”) and his “fearless platform for a brave new world.” “So why did Bush and company go to war?” The fearless, smart, and ballsy Mailer knows. Conspiracy! “The probable answer is that an escape was needed from our problems at home…An easy war looked then to be George W. Bush’s best solution. What he needed and what he got was a media jamboree that provided our sweet dose of patriotic ecstasy….”

Oh well.

But, if you prefer, there’s crazy Hunter S. Thompson ranting about “Richard Nixon and all the evil eggs he laid in the White House: Rumsfeld…Cheney…Kissinger…Schlesinger…Admiral Poindexter. They were all in Nixon’s inner circle. And then Reagan’s. And then Old Man Bush’s. And ye gods!…Now they are the closest advisers to Bush Junior. How long, O Lord, how long?”

Hunter S. Thompson’s unfortunate readers might feel the same way. For more, sigh, even more of the same, there’s Al Franken still talking about his ‘fight’ with Rich Lowry and, of course, the awful behavior of nasty Milhous, who was, for all his faults, “a better president than the one we have now.” David Mamet weighs in with the deep, deep thought that “any crime can and will be committed in the name of freedom. Some, however, you will note, will undergo a name change. Racial arrogance, murder and theft, being words with an unfortunate negative connotation, are often called patriotism…”

And if all this cranky liberalism sounds a little tired, that fits in nicely with a magazine that at times appears absolutely exhausted. The jokes are a snooze (“The soused spouse asked, “You want to know why I’ve come home half loaded? Because I ran out of money, that’s why.”), the cartoons are comatose, and the folks writing to the “Playboy Advisor” are simply asleep at the wheel. Here’s “J.H.” from Montgomery, Alabama: “Let’s say I collect my semen and freeze it. If my girlfriend inserts the cube into her vagina, could she get pregnant?” Let’s say Playboy’s urban sophisticates are not, clearly, quite what they once were.

But that should be no surprise. Playboy climaxed (no laughing in the back of the room, please) around the end of the 1960s. (This took a little while to sink in: Circulation peaked in 1972, but has since fallen by nearly sixty percent.) At its (soft) core, Hefner’s raffish mag was an outpost of Rat Pack hip marooned in the land that Woodstock built, black tie amid the tie-dye, martini more than marijuana (although in keeping with its consistent social libertarianism the magazine has, to its credit, long endorsed the legalization of pot), and by the time the yuppies started pushing the pendulum back towards a little retro chic, it was too late. The pornucopia had long since opened wide up–fans of the naughty no longer had to buy their nudie magazines “for the articles,” or, after the arrival of the VCR, and, later, and even more devastatingly, the Internet, buy any magazines at all.

And so, like ten-time cover girl Pamela Anderson, the Playboy spectacle has frayed a little around the edges. The trademark pinups remain a delight for the Onan set (if with more of the cyborg about them than in the old days), too saucy for Wal-Mart, although tame enough in the age of Abercrombie & Fitch, Jenna Jameson, and the Starr report’s small print, but the rest of its shtick seems just stale.

As for Hefner himself, his pipe is gone and his magazine is fading but, appropriately enough, like the Energizer bunny, the rest of him just keeps on going. Thank you, Viagra. So there he still stands, tatty, tacky, jaded, and, lets admit it, a touch laughable, but an American original nonetheless, 77 years old, an ancient satyr presiding over his anniversary issue–and pictured at a few parties too, no Brande, no Sandy, no Mandy (where did they go?), but Hef with six “girlfriends,” Hef with Tara Reid, Hef with seven “girlfriends,” Hef with Shannen Doherty, Hef with Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore, Hef with “Bunny Victoria Fuller,” Hef with Thora Birch, Hef with Elizabeth Taylor (you can’t win ‘em all), and Hef with, of course, Pamela Anderson. Yes, yes, it looks very empty and somewhat desperate, and Hefner’s home life seems to leave little to be envied–if a lot to be desired–but, come on, the guy is 77.

It’s difficult not to cheer.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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