Respectable PLAYBOY

Dan Stiffler <>, 29 Jun 2003

In the November 1957 Dear Playboy, we read the following exchange:

    When I bought the very first issue of PLAYBOY, my enthusiasm was
    boundless—a down-to-earth Esquire, a bachelor's New Yorker!  After
    years of reading someone's conception of what I was supposed to like,
    at last I had a magazine that I did like.  No flat-chested,
    high-cheekboned women; no recipes for pheasant with bordeaux wine
    sauce; no lavender waistcoats and pearl gray spats; but, rather, great
    big healthy women, steak and three button suits.  But now, in the
    fourth year of publication, PLAYBOY is approaching the egghead
    attitude of that Other Man's Magazine.  The gourmet's corner and the
    fashion plates are becoming intoxicated with themselves.  The women
    are much more warmly dressed and even the wonderful sketches on the
    Party Jokes page are becoming extinct.  Are pseudo-sophistication and
    false respectability the natural bedfellows of an increased
    circulation?  —E. Barry Lehman; New York, New York

    Memory is a funny thing, Barry.  The past often seems a bit better
    than the present, just because it is the past.  We took our bound
    volumes of the first three years down from the shelf this afternoon
    and compared them with this year's issues.  Once we'd overcome the
    nostalgia—for editing PLAYBOY has always been a labor of love and
    each issue completed is like a brief affair ended too soon (which
    would be unbearable if there weren't a new issue each month to tease
    and fascinate us in its place)—once we'd fastened those issues with a
    cold and objective eye, it was clear that each year in PLAYBOY's short
    four-year history has been considerably better than the one before.
    PLAYBOY has published no more entertaining fiction that 'The Fly'
    (June) and 'The Prince and the Gladiator' (September); no more
    provocative pictorials that 'Playboy's Yacht Party' (July); no more
    provocative articles than 'The Pious Pornographers' (October); no
    funnier satires than 'Enter the Handsome Stranger' (June): no more
    pleasant look at the world around us than that supplied by bearded,
    wandering cartoonist Shel Silverstein.  We checked, rather carefully,
    the Playmates, too, and though we all have our special favorites of
    the past, the current crop is as pretty as ever we've picked (and we
    suggest you peruse the Playmate Review in the up-coming January issue
    to confirm that)

"Labor of love," "unbearable," "tease and fascinate"—all these words suggest the passion with which the editors approached their work and the value of a new "affair" each month (i.e., the next issue, the next playmate). Yet the response deflects Barry's criticism. None of PLAYBOY's examples contradicts gourmets and fashion plates "intoxicated with themselves." Instead, PLAYBOY lists fiction, articles, satires, cartoons, about which Barry was apparently unconcerned.

Barry's complaint about "warmly dressed" playmates has some merit (as has been noted here, after the first year the playmate became more modest until the sixties). Interestingly, Miss November 1957, Marlene Callahan, has one of the bolder centerfolds of the period with her Do Not Disturb sign and a translucent gown that reveals a suggestion of pubic hair. But PLAYBOY says nothing about "warmly dressed" women or "pheasant with wine sauce," mainly because it couldn't refute those complaints. PLAYBOY had, in fact, become more respectable as its circulation increased.

That said, I admire the confidence with which the editors were able to say, at the end of four years, "each year...has been considerably better." PLAYBOY is using Barry's letter simply as a catalyst to make a specific case for its progress. As someone who has spent the last six months examining those first four years, I enthusiastically support the editors' self-assessment: "considerably better."

It might be useful if the current editors were to take a similar assignment some afternoon. Would nostalgia be overcome by pride in progress? What would be on the list of evidence these days? In a sense, it is the Ronald Reagan classic: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Or forty?

Peggy Wilkins
Last modified: Mon Apr 5 01:15:30 CDT 2004