Mr. Conservative praises Mr. Libertine.

Brian Wallace
Thu, 29 May 2003 11:48:05 -0700 (PDT)

This is today's George Will column.  I never knew
he had such a soft spot for Mr. Hefner. 

I learned that Playboy is the "12th-highest-selling
U.S. consumer publication".  That's not too bad, all
things considered.


Fifty Years of Playboy 

By George F. Will
Thursday, May 29, 2003; Page A25 

LOS ANGELES -- Asked how it feels to have won, Hugh
Hefner pauses, looks down and almost whispers,
"Wonderful." Then he says: "I guess if you live long
enough . . . "

Fifty years ago he was pecking at a typewriter on a
card table in his Chicago apartment, preparing the
first issue of a magazine he planned to call Stag
Party but, because there already was a magazine called
Stag, he called it Playboy. The first issue appeared
in December 1953. It bore no date because Hefner was
not sure there would be a second, such were the
troubles the first issue caused with the post office
and other defenders of decency.

Four years later, in the nick of time, Searle
pharmaceutical company introduced Enovid -- "the
pill." Back then Hefner, the tuning fork of American
fantasies, said he wanted to provide "a little
diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age." But
three emblematic books of the supposedly repressed
1950s -- "Peyton Place," "Lolita," and "The Kinsey
Report" (Prof. Alfred Kinsey of Indiana University was
another Midwestern sexual subversive) -- showed that
more than geopolitical anxiety was on the mind of
Eisenhower's America.

By 1959 the post office was delivering millions of
copies of Hefner's magazine. Playboy's rabbit-head
logo is now one of the world's most recognized brands,
even in inscrutable China, where Playboy merchandise
sells well but the magazine is banned.

Hefner's daughter Christie, who was born 13 months
before the magazine, says Playboy was "a great idea
executed well at exactly the right time." A
no-nonsense executive, she now runs the Chicago-based
business she joined 27 years ago, fresh from earning a
summa cum laude degree from Brandeis. When she
arrived, Playboy was primarily an American magazine
publisher. She has made it into an international
electronic entertainment company.

The magazine, the 12th-highest-selling U.S. consumer
publication, sells 3.2 million copies monthly. That is
slightly less than half its 1970s peak, but its 18
international editions sell another 1.8 million copies
a month, and it remains the world's best-selling
monthly men's magazine.

Still, it provides only about one-third of Playboy
Enterprises' annual revenue of $277.6 million. Playboy
owns six cable networks that deliver to 38 million
North American households movies of a sexual
explicitness that would have been instantly prosecuted
in all 48 states in 1953.

The magazine, the mere mention of which used to
produce pursings of lips and sharp intakes of breaths,
is still Hefner's preoccupation, but has been
overtaken by the libertarian revolution he helped to
foment. In 1953 Playboy magazine was pushing the
parameters of the permissible, but it is hard to
remain iconoclastic when standing waist-deep in the
shards of smashed icons.

Born to "puritanical" (Hefner's words) parents in
Chicago, city of broad shoulders, Hefner founded an
empire based on breasts. What is it about that protean
city? Chicagoan Ray Kroc, entrepreneur of McDonald's,
did his Army training with Chicagoan Walt Disney --
two prodigies of mass marketing, the creator of the
Big Mac and the creator of Mickey Mouse, in the same
Army unit.

Then Chicago produced the Henry Luce of the skin game
-- Hef, as everyone, including his daughter, calls
him. The Chicago boy recalls that the Sears Roebuck
mail order catalogue -- another Chicago innovation --
was called "a dream book" because it brought "the
dream of urbanity to rural communities. Playboy, for
young, single men, is a variation of this."

Recently, dressed in his black pajamas and
merlot-colored smoking jacket -- it was 1 p.m. -- he
looked a bit tuckered, but he had been living what
Teddy Roosevelt called "the strenuous life," although
not as TR envisioned it. Hefner's 77th birthday party
had rambled on for more than a week, during which he
took to dinner -- simultaneously -- the seven ladies
he is currently dating. As F. Scott Fitzgerald,
writing of Jay Gatsby, suggested, "personality is an
unbroken series of successful gestures."

An 11th-generation descendant of William Bradford, who
arrived on the Mayflower to begin a religious errand
in the wilderness, Hefner says, "In a real sense we
live in a Playboy world." He lives here in a 30-room
mock-Tudor mansion that sits on six acres of posh
Holmby Hills decorated with wandering peacocks, among
other fauna.

He says, "I grew up in the Depression and World War II
and I looked back to the roaring Twenties and I
thought I'd missed the party." The party turned out to
be a moveable feast.

 2003 The Washington Post Company