Hugh Hefner died yesterday of natural causes at age 91. The founder of Playboy, Hefner was a lightning rod for criticism in the ’50s and ’60s for publishing a magazine that featured nude photos of women.
Hefner’s life and career had a definite arc to it. He founded Playboy in 1953, with an inaugural issue that featured photos of Marilyn Monroe, and built a media and nightclub empire that saw Playboy‘s circulation peak in the 1970s at more than 7 million. When I was a kid in the late ’60s and early ’70s, just about every American boy had heard about Playboy and hoped to get a chance to thumb through the magazine one day. But the number of competitors grew, Playboy clubs closed, and the circulation of the magazine declined, falling to about 800,000 in 2015. At one point, Playboy even decided briefly to stop publishing photographs of naked women, then later reversed that decision. In any case, Playboy‘s claim to have a grip on the national zeitgeist has long since vanished.
Hefner also was an interesting cultural figure, because he consciously set out to “brand” himself as the smiling sexual libertine with his ever-present pipe and his smoking jacket, constantly surrounded by pretty young women. He was successful in creating a well-defined public persona, and in many ways, he was a forerunner of modern media techniques that have since been adopted by many other American cultural figures. As time passed, however, the aging Hefner and his retinue became increasingly out of step with modern attitudes toward gender, and his branding also seemed to morph. By the end, Hefner and his silk pajamas and captain’s hat and tiger skin rugs were a kind of curious anachronism, like a vestige of the Mad Men era that somehow still existed 50 years later.