Algis Valiunas: The Playboy [Hugh Hefner] and His Western World

Roundup: Talking About History

[Algis Valiunas, a frequent contributor, last wrote a consideration of Arthur Koestler for our February issue.]

Most every man in the known world has at least glimpsed a Playboy centerfold, and thereupon has vowed to go out and get himself something similar in a real live girl, or perused the luscious goods until the magazine has fallen into tatters, or run to confess his pollution to unsympathetic religious personnel, or cried “Death to America” and placed his hope in the eternal succor of 72 virgins, each of whom is the spitting image of the whorish temptress in the picture. Hugh Hefner, the inventor of Playboy, has sold his idea of what sex should be with the winning fervor of a true believer, and while not exactly everyone has bought into it, he has enticed multitudes into his fold with the promise of as much pleasure as a body can manage in a lifetime, all of it perfectly innocent, of course. And what sensible person, playboy or playgirl, could possibly want anything better?

He has written, “In this century, America liberated sex. The world will never be the same.” Hefner himself is the Great Emancipator and the most influential figure that American popular culture has produced; no actor or movie director or singer or athlete has moved the life of our time as potently as he. Indeed, one is hard pressed to name more than three or four figures from the more serious precincts of our modern public life who have had an effect of comparable magnitude. Only in America can a man whose declared ambitions were to bed innumerable beautiful women and get rich in the process make a mark deeper than those left by great writers or leading thinkers or most presidents. That this should be so might well appall writers and thinkers and most presidents, but they would have to acknowledge that Hefner got hold of the fundamental American longing as no one else had before. Americans have always pursued happiness, usually without any clear idea of what they were after; Hefner demonstrated that it could be not only pursued but also captured, and he posted photographs of the quarry for proof. The sexual revolution, the defining uprising of our time, is his brainchild; others stand at his shoulder in the leadership, but he is the founding father of the orgasmic republic.

Two recent books examine Hefner’s own life and the life of common desire that he has manufactured for mass consumption: Steven Watts’s Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (Wiley, 2008) and Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (Oxford, 2009). Watts, a professor of history at the University of Missouri, has written a life so admiring of its subject’s energy, intelligence, and innovation that one almost forgets that these were also Lucifer’s salient qualities. Fraterrigo, an assistant professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago, focuses on the fiction, movies, sociology, and feminist polemics that nourished Hefner’s project or set out to destroy it; she too has little to say against Hefner, though she scrupulously does report that there are those who feel otherwise.

Both volumes demonstrate how Hefner’s way of thinking has impregnated the culture and remind the reader that it is above all the idea of free and easy sexuality that has transformed American life. For behind the beckoning images of creamy willing nudes and the erotic heat they have helped inspire for the past 56 years—heat that has become so pervasive we scarcely notice it any more—there lies the force of animating theory. It is often said that the mind is the ultimate erogenous zone, and there is no surer proof of this than the world Hugh Hefner has made for us....

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