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Hugh Hefner, visionary editor who founded Playboy magazine, dies at 91

By Matt Schudel

September 27, 2017 at 11:44 PM

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Iconic founder of Playboy magazine Hugh Hefner died on Sept. 27. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

As much as anyone, Hugh Hefner turned the world on to sex. As the visionary editor who created Playboy magazine out of sheer will and his own fevered dreams, he introduced nudity and sexuality to the cultural mainstream of America and the world.

For decades, the ageless Mr. Hefner embodied the "Playboy lifestyle" as the pajama-clad sybarite who worked from his bed, threw lavish parties and inhabited the Playboy Mansion with an ever-changing bevy of well-toned young beauties. He died Sept. 27 at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles at age 91.

His death was announced by Playboy Enterprises Inc. but the cause was not disclosed.

From the first issue of Playboy in 1953, which featured a photograph of a nude Marilyn Monroe lounging on a red sheet, Mr. Hefner sought to overturn what he considered the puritanical moral code of Middle America. His magazine was shocking at the time, but it quickly found a large and receptive audience and was a principal force behind the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Mr. Hefner brought nudity out from under the counter, but he was more than the emperor of a land with no clothes. From the beginning, he had literary aspirations for Playboy, hiring top writers to give his magazine cultural credibility. It became a running joke that the cognoscenti read Playboy "for the articles" and demurely averted their eyes from the pages depicting bare-breasted women.

Publisher Hugh Hefner looks over proof sheets for his magazine Playboy, in Chicago, Ill., on June 20, 1961. (Leah Binkovitz/)

Few publications have so thoroughly reflected the tastes and ambitions of their creators as Mr. Hefner's Playboy.

"I'm living a grown-up version of a boy's dream, turning life into a celebration," he told Time magazine in 1967. "It's all over too quickly. Life should be more than a vale of tears."

The magazine's formula of glossy nudes, serious writing and cartoons, coupled with how-to advice on stereos, sex, cars and clothes, changed little through the years and was meant to appeal to urban, upwardly mobile heterosexual men. But Playboy also had a surprisingly high readership among members of the clergy — who received a 25 percent subscription discount — and women.

"Hefner was, first and foremost, a brilliant businessman," David Allyn, author of "Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution, an Unfettered History," told The Washington Post in an interview. "He created Playboy at a time when America was entering a period of profound economic and social optimism. His brand of sexual liberalism fit perfectly with postwar aspirations."

"Hef," as he was widely known, was in charge of editorial operations from the beginning and was known to work on the magazine for 40 hours without a break, driven by the deadline buzz of amphetamines, Pepsi-Cola and his ever-present pipe.

He hired a large staff of editors and artists who brought literary sophistication and visual dash to the pages of Playboy, but there was never any doubt that the guiding vision behind Playboy was Mr. Hefner's, and his alone. For many years, the magazine was produced in his home town of Chicago.

Before he turned 50, Mr. Hefner was, as Esquire magazine once decreed, "the most famous magazine editor in the history of the world."

Hugh Hefner, publisher and owner of Playboy Magazine, and his girlfriend Barbara Benton, 19-year-old coed turned actress, are surrounded by Bunny Girls at the Playboy Club in London, on September 5, 1969. (AP Photo)
Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner poses with "bunny-girl" hostess Bonnie J. Halpin at Hefner's nightclub in Chicago, Ill., on June 20, 1961. (AP Photo)
Playing at having fun, Hugh Hefner, center, rescues one of the swimmers in the indoor pool of his $400,000 apartment, June 20, 1961, Chicago, Ill. The wealthy young publisher doesnt do much swimming in the pool himself. Surrounded by everything for a playboys dream life, Hefner doesnt fit into the image his magazine has created. The women are unidentified. (AP Photo/ Edward Kitch)
Hugh Hefner, owner of the American magazine Playboy, arrives at Rome Airport, on Aug. 5, 1969, from New York, accompanied by Barbara Benton. The couple will stay in Rome for a few days on movie engagements and will then continue on to Berlin. (AP Photo)
Hugh Hefner, publisher and owner of Playboy Magazine, and his girlfriend Barbara Benton, 19-year-old actress, are pictured at the Foreign Press Association in Rome, Italy, on August 6, 1969. (AP Photo)
Playboy boss Hugh Hefner, right, and Miss Barbi Benton are pictured on their arrival at Gatwick Airport from Copenhagen, Sept. 3, 1969, London, England. Hefner is here for an indefinite period. (AP Photo)
Hugh Hefner, second from left, poses in front of his five and a half million dollar black jet plane with unidentified Playboy Bunnies, Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1970, Chicago, Ill. (AP Photo/Edward Kitch)
Hugh Hefner, left, and girlfriend Barbi Benton, center, are served by N.Y. Playboy Club Bunny Cheri upon arrival at La Guardia aboard the Big Bunny, Heffners personal 5? million dollar DC-9 jet, March 1970, New York. Hefner is in New York for two days of business conferences and personal appearances in connection with his far-flung Playboy Empire. (AP Photo)
Film director Roman Polanski sips from a mug of beer as Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, right, gestures with a pipe in a nightclub in Munich, Aug. 20, 1970. Polanski and Hefner a reportedly discussing a joint movie venture. (AP Photo)
(FILES) This file photo taken on August 21, 1970 shows US Playboy Magazine publisher Hugh Hefner giving a press conference at Le Bourget airport in France. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has died at 91, the magazine announced on Wednesday, September 27, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / STAFFSTAFF/AFP/Getty Images
MANDATORY CREDIT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sam Morris/LVNB/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9096350b) Barbi Benton, Hugh Hefner and Marty Robbins Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner dies at age 91, Las Vegas, USA - 15 May 1975 A handout photo made available by the Las Vegas News Bureau on 28 September 2017 shows Hugh Hefner (L) and Barbi Benton (R) in Las Vegas on the opening night of Robbins' run at the Sahara in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 15 May 1975. According to media reports on 28 September 2017, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner died of natural causes at the age of 91 at his Los Angeles home, the Playboy Mansion, on the evening of 27 September.
Hugh Hefner, lounging in the backyard of his 30-room Los Angeles mansion, tells a reporter the Playboy Company is being forced into more efficient and economic operation, Aug. 4, 1975, Los Angeles, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Robbins)
Californias bachelor Gov. Edmund Brown, Jr., left, meets Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, right, in front of Hefners mansion where over 900 persons attended a $25 per head fund raising garden party, Saturday, May 22, 1976, Los Angeles, Calif. The rest of the group is unidentified. (AP Photo/George Brich)
Actress Jean Stapleton, top left, and publisher Hugh Hefner laugh with, from foreground left, Darren McGavin, Ruth Buzzi and Barbara Fisher, during a black-tie casino fund raiser in Los Angeles on Monday, March 13, 1979. Stapleton has died at the age of 90. John Putch said Saturday, June 1, 2013 that his mother died Friday, May 31, 2013 of natural causes at her New York City home surrounded by friends and family. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)
Hefner achieves star. Hugh Hefner, center, white suit, Chairman of the Board, Playboy Enterprises Inc.,is honored by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Wednesday in Los Angeles with the placing of his star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Honorary Mayor of Hollywood, Monty Hall, right, holds the rope with Hefner. (AP-Photo) 10.4.1980
Publisher Hugh Hefner, left, Harold Washington and Sidney Poitier, right, taken during Washingtons visit to the Playboy West Mansion, Saturday, March 20, 1983. (AP Photo/Suzanne Hanover)
Comic Bill Cosby, left, shares a moment with singer Mel Torme, center, and playboy founder Hugh Hefner, June 15, 1986, backstage at the 1986 Playboy Jazz Festival in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. Cosby was the shows Master of Ceremonies with Torme appearing in the Saturday evening segment of the festival. (AP Photo/Michael Tweed)
Hugh Hefner, center, poses with a group of current and former Playboy bunnies at the Playboy Club, Tuesday, June 25, 1986, Los Angeles, Calif. The famed clubs owned by the Playboy Corporation will be closing their doors on Monday, June 30. A few franchised clubs in the U.S. and abroad will remain open. The bunnies are unidentified. (AP Photo)
Hugh Hefner, center, publisher and founder of Playboy Magazine, gets a kiss on the check from India Allen, 23, Thursday, April 29, 1988, Los Angeles, Calif. Ms. Allen, Playboys Miss December, was named Playmate of the Year. The woman on the right is unidentified. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
FILE - In this May 14, 1999 file photo, Playboy founder and editor in chief Hugh Hefner receives kisses from Playboy playmates during the 52nd Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France. Hefner has died at age 91. The magazine released a statement saying Hefner died at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes on Wednesday night, Sept. 27, 2017, surrounded by family. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours, File)
(FILES) This file photo taken on February 19, 2001 shows Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner (R) posing with his likeness in wax after a ceremony at the Hollywood Wax Museum in Hollywood, California. Hugh Hefner, the silk pajamas-wearing founder of Playboy Magazine who helped steer nudity into the American mainstream died Wednesday, September 27, 2017 his magazine announced on Twitter. He was 91 years old. / AFP PHOTO / VINCE BUCCIVINCE BUCCI/AFP/Getty Images
HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES Mandatory Credit: Photo by BRIAN JONES/HO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9088055a) Hugh Hefner Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner dies at age 91, Las Vegas, USA - 04 Mar 2001 (FILE) - Playboy founder Hugh Hefner celebrating his 75th birthday with Playboy playmates at Studio 54 in the MGM Grand Hotel on the Las Vegas strip, USA, 04 March 2001 (reissued 28 September 2017). According to media reports on 28 September 2017, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner died of natural causes at the age of 91 at his Los Angeles home, the Playboy Mansion, on the evening of 27 September.
(FILES) This file photo taken on June 02, 2006 shows Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner (C) arriving at party with girlfriends Bridget Marquardt (L) and Holly Madison (R) to celebrate his 80th birthday at Villa Miani in Rome. Hugh Hefner, the silk pajamas-wearing founder of Playboy Magazine who helped steer nudity into the American mainstream died Wednesday, September 27, 2017 his magazine announced on Twitter. He was 91 years old. / AFP PHOTO / Tiziana FABITIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
FILE - In this April 5, 2007 file photo, Hugh Hefner poses for a photo at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. Playboy magazine founder and sexual revolution symbol Hefner has died at age 91. The magazine released a statement saying Hefner died at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes on Wednesday night, Sept. 27, 2017, surrounded by family. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
FILE - SEPTEMBER 27: Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner passed away on September 27 at the Playboy Mansion. He was 91 years old. STANSTED, ENGLAND - JUNE 02: Playboy founder Hugh Hefner (centre) arrives at Stansted Airport on June 2, 2011 in Stansted, England. The photograph is a recreation of a picture originally taken in the 1960's, with ten of the new London Bunnies. Mr Hefner is back in the UK to mark the launch of the new Playboy Club in Mayfair, which opens on June 4. The clubs opening will welcome back the iconic Playboy Bunny to Londonafter a 30 year absence. Famous Bunnies have included Debbie Harry and Lauren Hutton. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Mandatory Credit: Photo by PAUL BUCK/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9088071a) Hugh Hefner and Cooper Hefner Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner dies at age 91, Los Angeles, USA - 10 Feb 2012 (FILE) -US publisher Hugh Hefner (L) and his son Cooper Hefner (R) arrive for the 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year gala honoring Paul McCartney in Los Angeles, California, USA, 10 February 2012 (reissued 28 September 2017). According to media reports on 28 September 2017, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner died of natural causes at the age of 91 at his Los Angeles home, the Playboy Mansion, on the evening of 27 September.
FILE - SEPTEMBER 27: Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner passed away on September 27 at the Playboy Mansion. He was 91 years old. LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 16: Hugh Hefner poses at Playboy's 60th Anniversary special event on January 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy)
Photo Gallery: From the first issue of Playboy in 1953, which featured a nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe lounging on a red sheet, Hefner sought to overturn what he considered the puritanical moral code of Middle America.

He commissioned articles by some of the world's most celebrated writers — Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few. Among the works that first appeared in Playboy were excerpts from Alex Haley's "Roots," Larry L. King's "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," Cameron Crowe's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," John Irving's "The World According to Garp" and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's "All the President's Men."

The magazine's in-depth interviews with leading figures from politics, sports and entertainment — including Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Steve Jobs — often made news. One of the magazines's most newsworthy revelations came in 1976, when presidential nominee Jimmy Carter admitted in a Playboy interview, "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times."

Each month, Mr. Hefner wrote an editorial in which he sought to define the "Playboy Philosophy." In his view, sexual freedom was part of a larger spirit of liberty, including free speech, relaxed drug laws and civil rights, including same-sex marriage.

Mr. Hefner's umbrella organization of Playboy Enterprises grew to include television shows, jazz festivals, book publishing and an international chain of Playboy clubs, where cocktail waitresses, known as bunnies, wore revealing satin outfits with fluffy white tails.

In 1961, when independently owned Playboy clubs in Miami and New Orleans refused to admit African American members, Mr. Hefner bought back the franchises and issued a sternly worded memorandum: "We are outspoken foes of segregation [and] we are actively involved in the fight to see the end of all racial inequalities in our time," he wrote.

At the Playboy Mansion — first in Chicago and later in Los Angeles — Mr. Hefner held glittering parties that attracted Hollywood celebrities and scores of women who eagerly shed their clothes. Outside the front door, a sign read, "Si non oscillas, noli tintinnare" — a Latin phrase loosely translated as "If you don't swing, don't ring."

Once-forbidden sexual imagery and ideas popularized in the pages of Playboy became commonplace in film, television and other media, as the culture at large came to reflect the values Mr. Hefner espoused.

"We will never recapture the importance of Playboy in the '60s and '70s," he told The Washington Post in 2003, "because we changed the world. We live in a Playboy world now, for good or ill."

Although he took offense at anyone who called him a pornographer, noting that Playboy seldom, if ever, depicted overt sexual acts, Mr. Hefner relished denunciations from religious groups and self-appointed protectors of morality.

Still, he was caught off guard by the outrage of feminists who found his magazine's depictions of women degrading. Feminist writer Gloria Steinem briefly worked at a Playboy Club in New York City to gather background for an undercover article she wrote in 1963.

In a 1970 appearance on the "Dick Cavett Show," author Susan Brownmiller confronted Mr. Hefner, saying, "When Hugh Hefner comes out here with a cottontail attached to his rear end, then we'll have equality."

Mr. Hefner remained silent.

"Quite frankly," he said on the NPR interview program "Fresh Air" in 1999, "the women's movement from my point of view was part of the larger sexual revolution that Playboy had played such a large part in."

Over time, some women came to view Playboy with greater acceptance, if not respect. Feminist scholar Camille Paglia approvingly pronounced Mr. Hefner "one of the principal architects of the modern sexual revolution" in a 1999 documentary.

When "Sex and the City," a television series about four sexually adventurous women in New York, premiered in 1998, the lead character played by Sarah Jessica Parker wore a necklace depicting the Playboy bunny.

Strict childhood

Hugh Marston Hefner was born April 9, 1926, in Chicago. His father was an accountant, his mother a teacher, and he grew up in what he called a conservative household of "rigid Protestant fundamentalist ethics."

"There was no drinking, no smoking, no swearing, no going to movies on Sunday," he recalled in a 1962 interview with the Saturday Evening Post. "Worst of all was their attitude toward sex, which they considered a horrid thing never to be mentioned."

After serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. Hefner graduated in 1949 from the University of Illinois, where he majored in psychology.

While working in the personnel office of a box manufacturer and as an advertising copywriter for a department store, he tried without success to become a cartoonist. He later worked in promotions for Esquire magazine and held other publishing jobs while developing the idea for Playboy.

With $600 of his own savings and investments from friends and family — including his parents — Mr. Hefner wrote most of the first issue of the magazine himself. He purchased the rights to the nude photograph of Monroe, originally shot in 1949 for a calendar. ("I had nothing on but the radio," Monroe once quipped.)

Mr. Hefner had planned to call his magazine Stag Party, but when the publishers of another men's magazine named Stag threatened to sue, a colleague came up with an inspired afterthought: Playboy.

The magazine hit the newsstands in December 1953 and quickly sold out its press run of more than 50,000 copies.

For Playboy's second issue, an art director drew a cartoonlike bunny's head with a bow tie. It became the enduring symbol of Playboy, often disguised within the cover photo on the magazine. Beginning in 1955, another of the magazine's defining features was its centerfold, highlighting the "Playmate of the Month" in a glossy color photograph.

Nude pictorials of actresses and other celebrities often appeared in Playboy, but the centerfold Playmates were chosen for what Mr. Hefner called a "girl-next-door" quality. Some of them, such as Anna Nicole Smith, became famous as sex symbols, but even she was unknown when she first appeared in Playboy in 1992.

The nude pictures grabbed public attention, but the substance and variety of the magazine's other features — interviews, cartoons, serious journalism and fiction — set Playboy part from other skin magazines. Mr. Hefner rejected tawdry advertising to cultivate a more sophisticated, worldly image.

"Playboy straddles the line between pornography and anti-pornography," Allyn, the historian and author, wrote in an email to The Post. "Conventional pornography . . . tends to relish in, and celebrate, vulgarity, whereas Playboy treats the vulgarity of conventional pornography with disdain."

Shortly before Mr. Hefner married Mildred "Millie" Williams in 1949, she confessed to him that she had had an affair with another man. The wedding went ahead, and the Hefners had two children, but Mr. Hefner later said the revelation shattered any illusions he held about the virtue of women.

"I was absolutely devastated," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "I'm sure that in some way, that experience set me up for the life that followed."

Embodying the Playboy image

Even before his divorce in 1959, Mr. Hefner sought to embody the Playboy image of the carefree, urbane man about town. For a while, at least, his life was synonymous with that of his magazine and the budding Playboy empire.

From 1959 to 1961, he had a syndicated television show, "Playboy's Penthouse," with top jazz stars entertaining at intimate gatherings in Mr. Hefner's home. It was one of the first television shows in which black and white guests interacted as social equals. Another show featuring Mr. Hefner, "Playboy After Dark," aired for two seasons, beginning in 1969.

The magazine reached the height of its popularity in the early 1970s, with a circulation of 7 million. Mr. Hefner's personal fortune at the time was estimated at more than $200 million, and he traveled in a black jetliner with the bunny-head symbol painted on the tail. The Harvard Business School studied his formula for success.

Before long, though, the Playboy franchise began to weaken. In 1974, Mr. Hefner's longtime assistant, Bobbie Arnstein, was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and later committed suicide. Mr. Hefner was not implicated in any wrongdoing, but he was repeatedly investigated by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service and was named on President Richard M. Nixon's "enemies list."

He also battled postal authorities and federal commissions that sought to restrict the magazine's distribution. Other publications, such as Penthouse and Hustler, cut into Playboy's readership by publishing more explicit photos, and several of Playboy's spinoff businesses lost money.

In 1980, 20-year-old Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten was killed by her estranged husband in a murder-suicide. Mr. Hefner's detractors held him indirectly responsible, saying Stratten had been caught up in Playboy's hedonistic milieu.

After a stroke in 1985, Mr. Hefner stopped smoking his familiar pipe, and three years later he stepped aside as Playboy's chief executive in favor of his daughter, Christie Hefner, although he retained his title as editor in chief of the magazine until his death. The magazine remained headquartered in Chicago until the editorial operation was shifted to New York in 2002 and later to Los Angeles.

Christie Hefner resigned as chief executive in 2009 amid financial struggles for Playboy Enterprises. Mr. Hefner led an effort to buy back the company's stock, making it a privately held corporation by 2011.

After his divorce from his first wife, Mr. Hefner often said he would never marry again. He had a long relationship in the 1970s and 1980s with onetime Playmate Barbi Benton, but they did not marry.

In 1989, when he was 63, he married 26-year-old Playmate of the Year Kimberley Conrad. They had two sons, Marston Hefner and Cooper Hefner. The couple separated in 1998 and divorced in 2010.

On New Year's Eve 2012, Mr. Hefner married another onetime Playmate, Crystal Harris. He was 86 at the time; she was 26.

In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Hefner's survivors include two children from his first marriage, Christie Hefner and David Hefner. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Well before his marriage to a woman 60 years his junior, the aging Hef had become something of a self-caricature, strolling the grounds of the Playboy Mansion in silk pajamas, accompanied by a troupe of women who never seemed to turn 30. He acknowledged sleeping with "more than a thousand" women and often touted the efficacy of Viagra. From 2005 to 2011, the adventures of the young women who inhabited the Playboy Mansion were chronicled in a cable reality show called "The Girls Next Door."

Away from his magazine and his every-day-is-a-party approach to life, Mr. Hefner was a generous if unheralded philanthropist. In the 1970s, he led a fundraising effort to restore the renowned Hollywood sign on a Los Angeles hillside. In 2010, he contributed $1 million to prevent real estate development near the sign. He also donated millions to efforts to preserve classic films and endowed a chair for the study of cinema at the University of Southern California.

Well into his 80s, Mr. Hefner continued to edit his magazine and did his best to maintain his swagger as the unflappable, unstoppable and unrepentant king of the Playboy way of life.

"I have not become jaded," he told The Post in 2003. "I wake up every day well aware of my good fortune, loving the work I do, loving my life, realizing that life is a crapshoot and I'm on a roll second to none."

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Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.

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