YOU DON'T KNOW my friend Kenny. He is a sort of historical personage, a fan of Isaac Bashevis Singer before it was chic, a fine writer in his own right, a bearded man with terrible eyesight who nevertheless plays a mean game of tennis, a walking woodcut from some pre-Holocaust ghetto scene, a Brooklyn native who once set out to prove that you can yell fire in a crowded theater (nothing happened) and -- here we got to the heart of the matter -- maybe the only person in recorded history to ask Hugh Hefner to his face why anyone should care what he thinks. Come back, Kenny, we need you.
Hefner, as I recall, gave Kenny what is sometimes called "a look." The founder of Playboy was seated in his private plane, the now-legendary Big Bunny, holding a press conference at Friendship Airport outside Baltimore. He was surrounded by plane and Baltimore Bunnies who had greeted Hefner on the ground when he landed for the 1970 reopening of the Baltimore Playboy Club. It had been destroyed by fire (an omen?) months before.
There was some sort of ceremony built around Hefner's coming out the rear door of the plane and reentering the center one, and then there was the press conference. He sat and we sat and the bunnies sat and Hefner was asked questions -- questions about Vietnam and drug and politics. This was all too much for Kenny who, armed with a certain cynicism indigenous to Brooklyn, asked his question. Hefner fixed him with the look and then said something wonderfl. He said no one should really care what Hugh Hefner thinks about anything.
It would be hard to believe that Hefner said anything of the sort if you pick up (for no less than $3) the current issue of Playboy, called, for those who can't await the verdict of history, a "Collector's Edition." What it does is both celebrate the 25th anniversary of the magazine and venerate its founder, whose claim to fame, you would be hard-pressed to tell from all this, is that he put stapels in the navels of naked ladies. That, more or less, is the theme of Playboy, and all the rest -- the essays and the fiction and the reportage and the causes -- is icing on the cake.
Hefner himself, though, see it differently. In a publisher's statement he says that the "impact of the magazine has been incalculable, altering our attitudes about ourselves and the society in which we live..." And then, having written that, he dies, or appears to. From that point on, Playboy writes about Hugh Hefner as if he's dead and in a long piece entitled The Illustrated History of Playboy with Hefner's face sculptured (it says sculptred) in what looks like silver above the headline, the cult of personality is raised to unprecedented heights.
Hefner himself in not quoted. His writings are cited, but he seems beyond the reach of even his own correspondents. At one point, for instance, we're told that Hefner once worked for Esquire. "It's impossible to tell how important that was to the creation two years later of Playboy." Why Hefner could not be asked is not explained. The writer goes on to call the launching of Playboy pulling off the "impossible" and makes it sould that in one fell swoop Hefner took on both Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the dull 1950s: "In the midst of this dreariness and repression, he'd become Editor (upper case, natch) and Publisher of the most daring, talked-about new magazine in recent memory..."
There's a lot more of this sort of stuff -- a lot even for a magazine that has always written about itself and its founder. Hefner, for instance is compared to the great English editors of the 18th century, Addison and Steele, and Playboy's birth is somehow lindked to the same creative energy that resulted in James Dean, the Beat movement in literature and Holden Caulfield, the fictional character created by J. D. Salinger.
All of this would be nothing more than plain silly if it were not part of the growing movement to label anyone with an ability to turn a buck a genius. You hear it all the time, the term genius being applied to people who have talent, or got lucky or had a terrific idea that enabled them to make a couple of million bucks. This is the sort of Merv Griffin Show ethic where no mention of, say Frank Sinatra or Bob Hope can be made without calling them geniuses or Great Americans or something like that.
But in Hefner's case there is something more going on. He has always been the personification of the Playboy ethic, the Playboy Philosophy they call it, and he has, for reasons having mostly to do with money, been taken pretty seriously. He has the best writers working for him and this anniversary issue boasts a gaggle of them -- Gore Vidal, John Updike, Jules Feiffer, David Halberstem. All of them attest to his bona fides, enhance his credentials, make him something of a role model to many men. What he says, after all, is not totally without value and there is something to the notion that Playboy has been at least marginally significant. At the very least, it hjas cluttered the newsstands with imitators.
But there seems to be something missing for Hefner, something big, something valuable, something that compels him to pay people to concoct a legend. Some of it probably has to do with the need that once-poor people have to justify their wealth, but some of it certainly has to do with the need we all have to justify our lives, to give it meaning -- to say that it has been more than just pleasure and luxuries. It's the old Protestant Ethic hitting Hefner in his vulnerable 50s. You have to pity the man.
He's all hung up.