There’s a misconception Hugh Hefner built a multi million dollar empire preoccupied with sex. Or worst, degrading women.
A long time ago, when images of Rosie the Riveter were still fresh, Hefner used to print articles by Nobel Laureates and interviews with presidents. He brought black comedians like Dick Gregory to the main stage of his Playboy Clubs when nightclubs were largely segregated. He published long, crucial opinion pieces with James Baldwin (writer, social critic, and inspiration for ‘I Am Not Your Negro’), Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King, at a time when his magazine held a 7 million strong audience. He promoted jazz, and financed legal cases for free speech, civil rights and abortion rights. He sought out and financed men like Lenny Bruce, whose free-flowing and critical comedy on politics, religion, and sex earned Bruce an obscenity trial.
And the women in his clubs? They shared more in common with the image of Rosie rolling up her sleeves and getting the job done than Gloria Steinem poring over critical essays and undercover exposés (Steinem donned the rabbit ears and bunny tailed bustier once, to reveal life inside Hefner’s world). In fact, Playboy clubs was even considered a great place to work because girls were well-paid, they got chauffeured home in cabs, and customers were thrown out if they didn’t at least pretend to be gentlemen.
In Hefner’s heyday, having a baby out of wedlock was a scandal – a scandal that drove some people to suicide. Abortion was illegal. Oral sex was a major felony, and it didn’t matter if you did it with your husband or wife. Today, we have Dan Bilzerian and Chris Rock. We have Sugar Daddy websites and Ashley Madison. MILF porn is surging in popularity and Tokyo is out-producing the San Fernando Valley in terms of originality and volume. And Playboy? They stopped printing centerfolds for a while, because audiences had become blasé to tits and clits.
I’m not saying I knew the man, or that he wasn’t a manipulative tyrant or maybe just an old creep. But there was more to Hugh Hefner than his immediate resume might suggest. He left his mark on the world. And however his name is mentioned in the future, his legacy will forever require us to look inward and judge our own intentions before pointing an accusatory finger.