Hugh Hefner: Visionary or Flesh Peddler?

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner may be in his golden years but he still makes headlines like celebrities a quarter of his age. After his bride-to-be Crystal Harris left him at the altar, he rallied with a new show on NBC, The Playboy Club, and reduced the October issue of Playboy to its 1961 price of 60 cents to help buzz the TV show.

Last year, Hefner attended the premier of a film commemorating his life called Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel at the Gene Siskel Film Center, part of Chicago’s Art Institute. Looking more like a seasoned Maurice Chevalier or elder statesman than Bathrobe Erectus, Hefner received a standing ovation.

The movie, directed by Brigitte Berman, is one of several recent films to chronicle Chicago history. Last year the center screened Disturbing the Universe about Chicago 8 lawyer extraordinaire William Kunstler. The year before, the film center premiered Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger, which had David Axelrod, Chicago’s second most famous son (after President Obama) in attendance.

Anyone who grew up before Reagan, in Chicago or both enjoyed the forgotten cultural icons that director Brigitte Berman revives in the film: Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., William F. Buckley, Dick Cavett, David Steinberg and many more.

TV clips from hifi, party record and hootenanny days from the TV shows Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark feature folk singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and rare performances.

Who knew, until the film, that Playboy sponsored one of the biggest jazz festivals in history? Who knew it sent the Playboy jet to retrieve Vietnam orphans who were nursed back to health by bunnies (out of costume)? Who knew Playboy supported Children of the Night, a group that helps runaways evade prostitution?

But halfway through the movie, a creep factor sets in. Maybe, it was the parade of so many talking heads who have died since the film was made–Alex Haley, Robert Culp, Tony Curtis–or the fact that Hef wannabe Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione died right before the film was shown.

Maybe it was the ubiquity of Kiss’ Gene Simmons who is so sexually and psychiatrically unbalanced that he told NPR’s Terry Gross to “open your legs” in an interview–or the appearance of a leering James Caan who was linked to Hollywood prostitute broker Heidi Fleiss. (At the film’s end, Simmons who, pontificates about male sexual parts being aroused by clothing while women’s are hidden away (what?) removes the sunglasses he’s been wearing through all the film in a repulsive gesture of grandiosity and apparent exhibitionism.)

Still the straw dog enemies of lust that director Berman sets up in the film–Pat Boone, Jerry Falwell, Charles Keating–are not nearly as creepy as those who are supporters of Hefner’s brand of lust.

What, for example, is the Rev. Malcolm Boyd, author of Are You Running With Me Jesus, doing at an establishment where half the sky, as Nicholas Kristof puts it, is deemed worthy of wearing animal tails? Where have Hefner supporters Dick Cavett and David Steinberg been for the last 30 years to not notice that Oprah, Chelsea Handler and the women on the View have retired them? And what is up with Bill Maher’s appearance?

In fact, the pride that Hefner says he feels for “liberating” the segregated New Orleans Playboy Club so that African-American men could enjoy “cottontail” service produces a sense of incredulity in women viewers. It brings to mind a scene in Sacha Baron Cohen Bruno in which Cohen invites the singer Paula Abdul, who has arrived for an interview, to use a Mexican gardener on his hands and knees as a chair–and she does! Hefner’s fight against “oppression” and “sexual McCarthyism,” that the film exalts is like the Bruno scene–everything is fine if you ignore the furniture.

An admitted sex, Dexedrine, Pepsi and work addict, Hefner has the constellation of self-centeredness and resentments often called King Baby. He says he “deserved” seven girlfriends because he had been monogamous for eight years before that. He says the death of playmate Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her husband, Paul Snider, months after she was named the 1980 Playmate of the Year, gave him his stroke and that it was a “miracle,” he got through it. (Let’s talk about ME.) And he says the suicide of his former secretary, Bobbie Arnstein, who was found dead in a Chicago hotel room after an overdose of drugs in January 1975, was caused by drug officials and hurt the Playboy brand and image.

Hefner is admired for his business acumen yet he’s clueless about why the magazine tanked by the late 2000’s. He actually blames Former Attorney General, under Ronald Reagan, Edwin Meese for labeling the magazine obscene, not the laddie magazines and cyber porn that carved away his market. Hefner took the brand hard core in 2001 over the objections of daughter Christie, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, who told the Daily Telegraph as a “feminist” she would not take the magazine hard core.

Of course the half the sky who became doctors, judges, senators, astronauts, scientists, House Speakers, Secretaries of State and magazine publishers also helped retire the Playboy brand along and a backlash against commodification capitalism and mindless consumerism.

In fact, when asked flat out about Playboy treating women as sexual objects–animals with tails attached–Hefner still stands by the brand and says it is because they are. Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel confirms that Playboy is a just a White Boy’s Club that decided to let men from other races in.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist/cartoonist who writes about public health. Her first book, titled Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health, has just been released by Prometheus Books. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Martha.