A conversation with Hugh Hefner

"A whole generation has grown up that was waiting for me to come out and play."

Published December 28, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Hugh Hefner has that friendly, peaceful thing in his voice that says he's enjoyed a long, rewarding life. Another thing in his voice says he's only just gotten started.

On the phone, he sounds like a pipe-smoker -- weathered but not raspy -- and also like a pajama-wearer, a martini-drinker and a lady-lover. Like all bon vivants, he is voluble and friendly. When he veers toward the glib and pat, it's downright forgivable.

We talk about sex. Hefner has a sense of its history in America as another man might have a sense of his own hand. When I suggest a variation on his version -- that, perhaps, the sexual revolution had its own rules, free-spirited as it was -- he bristles. Then, with the ease of a practiced interviewee, Hefner resumes his genial air.

I don't ask him personal questions. It's immediately clear that his brand of absolute candor precludes disclosure. Hef lives for living in the open, and I decide I'd rather hear his fascinatingly polished rendition of the truth then to go rooting around for some other version.

Besides, he is genuinely, surprisingly charming -- a nice guy. Rumor has it that, of Hefner's countless loves over the years (rumor also has it that this number exceeds 1,000), only a handful have anything ugly to say about the guy. I guess I don't either.

How do you explain the resurgence of interest in your life these days?

Well, I think it is related to the fact that I was in a 10-year relationship that included a marriage that lasted eight and a half years. And I think a whole generation has grown up that was kind of waiting for me to come out and play.

And you're happy to be doing it?

Oh yes. But it is more than that. I think that part of the reason that [this] new generation was waiting for me was that the 1980s and early 1990s were a very conservative and repressive time, politically and sexually. And a whole generation has grown up [feeling] as if they had missed the party ... And Playboy and my own lifestyle represented [that party]. The Playboy mansion represented that in a very real way. So I think that's the connection. And of course there's also a fascination with retro at this time, so it has to do with the fact that it's the end of the century, the millennium. It's a combination of things.

Could one argue that the Playboy lifestyle, in its heyday, was in some ways prescriptive, not entirely different from 1980s conservatism? That if you weren't sexually liberated, then you weren't with it?

I don't think that's true. What was true of the latter '60s and throughout the '70s was a permissiveness, and some of that had excesses in it. There was certainly a counter-reaction to it. But I don't think one could argue that there was any kind of dictatorial case-making in that time frame.

When you look at the Playboy centerfolds, do you still find them provocative? Or have you grown sort of inured to them over the years?

I've always found the centerfolds something other than erotic. And I think it's like a poster for me -- they've always been intended as something you could hang on your wall. [But] the language connected to them changed. They were described, in the '70s and '80s, as exploitation by some people, and then as pornography. That's a political point of view. And it's very Orwellian. You take a picture and you call it pornography, then you see it with different eyes.

But there is such a thing as pornography.

Yes, and there's beauty, too.

You know it when you see it.

What somebody else likes is pornography and what you like or I like is erotica. It's like beauty, it's very subjective. Yes, I think it exists, but that's within the limitation of my own taste.

What's the difference between today's public response to Internet pornography and the response to those first issues of Playboy?

Well, I suppose you could find some parallels. But much of [the difference] has to do with technology. Everything, including sexual imagery, is out there now. And it's kind of like Pandora's box -- you can't close it anymore. That has to do with what is unique to this particular century. In other words, sex, and a great many other things which we attempted to keep hidden, are no longer hidden, because of the technology. It's all out there now.

Where we are now, we're seeing a new kind of person come of age. Children who were raised in sexually progressive households are becoming adults. What happens to those kids when they grow up?

Well, they certainly have more options ... the choices are much better than they were when I was growing up. Because when I was growing up, a nice middle class kid couldn't live with a girlfriend. There were forces that put you into early marriages. There's a causal correlation there with divorce. I think that if young people are able to live some period of time, after they get out of school, and are away from their parents, and get some sense of who they are, who they want to be, they'll be in a better position to pick a mate.

But at an even earlier age, children whose parents are up front about sex, who say "Here, this is what it's all about, this is how it works, here's a 'Playboy'" -- how do those kids turn out?

It depends on what else is going on in the home. The real loving communication related to a relationship, sexual and otherwise, obviously bodes well for the future for children. Often that happens in homes today.

Of course, technology and the rest of it has changed pop culture dramatically. Have we matured along the way? Some have and some haven't. And certainly not only in terms of heterosexuality, but also homosexuality. In other words, you don't have people hidden in closets in the same way that they used to be. And that has to be a good thing. It isn't as cruel a society anymore. I think that comes from understanding and communication.

Now that America has sort of matured in that sense, and I think, forgiven you -- people were in a real lather for a while when Playboy first came out -- do you ever find yourself missing your reputation as a radical? Do you have mixed feelings about having been accepted?

No, it's very satisfying. It was never my intention to be a revolutionary. My intention was to try to create a mainstream men's magazine that included sex in it. That turned out to be a very revolutionary idea. That's because we lived in what I then and now viewed as a very repressive, sick society.

I was a kid who was very much influenced by the conservatism of my own home, the lack of the ability to show emotion in my home, the censorship that I perceived in movies, in the [Hollywood] production code, in the 1930s when I was just a kid. And then when I was in college the first Kinsey report came out in 1948. And it was a revelation for me, because it confirmed the hypocrisy for me, the gap between what we said and what we actually did.

Going back to those years of the women's movement where the criticism really kicked in, which of the critiques stung the most?

I think that most troubling to me was the fact that there was an anti-sexual element within the women's movement. And it was a part of the women's movement that got a great deal of press and publicity. And since I've always thought of the women's movement as part of something larger, which was the sexual revolution, it seemed very counter-revolutionary and unfortunate.

The '70s and the late '60s focused a lot of attention on what Playboy was doing to women. But I think one of the equally fascinating things is what Playboy did for the American man: it brought him inside, it upgraded his wardrobe, it gave him an option in terms of how he spent his free time, sophistication.

And that was there at the very beginning. There was a male revolution that came before the women's movement. And it began in the '50s with the magazines.

Do you get tired of all the attention and press you get, of people wanting to know what you had for breakfast?

I only deal with it when I want to deal with it. And it's nice, quite frankly -- these last two years have been the best of my life. And part of it is because one feels as if it was a kind of a war, a social revolution that was kind of a war, and to some extent there's a celebration going on now. To a certain extent we won the war, and the parade after the war, and it's nice to have lived long enough to see that.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

MORE FROM Chris Colin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------