When Playboy was hot

Once upon a time, magazines were meant to be read, not just eyeballed. Today's readers lust for that kind of literary excitement.

Published October 9, 2002 7:16PM (EDT)

It's December 1968 and you grab a mag at the local newsstand. The table of contents includes the following: A quartet of short stories by Alberto Moravia; a symposium on creativity with contributions from Truman Capote, Lawrence Durrell, James T. Farrell, Allen Ginsberg, Le Roi Jones, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, Norman Podhoretz, Georges Simenon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, William Styron and John Updike; humor pieces from Jean Shepherd and Robert Morley; an article on pacifism in America by Norman Thomas; a piece on how machines will change our lives by Arthur C. Clarke; an essay on "the overheated image" by Marshall McLuhan; contributions from Eric Hoffer and Alan Watts; an article in defense of academic irresponsibility by Leslie Fiedler; a memoir of Hemingway by his son Patrick; Eldridge Cleaver interviewed by Nat Hentoff; a travel piece by the espionage novelist Len Deighton; and the first English translation of a poem by Goethe.

Yes, folks, that was Playboy. And lest you think that issue was a fluke, an overstuffed Christmas goodie, the ad for the January 1969 issue promises a story from P.G. Wodehouse, an article by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, fiction from Robert Coover and Sean O'Faolain, and a never before published tale by Lytton Strachey.

Sure, the reason most of us started reading Playboy was for the girls. But when the history of American magazines is written, people who said "I read it for the articles" will have the last laugh. As will Hugh Hefner, who told a reunion of Playmates in 1979, "Without you, I'd be the publisher of a literary magazine." With new editor James Kaminsky starting this week, and even Hefner saying the magazine needs to recapture its distinction, Playboy has the opportunity to be a catalyst for change in the magazine world. It can do what it did in the '60s and be a magazine with balls (and boobs), leading the moribund magazine world into a new era of editorial rebirth. A pipe dream, I know, but not a complete fantasy.

In its heyday, from roughly the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, Playboy was one of the great American magazines in an era of great American magazines, like Esquire under Harold Hayes and the New Yorker under William Shawn. The big cliché about Playboy has long been that it benefited from "the Sexual Revolution." Duh. But the reasons it flourished went well beyond that. Playboy was lucky enough to be around when the confluence of New Journalism (practiced by, among others, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer) and a literate, adventurous readership ready for in-depth articles rich with the writer's voice allowed editors and publishers to assume the intelligence of their readers and take all sorts of chances.

That amazing lineup of writers in Playboy's Christmas 1968 issue was not unusual for magazines in the '60s. Remembering some of what was published in that decade should bring shame to editors today. This was an era when Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" was excerpted in the New Yorker, when 90,000 words of Norman Mailer's "Armies of the Night" appeared in Harper's, when "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" appeared in Rolling Stone. It was a time when fiction writers, or writers who brought a novelist's eye for character and detail to nonfiction, were routinely dispatched to cover political campaigns and conventions.

And those dispatches became Mailer's two great books on the 1968 and 1972 conventions, and Hunter S. Thompson's coruscating "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972." Esquire's correspondents at the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago were William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern and Jean Genet. (The only recent book to equal Mailer's and Thompson's work is Steve Erickson's book of the 1992 campaign, "American Nomad," and Rolling Stone fired him after he had turned in just two installments.) Some of the best writing to come out of Watergate were the pieces Mary McCarthy did for the New York Review of Books (later collected as "The Mask of State").

The '60s and '70s gave forth a wealth of amazing journalism, pieces like Mailer's "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Stanley Booth's "A Hound Dog to the Manor Born" (an awful title that Booth removed when the piece was collected in his book "Rhythm Oil"), Terry Southern's "Twirling at Ole Miss," Tom Wolfe's "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!," the criticism of Pauline Kael, Kenneth Tynan's profiles and essays, and on and on. The culture was springing fresh astonishments and outrages on us daily, and these writers and many others hit the ground running, determined to keep up.

Luckily, they were abetted by editors who, unlike so many editors today, had the power to tell the advertising department to go chase itself if they tried to interfere with editorial content. Editors like Shawn, Hayes and Hefner had visions of what they wanted their magazines to be and stuck to them. I'm guessing it was a mixture of guts, confidence, arrogance and a deep loathing of mediocrity that fired these men, as well as a sense that journalistic ethics required you to be something of a segregationist: the advertisers may pay the fare but they sit in the back of the bus.

And readers stuck with these men and their magazines. The letters in that December 1968 Playboy are striking. One, from a gentleman in Wilmington, Ohio, came in response to a Nat Hentoff piece about police organizations' keeping "subversive" groups under surveillance. The man writes: "I ... am grateful that so many sane, thinking people have awakened to the fact that S.D.S., the A.C.L.U., etc., are as much an enemy as the U.S.S.R." In response to a piece against premarital sex, a woman from Seattle writes: "God intended intercourse to be an act of love between a husband and a wife. Outside marriage, it is sinful and dirty." Both correspondents are obviously conservative. But they're still reading Playboy and are eager to join in the debate the articles kicked up.

All sorts of people read Playboy then. A gay friend of mine who grew up in Louisiana in the '60s was a subscriber. For him, as a teenager, the magazine "represented what all magazines represented to me, which was the city." It opened avenues of sophistication to him and, he says, since it was pro-sex, it offered a gay teen a sense that there was nothing to be ashamed of. My wife attended journalism school in the early '80s where her professors regularly advised their students to read the magazine for its editorial excellence.

The December 1968 issue of Playboy is coveted by collectors largely because of Miss December, Cynthia Myers, soon to find cult status for her role in Russ Meyer's (no relation) "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." But to those of us old enough to remember the golden age of American magazines, the sexiest thing in that Playboy are those lovely pages and pages of unbroken, three-column type. No call-outs, no charts, no graphics. The people in charge assumed that if you were buying a magazine, you wanted to actually read it.

Reading is the last thing that the people who put together most mainstream magazines seem to expect their readers to do. Look at Maxim or FHM, the "lads" magazines that have been such a success with the male 18-34 audience, or even the "lifestyle" glossy InStyle. Now try to find an article. You'll have an easier time finding a Tarkovsky movie at Blockbuster. Charts, all of them with pictures crowding out words, have replaced writing. There is nowhere for your eyes to rest on a page. Often it takes a minute to figure out the flow of type that's there -- where it begins, where one column continues.

The overwhelming message these magazines give their readers is that they don't believe the readers have either the interest or the mental ability to read articles. Ed Needham, the new editor of Rolling Stone and a former editor at FHM, put it a little more diplomatically in the New York Times recently, saying that he didn't think that people had time to read anymore. The logical response to that statement would be that magazines shouldn't be catering to the audience that doesn't have time to read.

Unfortunately, they are. Not only are venues for serious writing shrinking, the editorial space inside the magazines is too. Falling advertising revenues, the impact of celebrity journalism (not just journalism about celebrities but profiles that are arranged and preapproved by the stars' publicity agents), and the mad scramble to duplicate success formulas have had a devastating effect on journalism. There is still plenty of good writing to be found out there, and sometimes in unexpected places (Elle's book section is often good, for instance). What doesn't exist is a print magazine that's a must-read -- as opposed to a must-skim -- every month. Individual articles can still make an impact. But magazines of all stripes have become like TV shows that drag on from season to season long after the things that made them new and exciting and fun have become rote.

Sadly, Playboy is one of them. Apart from an interview with Willie Nelson and the always fun feature "The Playboy Forum" (devoted, as ever, to the encroachment on civil liberties), the November 2002 issue features barely one interesting article. And what is there doesn't reflect the sophistication the magazine once had; 20Q, a feature that could be described as the Playboy Interview Lite, features Rams running back Marshall Faulk who voices his support for gays in the NFL by saying, "I'd have nothing against anybody if they were gay, but really, I don't want to know ... I don't want to know what so-and-so did with his wife last night, so why would I want to know if he's smoking the pole?"

According to a recent article in Newsday, Playboy's current circulation is 3.2 million, the highest of any men's magazine, but that's still less than half of the 7 million highwater mark of the '70s. It's not hard to guess why. If few people are reading Playboy for the articles anymore, probably fewer are reading it for the girls. In the '60s and early '70s, Playboy was a socially acceptable way of looking at softcore porn. But with the early '70s era of porno chic, and with the appearance of Penthouse, Hustler and dozens of other skin mags, Playboy -- which has never been raunchy -- began to lose readers. Now with hardcore porn as close to being socially acceptable as it ever will be, when it can be accessed via the Internet and pay cable and by renting or buying videos and DVDs, when even Playboy's longtime competitor Penthouse features hardcore (complete with insertion and cum shots) and is teetering on the brink of extinction, Playboy's demure approach seems quaint.

Into this wasteland steps James Kaminsky, the 41-year-old executive editor of Maxim who became the editorial director of Playboy on Oct. 7. In the Newsday profile Kaminsky talked about how he grew up reading Playboy, calling it "the magazine that got me into magazines in the first place." He says he intends to keep the magazine's journalism and profiles, and you get the feeling that he has enough affection for what the magazine used to be that he really means to restore some of its glory. Hugh Hefner seems to share that desire. In a piece in the New York Observer, Hefner says that he wants the magazine to be better: "What I'm looking for is a contemporary version of what Playboy meant in the '60s and '70s."

God only knows how much Kaminsky will be able to accomplish. It will depend on whether he has a free hand against the advertising department and if he has the will, skill and stamina to really remake the magazine. And let's face it, you can't reheat a soufflé. But giving Kaminsky the benefit of the doubt, and as a disappointed admirer of Playboy, I'd like to offer him some suggestions of things he could do.

Assume that Playboy's readers already know how to get laid.
Nobody needs another Maxim (which recently ran an article titled "How to Pick Up a Deaf Girl"). Newsday quotes Samir Husni, a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, who says that Playboy should sell itself as the magazine to read "once you graduate from Maxim." Hefner says something similar in the Observer piece. Kaminsky should listen to Hef, not the marketing department.

The incredible success of Maxim and the other lads mags have people desperate to imitate them. In the Maxim world, anything that suggests sophistication or knowledge reeks of sissification. The magazine works from the assumption that women aren't really interested in sex and have to be tricked or bargained into it. It stands for a conservative, 1950s pre-Playboy sensibility -- a tittering, junior-high locker room view of sex. Essentially, Maxim and FHM and Stuff are sex-phobic, catering to men who are afraid of women instead of men who are honestly, unashamedly interested in sex. You hear that fear in the comments, quoted in the Observer, of Stuff's editor in chief Greg Gutfield, who says, "I never saw Playboy growing up. I only saw it at the barber shop, and it always creeped me out." That should be good news for Kaminsky. Surely there are plenty of men who aren't afraid of naked women.

Not everyone who reads magazines is 18-34.
Sure, Kaminsky is going to have to bring in young readers. But part of the attraction of magazines and books and movies for younger audiences has always been information about things they don't know. Exploit that natural curiosity. And exploit the way "older" readers are being ignored by a media intent on capturing a younger audience. Appeal to the vanity of both reader groups by seeking a sophisticated, engaged audience. And there's nothing wrong with a little arrogance. In the '70s, I received a subscription offer from U.S. News and World Report that said something like, "The idea of a nonglossy news magazine may take some getting used to. But so did long pants." It was laughable in its arrogance, but the magazine wasn't afraid to risk losing some readers to appeal to others. That's the first step toward finding a dedicated readership.

Clean up the cover.
Playboy covers used to feature a shot of one of that issue's models flanked on either side by small-point type listing the contributors and some of the articles inside. Today Playboy's covers are as visually overwhelming and meaningless as the features in most magazines, with headlines buffeting each other like bumper cars. To see how elegant and alluring a good cover can be, look at some of the first issues of Harper's Bazaar that came out under the editorship of the late Liz Tilberis. No contemporary magazine offered covers as clean and simple, and the inside layouts matched that approach. Tilberis' use of a model with only the magazine's title on her first few issues was a masterstroke of confidence. It said, in effect, "We think we've got something good enough to attract you all by itself." That's the kind of confidence it takes to be a winner.

Lose the deadwood.
Hefner may feel loyalty to some longtime contributors, but trust me, LeRoy Neiman's artwork holds about the same appeal as putting on a Jack Jones album during a makeout session. Similarly, some of the "names" contributing to the magazine are not what they were. They don't attract readers, they don't have anything particularly interesting to say, and they reinforce the image of Playboy as an old fogey that's outlived its time.

Cherish the written word.
It makes me nervous to hear Kaminsky say that part of the energy he wants to bring to the magazine is graphics and call-outs. That's exactly what magazines don't need right now. Hefner has it right when he says, "I remember growing up, and people got their information from reading. Now it's quick hits that play well. When you tell stories or when you emphasize things that are more visual, you end up with more car crashes or murders on the air, and that passes for news."

In modern magazines, so-called features have become the province of numbers. Scan any newsstand and the features you see teased on magazine covers all have numbers: "The 30 Most Beautiful People in Hollywood"; "146 New Fall Looks"; "15 Ways to Fight Yeast Infection." Each article is reduced to small, predigested bits. If writing for the Web has taught me anything, it's that the advertisers' claim that people no longer want to read is horseshit. People are turning to the Web because magazines have left readers behind. Give your readers a meal and they'll thank you for it.

Make a place for criticism.
Yes, I know, to most advertisers criticism is about as welcome as a fart in an elevator. But top-notch, recurring critics on movies, books, television and music can play a key role in defining a magazine's identity. Playboy reviews were never that long, maybe 400-650 words. But the space devoted to reviews of books, music and movies allowed plenty of things to be covered (even -- horrors! -- things that had already opened). The two or three sentences Playboy's current critics are currently allotted don't allow them to say jack. Surely, some other things could be cut back in order to expand the space given to critics. Nobody is going to miss the two pages of photos of Hef and various celebs smiling for the camera at Mansion parties. And no one's going to mourn the demise of Playboy After Hours -- "A guy's guide to what's hip and what's happening" -- in other words, the function that good critics can fulfill.

Save the Interview.
To its credit, Playboy has continued to run long, in-depth interviews. Unfortunately, the Playboy Interview has become almost solely the province of sports figures and media "personalities." It's time once more to make it the place for politics and culture. Looking through back issues from 1968 through the mid-'70s, I found interviews with the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Bernadette Devlin and Vladimir Nabokov. Playboy never made the mistake of thinking that airing views was tantamount to endorsing them. In one chancey instance, they sent Alex Haley to interview the head of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell. (Setting up the interview over the phone beforehand, Rockwell had only one question for Haley: Are you Jewish? Haley said no, Rockwell agreed to be interviewed, and was in a state of rage when Haley showed up.) The only Playboy Interview in recent years that measured up to its past glories was the fascinating interview with the Republican governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who has become one of the most outspoken, articulate and sensible voices against the ruinousness of America's war on drugs. Remember the stir the Jimmy Carter interview caused? Imagine the interest in a Playboy interview with John Walker Lindh. Or Colin Powell. Or Bill Clinton. In the arts there are scores of writers, actors, musicians and directors that readers would be interested in. Playboy can do better than Fred Durst, Brit Hume and Al Michaels.

Give good writers a place to write.
Kaminsky can't reproduce the heyday of New Journalism. That literary culture is gone. But there are plenty of good writers who'd do a lot more for Playboy's reputation than an excerpt from the new Scott Turow novel (coming in the December issue), or Tom Arnold writing about his cable sports show (ditto). There's a reading public -- maybe some who've never bought Playboy before -- who'd be eager to read writers like Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Nick Hornby, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, George P. Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, and nonfiction writers like Sarah Vowell or Philip Gourevitch. Playboy would not only confer distinction but broaden the readers beyond the target audience of heterosexual men.

Embrace liberalism.
I don't mean just liberal politics but the broader meaning of liberalism: fostering debate. If anything still unites people on the left and right it's that there are many who are longing for civil, substantive political discourse (as opposed to the bomb throwing of political media personalities). Why not, each month, bring together a noted liberal and a noted conservative to debate a chosen topic? Make civility and substance the ground rules. Kaminsky might be surprised to find out how many liberals and conservatives there are who'd be relieved to find a political discussion that wasn't a shouting match.

Keep Playboy Forum.
This monthly section raises one hot-button topic, prints reader responses from previous installments, and scours the news to highlight the silliest infractions of civil liberties out there, like the story of a 16-year-old girl in Georgia recently sent to a boot camp for having sex with her 16-year-old boyfriend. Forum is the section where the magazine's liberal, feisty, commonsense approach to sex and to social questions still holds its head high.

Keep the real girls.
Ah, yes, the girls. Hefner tells the Observer that he doesn't want Playboy to compete with hardcore. And he's right. That's never been the magazine's character. But keeping to its relatively tame standards doesn't have to mean making the magazine a place for washed-up starlets to strip in hopes of reviving their careers. And it needn't mean maintaining the parade of Playmates who have been tweezed and buffed to inhuman perfection. Nobody ever believed Hefner's claim that the Playboy ideal was the girl next door, but it's startling to look through back issues and see that so many of the Playmates do look a lot more real than the current crop.

Hefner still has final say in selecting Playmates, but he needs to be encouraged to broaden his taste by featuring the type of women you might see on the street or in the mall. More men than Hefner might imagine would find that an incredible turn-on; they'd bring the fantasy of Playboy a little closer to the attainable.

Hefner is wrong when he tells the Observer that the underwear layouts in Maxim and FHM can have the same impact as a nude layout. (Nobody prefers the blue balls approach to sex.) But with second-tier TV stars stripping down to their undies, it shouldn't be tough to raise the bar and convince some famous women to pose nude for a classy layout. Some of the magazine's most memorable layouts have come from the collaboration of established photographers and famous models, like Peter Beard's layout of model Janice Dickinson in Africa, or Ellen von Unwerth's witty layout of Drew Barrymore. Playboy should also be looking for a diversity of talent behind the camera. The work of the fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh or the erotic photographer Steve Diet Goedde (whose photos are in a direct line of descent from the cheesecake art Hefner loves) would fit beautifully in Playboy.

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I said I was pipe dreaming. But none of these suggestions are radical. One thing Kaminsky could do to improve his chances of succeeding would be to actively court new advertisers who could be sold on Playboy's vision of reviving its relevance and content. They needn't all be big advertisers. Above all, Kaminsky needs the freedom to gamble. When Harold Hayes at Esquire commissioned his first cover from George Lois, a shot of a snarling Sonny Liston in a Santa Claus hat, the magazine lost nearly a million dollars in canceled advertising and subscriptions. Hayes dug in his heels and kept Lois, whose striking, sometimes caustic covers defined the magazine's identity.

In the current market nobody can stand a million-dollar hit. But with the largest current circulation of any men's magazine, Playboy has more of a cushion than most magazines and can afford to take some chances.

And that cushion isn't only financial. The best thing Kaminsky and Hefner have going for them is the backlog of affection Playboy has built among its readers. Not just because it was the first thing many American men masturbated to, but also because there was a reason to look at the magazine, post-wank. The time has come for the magazine to show up all the jerk-offs that have risen to challenge it.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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