“It’s all assholes! Naked assholes!” The sixty-something woman, New England born and bred, well assembled with a Roman profile and bright coral lipstick, was apoplectic. The dinner party had been going well, without incident anyway, until my mother mentioned I worked at Playboy as an editor. She was proud that I did. She’d had to work up to that pride, because she’s Catholic and had been schooled by nuns, and she did, once she clearly understood my role at the magazine. She’d also discovered that bringing up my job always made for some fun. If not for me, then for others. For me, it generally meant defending Playboy’s more thoughtful side, all while hearing the jokes, the standard lines: “I read it for the articles” or “Can you get me into the mansion?” But before I launched into all that, I had to ask this friend of my parents, who’d lived in Greenwich Village once upon a time, who called herself a progressive, if she had meant that the women who have posed for Playboy were assholes or whether she’d meant that particular part of a woman’s body was too often on display. She told me, her indignation making her glower and squint at me, that she meant the latter; that the women, to her recollection, assumed especially indecent positions, though “now that you mention it, I mean both. No one with any self-respect would do that.”
But thousands of women have, and still do, eagerly; yet when it comes to sexual politics and how and why a woman disrobes and for whom, it’s terrifically complex, even in this new century of reality shows and confessional currents broadcast at volume everywhere. Invariably any discussion about Playboy triggered something in someone. It was hard to predict just what.
I was hired in 2005 to help resuscitate the magazine’s literary tradition. My sense of mission ran high and, for my nearly seven years there, was hard to argue with. Very few magazines had room anymore for fiction or literary work then and even fewer do today. I’d worked in The New Yorker’s fiction department, on the New York Review of Books Classics series, and I’d been a literature major, mad for the short story. I knew well where some of the best examples of that form had been published in America in the last fifty years. Saul Bellow, Nabokov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Ursula Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates – all were repeat contributors to Playboy. I recited their names. I commodified them: I was properly seduced by the magazine’s literary roster and used it to seduce. And seduce I did, agents, writers, publishers, with my boss’s encouragement, as I laughed off the snark, bobbing and weaving, smiling (sometimes till it hurt) all the while.
I recited our latest contributors’ names, too, at every opportunity, and described the pieces written – A S Byatt on John Donne, Jodi Picoult on Wonder Woman, Sherman Alexie on the Indigo Girls, new fiction by Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Maile Meloy -- especially to the elegant woman at the dinner party in New England. I told her how many women worked for Playboy, if not in editorial, then throughout the company – marketing, PR, accounting – that Christie Hefner had run the organization for thirty years. It didn’t much matter because I was marked: Maybe it was with the letter A, for Asshole, but more likely with P for Pornographer or, in that woman’s case, P for Pudendum.
I’m no historian of Playboy’s nude photography. I know there was a period in the ’70s when Hefner and staff looked to compete with Penthouse when that publication and its more provocative poses showed up. Penthouse boasted it would kill the bunny, literally. During that short-lived period, referred to by the press at the time as “The Pubic Wars,” the images evidently veered into uncharacteristic raunch, but when I was there the pictorials in the magazine were pretty staid -- and for some, regrettably so – Hefner’s version of a full-bodied, sexualized woman, hinting at being corn-fed (and if not by corn exactly then by other, less natural means). I know that people will quibble with that characterization, with almost any characterization of the women in Playboy, and that’s par for the course. So often an obstacle course.
Working at Playboy does mean working alongside a parade of breasts (real or fake but always protuberant), an opera of breasts, really, but over time, in the course of my weeks and months there, I didn’t remark on them much. We worked in the New York office on Fifth Avenue, near one corner of Central Park and The Plaza. There were no photography studios on site, no auditions held for Playmates or Bunnies. So it was all the easier to believe what us editors and staff writers told ourselves: The women showcased in the magazine were carnival barkers. They got the folks into the tent, but it was the articles, the essays, the interviews and reviews, the short stories, that kept them there. I saw us as misunderstood, as an underdog. You bet I’d drunk the Kool-Aid. It helped that my fellow editors were among the best I’d ever worked with. I expected some sexism, a run-in or two with sexual harassment, but I was disappointed in this, happily. Certainly sex was in the air, the stuff of endless humor, of puns, double-entendres. You had to be light on your feet. Usually the only woman in editorial meetings, I was especially good at providing straight lines, unwittingly, until I became better at playing along, keeping up. It was infantile but necessary to subdue all the elephants in the room, all the content we had no say over, and juxtapositions of that content, of high and low, that can still make me laugh out loud, still delight me for their irreverence and denial of this country’s determined conservative tastes, conservative everything. We worked hard, maybe harder than most monthly magazine staffs, to prove ourselves, in the hope, however slight, that readers, and the industry we were part of, might see the forest for the breasts.
Sometimes I found myself looking, along with my colleagues, as the magazine went up on the boards, feature by feature, image by image, as the new issue was being assembled, full of its singular juxtapositions: say, a Robert Stone short story alongside a Pamela Anderson pictorial; or a piece by philosopher Mary Midgley in the same issue as the “Mansion’s Mardi Gras Madness”; or former World Bank head Moisés Naim paired with a pictorial of Wiccan Wonder Fiona Horne. I decried what a woman will do to be attractive to men – in fact so did many of my male colleagues – but I also oooed and aahed and felt I could consume too. I was not prohibited from the theater. This was art to some, simple sex-as-commerce to others. Both. And the truth is, I’d still rather work at Playboy, than, say, for Vogue. There I’d feel fashion foolish, I imagine. I’d spend to keep up with styles, there I’d feel my age far more than I ever did at Playboy, where not looking like many of the women featured in the magazine was just fine by me.
Hef and his robe and his girlfriends only figured into my work life peripherally. The E! TV show “The Girls Next Door” was fairly popular during my tenure and Holly, Kendra and Bridget occasionally turned up in the offices or at events. Hef was always decorous and his blonde companions kindly and polite; and when the Girls were passing through to meet with an editor about a Q&A or use the restroom after shopping on Fifth Avenue, with their hair in loose pony tails, with their faces without make-up, fresh and full of color, and with their giggling stories of crazy cab drivers or sales, it was especially hard to write them off, as many of us did, or argue with their appeal.
It wasn’t a paradise by any means. What is? There were plenty of agents and authors who wouldn’t respond to my queries or calls, couldn’t work with us on principle or because of disapproving wives or daughters. I certainly never got used to the business meetings outside the office that began with a quick look at my breasts, to see what I might be hiding there. And I’ll never forget the agent who said to me, drunkenly, after a lunch, “So is there any chance we’re going to fuck?” There were battles I lost over pieces and intensifying politics at every level, inside our company as much as, or more, really, than outside in our industry, the changing financial realities and in-fighting on the now defunct board of directors that would every day jeopardize the magazine’s ability to claim it cared about culture at all, its books, its debates, its anarchy of voices.
I like to tell the story about the Academy of Arts and Letters and Tony D’Souza, a young author whose fiction we’d published in the magazine. In 2007 he received an award from the organization for his marvelous first novel told in stories, "Whiteman." Tony invited Chris Napolitano, my boss, and I to attend. The Academy of Arts and Letters is an august body, housed in a marble structure way uptown, in Washington Heights, indeed where town almost runs out. To be asked to join is not unlike a lifetime achievement award, or rather like a superhero being asked to join the Justice League, but this, of course, is for artists. They issue robes for members to wear for their events. They take themselves seriously and they should – too often American culture fails to. Regardless, it’s a rarefied world. Chris and I were all smiles as Tony sat among the likes of Joan Didion, Cindy Sherman, Philip Glass, and Don DeLillo. Tony beamed back at us. For him, being published in Playboy was a dream, which he told us and anyone who’d listen with gratifying regularity. He had his own list of Playboy contributors who’d inspired him, a list at the ready for reciting: Hunter S. Thompson, Paul Theroux, Vonnegut, T C Boyle.
The Academy’s auditorium is known for its exceptional acoustics, and everything went off sans glitch until Chris’s phone vibrated in his suit pocket. It was Hefner, and when he calls, whoever works for him must answer, particularly if you’re running his magazine, as Chris was then. Chris slid neatly out of the auditorium into an adjacent corridor, behind closed doors. But evidently the acoustics out there were pretty good too, or at least reverberant. Yes, sound carried, and while pretty speeches were being made at the podium, Hef had his own pressing concerns, as I discovered moments later: the overall quality and general grooming of a few models in a pictorial called “The Bush Is Back.” Chris said, “Yes, yes, it’s the pubic hair, it’s about the pubic hair” and that’s all I or anyone heard for a space of several minutes – “the pubic hair, the pubic hair, the pubic hair.” Don DeLillo’s head swiveled and I froze, turned red, and had to use all my strength to suppress nervous laughter. I think I injured my spleen in the doing. A bespectacled young man raced out and forced Chris farther away, maybe outside the building. When I found him later, Chris shrugged with his winning smile. He knew well about all the contradictions of working for Playboy. He’d hired me to remind readers of Playboy’s smartest self. He’s one of the savviest magazine editors I know, but he also spoke Playboy’s standards and preferences for the women photographed fluently and understood Hefner’s needs and fitfulness, his hyper-attentiveness to details even at 80-something. Chris was, to me, grace itself.
He was easy to work hard for, to say yes to, in reply to all the yes’s he gave me: yes, for instance, to Denis Johnson penning an original novel for us, "Nobody Move." It was written to deadline, in consecutive issues, Dickens-style, at 10,000 words per installment. If you don’t work in magazines, you don’t know that’s an unheard of amount of space for any feature. A lark. A miracle. And a cause for celebration, that there was yet an editorial director in New York City who would make such an investment in fiction.
Playboy also taught me to say no, or to choose my yes’s and no’s with some care. No, I can’t get you into the mansion. I myself have never been. No, I’m not less of a feminist because I worked at Playboy. I included women’s work in the magazine at every possible occasion. By working at Playboy I’m not seducing any woman out of her clothes (though I must admit that sounds appealing). And given the Internet’s offerings, aren’t Playboy’s images quaint at best, a tribute to a moment when the vision of breasts or the curve of an ass were sufficiently titillating and pink bunny ears conjured sexual permissiveness? I’m still saying no – no, that’s not my version of Playboy, my experience of it. You’re welcome to yours, but that’s not mine, and, no, I won’t make an outright joke of the place, can’t, because it’s altogether too easy and misses so much else. Playboy is the magazine Americans love to deride, even as they can’t help but be fascinated by it or can’t help giggling like adolescents at the mention of the name. It’s been pronounced dead over and over, and yet it survives. Hefner may be an anachronism to many, but he’s also an iconoclast of a distinctly American variety. My time there made me a better editor, probably a better and certainly a more resilient person; and even when I knew I had no place there anymore, as the editorial direction changed and the New York offices and then, only a few years later, the Chicago offices closed, I didn’t regret a day of it. I still don’t. I was able to do things there as an editor that I’ll never be able to do anywhere else. And that’s no straight line, and just to be clear, no, I’m afraid we’re probably not going to fuck.