Al Bergstein

Writings, etc.

Over the last week, I've read a wide variety of posts on the internet about Hugh Hefner. Almost all were extremely negative to him and really, given the length of his life, and all that he did or didn't do, were well deserved. For example, Susan Brownmiller on the NYT:

But I think that it's worth it to pause and reflect a bit, on his life and work. Having been raised in Chicago between 1953 and 1976, I was very much a member of "the Playboy" generation. A group of young people who were more than just consumers of the magazine. 

Perhaps the best obituary that I read that most clearly pointed out what he meant at one short point in time to a group of young people like myself, was published by a woman, Amber Batura in the New York Times:®ion=Marginalia&pgtype=article

So let me just say a couple of words in his defense, which only relate to his life until about the mid 1960s. Playboy was a radical breakthrough for Americans in that era. We were, and in many ways still are, one of the most prurient societies on earth. In some ways we've gone backwards since the 1970s, when words like "free love" defined many of my generation. There would be dues to be paid over that notion, to be sure. But before AIDS and the feminist movement, was a new notion of relationships between men and women. It was often confusing and not often comfortable, but it broke down walls and created new ways of looking at relationships. 

What Hefner did do early in his career was offer a forum for sexual education for men, women, teenage boys (and probably girls too) like myself that did not exist in America at that time. His letters to Playboy were a forum for people to ask questions about sexual issues at that time. One question I remember was "how long should I have a hard on?" This was not a theoretical question to a kid of 12 or 13. Nor is it now, in an age of Viagra. These were questions many of us wondered about.Reading the answers was incredible, because we were reading answers that adults were writing to this question, but would never give us. 

Girls wrote in too. Just this evening, as I write this, I was out to dinner and drinks with a friend and his wife, both about my age. When I brought Hefner up and discussed Playboy's influence with them, she said, "Yes! When I graduated high school in 1973, someone anonymously sent me a subscription to Playboy. While the photos were of no interest to me, I was fascinated with the interviews and the questions to Playboy on sex." 

Remember, there was no way to get that information anywhere else in our society, none… during a point in my youth we anxiously waited for the next edition, and eagerly stole it from our parents. I loved the cartoons, such as Gahan Wilson and yes, the women. It normalized my young manhood, knowing that girls and women did seem to like sex as much as I did. But of course after that Hefner descended into a caricature of himself. He did not change with the times and in the end created an image that he was himself was unable to escape. Meanwhile Gloria Steinem, who had worked undercover in a Playboy club to write a story, started Ms. Magazine, the polar opposite to Playboy. Hefner, if he was astute, could have altered Playboy to meet the new world order, but he didn't. So yes I have no doubt that after the mid-1960s he had become someone to be despised by women. It was time to move on, see women as equals and not just the sexual objects that made up centerfolds. But before that happened, he blew the doors open in the late 50s and then into the early 60s. He created a men's magazine that featured some of the most creative writers in the world at that time, and interviews that were to this day some of the best ever done anywhere. He helped teach all of us that sex was normal, which did a service to society. Society promptly took that teaching and ran with it. Sex exploded every which way in the media. New publications cropped up like Rolling Stone that imitated Playboy's great interviews, and established magazines like Esquire did also, but left out the nudes. 

One of his great interveiwers was none other than Alex Hailey (Roots). I eagerly read every interview. As an Amazon overview says:
"Everyone knows Alex Haley as the world-renowned author of the international bestseller ROOTS, and as the writer who collaborated with Malcolm X on his historic autobiography. What many people don't know is that Alex Haley began his professional writing career as a journalist. It was his experience in this arena that earned him the plum assignment as Playboy's first -- and foremost -- interviewer. Witness Haley's work with the pre-Ali Cassius Clay, in which the posture of the young rebel fell away and a sensitive, intelligent young man emerged. He lured Malcolm X beyond his scathing Black Muslim rhetoric to reveal the agile, perceptive mind of a charismatic leader. With Johnny Carson, Haley revealed the man behind the mask of a charming television raconteur. And, in a devasting interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, the self-appointed fuhrer of the American Nazi Party, Haley deftly exposed the frightening heart and soul of the twisted man and his racist ideology. "A fascinating slice of recent history, an extraordinarily candid collection of celebrity interviews and personal reminiscences, ALEX HALEY: THE PLAYBOY INTERVIEWS anthologizes for the first time a gifted writer's finest work at its controversial and informative best.

I am sure it is very hard I am sure for anyone born after 1970 to imagine the world that existed when Hefner first created Playboy. A good starting reference is the television series, Mad Men. That TV show most clearly illustrates what life was like when Hefner arrived. Sex was impossible to speak about out in the open. Women were simply things to be manipulated by the male dominated society (and to many they unfortunately still are). Playboy was one of the first mainstream magazines to normalize sex. I appreciate that he did that. I'm very glad that everything changed but I'm not totally willing to denounce him entirely. Obviously, much came later, and he ended his life a sad tawdry caricature of himself at best and very likely, if stories are to believed, much worse.