We are compelled—because we do not live on another planet—to note the death this past week of Hugh Hefner, who founded Playboy magazine in 1953, and went on to project his own particular brand of fantasy across a vast cultural expanse, ultimately influencing, if not forming outright, the erotic consciousness of millions.
I come neither to bury the man nor praise him: the religious right had already consigned Hefner to Hell decades ago, and he, for his part, welcomed their hate. He would be somewhat more bewildered, if not wholly surprised, at the long lines now forming on the left, feminists and their allies eager to piss on his grave. The evil men do live after them, and Hefner’s legacy is fraught to say the very least.
Hefner is often regarded as a particularly successful example of self-re-invention, so dear to the American imagination. The nerdy art student, self-described son of puritans, transforms himself into the ultimate hedonist icon, the man of leisure smokes his pipe—imagining that it makes him look so much more thoughtful and serious—as he lounges in pajamas, surrounded by all the accoutrements of success, including a veritable harem of beautiful, unfailingly submissive women. In interviews, Hefner said that his relationships were “projections of his dreams” and he was undeniably successful in turning his own prosaic paracosm into a kind of reality, though mostly for himself. He did not seem to understand—or, at least, would not publically admit—that his dreams had a way of coming true less because of any innate brilliance or personal charm, than the simple fact that he possessed the means to make them so. Nor did he seem to grasp the notion that self-re-invention only works if one keeps at it, refining the invention from time to time. Self-invention must be an on-going, life-long process, otherwise it risks devolution into self-parody and cliché. So it was with Playboy. If Hefner's relationships were a projection of his dreams, then Playboy was a mirror of his aspirations; the magazine, its fortunes and its flaws were inextricably linked to the man, his tastes, his eccentricities, his fantasies and his failings.
The saving grace of the publication was its fiction. With its broadly welcoming submission guidelines, Playboy published some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, and gave some their first major breaks—for this, if nothing else, Hefner deserves enormous credit. While style and subject varied widely, the writing that found its way to the page was seldom less than superb. Ironically, Playboy did not accept erotica per se, though strong sexual themes and situations were certainly welcome. Yet every story the magazine ever published did have one thing in common: the main male character always—always—had to be “stronger” than the main female character, perpetuating a not-so-subtle literary misogyny, itself a projection of Hefner’s atavistic notions about the “proper order” of relationships between the sexes as characterized in his rambling, fuzzy-headed "Playboy Philosophy". (*)
The fiction editors made no secret of this policy. Harlan Ellison famously had one of his best stories rejected because of it. The first short story I submitted to the magazine in 2004 was returned for similar reasons—though the editor was kind enough to make some very helpful remarks at the end of the manuscript, which ultimately encouraged me in my present career. Early on it had been a dream of mine to see one of my stories in Playboy, and I worked assiduously at that goal for some years, honing my craft, fine-tuning my style. Unfortunately, by 2006 when I was ready to submit my story Night Vision—still one of the best things I’ve ever done—the magazine was no longer accepting un-agented submissions, and a wild, wide-open era of literary democracy had come to an end.
Why, you might ask, would I have wanted to be published in Playboy? Aside from the fact that Hefner paid $5000 for a standard-length story of 5000 words—a sum that would, in a single payday, have eclipsed everything I ever earned in all my years as a published classical composer—there was a certain cachet that came with being a Playboy author. Where else could one be mentioned alongside writer-heros like Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Norman Mailer, John Updike, T.G. Boyle, Ian Flemming, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asmiov, and on and on and on… If you got into Playboy, you were a somebody—a somebody who had arrived at that.
Yet, in many ways, the magazine’s literary reputation had been built, much like Hefner’s image as a sexual revolutionary, on laurels well past their sell-by date. Looking at Playboy with growing disaffection in the early twenty-first century, I sometimes wondered how it could ever have been considered cutting-edge anything. So much of what passed for non-fiction was little more than autoerotic gobbledygook, while even many of the entertainment pieces were jejune, self-servingly pretentious exercises in quasi-literary masturbation. (Or was I expecting too much?) All these nagging annoyances might have been overlooked—and more often than not, were—but for a deeper problem, or, perhaps, more accurately, a considerably shallower one. Hefner’s ideals of feminine beauty were still trapped like some quaint artifact in a time capsule from the 1950s: his “girl-next-door” always perfectly made-up and painstakingly coiffed--if not tastefully airbrushed--seen but seldom heard, preferably in bleach-blonde multiples of two. This fossilized aesthetic sensibility inevitably metamorphosed into grotesque caricature, perhaps best exemplified by the deification of Anna Nicole Smith, a creature as brazen and vacuous as a cartoon balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Where once the notion of a naked woman looking shamelessly into the camera with a knowing smile like Manet’s Olympia had shocked and inspired a culture, Playboy offered little more than softcore primpery, a predictable standard repertory of innocuous pouts, pop-eyed come-hither leers, and bubble-assed ennui. By the time the magazine announced it would no longer include nude centerfolds, most readers’ reaction seemed to be the equivalent of an apathetic shrug.
No, indeed, I do not come to bury Hefner, for, in truth, the man buried himself long ago.
(*) Regarding Hefner's "philosophy", as stated in the story below, little more than a pseudo-intellectual repackaging of classic Hedonism, reminding one of some pompous college professor trying to talk his way into a naive coed's panties. Much like Ayn Rand's contemporaneous Objectivism, Hefner's Playboy philosophy was nothing more than a grandiose attempt at justifying his own selfish whims--a megalomaniacal self-entitlement extending to his final wish to be buried next to Marilyn Monroe, as if, in the end, he might lay claim to the one thing he could never possess in life. (That poor woman! Hounded, abused, and tortured by users and creeps in life, now stuck next to the creepiest abuser of them all forever.)
* * * * *
I thought it might be apropos to include some fiction with this post, especially as this story deals with the formative experiences in which Playboy so often had a role. The experiences described here were quite common, I think, up to a certain point near the end of the century when the internet began to play a greater role in erotic self-discovery. The story—part of a chapter from an early draft of an unpublished novel—begins when Ben, a boy about 13, finds the magazine in his uncle Jerry’s bedroom. (Note that subsequent to 1991 when this story takes place, Playboy finally did feature a centerfold from Iowa, Jordan Monroe (Miss October 2006))
THE CENTERFOLD AFFAIR
by Terrance Aldon Shaw
Then I found it.
There, stuffed between the wall and the side of the bed, was a thick, glossy magazine, a real honest-to-goodness copy of Playboy. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! This was like coming on buried treasure. I’d heard guys effusing breathlessly about what they’d seen on these pages, swaggering and boasting the way obnoxious junior-high boys always do.
But here it was within my sweaty, trembling grasp. Wait till I told the guys!
I opened it up to the centerfold, a dark-haired punk-inflected Euro-skank escapee from the
district. Her name was Lyka or Ilka or Rikka or something like that; the kind
of name people on this side of the Atlantic
usually reserve for their show dogs. I stared at the picture for what seemed an
impossibly long time, ogling and drooling till what’s-her-name seemed to come
alive in my imagination. Then she began talking to me: “Ben, my turn-ons
include well-hung men in Speedos, steeplechasing on the beach by moonlight, and
a good snuff flick.”
As she spoke, Miss June began to sway and shimmy, revealing the secrets of her body in a wild one-dimensional striptease. Before I knew what was happening, I’d reached down into my pants, touching myself in time to the imagined rhythm of the dance, the exotic enchantress urging me on.
And before she could say “cum here often?” I found myself in the grip of a strange, shivering sensation, so surprising in its power, so overwhelming for the sheer pleasure of it, that I nearly cried out; it felt as if I were melting and exploding all at once. Indifferent to the mess I was making, my milky essence spewed, almost leapt, from my body as I collapsed into a kind of ecstatic twilight.
Later, I cleaned things up as best I could, put the magazine back where I’d found it, and tried to be as nonchalant as it was possible to be under the circumstances. But I wanted more; I was hooked like a junkie, all strung out, breathless for my next fix. Getting off was all I could think about. I wanted to feel that wonderfully intense build-up of pleasure, the almost unbearable tension that came just before the final moment of sweet out-rushing, and the near-nirvana of release. I tried again later that night after the lights were out and the house had grown still, tried to recreate the experience of the afternoon. But something was missing; I needed Miss Neked
Netherlands of 1991, and she was
sleeping with my uncle.
Next day, I crept back into the guestroom, tingling with anticipation. I’d swiped a hand towel from the linen closet, smuggling it in under my shirt. I found the magazine where I’d left it, and got right to business. The centerfold started doing her one-woman production of Gypsy in my head, dancing and stripping, talking as she took it all off. “Men are like the stallions I enjoy riding on the beach at night. I put a bit in their mouth, jump on their backs, apply the spurs, and tell them I have ways of making them enjoy it. Yet, somehow, they never seem to. Why is this, I wonder?”
I was on the beach with Ilsa—or was it Ilka?—willing her to ride me through the pounding surf. The overwhelming newness of arousal flowed over me like breaking waves. “Ben, if you want to win me over you need to buy me the biggest plush dildo you can find; I’ll put a dog collar on you, and ask you to obey, and you can tell me how you Americans decide where to eat; you have so many crappy second-rate restaurants.”
Everything started to spin around. A rapturous warmth radiated through my limbs like a mainlined narcotic, powerful and addicting; an all-encompassing sense of connectedness, a feeling of being at one and in love with everybody and everything in the entire universe. I was gone.
But when my spirit got back together with my body, I realized that I was not alone; Uncle Jerry was in the room with me.
“Hey Ben, I see you’re getting acquainted with Miss June.”
“Aw Geez, Uncle Jerry!” I tried to cover up the evidence of what I’d so obviously been doing. “You scared the crap out of me!”
“Funny thing about Miss June; not one has ever gone on to be Playmate of the Year. Did you know that?”
“I’m really sorry, Uncle Jerry.”
“Neither has a Miss July—not once. And it seems like those June, July women are almost always brunettes. ‘Course, I don’t much care for this particular Miss June, myself.”
“I won’t do it again.”
“And did you know that there’s never been a playmate from
Iowa? Funny thing.”
“Please don’t tell Mom and Dad.”
“Now, why would I do that?” said Jerry. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”
Somewhat later, it occurred to me.
“So, how come you don’t like this month’s centerfold?”
Jerry rested his chin on his fist like The Thinker
“Everybody has different tastes in women, Ben. Each month in Playboy there’s always at least one letter from a guy saying something like ‘last month’s centerfold is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!’ and I’m sure one or two guys will write in to say the same thing about this month’s Playmate.
“But to my eye, she’s kind of hard around the edges, almost gettin’ into butch territory, if you know what I mean. She reminds me of Sue the Shrew, or a naked Bride of Frankenstein; sorta scary.”
“That’s one guy’s opinion, Ben. I’ve been enjoying this magazine for over twenty years; I’ve seen lots of beautiful centerfolds. Miss June here wouldn’t even make my top twenty.”
“So who’s your favorite centerfold of all time?”
“That’s an easy one!” Jerry said, “Vicki McCarty, Miss September 1979, hands down.”
“What was it about her that you liked so much?”
“I’ve always preferred my women brunette and brilliant—funny how I always end up with dumb blondes. Not only was Vicki McCarty one of the most strikingly gorgeous brunettes I ever saw in Playboy, she was also very probably the smartest woman ever to pose for the magazine; a brilliant Phi Beta Kappa scholar studying for her advanced degree in jurisprudence at Oxford. Would you like to see her?”
“You still have it; the magazine from back then?”
“Yeah; it’s been one of my most prized possessions all these years. Had to keep it hidden from Sue the Shrew while we were married, but I think I managed to find a pretty good place.”
Jerry rummaged through the old army-surplus ammo box he kept at the foot of the bed. It was crammed with paper, reams of notes, half-finished manuscripts, drafts of his ever-expanding but somehow never-quite-finished take on the Great American Novel. And, nestling down near the bottom of the pile, a battered plastic bag, sealed and resealed many times with duct tape.
Inside the bag, reposing like a treasured holy relic, was a pristine copy of the September 1979 issue of Playboy. The cover was cleverly designed to look like the front page of a daily newspaper; in the lower right hand corner a small eye-catching headline and picture; Playboy finds Phi Beta Kappa Playmate.
As he flipped through the pages heading towards the centerfold Jerry began to speak in hushed reverent tones like an eye-witness to history, somebody-who’d-been there-no-shit at
when Hendrix played The Star Spangled
Banner or stood in line for hours to get Marilyn Chambers’ autograph at the
premier of Behind the Green Door. “Back
in the ‘70s a lot of the editorial content in Playboy had this annoying breathless nudge-nudge-wink-wink kind of
quality that didn’t help you feel very smart or mature. It tended to sound like
a bunch of guys sitting around a locker room snapping towels at each other and shooting
the breeze about babes. ‘There’s
something about blondes, ya know? They’re more—what’s the word?—errrr, willing.’
I started referring to that style as errrotica.
From a literary point of view it was just godawful.
“But nobody was buying the magazine for the literary quality of the captions. It was the pictures, man, the pictures. Some of those images are still burned into my memory, like a spread they did once called Sex in the Great Outdoors. And the images were a lot more overtly copulatory then—you know what I mean?—with couples doing it left and right; boy-on-girl or girl-on-girl or girl-boy-girl-on-boy-girl-boy. Things were wild and wide-open back then, Ben.
“But after a while a couple of things happened. First the ‘80s happened. Reagan and the Republican Revolution came to town, and suddenly the people who’d been waaaaay out on the loony-toon fringes of the far-right were the ones in power, passing the laws and appointing the judges. People started paying attention to all the shit these crazy hypocritical pig-ignorant fucks were shoveling about morality and family values, all the outright lies they were telling about the so-called evils of so-called pornography.
“And as much as Playboy tried and still tries to fight back, they also caved to some of this criticism. They toned down a lot of the explicit content, tried to make it seem more respectable and artsy like a slightly racier version of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. It became almost like a trade publication for the lingerie-modeling industry. Now when you look at a copy of the magazine you’ll hardly ever see heterosexual couples in the act except in the movie stills or the cartoons. There’ll be twins or triplets taking a shower together or stuff like that but the old days—the wide open sexual frontiers of the ‘70s—are gone forever.
“The other thing that happened was a bit more subtle. Over time, the demographic had changed. Somebody figured out that it wasn’t just horny adolescent jocks who were buying the magazine to hide under their beds. There were older ex-nerds—like me—who’d been reading it since they were teenagers but whose tastes and outlook had grown up and gone to college. There were married couples reading it together. (Wish I could’ve convinced my ex to read the Adviser with me once in a while.) Many very politically astute—and some quite influential—people were reading it, too; university professors, literary types who’ve always appreciated the great short stories, feminists of the sane variety, YUPPIES, progressive activists, and a good number of Lesbians—which might explain all the girl-on-girl-in-the-shower shots.
“So gradually, but never completely, they did away with the errrotica, the worst towel-snapping-ain’t-sex-a-dirty-little-joke kinda shit, and cut back on the copulatin’ couples. Better researched and written articles on politics and sexuality replaced the bogus Playboy-Philosophy pieces, which had always been just a phony adolescent pseudo-intellectual repackaging of hedonism anyway. (It always reminded me of some horny, pompous college professor trying to talk his way into a naive coed’s panties.) You could still read some great short stories and check out the occasional interview with important thinkers or the more interesting, intelligent type of celebrity. And always, of course, you could open it up to the middle to see stuff like this—”
“Whoa!” My mouth fell open as Jerry spread out the centerfold to its full length. A young woman with long dark hair and beautiful penetrating brown eyes, reclined causally in an antique swivel chair, resting her feet on an old oak desk. She was naked except for a small white stocking cap. The way she looked into the camera, with a soft but serious gaze, made me forget about Little Miss Dutch Treat right then and there.
“Pretty nice, huh?” Jerry ran his fingers across the page. “Many of these photographers think of themselves quite rightly as artists, and if you know a thing or two about art history, you begin to notice how a lot of these pictures are composed to resemble paintings by Reubens or Titian or Rembrandt. The only difference being; Reubens and company had way better taste in lingerie.”
“Her tits aren’t very big.” I said.
“No, but see how beautifully shaped they are? See how they’re in perfect proportion to the rest of her body? Believe me, Ben; big tits are highly overrated. Who needs more than a mouthful anyway?”
We flipped through the rest of the Playmate spread together. “Notice something interesting about her, Ben?”
“Yeah! It’s like there’s a different girl in every picture. I know it’s the same one, but she looks different every time.”
“Exactly! That’s the secret of a truly beautiful woman; she’s multifaceted like a finely cut gemstone. You could take a thousand different pictures of her, and every single one would show her off in a different way. It’s not a matter of the photographer telling her to do something different: 'Be coy! Now pout! Make love to the camera! Be a temptress . . .’ No, my friend, it’s something much more down deep and mysterious, something virtually impossible to put your finger on.
“A truly beautiful woman has a kind of glow, an inner light that’s always turned on, and never fails to show her off to best advantage. You can see it all the way across a room; it draws you, like a moth to a flame. You can feel it when she’s close to you, and, believe me, that’s the kind of woman you want to be close to.
“But a lot of guys don’t notice, hard as that may be to believe. They don’t notice because they’re not paying attention to the whole woman. They’re too hung up on one part or another; tits, or ass, or legs, or pussy. The people who put out Penthouse magazine cater to that. It’s like the story of the mermaid and her sister; the mermaid’s a girl from the waist up, and the rest of her’s a fish; her sister’s a girl only from the waist down. You virtually never see a photo in Penthouse of the whole woman; it’s all mermaids, either tit shots focused above the waist, or twat shots from the waist down. Sorry, but in my experience that’s not the best way to appreciate a woman.
“Now, Ben, I can’t let you take this particular issue--though I might will it to you someday. I do have one or two tucked under the bed that you can have for keeps. And I’ll share the new ones with you as they come out. Just let me have first crack at ‘em so I can read the articles, and jerk myself off a couple times with the new playmate. Then they’re all yours, OK?”