Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream

By STEVEN WATTS

Two-thirds of the way into Steven Watts’s new biography of Hugh Hefner, the infamous publisher summarizes his brainchild’s mission. “What the book is first and foremost: a lifestyle magazine devoted to how one spends one’s leisure time.” Thankfully for Hefner, Watts, and readers of this biography, there’s so much more to the story of Playboy and what was for a time its vast commercial empire and cultural reach. Watts, a University of Missouri history professor, entertainingly explains the influence of Hefner over the last six decades, when he and Playboy both shaped and reflected American society. The story, Watts insists, goes beyond sex and consumerism. “The question of how and why the publisher of a risqué men’s magazine was able to garner such influence, and even prestige, has perplexed many observers.” Watts’ answer: “ver the last half century Hefner has played a key role in changing American values, ideas, and attitudes. From the beginning, his enterprise was about more than dirty pictures?. It comprised a historical force of significant proportions.” Launched in 1953 (and featuring among its enticements nude photos of Marilyn Monroe), and the publication quickly became popular and influential. Hefner adopts the mantle of a revolutionary fighting the Establishment: “We dared to suggest that there were other ways of living your life.” From the beginning, Watts writes, “The magazine became a kind of cultural litmus test for judging the positive or negative direction of modern American culture.” Needless to say, not everybody appreciated the publication or the Hef-embodied Playboy lifestyle. Conservatives, religious groups, and feminists said he represented the decline of Western civilization. As Watts says, “Few Americans have aroused greater controversy in ascending to fame and fortune.”