Possibly one of the most controversial figures in American business, magazine publisher Hugh Hefner died last week at the age of 91 at home in the sprawling Playboy Mansion he had occupied since the 1970s. While he had come to be known as the face of sexual liberation, Hefner was more than just the outspoken editor-in-chief of Playboy Magazine, he was also a highly successful entrepreneur who built an empire by challenging status quo thinking. Behind his very public persona lay a man dedicated to advancing civil rights and a champion of free speech, a celebrity in the world of adult entertainment who often used his money and influence to help others facing discrimination.
In recent years, Hefner’s name had been associated with a long string of young and attractive wives and girlfriends, and he encouraged his playboy image by continuing to host parties in his signature silk pajamas and smoking jacket. Hefner often came under fire from feminists who were against pornography and the objectification of women, but Hef’s legendary status was also based in a lifestyle he popularized that encouraged progressive thinking: whether it was about women, the arts, or politics.
From the very beginning, Playboy Magazine showed itself as more than just its center-fold spreads. In the editor’s column he wrote for Playboy’s first issue, Hef defined a playboy as a gentleman whose tastes ran from cocktails to fine art, a refined man who could hold an educated conversation on a number of different topics. Hefner was a fan of jazz and literature, and he exposed his readers to some of the most cutting-edge artists and writers of the time through Playboy’s interviews and articles.
Hefner was also a champion of American civil rights. He offered black political leaders, artists and authors equal page space in his magazine, and, while most nightclubs were still segregated, employed black musicians, comics, and bunnies at his famous Playboy clubs. Playboy published interviews with Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, and Hefner personally donated his money to cover the legal fees in free-speech cases like the obscenity trials of comedian Lenny Bruce.
Even though Hugh Hefner and his Playboy empire will remain a controversial topic years after his death, it’s important to remember Hef as a pace-setting risk-taker who helped define a generation of progressive, refined American gentlemen. His magazine featured nude women alongside articles written by Nobel prize winners, and his brand advocated an image of male readers who were as smart and hip as they were interested in sex. Playboy Magazine provided a place where the brilliance of young, black artists was appreciated and exposed over 7 million readers to names that would have otherwise gone unnoticed in mainstream America. Hefner’s original playboy has been the model for world-famous gentlemen of taste and action, like the legendary James Bond, and will continue to influence men in America for years to come. Hefner was, himself, a playboy and a gentleman of the world, and this is how he should be remembered.