Detailed assessment of the debatably enviable life of America’s bachelor.
Examining Playboy archives (Hef is something of a pack rat) and Hefner’s own journals, Watts (History/Univ. of Missouri; The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, 2005, etc.) constructs a nuanced portrait of Hefner’s life that also serves as a panorama of hip culture from the 1950s onward—Sinatra, JFK and many others put in appearances. Watts convincingly argues that Hefner anticipated a number of distinct trends that transformed American society, including postwar consumerism, feminism (whose adherents, generally speaking, castigated Hef) and, of course, the’60s sexual revolution. Watts unearths the narrative of Hefner’s childhood in Chicago in the ’30s. Within his deeply religious family, he was doted on by his mother and neglected by a mostly absent father, creating “a child who was extraordinarily self-absorbed.” Certainly, Hefner was fascinated by sexuality and how its acknowledgement was forbidden, but as he noted later, “Pop culture was my other parent.” As an unhappy young man with fond memories of his high-school popularity, Hefner synthesized these personal interests into the legendary 1953 “homemade” first issue of Playboy. (An early nude picture of Marilyn Monroe demonstrated his acumen.) Hefner described the magazine as “a pleasure-primer styled to the masculine taste,” and it took off. By the ’60s, Hefner was engaged in controversy, via his “Playboy Philosophy,” and expansion, as the famed Playboy Clubs helped him build a business empire that reflected his sybaritic lifestyle in his notorious mansion. Circulation peaked in the swinging ’70s (as did an ugly drug controversy); the ’80s were less kind, as the brand seemed dated. Hefner resembles a chameleon in Watts’s mostly sympathetic portrait, variously appearing as a prescient social critic, an early supporter of civil rights, a generous Gatsby figure and a cranky, obsessive sex addict. The author captures the transitions in American society, though he’s repetitive in details and themes, and rather tame, if tasteful, in depicting the sexual exploits that always surrounded Hefner and his empire.
Probably the last word on the man behind a million adolescent fantasies.