Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream

Author(s): Steven Watts

Biographies & Memoirs

This book presents the real Hugh Hefner - the extraordinary inside story of an American icon. 'Riveting...Watts packs in plenty of gasp-inducing passages' - "Newark Star Ledger". 'Like it or not, Hugh Hefner has affected all of us, so I treasured learning about how and why in the sober biography' - "Chicago Sun Times". 'This is a fun book. How could it not be? Watts aims to give a full account of the man, his magazine and their place in social history. "Playboy" is no longer the cultural force it used to be, but it made a stamp on society' - Associated Press. 'In Steven Watts' exhaustive, illuminating biography Mr. Playboy, Hefner's ideal for living - marked by his allegiances to Tarzan, Freud, Pepsi-Cola and jazz - proves to be a kind of gloss on the Protestant work ethic' - "Los Angeles Times". Gorgeous young women in revealing poses; extravagant mansion parties packed with celebrities; a hot-tub grotto, elegant smoking jackets, and round rotating beds; the hedonistic pursuit of uninhibited sex. Put these images together and a single name springs to mind - Hugh Hefner. From his spectacular launch of "Playboy" magazine and the dizzying expansion of his leisure empire to his recent television hit "The Girls Next Door", the publisher has attracted public attention and controversy for decades. But how did a man who is at once socially astute and morally unconventional, part Bill Gates and part Casanova, also evolve into a figure at the forefront of cultural change? In "Mr. Playboy", historian and biographer Steven Watts argues that, in the process of becoming fabulously wealthy and famous, Hefner has profoundly altered American life and values. Granted unprecedented access to the man and his enterprise, Watts traces Hef's life and career from his midwestern, Methodist upbringing and the first publication of "Playboy" in 1953 through the turbulent sixties, self-indulgent seventies, reactionary eighties, and traditionalist nineties, up to the present. He reveals that Hefner, from the beginning, believed he could overturn social norms and take America with him. This fascinating portrait illustrates four ways in which Hefner and "Playboy" stood at the center of several cultural upheavals that remade the postwar United States. The publisher played a crucial role in the sexual revolution that upended traditional notions of behavior and expectation regarding sex. He emerged as one of the most influential advocates of a rapidly developing consumer culture, flooding "Playboy" readers with images of material abundance and a leisurely lifestyle. He proved instrumental - with his influential magazine, syndicated television shows, fashionable nightclubs, swanky resorts, and movie and musical projects - in making popular culture into a dominant force in many people's lives. Ironically, Hefner also became a controversial force in the movement for women's rights. Although advocating women's sexual freedom and their liberation from traditional family constraints, the publisher became a whipping boy for feminists who viewed him as a prophet for a new kind of male domination. Throughout, Watts offers singular insights into the real man behind the flamboyant public persona. He shows Hefner's personal dichotomies - the pleasure seeker and the workaholic, the consort of countless Playmates and the genuine romantic, the family man and the Gatsby-like host of lavish parties at his Chicago and Los Angeles mansions who enjoys well-publicized affairs with numerous Playmates, the fan of life's simple pleasures who hobnobs with the Hollywood elite. Punctuated throughout with descriptions and anecdotes of life at the Playboy Mansions, "Mr. Playboy" tells the compelling and uniquely American story of how one person with a provocative idea, a finger on the pulse of popular opinion, and a passion for his work altered the course of modern history. This book spans from Hefner's childhood to the launch of "Playboy" magazine and the expansion of the Playboy empire to the present. It puts Hefner's life and work into the cultural context of American life from the mid-twentieth-century onwards. It contains over 50 B/W and color photos, including an actual fold-out centerfold.


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Just past the round rotating bed, beyond the hot-tub grotto but before the pajama-draped walk-in, lies ... what? If we're to believe this book, it's the Truth about Hugh Hefner-and, by proxy, about American life since the 1950s. Of course, the larger legacy of Playboy has been considered long and well (in these pages a couple of years ago, and elsewhere). But Watts, a history professor prone to interpreting American Dreamers (he has written stellar works on Henry Ford and Walt Disney), is wise to draw a narrow bead on Hef qua Hef, dividing his life into tidy quadrants of postwar influence and iconography: as sexual liberator, avatar of consumerism, pop-culture purveyor, lightning rod for feminist ire. He also succeeds in identifying and exploring raging personal paradoxes-hedonist and workaholic, libertine and romantic, provocateur and traditionalist-while resisting the urge to attempt reconciliation. The Horatio-Alger-with-a-libido case he makes-where else but in America could a repressed midwestern boy rise, and fall into so many sacks, while creating and brand-managing a multimedia empire?-is only intermittently convincing. Still, there's plenty to enjoy here, from the factual wealth (Watts was granted access to the vast Playboy vaults and draws heavily on his subject's compulsively kept scrapbook collection) to the photographs aplenty (some offer revelatory glimpses; others give off the whiff of stale cheesecake) to the fundamental pleasures of watching a larger-than-life figure scuttle social norms and satisfy his own lavish urges. (The Atlantic, March 2009) "Riveting... Watts packs in plenty of gasp-inducing passages." (Newark Star Ledger) "Like it or not, Hugh Hefner has affected all of us, so I treasured learning about how and why in the sober biography." (Chicago Sun Times) "This is a fun book. How could it not be? Watts aims to give a full account of the man, his magazine and their place in social history. Playboy is no longer the cultural force it used to be, but it made a stamp on society." (Associated Press) "In Steven Watts' exhaustive, illuminating biography Mr. Playboy, Hefner's ideal for living -- marked by his allegiances to Tarzan, Freud, Pepsi-Cola and jazz -- proves to be a kind of gloss on the Protestant work ethic." (Los Angeles Times) When Hugh Hefner quit his job at Esquire to start a magazine called Playboy, he didn't just want to make money. He wanted to make dreams come true. The first issue of Playboy had a Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an article on the Dorsey brothers, and a feature on desk design for the modern office, called "Gentlemen, Be Seated." Hefner wrote much of the copy himself and drew all the cartoons. But the most memorable part by far was the set of pictures he bought from a local calendar printer of a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe. In this wise and penetrating biography, intellectual historian Steven Watts looks at what Hugh Hefner went onto become, and how he took America with him. Hefner became one of the most hated and envied celebrities in America, dating a long list of his magazine's beauties and always standing just barely on the wrong side of decency and moral uprightness. He also, at one time, had 7 million subscribers to his magazine. Though in time he would lose readers to more explicit magazines on one side and "lad" magazines on the other, the Playboy brand never lost its luster. "...highly-readable and thought-provoking biography written by academic historian, Stephen Watts" (Desire, November 2008) Hugh Hefner started Playboy magazine in 1953 using purchased photos of Marilyn Monroe, and including the article "Miss Gold Digger 1953" about women who "manipulate the legal system for alimony." Hefner positioned the magazine as respectable, with articles by celebrated writers, interviews, and advice columns, accompanied with photos of nude models and ads, all combined to help promote a notion of "the good life." And so it was in his publicly lead private life, complete with famous people, naked women (he was allowed to date other people, his girlfriends were not), and a home in the "Playboy mansion." Watts outlines the man and magazine's influence on the country's notions of personal liberation, sexual freedom, and material abundance. Clocking in at over 500 pages, this is not a gossip book but a well-documented biography written with access to Hefner's over 1800 scrapbooks, the company archives, and interviews. Watts finds Hefner comparable to the subjects of his other books about Henry Ford and Walt Disney in that all were major contributors to aspects of the American dream. Recommended for public libraries and cultural studies collections. -Lani Smith, Ohlone Coll. Lib., Neward, CA (Library Journal, September 1, 2008) As he did in his previous books on Henry Ford (The People's Tycoon) and Walt Disney (The Magic Kingdom), Watts carefully details the life of Hugh Hefner and the influence his Playboy magazine has had on American culture. Using unrestricted access to the magazine's archives, Watts skillfully charts the intersection of Hefner's professional and personal history: the "sexual titillation" of his first issue; his mid- to late-1960s championing of leftist politics and writers such as Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut; his 1970s retrenchment after assaults by the women's liberation movement; his financial and personal troubles in the '80s and '90s; and his current position as the "retro cool" figurehead of an institution that is now a "midsize communications and entertainment company." Watts evokes a time when Playboy was seen by its critics as a key "symptom of decadence in American life," and is at his best when exploring his subject's early years, showing how Hefner's sexual and material "ethic of self-fulfillment" drove him to challenge "the social conventions of postwar America." (Oct.) (Publishers Weekly, July 28, 2008) 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 Watt'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. (Kirkus Reviews, July 10, 2008)

Steven Watts is Professor of History at the University of Missouri. He is the author of five books, including The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century and The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life.

Acknowledgments. Introduction: The Boy Next Door. PART I BEGINNINGS. 1 A Boy at Play. 2 Boot Camp, College, and Kinsey. 3 The Tie That Binds. PART II ASCENT. 4 How to Win Friends and Titillate People. 5 Hedonism, Inc. 6 The Pursuit of Happiness. 7 An Abundant Life. 8 Living the Fantasy. PART III TRIUMPH. 9 The Philosopher King. 10 The Happiness Explosion. 11 Make Love, Not War. 12 What Do Women Want? 13 Down the Rabbit Hole. 14 Disneyland for Adults. PART IV MALAISE. 15 A Hutch Divided. 16 The Dark Decade. 17 The Party's Over. 18 Strange Bedfellows. PART V RESURGENCE. 19 The Bride Wore Clothes. 20 All in the Family. 21 Back in the Game. Epilogue: Playboy Nation. Notes. Index.

General Fields

  • : 9780470521670
  • : John Wiley and Sons Ltd
  • : John Wiley & Sons Ltd
  • : October 2009
  • : 215mm X 140mm X 39mm
  • : United Kingdom
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Steven Watts
  • : Paperback
  • : 070.5092
  • : 544
  • : Biography & autobiography: film, television, music, theatre; Press & journalism
  • : Illustrations (some col.)