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The Indelible Mark Playboy's Hugh Hefner Left On American Culture


Hugh Hefner was a man who played by his own rules.


HUGH HEFNER: It's a big event when I put my pants on, yeah. And the reason I wear pajamas all the time is because along the way, I discovered I could get away with it.

CHANG: Hefner did get away with it a lot in his 91 years. He was speaking there with my colleague Renee Montagne in 2007. Hefner died yesterday of natural causes, surrounded by family at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. The empire he built made an undeniable mark on American culture.

Earlier today I spoke with Gary Baum about that empire. Baum has covered Playboy for the Hollywood Reporter. I asked him to go back to 1953 when Playboy first started publishing and to tell me about Hefner's original vision.

GARY BAUM: He wanted to create a new kind of men's magazine. He wanted to take what had been a genre for outdoorsmen, for adventuring and take it indoors. He wanted to do basically a domesticated arts magazine. People think about it now as the nudity, but really that was just part of it. He wanted to create a sort of sophisticated vision for interiors, for cooking, for men in their 20s and 30s who were not getting married right away after they were going to school.

CHANG: What era would you consider the height of Playboy? When was Playboy in its prime?

BAUM: I think that it was probably at its height in the '60s and '70s when it had a major impact on sexual mores and also progressive politics. Those were - probably made the largest dents in the culture.

CHANG: And what's sort of the quintessential image of Playboy in the '60s and '70s?

BAUM: Well, right. I think it's the image that he created on television, on those shows like "Playboy After Dark" where you have this figure that he created whole cloth - the guy in the pajamas and with the women around him and also just interacting with entertainers and intellectuals and living this life that was the man who he initially pretended to be and then embodied, this sort of urban sophisticate. And he projected this iconic ideal of what an American man could or would or should be.

CHANG: When you look at Playboy today, how different is it from Playboy at its peak?

BAUM: Well, a lot of the things that Playboy was fighting for have been won. I think that Playboy most specifically won in its attempt to normalize sex. You know, the way that people comport themselves, the availability of sex is much different than when Hugh Hefner launched the magazine. That was part of his goal - was to de-stigmatize it. Well, it's de-stigmatized. So the burning passion that was at the center of each issue does not fuel each issue anymore. So if that's not part of what can animate each issue, then what's there?

CHANG: So you've written about Hefner's son, Cooper Hefner. He's in charge now at Playboy. Does he run the company differently than his father did?

BAUM: It's important to first understand that he does not have the control that his father did. Cooper's vision values the heritage of the company and its progressiveness, but you will not see him going around in silk pajamas except maybe as a nod to the past on the Midsummer Night's Dream Party. I think that Cooper came of age when Playboy became something of a cartoon of itself - for instance, the reality show "The Girls Next Door," things that Cooper is frankly embarrassed of.

And what they've been working on over the last year or two is to make it basically chic again. It's been a while since sophisticated consumers thought of Playboy as chic. It's oftentimes been considered in recent decades cheesy or a joke, and that's not something that they feel like they can build another 50, 60 years of brand success on.

CHANG: That was Gary Baum. His piece on Playboy and Cooper Hefner called "The Next Hef" was in the Hollywood Reporter in August. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

BAUM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.