"ONE OF THE GREAT IRONIES IN OUR SOCIETY IS THAT WE
CELEBRATE FREEDOM AND THEN LIMIT THE PARTS OF LIFE
WHERE WE SHOULD BE MOST FREE."
-Hugh M. Hefner
HEF'S NOTE TO SELF
"CBS This Morning's" Emmy-nominated series, "Note to Self," featured Hef on his 88th birthday, reflecting on his multifaceted and fortunate life.
HUGH M. HEFNER BIOGRAPHY
Playboy Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Hugh M. Hefner, was a true visionary, who in 1953 set out to create a sophisticated men’s magazine that inspired a media empire. Six decades later, the empire he created remains one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
Launched in a conservative 1950s post-war America, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy reflected a progressive approach to sexuality, which was revolutionary for its time. In those early years shepherding his nascent magazine, Hefner fought vigorously for both First Amendment and civil rights, and helped to usher in the sexual revolution along the way.
Hugh Hefner was born in Chicago on April 9, 1926, the elder son of conservative Protestant parents, Glenn and Grace Hefner, and a direct descendent of Massachusetts Puritan patriarchs, William Bradford and John Winthrop. Following graduation from high school in January 1944, Hef (a nickname he preferred since adolescence) joined the Army, serving as an infantry clerk and drawing cartoons for various Army newspapers. After his discharge from the service in 1946, he attended the University of Illinois where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. This was followed by a semester of graduate courses in sociology at Northwestern University where, pursuing his interest in individual freedom, he wrote a term paper examining U.S. sex laws in light of the then-controversial Kinsey Institute research on human sexuality.
In June 1949, Hefner married a classmate, Mildred Williams. Their ten-year marriage produced two children: Christie in 1952 and David in 1955.
Following college, Hef tried his hand at cartooning and, failing to sell any of his ideas for a cartoon strip, published a book of satirical cartoons about Chicago titled That Toddlin’ Town. In January of 1951 he landed a promising job as a promotion copywriter at Esquire magazine at $60 a week. When Esquire moved its offices to New York, his request for a five-dollar-a-week raise was denied, which became a defining moment. Hef quit Esquire and decided to follow his dreams and start a magazine of his own.
With an $8,000 investment raised from family and friends, including $1000 from his mother and $600 borrowed from a bank using his furniture as collateral, the first issue of Playboy magazine was produced on the kitchen table in Hefner’s South Side Chicago apartment. The first issue hit newsstands in December of 1953 and featured a nude calendar photo of Marilyn Monroe. It sold more than 50,000 copies, enough to pay for the paper and printing costs and to finance another issue.
Very early on in the magazine’s history, Hugh Hefner provided a platform for controversial writers of the day, including Ray Bradbury’s classic novel about book-banning, Fahrenheit 451, and Charles Beaumont’s The Crooked Man, which depicted a world in which homosexuality was the norm and heterosexuality was the persecuted sexual behavior. In addition, Playboy went on to publish many of the most iconic writers of our time including John Updike, Ian Fleming, Joseph Heller, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Margaret Atwood, Jack Kerouac, Alex Haley, and Woody Allen, to name a few.
Since 1962 the iconic “Playboy Interview” has profiled many of the most notable figures of our time, including Miles Davis, Dr. Martin Luther King, George Lincoln Rockwell, and Jimmy Carter. These remain important reads for cultural historians.
By the beginning of the 1960s, the magazine was selling over a million copies a month and Hefner, now divorced, began to live out the “Good Life” depicted in the pages of his publication. He hosted a popular syndicated television show called Playboy’s Penthouse, purchased the Playboy Mansion in Chicago and opened the first Playboy Club in Chicago on February 29, 1960. At a time when the country was about to enter a dramatic period of cultural upheaval, Hefner was always pushing the envelope. In 1959, the year that Playboy’s Penthouse debuted, blacks and whites were not seen socially mixing on television. The show, shot in an apartment setting, showed a diverse group enjoying both white and black performers. Hefner would not waver on this concept despite the reality that many affiliates, especially in the South, refused to air the program.
The Playboy Clubs were a huge success and quickly expanded with franchises to other cities. Membership in any single club granted access to all clubs around the country. When it was revealed that black club members were not allowed to enter Playboy Clubs in Miami and New Orleans, Hefner quickly bought out those franchises—at a considerable loss to the company—and opened the clubs to all members.
In 1964, these struggles inspired him to create the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation to recognize and support organizations that advocate for and defend civil liberties, with special emphasis on those working projects related to First Amendment rights and rational sex and drug policies.
By 1971, when the company went public, the magazine was selling seven million copies a month, and there were 23 Playboy Clubs, resort hotels, and casinos. The Company’s assets included book publishing, licensing, a modeling agency, a limousine service, a record label and a TV and Film company.
Throughout the years, Hefner has made significant contributions to Hollywood and the film and music community. In 1978, he championed the reconstruction of the world-famous Hollywood sign and came to the rescue once again in 2010 when he donated $900,000 that was needed for the Trust for Public Land to purchase the property and preserve the 138 acres behind the sign.
Hefner donated $1.5 million to endow the Hugh M. Hefner Chair for the Study of American film at USC’s School of Cinema-Television, as well as $2 million to the USC School of Cinematic Arts to help fund a central exhibition space in its new headquarters and a new archival repository for student films and historic documents. In addition, he was a major contributor to UCLA’s efforts to restore classic films. He made a $1 million donation to the UCLA Film & Television Archive for public screenings of American cinema, establishing the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program. Over the years, he also produced several documentaries including, Lon Chaney: A 1000 Faces, Clara Bow: Discovering the It Girl, Why Be Good? Sexuality & Censorship in Early Cinema, The Girls in the Band, and most recently he served as an executive producer on Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.
What began in Chicago in 1959 as a three-day gathering of some of the world’s greatest jazz performers in celebration of Playboy’s fifth anniversary, has evolved into the world renowned Playboy Jazz Festival, which takes place over a two-day weekend at the Hollywood Bowl and celebrated its 40th year in 2017.
Since the very beginning of Playboy, Hugh Hefner was both a social justice advocate and a target of the conservative movement. Through the Playboy Foundation, Hefner sponsored the lower-court cases that eventually led to Roe v. Wade and filed an amicus curiae brief in that landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that in 1973 ruled 7–2 that a right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman's decision to have an abortion. He has taken on government institutions as powerful as the U.S. Post Office and the FBI. These continuous battles, along with some tragic personal losses, finally took their toll on Hefner and in 1985 he suffered a stroke that changed the direction of his life. In 1989, he married Kimberley Conrad, Playboy’s 1989 Playmate of the Year. The marriage produced two sons, Marston Glenn and Cooper Bradford. The couple separated in the late 1990s and divorced in 2010.
Over the years, Hugh Hefner has been profiled by many major print news and entertainment outlets including the New York Times, Esquire, Vanity Fair, the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and the London Times. In 2008 he was the subject of a biography written by Steven Watts, entitled Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, and in 2009, Taschen’s Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, a six-volume illustrated autobiography with highlights from Playboy’s first 25 years. Other profiles include A&E’s Hugh Hefner: American Playboy—a two-hour special that was part of A&E’s Biography series; Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time, and the 2009 documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel from Academy Award winning documentarian, Brigitte Berman. He was frequently quoted as believing that the United States’ most important export is “the American Dream” which he felt is best conveyed to the world through motion pictures. In 2017 Amazon premiered an original docu-series entitled American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story. The series was produced by the Emmy award winning Stephen David Entertainment in conjunction with Playboy’s Alta Loma Entertainment.
Hefner appeared as himself in numerous television shows and movies including Saturday Night Live, Entourage, Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Simpsons, and The House Bunny. In 2005 Hefner was one of the first major celebrities to be featured in a reality show. For six seasons, E! Entertainment’s The Girls Next Door was a behind-the-scenes look at the Playboy Mansion featuring Hef along with his girlfriends. The series became one of E!’s top rated programs, an international sensation, airing in more than 150 countries.
The recipient of many awards for his contributions to the publishing world, Hefner received the 1996 International Publishing Award from the International Press Directory in London and in 1998 was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Society of Magazine Editors. In 2002 he received the Henry Johnson Fisher Award, the highest honor of the Magazine Publishers of America. In 2010 he received both the Award of Honor and the First Amendment Award from the prestigious PEN Center USA organization.
Other organizations honoring Hefner include the NAACP, the ACLU, the New York Friars Club, The Thalians, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (including his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame), The Los Angeles Press Club, and the Harvard Lampoon.
In addition to the long list of awards, Hugh Hefner is a two-time Guinness Book of World Records holder: one for being the longest running editor of a magazine, and the other for having the largest scrapbook collection, which currently consists of more than 2900 volumes.
On New Year’s Eve 2012, Hugh Hefner married Playboy Playmate Crystal Harris in a private ceremony. The couple resided at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles until he passed away from natural causes on September 27, 2017. Until his death, Hefner continued to serve as the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, playing a key role in determining the path of Playboy Enterprises. He was 91 years old.