Hugh Hefner, a cultural hero and a cautionary tale

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the Bunnies crying with a sexy saxophone. Silence the eight-track disco, and with a muffled drum, bring out the tiger fur-lined coffin, let the mourners come. Let the Playboy Jet circle overhead, scribbling on the sky the message, Hef is dead.

The alpha perv is no more.

Hugh Hefner, pornographer king of the Playboy Empire, went permanently limp on Thursday at the age of 91. He'll be remembered as a creepy old predator who got rich turning out young women for randy men who lacked the courage of their erections.

But Hefner was also responsible for loosening the restraints that had so tightly bound the sexuality of the English-speaking world in bonds of shame and repression since the Victorian era.

Lyle Shelton would undoubtedly draw a straight line from Playboy's launch edition nude cover of Marilyn Monroe to the end of civilisation as he knows it, (but which nice people would simply call ???marriage equality').

Monroe's cover shot earned her fifty bucks, when she was at her lowest ebb, trapped in dire poverty, and contemplating professional failure and obscurity.

Hefner was honest about the importance of her cover to the success of the magazine. He told CBS she was ???the key', but what did the actress get out of it? Not much. Her career had already recovered by the time Hefner got his sticky fingers on her nudes.

Although the magazine became famous for offering women of accomplishment a million dollars???when a million bucks actually meant something???to pose for the magazine's centrefold, most of the many thousands of ???Bunnies' who appeared in its pages and the fever dreams of 7 million subscribers got stiffed, so to speak. Like Marilyn.

Hef, of course, became famous for being Hef. Playboy didn't only sell soft-focus porn. It dealt in a fantasy of male potency and self-actualisation that could only really go viral in an era of denim tuxedos, the public worship of runaway chest hair as organic man salad and the po-faced use of words like self-actualisation to wrap the whole thing up in a justifying mythology.

Hefner was both inspiring culture hero and cautionary tale; living large in the infamous Playboy Mansion, but growing old there too, and ridiculous, and eventually irrelevant as the internet killed off his business model.

Playboy became the waterbed of the publishing industry. Once sexy, now just sort of weird.

The magazine stopped publishing nudes in 2015, but the empire had already pivoted away from banal pornography to a lifestyle brand and licensing company. Playboy cosmetics, Playboy fashion, Playboy resorts and casinos. The Bunny logo is especially valuable in China and India and it's possible the more restrained magazine is a play at repositioning the brand a little closer to Hugo Boss or Ralph Lauren in those markets.

Hefner himself had long ago pivoted into old age and was more likely to be found of an evening with a warm milk than a chilled martini.

The story Hugh Hefner, a cultural hero and a cautionary tale first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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