The media today: Remembering Hugh Hefner ‘for the articles’

Hugh Hefner, the iconic founder of Playboy magazine, died yesterday at 91. Remembered primarily as the man who—as The Washington Post put it in a front-page obituary—“turned the world on to sex,” Hefner was also a free speech advocate who printed more serious journalism and fiction than just about any other magazine publisher.

Though the percentage of consumers who read Playboy “for the articles” was undoubtedly smaller than claimed, those articles included pieces by some of the 20th century’s greatest journalists and writers. James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabokov, and countless others all found a home for their work in the magazine’s glossy pages. The Playboy interview was for decades one of the most prominent vehicles for newsmakers to speak expansively about their lives.  

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Hefner often claimed his goal was to reject the puritanism he saw in American culture, and his magazine certainly had a role in the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. He is remembered as a champion of free speech, a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and an advocate for gay rights.

Though Hefner argued that Playboy was also an ally to feminism, he was accused of exploiting women and contributing to a culture of objectification. Most notable among those critics was Gloria Steinem, whose 1963 “A Bunny’s Tale” exposed what life in a Playboy Club meant for women working there.

With the rise of the internet, where free access to nudity is just a click away, Playboy’s influence waned, but Hefner’s legacy as a complex man with an outsized influence was already secure. Below, more on Hefner and his impact on journalism.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.