Hugh Hefner & the Playboy Beginnings

hugh hefner and playboy
Photo Credit: Alan Light

Some people call him the luckiest guy in the world, to others he’s simply “Hef” but whichever name he responds to, he created it for himself right here in Chicago. Hugh Marston Hefner started his career right after high school as a writer for a military newspaper in the U.S. Army. Upon returning he expected a celebration to rival those of The Great Gatsby, but instead he came back to a repressed society–politically, socially, and sexually. “The skirt lengths in the 1950s went down, rather than up as they had in the ’20s. I thought that was a very unfortunate sign,” he recalled. Following societal norms, Hefner attended college, married young and gained employment as an advertising copywriter for a department store.

His next gig was as a promotional copy writer for Esquire Magazine. The urban composure of Esquire captivated Hefner for a short period of time, but after being denied a five dollar raise he decided to stay in Chicago while the magazine relocated to New York. His next position was with Publisher’s Development Corporation which produced titles such as Art Photography, Modern Sunbathing, Sunbathing Review and Modern Man. A restless Hefner changed jobs almost as often as he changed girlfriends and by early 1953, he switched jobs once again taking a position as a circulation manager for a magazine called Children’s Activities. Still not fully satisfied in both his personal and professional life Hefner sought to create his own magazine that would change both. Noting the popularity of “pin-up” girls in the military barracks and the high circulation of the girlie magazine Modern Man, Hefner knew the beautiful girls featured on the pages of his magazine could lure readers for the initial purchase but that his content would keep them as customers. With experience in almost every aspect of publishing and editing and a ready market, the only thing Hefner need was the hardest thing to get: money.

After taking out a bank loan for $600 against his own furniture, Hefner asked his family to invest in the magazine. His father, an accountant, immediately declined stating that a magazine was a risky investment. His mother and brother saw an opportunity to support Hef, and invested $1,000 each. Content in the first edition featured articles on fashion and even a piece on cooking, which was uncommon of men’s magazines in those times. In search of a photograph that would not only entice readers but also radiate the magazine’s philosophy, Hef remembered a rumor of an image fitting such a description. For $500 he purchased a photo of a young aspiring actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe. The photo captured a blonde beauty sprawled completely nude across a red velvet background. Hefner used his connections from Esquire Magazine and his highly sought after but rarely viewed picture of Marilyn Monroe to personally market his publication and received a reassuring number of advanced orders. “In truth the magazine was my card table and a typewriter and some letterhead and me. When I wrote to distributors, I was the general manager of American News Co. and when I wrote to agents and writers, I was the editor of Playboy, and when I wrote to potential advertisers, I was advertising director. I wore many hats,” Hefner said.

Only weeks before Hefner’s magazine, Stag Party went to press he received a cease-and-desist letter from the attorneys of Stag Magazine forcing him to find another title. While, brainstorming potential names a friend suggested the name of a short lived automobile company “Play Boy”. Hefner found the name evocative of the 1920’s and a name F. Scott Fitzgerald himself might approve of. The stag illustration was replaced with a rabbit, and Playboy was born. Although competitive men’s magazines featured men on the cover Hefner took a risk and used a bunny in a smoking jacket to represent his magazine. Unsure of whether his finances could allocate the publication of a second issue and whether the racy pictorials would offend society the first Playboy magazine was undated and something too risky for Hefner to put his name on. Playboy debuted on newsstands across Chicago in November 1953.

The first issue flew off news stands selling over 52,000 copies, and soon enough a small independent national wholesaler named Empire News Co. decided to support the magazine. Playboy’s innovative content and bold visuals captivated a target audience of young men thirsting for a posh lifestyle and intrigued by sexual expression. Not only were the pages of playboy glossy and rich in color compared to other men’s magazines, but they also stressed the centerfold, a concept Hefner created himself. Playboy’s early persona promoted the idea that sexy girls were everywhere, not just in Hollywood or Las Vegas — it was on these pages that the fantasy of the girl next door was born. The reader was the camera lens peaking into a scene where everyday activities (such as hanging up clothes) became playful and seductive. In the magazine Hefner created a utopia.

Competitive magazines featured stories of bear hunting and fly fishing, but Playboy’s articles sparked the readers fancy. Hefner created the vision of a lifestyle where the sophisticated urban male entertained multiple women, jetted around the world and surrounded himself with the worlds most interesting people. Although most subscribers in the 1950’s could only dream of acquiring the material goods and international stature of a Playboy, being a Playboy was more a state of mind than a tally of possessions. Articles educated men on how to modernize themselves: dating tips, how to dress, which automobiles to lust after, international travel and more. A Playboy knew the flashiest places to entertain a date, he knew to specify on the particular brand and year of wine he would order and, with the help of Hef’s magazine, the trendiest fashions. Clothing charts informed readers of which patterns, colors and styles to mix and match. Automobiles were something the Playboy craved almost as much as women. The ultimate Playboy (Hefner) could be found smoking a pipe and cruising the streets of chicago in a 300SL Mercedes-Benz. Although the Playboys roots remained in the city, international travel became increasingly popular and magazine sections were devoted to thrilling foreign experiences such as tiger hunting in India. The magazine transported the average man into Hefner’s fantasy world and magazine sales grew steadily. By the 1950s, Playboy sales had surpassed Hefner’s former employer, Esquire.

As the magazine flourished and the staff grew, Playboy could no longer be written from Hefner’s kitchen on the South side. So, the magazine found its first real home in a four story building at 232 East Ohio. From the success of the magazine sprung a nationally syndicated television show (Playboy’s Penthouse), the first Playboy night club and the first Playboy mansion. Many magazine issues, movies, night clubs and mansions later, Chicago remains the birthplace of Playboy — a place where an international empire was launched on a $6,000 personal loan and a few minor investments. To this day Playboy still holds the title of best selling men’s magazine in America. And if you asked around town Hugh Hefner or “Hef” would probably be regarded as one of the luckiest men in the world… who else gets to wear pajamas to work and is surrounded by gorgeous women?

UPChicago thanks these great resources for much of their research for this article:

Adler, Carlye. “Hugh Hefner Enterprises in 1953 I Didn’t Really Fully Appreciate What I Had Created.” FORTUNE Small Business, 1 Sept. 2003. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.

Fraterrigo, Elizabeth. Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

About Natalie Scheid

When Mattel manufactures your idol and your nickname is Barbie life can get pretty unreal. My favorite activities include cheering on the White Sox (I’ve been converting Cubs fans since 1986), meeting new people and writing on the rooftop with the skyline as my backdrop. You might be able to find me at the opening of a new hot spot, soaking up some culture at a local museum or art show, or enjoying one of the cities fabulous festivals. So…. catch me if you can!

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