Success. Style. Sex. All components of Playboy’s “good life,” part of a formula that enabled Hugh Hefner’s high-gloss publication to become the most widely read men’s magazine in the world. At the peak of its powers, Playboy not only titillated its audience, it sparked and influenced national debates about sex, marriage, politics and pleasure, all the while promoting a work hard and play hard lifestyle that emphasized conspicuous consumption as a key to personal—and national—well-being.
In “Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America” (Oxford University Press), Elizabeth Fraterrigo—assistant professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago—examines the magazine’s place in postwar America, a time in which sexual mores, gender roles, marriage and family life were evolving, at least in small part due to Playboy’s urging. Though the Playboy brand may be in the midst of a long, slow decline, Fraterrigo’s measured academic analysis (there are 47 pages of footnotes), reminds the reader how Playboy both molded and mirrored American culture in the mid to late twentieth century.
Failure interviewed Fraterrigo by phone to discuss: what readers can expect to learn from her book, what made Playboy so successful, and a handful of Hefner’s pre-Playboy business failures, which in hindsight seem to have been quite fortuitous.
What should readers expect from your book?
They should expect a very careful investigation of Playboy magazine and its significance in postwar American society. It uses biographical material about Hefner, but it’s not just a biography, nor is it just the history of the magazine. When you really pay attention to everything Playboy said and did it becomes this wonderful window into all the important issues of postwar America. It’s a very rich source in terms of understanding much larger issues in society.
How many issues of Playboy did you read?
A lot more than I ever imagined I would. I read every other issue cover-to-cover. The rest of the issues I did a more selective reading based on the table of contents. Certain features, like the Playboy Forum, I looked at on a regular basis. My major focus was from the first issue [published in late 1953] until 1986, when Playboy’s last Playboy-owned club closed, and when the Meese Commission created problems for Playboy with its investigation into pornography. Then I went into the 1990s and up-to-date to bring the story to a close in the epilogue.
What was Playboy’s agenda in the postwar period?
The kernel of that agenda was there from the very beginning but it really came to fruition by the late 1950s and early ’60s. From the get-go, Hefner was trying to create a magazine that he felt didn’t really exist in American culture. He felt that most of what you saw—whether it be in popular magazines or literature or television—was geared toward families. There wasn’t anything that spoke to the kinds of things in which men were interested. Hefner wanted to create a magazine for adult men but he also wanted to create a vision of a lifestyle that showcased the pleasures one could enjoy in a blooming, blossoming postwar consumer society. So that it wasn’t just about showing up for your job every day and bringing home a paycheck to support a wife and kids. He wanted to have this alternative world where one could indulge in pleasure and materialism.
What was it that made Playboy so successful?
Initially it was successful largely because of the Playmate of the Month feature. Hefner was very shrewd to use Marilyn Monroe as the first major pictorial. But readers kept buying the magazine not only because it had pictorials of very attractive women—with high production values that set it apart—but because it showcased a lifestyle that a lot of people found very satisfying. It was not an outdoor-adventure magazine with stories about guns and camping and the like, which was really the only other sort of magazine for men at the time. Hefner always said that Playboy was an indoor magazine.
In the book you note that before Playboy, Hefner wanted to launch Pulse: The Picture Magazine of Chicago. What happened to Pulse?
It was a project that never got very far off the ground. My sense is that Pulse was going to be a feature magazine about urban living in Chicago with features on high-profile figures. Hefner didn’t think he had the capital so the project fell by the wayside. But it illustrates that early on he was not only interested in magazine publishing, but also that his ideas about the good life were framed in this urban context. Some of those ideas about urban sophistication informed the lifestyle that he put forth in Playboy.
Another interesting tidbit in the book is that the original name for Playboy was Stag Party. What happened to Stag Party?
There was already a magazine called Stag. And after letters of introduction had gone out on Stag Party letterhead, the attorneys at Stag sent Hefner a letter urging him to reconsider the name. Ultimately he viewed it as a stroke of good fortune because the name Playboy allowed him far more latitude in terms of putting forth the vision that he had for the magazine and the lifestyle. It was much better suited to what he wanted to do.
Playboy magazine reached its commercial peak 30 years ago. It seems like it has been a victim of its own success.
Playboy has been a victim of its own success. Part of the reason the magazine lost its luster is because the restraints on what one could publicly talk about or view with relation to sex changed considerably. There was a lot more competition in that regard. Also, by the 1970s the values that were at the forefront of important cultural change had already permeated society. So while Playboy was still a good magazine, it was just another entertainment diversion.
How does the agenda of the Playboy of the last ten years differ from that of the early years?
It has always promoted itself as the handbook for the young urban male. Dating, how to make it in the business world, what to buy, how to behave in a restaurant—the magazine is still infused with those kinds of issues. It’s still trying to be true to its roots in that regard. But the tone is a little edgier and the really lengthy articles and interviews have been cut down and cut back because readers today don’t consume long features like they used to.
I understand you interviewed Hefner during the course of your research. What did he have to say about Playboy’s history and its commercial decline?
He sees the magazine as having played an important role in the 1950s and ’60s in questioning conformity and some of the conservatism of society. I think he takes pride in the fact that the magazine was at the forefront of questioning stultifying roles for men and women. I also think he takes issue with critics who think that the magazine’s [commercial] decline is related to quality—that the product itself has been diminished somehow. He believes the quality has always been there, but that society changed so significantly that Playboy’s success couldn’t be sustained.