Get out the garlic! Hef is back. That was the gist of a series of articles last summer and fall chronicling the return to the limelight of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner. Profiles in Rolling Stone, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and The Washington Post all told the same story. After a quiet decade of marriage and family life, the newly separated Hefner was making the scene once again. The 73-year-old swinger had opened the semi-public Playboy mansion to celebrity parties again. He was trolling the predawn L.A. club scene, giving testimonials for Viagra, and maintaining a harem of four 20-something blondes (including a set of identical twins).
A few of the profiles noted not just Hefner’s immaturity (that’s hardly news), but his eerie agelessness—"especially his wrinkle-free hands," Time magazine marveled. Hefner’s always lived a nocturnal existence. Even in L.A. he religiously shuns the sun. And for 45 years his company has fed off the fresh blood of young women. It may take wooden stakes and silver bullets to stop this millennial media comeback.
Maybe that’s appropriate. Sadly enough, Hefner stands as one of the emblematic American figures of the last half-century. His "Playboy Philosophy" of selfishness and commercial hedonism seems to have won the day. Hefner’s shallow individualism, written in large block letters, is the Hammurabic code of our media-addled civilization. The Playboy lifestyle is about guilt-free, no-strings sex—sex as a commodity. But it is also about commodities as relationships. From the earliest days Hef’s magazine has shown a fetishistic devotion to cool stuff, the more expensive the better.
In one recent profile Hefner said, "We live in a Playboy world now." And he was right. He was talking about the naked bottoms on network TV, and the easy access to harder stuff on cable. There’s also the whole world of lifestyle marketing that clutters the magazine racks today—from Details to Martha Stewart. But even that’s not the whole story. Hefner can also claim his share of credit for a 50 percent divorce rate, millions of fatherless children, and all the social ills that proceed from those facts.
HEF CAN CLAIM CREDIT, and probably would, for the insecurity and lack of trust that, for many people, has eroded the most intimate bonds. A lot of people today no longer know what it means to give themselves unreservedly to another person. Every relationship is intended to last only "as long as it is working for me." That’s the Playboy way. In his Time profile, Hefner assessed his long life of promiscuity and personal betrayals and proclaimed it "ethical and moral" on his own terms. It was better, he said, "than living life through another person."
Who wants to take bets on how long the human species will survive when no one lives for, or through, another person? When no one puts the interests of a spouse or children, much less community, ahead of their own? This new century may tell us.
The other historic fact about the irrepressible Hefner is this: He’s one of the great marketing geniuses from the age when marketing achieved total world domination. Hefner’s much-publicized "lifestyle" is marketing. He could live the life without issuing press releases about it. The fantasy of Hef’s life at the mansion helps sell the magazine and its ancillary products. And, oh those ancillaries! Hef had synergy before anybody else—except Disney—had even heard of it. He used the magazine to sell the clubs and resorts and the cable channel and the merchandise—from cigars to silk bathrobes to those ridiculous bunny ears on rearview mirrors the world over.
In fact, Hef’s revival is a marketing thing, too. He sensed a new pleasure-oriented turn in the zeitgeist. Casual sex could make a comeback. The new drug treatments have taken AIDS out of the headlines (except for poor people). College-age readership of Playboy magazine was up. Also, Playboy was in early on the Internet, which opened a whole new universe for an image- and brand-oriented company.
Then came the announcement at the end of September. Playboy was going to spin off its online division and sell stock in it this fall. Suddenly the "Hef is back" media offensive made perfect sense. It was the equivalent of Martha Stewart handing out croissants on Wall Street the day her company went public. Perhaps Hef even ditched his marriage mainly for the purpose of boosting his stock price. Maybe not. But we can be sure of one thing: In turn-of-the-century America, the drive to accumulate speculative wealth is even stronger than sex. It’s at least as strong as a vampire’s thirst for blood.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.