Hugh Hefner was a complicated individual, whose notions of sexuality and human relationships were at once woke and predatory, and who stumbled upon a brilliant idea at a time when American culture was milquetoast. A loss of identity in the 1950s, particularly among men, was palpable for a generation who no longer had a war to fight. It took a magazine that paired the mind and the body, high culture and naked women, to shake the male from his slumber.
Since the magazine’s founding, the joke “I read it for the articles” was always tongue in cheek. Yes, Playboy did publish some of the country’s most celebrated writers. No, the articles weren’t all great. Playboy was rather conservative in which stories made it past final proof. The magazine paid well — fantastically so for freelancers — and so the best and the brightest of the typewriter set clamored for decades to get between Playboy‘s covers.
But what truly set Playboy apart from the Esquires, Saturday Evening Posts, and Rolling Stones was its interviews: Thousands and thousands of words spilled from some of America’s greatest activists, thinkers, and celebrities. As Hefner explained in an editorial for Playboy‘s inaugural issue in 1953, which offered a never-before seen set of nude Marilyn Monroe photos, “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” To live life with a diverse set of interests fascinated Hefner, and he banked on it fascinating millions of American men. It was that diverse intersection that Hefner hoped to exploit with the Playboy interview.
Hefner didn’t launch the format until about a decade after the magazine’s founding, following the folding of Show Business Illustrated. According to G. Barry Colson, the magazine’s executive editor, who edited the 1981 anthology The Playboy Interview, writers often came back with at least six hours of taped conversations; it wasn’t unusual for a writer to submit twenty hours of recordings for transcription. The hours-long chats revolutionized the idea of the magazine interview.
The series began with Miles Davis, who spoke with Alex Haley only after the writer spent hours tailing Davis, eventually boxing with him at a gym in Harlem. From the start, subjects were leery of appearing in the magazine. (Some of the early interviews featured European intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell.) It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, and certainly into the 70s, when the Playboy interview was viewed as a cultural imprimatur. Playboy featured some of the most important figures of the day, including Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Walter Cronkite, and appearing on the magazine’s pages guaranteed their words and message would reach an audience who might otherwise miss the point.
Take King’s 1965 interview, which was conducted by Haley, in which he talks about about the mistreatment of an entire generation of black Americans.
The deep frustration, the seething desperation of the Negro today is a product of slum housing, chronic poverty, woefully inadequate education and substandard schools. The Negro is tapped in a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign, caught in a vicious socioeconomic vise…as long as Negroes see their freedom endlessly delayed and diminished by the head wings of tokenism and small handouts from the white power structure. No nation can suffer any greater tragedy than to cause millions of its citizens to feel that they have no stake in their own society.
Or Helen Gurley Brown, who had recently published the bestseller Sex and the Single Girl, as she discussed the dangers of America’s abortion laws in 1963.
It’s a shame girls have to go to Mexico or Europe to be operated on. It’s outrageous that girls can’t be aborted here. I guess the rule as of the moment is that it must endanger the mother’s life. But never mind that this little child doesn’t have a father. And never mind that its mother is a flibbertigibbet who has no business having a baby. Abortion is just surrounded with all this hush-hush and horror, like insanity used to be.
Or Germaine Greer, whose participation was a coup for Playboy. The writer of The Female Eunuch was at first loathe to speak with the magazine, which had unsuccessfully reached out to Madalyn Murray, Ayn Rand, Joan Baez, and Gloria Steinem — who had gone undercover as a Playboy Bunny in 1963 — but she was persuaded by the opportunity to educate readers on the women’s movement while also tearing apart the basic premise of the Playboy empire.
I’m simply against showing girls as if they were pork chops. Why should women’s bodies be this sort of physical fetish? Why can’t their bodies just be an extension of their personalities, the way a man supposes his body is? No, I’m not against nudity, and I will pay dues to Playboy when it runs a man in the gatefold. You can even keep the Playmate.
When Greer’s interview ran in 1973, she understood the importance of agreeing to the magazine’s request. Not only would her message be broadcast over a louder medium, but also be a boon in sales for Hefner and Co.
I probably feel that some people will read this interview and drop some of their more ridiculous notions about the women’s movement. I really think that the basis of every political movement is people. And you have to have some faith in people, even people like your readers who pay money to drool over pink Playmates. If you don’t have confidence that these people will understand you when you say something clearly enough and will begin to see how your statement reflect on their own lives, then you’ve got no reason to be revolutionary. I suppose I’m really being arrogant, thinking what I’m all about will come across, even if there should be a pinup interleaved thickly between every 500 words of discourse.
What also contributed to the success of these “discourses,” as Greer described them, was the amount of research that went into every interview. Prior to the meeting, the writer would spend a month interviewing the subject’s friends and family, eventually submitting several hundred questions to the editors which were then edited and paired down to the most essential. That laborious process ensured the interviews never came off as stilted, or the subjects came off as painfully self-aware. To the reader, it felt like you were dropped in the middle of conversation amongst friends.
That ease is most apparent in the John Lennon and Yoko Ono interview, conducted by David Sheff just months before Lennon was killed, and published in the January 1981 issue. Though Lennon just emerging from his self-appointed media hibernation, the Playboy interview was among the last four he would conduct before he was shot, and Sheff asks early on whether Ono was the relationship’s controlling figure, a notion Lennon disputed.
Anyone who claims to have some interest in me as an individual artist of even as part of the Beatles has absolutely misunderstood everything I ever said if they can’t see why I’m, with Yoko. And if they can’t see that, they don’t see anything. They’re just jacking off to—it could be anybody. Mick Jagger or somebody else…I absolutely don’t need it. Let them chase Wings. Just forget about me. If that’s what you want, go after Paul or Mick. I ain’t here for that. If that’s not apparent in my past, I’m saying it in black and green, next to all the tits and the asses on page 196. Go play with the other boys. Don’t bother me. Go play with Rolling Wings.
Playboy interviews have, of course, evolved over the decades. The rise of access journalism — celebrities with teams of agents and PR managers — became a barrier to how much a an interviewer could ask and a subject could really reveal. With Hefner’s passing, it’s worth remembering what made Playboy a cultural bastion. It wasn’t just the tits and asses, and it wasn’t the articles. It was the interviews.