Pop Culture

Still swinging at 50

All it takes is a glimpse of those bunny ears. Playboy’s logo is one of the most recognized symbols in all the world. But 50 years ago, the concept of Playboy itself was unimaginable. “Today” host Matt Lauer talks to Hugh and Christie Hefner about how this cultural phenomenon has weathered the years.

IT WAS 1953. Republican Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. General Motors had just introduced the country to the corvette. And a 27-year-old ad man from Chicago gave birth to what would become a cultural phenomenon.

Matt Lauer: “Give me an idea of your mindset at the time. What we’re you thinking?”

Hugh Hefner: “I felt that if I didn’t try then I never would. I was not a happy guy. And I just really felt like my life was going nowhere. It was politically conservative. And when the skirt lengths went down instead of up I knew we were in trouble.”

The choice of Marilyn Monroe as the first cover model was a stroke of genius.

Within five years Playboy had a circulation of a million. Marianne Gaba was a playmate in 1959.

“I was Miss Illinois,” she says. “Hef approached me about being a playmate. I showed one cheek.”

Hef’s tireless work, along with his knack for getting women to appear partially clothed in his magazine, made it a hit.

But success had its costs.

Lauer: “Tell me about Hugh Hefner as a father — not a 9-to-5 job he had. He was living a business.”

Christie Hefner: “He really wasn’t a Dad when I was growing up. And I think he would admit that. He wasn’t around.”

Hugh Hefner: “It’s absolutely true that I was obsessed and consumed by it. It became my whole life.”

The birth control pill arrived and the magazine evolved as the tidal waves that were the ’60s and ’70s changed the face of America.

Heffner says, “You can see the beginnings of what became the ‘Sexual Revolution’ in the discontent underneath the surface. One of the very first voices was Playboy.”

It personified the new generation and Hef was the epitome of the image the magazine sought to portray.

Barbi Benton was 18, and Hefner 42, when they met.

Benton says, “When he asked me out, I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been out with anybody over 24.’ And he said, ‘That’s OK neither have I.’”

With the ’80s, the party slowed for Hefner and the country.

Lauer: “Not the best time. You referred to it as a period of sexual McCarthyism. What threats did you see?”

Hugh Hefner: “Reagan was in the White House, put there by the moral majority. I really didn’t know how to respond to the criticism.”

The backlash against Playboy was extensive. Hefner and the magazine were marginalized. By mid-decade he’d suffered a stroke.

“At that point and time I was tired,” he says. “When Christie came to me and wanted to take over, I welcomed it.”

The choice of his daughter surprised some.

Lauer: “How does a woman become the head, the CEO of this incredibly male, corporation or empire as you dad called it?”

Christie Hefner: “When I first took over the company there were almost no women running large companies, never mind NYSE companies. So I was visible.”

Lauer: “You were a novelty.”

Christie Hefner: “Today that’s obviously less true. People who know the company know that most of the products are sold to women.”

Playboy’s fourth decade was coming to a close and with it came change at the mansion.

Lauer: “In 1989, a lot of people were stunned. Hugh Hefner’s getting married again.”

Hugh Hefner: “Yes.”

Lauer: “Kim Conrad. What was that relationship about?”

Hugh Hefner: “I was thinking the unthinkable. I felt with Kimberly that I would never meet someone as right for me as she was.”

But the marriage didn’t last.

In the ’90s Hefner refocused on Playboy as a new generation of men’s magazines hit newsstands.

Lauer: “When you look at the market today and you see magazines like Maxim and FHM, how have they forced you to change Playboy? At all?”

Hugh Hefner: “Yes, to some degree, yes. Pieces more naturally are shorter — more graphics.”

At the same time the Playboy brand has expanded as Christie has exerted her control over its direction.

Christie Hefner: “What I thought was that the future of the company would rest in it becoming an electronic global media company instead of a principally domestic print company.”

Playboy has undergone a revival in the new century.

Traci Bingham was a television star long before she posed for the magazine.

“When I first met him I was shocked,” he says. “I was sort of star struck. I sort of idolized him. And he’s so incredible. It’s truly an honor to be a part of Playboy family.”

Always at the heart of it all is Hugh Hefner.

Lauer: “Do you think you have a healthy view of women?”

Hugh Hefner: “I think without question, yes, absolutely.”

Lauer: “When you look back after 50 years, what do you want your Playboy’s legacy to be? And then what do you want your own to be?”

Hugh Hefner: “I think they’re one in the same. I want to be remembered as someone who had a positive influence on his social and sexual values of my time. And I think I’ve accomplished that.”