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Literature

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream

by Steven Watts. Wiley, $29.95

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C. Moon Reed

The cover photo of a dashing, young Hef—intent gaze, sly smile and pipe-smoke halo—hooks the viewer with the promise of a ticket to the Playboy Mansion. But those hoping for a breezy fan companion to The Girls Next Door will be sorely disappointed. This biography is no salacious gossip reel recounting a life of dirty deeds done with martinis and a jazz record. On the contrary, Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream is a serious history exploring Hefner’s life as it fits in the larger framework of modern American values.

Before delving the depths of bunnydom, you must answer one question: Is this the book for you? If you’re looking for a titillating “I did it in the grotto with three bunnies and a jackrabbit” confessional, then buy Tucker Max’s book I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. (Max is, ironically, the opposite of everything Hefner stands for.)

If, however, you fit any of these criteria, head to the bookstore immediately: a) You’re a biography buff who’d enjoy a classic rags-to-riches story; b) You’ve always wondered how American culture changed from a restrictive Depression-era society to the moral free-for-all we now enjoy, and what role a certain magazine publisher played in this evolution; c) You read Playboy for the articles. No, really, you do.

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As evidenced by its conspicuous lack of nudity, the purpose of this biography is to analyze Hefner “as a historical figure, not merely a controversial celebrity.” Does author Steven Watts succeed? The answer is an orgasmic yes, yes, YESSSSSS! What Watts has done in 454 pages is amazing. He not only chronicles Hefner’s construction of an empire, but he also illustrates the publisher’s cat-and-mouse game with the establishment, tracing the magazine’s transformation from mouse to cat.

One of Watts’ most impressive feats is giving a fair and even view of such a polarizing character. In the introduction, Watts states that his “goal is for understanding to trump titillation and fervor.” Accordingly, he does not bow to the modern hype machine that pressures writers to only print positive material about celebrities. Nor does he fall prey to Playboy’s demonizers. Furthermore, Watts insisted on retaining editorial control, even when it meant forfeiting the label of “authorized biography.”

The sacrifice paid off. Watts synthesizes more than four years of research into a compelling and readable trove of knowledge. The sheer scope of the project is daunting—more than 40 hours of interviews with Hefner, access to Hefner’s 1,800 scrapbooks and enough sources to fill 59 pages of notes—yet Watts’ subtle sense of humor and clean writing style keep the reader engaged. Nonetheless, the casual reader may wish that the author had used a wide-tooth brush instead of a fine-tooth comb.

But attention to detail is exactly what Hefner wanted, at least according to the narcissistic personality that is revealed in the biography. It’s little surprise that Hefner gave “unprecedented access” to a history professor with a specialty in American intellectual and cultural history. Perhaps the author’s profession explains the sometimes oppressively academic tone of the book. Watts bandies about words that rarely escape the walls of a graduate-school seminar. For example, did you know that “Playboy’s 1990s erotic pictorials subtly promoted equity feminism and the new traditionalism”? Talk about a buzz kill.

One can’t mention Playboy without thinking of photography. Though Mr. Playboy has 27 pages of photos and a centerfold, there weren’t enough photos to catalogue Hefner’s past girlfriends. Flipping through the images gives the eerie impression that Hefner is immortal. As decades pass, the same man is smiling next to a new generation of blondes. Taken together, it looks like he is outliving them. As you will see in the biography, in some sad cases, he is.

In the end, Watts’ own bibliography is the key to understanding this book. He has also written he People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century and The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. By including Hefner in his trifecta of American legends, Watts is arguing that Hefner is as important as the guys who invented the Model T Ford and Disneyland. Seems like a stretch. But Watts makes a solid case. He shows how the bunny man played a crucial role in the sexual revolution, the rise of consumerism, the feminist movement and the replacement of the Victorian-era value system with the Playboy version of the American dream. Quite the tall order. But the smart reader will buy it. And since Watts is invited to the upcoming Halloween party at the mansion, clearly Hefner buys it, too.

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