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1953 was a banner year for the creation of modern sexuality and its symbols. Dr. Kinsey told the country that good girls were indeed doing “it," and doing it often and in numerous ways. The ultimate sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe, had three major films released that year, catapulting her to stardom. And a decade before Betty Friedan would raise the consciousness of American women, one man would give name to the problem of middle-class male malaise – a postwar boredom similar to the one supposedly experienced by mid-century housewives. The unwitting victims of this “masculine mystique" would find an answer to their stifled desires in the pages of Playboy magazine, whose inaugural issue was launched by Hugh Hefner in December of 1953.

Before establishing himself as the ultimate Casanova, Hefner was a fairly typical American man. Of middle class, Midwestern origin, he enlisted in the service after high school graduation in 1944. After the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled in college. In 1949, he married his sweetheart, and in early 1953, they had a daughter, Christie. By the early 1950s, Hefner was feeling dissatisfied with his traditional, domestic life. Biographer Russell Miller notes that he hoped to escape “the humdrum, bourgeois existence in which he [felt] increasingly trapped. . .He [was] married and already beginning to resent it. . . Sometimes he [questioned] what went wrong; school was so quickly followed by college, army, work, marriage, and. . .family." Miller writes that Hefner wondered, “What happened to living?"

Similarly, according to Miller, Victor Lownes, Hefner’s right-hand-man and promotional director, felt

trapped by marriage and green-lawn suburbia. He had everything a man could want – a beautiful, loving wife, two fine children, a magnificent home, and a good job. The problem was, he was bored beyond belief. He hated the tennis club, the endless round of cocktail parties and barbecues, the small talk, and the smug respectability of the middle class American dream. Extramarital sex. . .represented his only prospect of excitement.

Thus the two men left their wives and children, and began living the exciting, liberated life they had fantasized about.

It would be this antagonism to postwar notions of marriage and “togetherness" that would be the model on which Playboy magazine was built. With its boisterous support for hedonism, Playboy was one of the most prominent expressions of forward-looking sexuality in the postwar years; it called for sexual liberation and challenged established notions of gender. Situated firmly in the midst of postwar anxiety, Playboy helped to bridge the gap between sexuality as perceived in the pre-Kinsey years and the massive change that would accompany the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In doing so, the playboy man, as well as his female companions, preceded and hinted at a newer, more libertine version of sexuality that would be embraced in coming decades.

The overall lifestyle that Hefner prescribed was offered as an alternative to traditional American manhood. The playboy shunned marriage and family, opting instead for hedonistic bachelorhood. He was a corporate drone but did not resent the position, for it supplied him with the mindless work that allowed him time to plan that evening’s date, and the income to woo that date into bed with dinner and drinks. He obsessively kept up on fashion trends, as well as the proper way to serve an oyster. He knew all the best burlesque shows in Paris, and was conversant in foreign films – if for no other reason than they offered more nudity than American films.

Of course, the sexy pictures were an easy sell, but even they played a particular role in Hefner’s brand of manhood. The Playmates, like so much of 1950s consumer culture, were sold as part of a lifestyle that any man with the desire and financial ability to do so could acquire. Though the playboy was a man whom most could not realistically emulate, whether for financial reasons or otherwise, Hefner wanted his readers to think the lifestyle was in the realm of possibility, even if men never attempted to achieve it. While much of 1950s America was still reeling from the shocking results of the Kinsey studies, Playboy was presenting sexuality as a light-hearted game to be played over and over, with as many teammates as possible.

An important part of this lifestyle was fashion, and the playboy kept up on it obsessively. Imitating the fashion features of its predecessor and competitor, Esquire, Playboy promoted the Brooks Brothers tailored suit and the preppy style of the Ivy Leaguers, and in doing so spoke not only to the consumerist drive of the postwar years, but also to the image of urban masculinity that Hefner and his editors prescribed. For example, a column on appropriate Christmas gifts for the playboy shunned “real western cowhide handkerchiefs [and] he-man after-shave scents distilled from male goat glands," in favor of an imported Scotch Shetland herringbone jacket that was “about as handsome as any we’ve seen." Explicit details were provided for all manner of playboy dress – casual weekends in the country, college football games, formal evenings out, etc. Fabric, texture, cut, and color were all described in exhausting detail.

The magazine’s preoccupation with fashion avoided any hint of effeminacy, however, as the articles were always tempered with the manly interests of the bachelor. In one column, the fashion editor explained the waistcoat color combinations that “we like" for the college playboy, which included “red, wine, navy, and black check on a yellow background, or a black, light blue, brown and yellow check on a white background." He elaborated, “All wool vests of imported miniature tartans…provide a wonderful dash of color for any occasion," and then he tacked onto the end, “including a panty raid." Or with the recommendation of “a [crew neck] long sleeve pullover made of pure llama," for “serious beer drinking." With homosexuality becoming increasingly visible and demonized in the culture, it was imperative that playboy men appeared to be nothing less than virulently heterosexual. The pages of Playboy showed that a man could feel comfortable questioning whether his blues really matched, or if his three-button blazer was “so last season," because everyone knew he was a playboy.

A similar approach to making feminine pastimes manly can be seen in Playboy’s food and drink column. Written by chef Thomas Mario, the food column soon evolved from a simple recipe into a long article devoted to the history of a dish, appropriate settings in which to serve it, and ways of preparing the featured food. Like the clothing column, the food column often skirted the boundaries of traditional masculinity.

Even the manly art of grilling steak was reworked for the playboy lifestyle. Mario noted that “a man-about-town going on an outdoor picnic is not the old-fashioned type whose idea of fun is to build a primitive trench fire in the Andes or to construct a mud reflector for a rough stone barbecue on a mountain side." He prefers “to invite his lady fair out to the terrace to impress her with his own idea of grilled filet mignon marchand de vin." Later, on the topic of salad preparation, Mario insisted that “a good salad maker must have many of the traits and skills that we sometimes think of as feminine," adding “but for some reason it takes a man to master the really fine art of the salad bowl." Whether with oysters, Beluga caviar, or hamburgers, Mario turned around the old adage and pointed out that the way to a woman’s bed was through her stomach.

While the kitchen was being co-opted from the ladies in the pages of Playboy, aspiring chefs could retain their masculinity with the knowledge that they were tossing around a salad to seduce a woman as well as to maintain a modern, youthful lifestyle. The kitchen space itself was transformed from women’s domain into tool of the playboy. In the ideal bachelor pad, the kitchen was no place for old boxes of TV dinners to pile up and for dishes to go unwashed. A dining room was necessary for a “full-production gala dinner, as no ‘dining alcove’ is." And of course, no self-respecting bachelor would think of having “all night poker games, stag or strip," without “pull-down globe lighting." Avoiding the isolation that so many women faced while slaving in the kitchen during holidays and dinner parties, “the urban male [who] prides himself on his culinary artistry," could pull back sliding screens to open the kitchen “onto the dining room, so [he] can perform for an admiring audience while sharing in the conversation." Thus, the playboy avoided the pitfalls of domesticity and never lost his joie de vie.

Beyond the kitchen, the traditional bachelor pad was transformed into the ultimate penthouse decked out with the most cutting edge, fashionable furniture and technology. But the traditionally un-masculine preoccupation with decorating would be tempered with a bedroom equipped with buttons that would gradually lower the lights, draw the curtains, turn on romantic music, and even start breakfast in the morning – leaving time for the playboy to start the day off right with early lovemaking. The state-of-the-art technology allowed the man to never leave the side of his romantic interest, thus there was “no chance of missing the proper psychological moment – no chance of leaving her cozily curled up. . .with her shoes off and returning to find her mind changed." Throughout the magazine, sexuality was injected into most topics, thus foregrounding virile heterosexuality amidst the more effeminate pastimes of fashion, cooking, and decorating.

Femininity was found not only among the hobbies of the playboy, or in the nude pictorials, but also in the letters to the editor, as well as in features by, and about, women. Since the early issues of the magazine, a significant minority of letters to the editor were credited to the pens of women. Many, particularly in the beginning, were written on behalf of husbands asking about subscription rates. Later, many were from single college women who claimed to enjoy the publication on their own, and a few were from women who were simply offended and angered by the magazine. Women reacted to the pictures as well as the articles. Some of the published letters were from women offering photos of themselves and asking how they might become Playmates.

One woman wrote, “Playboy is wonderful. My husband and I discovered your magazine. . .and have become avid fans. . . .I’m an ex-PTA president and a Sunday school teacher, but I think you publish one of the best, most entertaining magazines around." Another thought that the magazine was “the greatest thing since diaper service." Some women bemoaned Playboy’s lack of respect for womanhood, and one asked, “Do you folks really feel you are doing any good, any service to anyone, including yourselves, publishing a magazine like Playboy?"

While Playboy was officially a men’s magazine, a female readership signaled many women’s desire for an outlet to express an adult, sophisticated sexuality. Without resorting to the cheap, crude sex paperbacks that had existed for years, women could read their husband’s Playboy, or purchase it themselves, and enjoy adult humor and topics. Kinsey, along with the popularity of books such as Peyton Place and Lolita showed that America was not a place of uptight Puritans, but rather a nation ready for change. By the late 1950s, the magazine itself began to change. Playboy quietly started to address issues of gender and American women more seriously. The magazine reflected some of the ways in which these issues were coming to the forefront of social dialogue, just as the wave of middle-class female discontent would soon crest with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Playboy was certainly not concerned with the economic and social ramifications of “the problem that has no name," as Friedan would call it, but by 1957, women’s voices were occasionally being represented in works of fiction and non-fiction.

In February, Playboy published “a controversial indictment of the American
male" by nineteen-year-old author, Pamela Moore. In “Love in the Dark," Moore asked, “Are American Men Ashamed of Sex?" She argued, the “one sphere in which the American male flounders, the one sphere in which he is a dismal failure both as a father responsible for the emotional well-being of his children and as a husband responsible for the emotional well-being of his wife, is the sphere in which he must express his maleness. . .the American man tries to hide and repress every manifestation of sex." Driven by an “incredible, perverted, puritanical attitude toward sex," Moore wrote that men’s inability to express healthy affection toward their daughters damaged females sexually in their adult years. She argued that women of her generation were much more open regarding sex than men, and that women were “exploding all kinds of myths behind which men have hidden for generations." Moore insisted that it be acceptable for women to be sexual pursuers and that sex need not be considered evil and shameful.

In a magazine that obviously offered its own challenge to puritanical attitudes toward sex, the article sparked controversy. One woman said that Moore “echoed [her] long-suppressed feelings and opinions perfectly," while another woman asked that the magazine “confine your articles on sex to those by male authors, since they usually write objectively about this much abused subject, and are without the frustrations of father complexes." Men’s views on the article were just as varied. One reader argued, “The sooner the American male wakes up to the fact that he is a sexual failure the better off everyone will be." Another admitted, “It’s enlightening to find a top man’s magazine with guts enough to print a feminine viewpoint like Miss Moore’s." Others felt she needed psychological counseling. This article and its ensuing controversy points to the ways in which serious discussions of gender and sexuality, beyond titillating photos and cynical or humorous treatments of women, were being introduced in the magazine, and indeed the larger society, in the years leading up to the upheavals of the 1960s.

Another essay in the October 1957 issue explored the discussion of sexuality found in women’s magazines. With “The Pious Pornographers: Sex and Sanctimony in the Ladies’ Home Jungle," by Ivor Williams, Hef and his editors broke with tradition and bumped the usual lead fiction piece to run this “article so rare, so fascinating, so explosive. . .[I]t is a relentless pummeling of the strange brand of sex purveyed by the women’s magazines." In it, Williams lambastes magazines like Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Cosmopolitan for their fixation on sexy, sensational articles like “My Husband Avoids Making Love to Me, a Young Wife’s Story," and “My Husband Wanted Me and the Other Woman, Too. He Needed Us Both." Williams argues that not only was sex not taboo in women’s magazines, but that it was an obsession, particularly while under the guise of medical discussions of the subject. He writes that women’s magazines took a hypocritical attitude toward sexuality by decrying candid discussions on the part of “certain men’s magazines," while at the same time fixating on the sexual dysfunction of women and modern marriage.

The frank sexuality found in Playboy magazine was complex. It was often dismissive and demeaning toward women, yet it was complicated by a rather progressive angle on the subject. Freedom of sexual expression, for both men and women, and even a hint of tolerance for homosexuality, was expounded in its pages. What seems most obvious at first is the magazine’s often condescending and degrading attitude regarding women. In the inaugural issue, an article on alimony painted women as conniving gold-diggers only out for money. Characterizing wives as “mercenary" and legal prostitutes, the article advocated that men abandon their marriages and “beat it out of town." Calling for reform of alimony laws throughout the country, readers were warned, “the modern gold-digger comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. She’s after the wealthy playboys, but she may also be after you." From the early days of the magazine, an anti-marriage, and often an anti-woman, tone was established.

In an article entitled, “Open Season on Bachelors," Playboy columnist Burt Zollo cautioned against the ways in which men get trapped into marriage. Reflecting postwar trends that historians like Beth Bailey have discussed, Zollo argued that many young women used their college years to focus on finding a mate rather than a career. However, he added the assertion that many women planned out-of-wedlock pregnancies to trick men into marrying them, or sexually teased them until they submitted to the altar. He noted that women’s “uses and abuses of sex are endless." Zollo told his readers to “take a good look at the sorry, regimented husbands trudging down every woman-dominated street in this woman-dominated land." They were men who had “already fallen into the pit" of marriage. Insisting that men need not live as asexual hermits, “the true playboy can enjoy the pleasures the female has to offer without becoming emotionally involved." Thus women were the mere objects of the playboy’s sexual gratification.

The articles, “Miss Gold-Digger of 1953," as well as “Open Season on Bachelors," sparked response from the readership. One reader admitted to being “one of the victims of Miss Gold-Digger," while another praised the article’s timeliness saying it “really hit the nail on the head." A woman wrote in calling “That Miss Gold-Digger article. . .the most biased piece of tripe I’ve ever read." “Open Season" caused one female reader to write, “men are not afraid of marriage. To the contrary, they welcome it." She went on to list instances of female acquaintances turning down desperate marriage proposals from men, while insisting that it is “weak-minded little idiot boys, not yet grown up, who are afraid of getting ‘hooked,’" and blamed “facetious articles" for swaying “these infants" into thinking marriage is a trap. A male reader, however, called the article, a “straight-from-the-shoulders exposé of these cunning cuties and their suave schemes."

With the marriage rate on the rise, such articles spoke to tensions created by an era obsessed with domesticity. As many women were compelled to catch a husband by any means necessary, and a baby boom fueled a greater emphasis on home and hearth, Playboy reacted to the pressure placed on men to settle down. By telling them that they need not become emotionally involved with their lovers, or even take responsibility for premarital pregnancies, the magazine offered a fantasy-driven escape from the demands of postwar adulthood.

A later article on marriage and sexuality sparked even more controversy in the letters pages of Playboy. In “Don’t Hate Yourself in the Morning," Playboy’s Jules Archer writes that a woman is just as willing as a man to partake in premarital sex, but that that she “wants to go on record as protesting and regretting. She needs to assuage whatever shreds of conscience may still be irritating her." Citing experts like a Columbia University psychologist, Alfred Kinsey, sociologists, and Havelock Ellis, Archer argues that bachelors need not feel guilty if their lover cries the next morning in shame, even if he deflowered her. He writes that men would be amazed to “realize that in most cases their ‘victims’ are happy about their ‘downfall,’ and look back upon it with considerable pleasure."

Reiterating what Burt Zollo argued in the earlier article on marriage, Archer says that many single women plan on premarital pregnancy. Citing supposed authorities, he writes, “They are secretly pleased by their pregnancy, as shown by the refusal of most to even consider abortion, unlike a great many married women who are ‘caught.’ That they enjoy their pregnancy is indicated by the fact that most don’t even have ‘morning sickness,’ which affects many pregnant wives." Moreover, he writes that “breaking-in" a woman before she gets married is actually rendering a “service to society," in that she will be a better lover to her future husband.

The article advocates ignoring a woman’s cries and breaking down her resistance to sex. Portraying women as manipulators and liars, it tells men that they need not invest in their partner’s emotional well-being, and that there is no need to take responsibility for an unplanned pregnancy, because she probably secretly planned it to fulfill her own emotional vacuum. But the article does more than that. It reflects an attitude of the magazine that encouraged sexual autonomy, expression, and pleasure for men and for women.

Archer’s article, while misinformed and crude on some levels, also argues that women are aware of their own desire, and often appropriately allow themselves the freedom to have a full sexual life before marriage. Citing a Dr. Lotte Fink, Archer quotes, “Girls trained through their studies. . .choose sexual freedom as well as freedom to think out their own choice of profession or life style." Archer goes on to say, “most of the fair sex gets the same pleasure from amatory acrobatics that [men] do. There is evidence on every hand that large numbers of women anticipate seduction with unabashed pleasure." He also cites sociologist Herbert Lamson of Boston University, “In the past men have underestimated the sex desires of women. . .There seem to be plenty of business girls who have their own apartments and who are willing to pay for an evening out with sex at the end." Without commenting on the accuracy or legitimacy of any of these claims, they speak to a fairly progressive image of autonomous female sexuality. Though this attitude may be intended to serve the selfish, romantic desires of the playboy, and while it is shrouded in an often unhealthy assumption that women are deceitful and manipulative, there is at least the claim that women, like men, are, and have a right to be, sexual creatures.

Archer’s article also sparked a heated debate in the letters to the editor pages. One male reader responded, “Mr. Archer should be presented some sort of medal good for a free case of beer for having the guts to bring the truth out in the open." Another wrote, “If more American men would educate themselves to these facts, I wholeheartedly believe we would all live in a better world. I know the girls would." A woman wrote that the article was “the most vilest piece of anti-individualist propaganda. . .full of broad generalizations" she had ever read. One man suggested that perhaps Archer had married a woman of low morals, and that is why he had “[torn] down all women." Still another woman agreed with the commentary, “I was a very moral young lady who met a very persuasive fellow, but once convinced, I shed no tears and neither of us hated ourselves in the morning." Articles like “Don’t Hate Yourself" provided an opportunity to glimpse the sexual attitudes of the readership, as well as a more detailed commentary by the magazine’s editors.

It was in the letters pages that editorial comments on American society, censorship, and gender and sexuality began to take shape in the early years of Playboy. In fact, it is in some of the editorial responses that any note of seriousness can be found in the otherwise fun-loving magazine. Even the topic of homosexuality was briefly discussed following a piece of fiction by Charles Beaumont, “The Crooked Man." In the essay, Beaumont created a world in which heterosexuality was considered abnormal and deviant, and homosexuality was the standard. Heterosexuals were persecuted and subject to surgery to correct their “problem." One reader responded to the story by saying, “the hypocritical heritage of the Blue Laws and Puritanical ideologies which permeates our era is certainly giving us a decided push in that direction." Another wrote, “Such an absurd hypothetical topsy-turvydom must surely leave one. . .to quite incredulous chuckle. . .to see such a gifted writer twisted into full-scale warfare with a paper-tiger enemy." The editors replied to this letter, “We saw it as a kind of plea for tolerance – shoe-on-the-other-foot sort of thing. At any rate, it’s a story that prompts thought and discussion, and that’s why it is important." Such progressive views as sympathy for homosexuality would not enter the mainstream American media for at least a decade, yet by 1955, they were quietly finding their way onto the pages of Playboy magazine.

Other issues surrounding sexuality, including censorship, were being discussed in the editorial comments of the publication. Accusing the American mind of being narrow and hypocritical, editors railed against “those few in our society who believe they have the right to dictate manners and morals to the rest of us." Considering sex “neither dirty nor a sacred cow," the editors wrote that it is an “extremely personal matter" that “each person has to decide for himself." In response to one reader who accused the magazine of promoting “rape, perversion, and the like, especially among teenagers," the editors wrote,


The proposition that adult magazines perpetuate juvenile delinquency is preposterous, but it is a handy weapon for those who would force a single standard on us, in which magazines, movies, books, and all other forms of visual and vocal communication become suitable for the mind of a twelve year old, but not for anyone more mature. . . .What you consider “rottenness" and “slime" many others recognize as a normal, healthy interest in sex. If this nation is really in danger it is not because of them, but because of the bigoted few who see filth and obscenity where it does not exist.

In a 1957 televised interview with Mike Wallace, Hef explained, “There’s nothing dirty in sex unless we make it dirty." He went on to argue that it is the “sick mind that finds something loathsome and obscene in sex. . .A society that is able to laugh at itself – sex included – has a pretty healthy attitude." Coasting on the wave of approaching sexual revolution, or helping it along, Hef and his magazine urged Americans to relax and enjoy the ride.

By 1960, Hugh Hefner’s little-magazine-that-could was the top-selling urban men’s magazine in the nation and had become a cultural icon. Hef’s expanding empire took many new forms. The first Playboy Club opened that year in Chicago, while a syndicated television series called Playboy’s Penthouse and a company-sponsored tourist service and jazz festival extended the reach of Hef’s campaign for pleasure.

1960 also marked the rise of the ultimate playboy to national prominence. Handsome, sophisticated, Northeastern born and Ivy League educated President John F. Kennedy was hardly a one-woman man. He had affairs with numerous women, including Playboy’s first centerfold, Marilyn Monroe. Kennedy flaunted many of the qualities that had been bemoaned in men during the 1950s. He was urbane, intellectual, and lived a conspicuously luxurious lifestyle. He stayed out late partying, slipped in and out of formal events to have illicit sex, and obsessed over his hair. Kennedy was the poster boy for the Playboy lifestyle, both before and after his marriage to Jackie. As his personal secretary recalled, “He was a playboy, all right. I never saw anything like it. Women were calling all the time, day and night." With his affairs kept under wraps at the time, the nation could exalt their new president. Kennedy’s youthful vibrancy called millions of Americans to serve their country and instilled a newfound hope and optimism in the nation. Kennedy made it difficult to demonize the Playboy brand of masculinity anymore. He battled the Soviets and challenged the notion that men like him were weak, easy prey for Communists. America had become a nation of pleasure-seekers, and JFK epitomized such a lifestyle. He was the symbol of a new day, and his image helped to solidify the playboy as a national icon.

When Hugh Hefner founded Playboy magazine in 1953, he could not have known the impact his publication would have on America. By advocating his own sexual version of “turn on, tune in, drop out," years before Timothy Leary’s drug-induced hedonistic haze, Hef challenged the rigorous postwar morality that emphasized marriage and family. His prescription for manhood embraced all that the critical observers feared – love of luxury and materialism, pleasure-seeking, promiscuity, and urbanity. Co-opting the traditional past-times of femininity – like fashion, interior decorating, and cooking – the playboy was safe in the knowledge that no one would suspect his love of gingham shirts and dacron drapes, because they would know his appearance and his apartment were maintained with his next sexual conquest in mind. While Hef and his editors were advising the nation’s men on how to dress and eat, on what were the best jazz albums, and on how to de-virginize the girl-next-door, they were also politicizing sexuality. Years before feminists would declare that the “personal is political," Playboy magazine helped to make sexuality a public matter. While sex was not yet widely considered part of a postwar political agenda, Playboy tied it to issues of censorship and freedom of expression. The magazine’s immense popularity in the 1950s showed that many Americans were ready to move beyond the traditional sexual value system and embrace the mores of the decade to come. In an era that emphasized domesticity and familial togetherness, a magazine like Playboy offered men and women a mature sexual outlet.

Refusing to make his publication palatable for the entire family, Hefner promoted an immature, hedonistic masculinity in order to argue for a sophisticated, mature outlook on free sexuality. At a time when the nation was still reeling from Kinsey’s admission that Americans participated in much more sexual activity than simple married, missionary-style sex, Playboy magazine had its roving eye on the decade – and America – to come.

January 2006

From guest contributor Carrie Pitzulo, CUNY Graduate Center

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