Hugh Hefner, a vital cultural figure of the past 50 years, has frequently been vilified by militant feminists for objectifying women and praised by activists for championing civil rights. In Oscar-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman’s riveting documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel both sides of the 84-year old mogul are revealed — the hedonistic playboy and a man who’s been a tireless advocate and catalyst for civil rights, as well as the First Amendment.
When Hefner launched the iconic Playboy magazine in 1953 after ingeniously purchasing pre-fame nude photos taken of Marilyn Monroe by photographer Tom Kelley, he became a champion of the burgeoning sexual revolution. Almost immediately, the forces of church and state began a war against him that has raged on for decades.
But there’s another side to Hefner besides the man surrounded by buxom arm candy on E!’s The Girls Next Door: In 1955, Playboy published a short story by Charles Beaumont titled “The Crooked Man,” in which homosexuality was presented as the norm and heterosexuality was stigmatized. Hefner integrated the popular Playboy Clubs in the South and dared to book integrated musical acts on his late-’50s TV show Playboy’s Penthouse. In Berman’s film, Hefner emerges as a man passionate about equality for all, who contributed immeasurably to the national discourse. Hefner, who died September 27 at age 91, chatted with me in 2010 about the documentary, gay friends, and same-sex encounters.
In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about you that’s cleared up in the documentary?
Hugh Hefner: Well, I think when we talk about misconceptions it depends on the individual. A long time ago, and maybe in the film itself, I said my life is like an inkblot test, a Rorschach test: people project their own prejudices and dreams and fantasies onto my life and onto Playboy. So it’s very difficult for me to say what the major misconception to me is, because it depends on who we’re talking about.
What do you think your life would be like if Marilyn Monroe hadn’t posed for Tom Kelley?
Well, it would kind of be pretty much the same. The second issue of Playboy sold better than the first one. It was the concept, I think, that led to the success. I think I needed a gimmick of some kind, and the Marilyn Monroe nude was absolutely perfect for that purpose and got us off to a fast start.
A decade and a half before the gay rights movement officially began, you published Charles Beaumont’s short story “The Crooked Man,” which even today seems groundbreaking. Did you publish it because you thought it was good literature or because of its message.
I published it first and foremost because I thought it was a good story, but I was well aware of the fact that it would be perceived as controversial because Esquire had already turned it down. Beaumont did a story for us on jazz called “Black Country” that was the first original story of note that we published. So when “Crooked Man” became available, I simply thought it was a very good story. At the same time I was obviously aware of the fact that it would be controversial and, as we discovered, in some corners misunderstood. Some people felt it was homophobic.
Reverend Malcolm Boyd, who is openly gay, is interviewed in the documentary and it appears you two have been friends for many years. Who do you consider your closest gay friend?
Malcolm is certainly a friend and, as a matter of fact, for many years I didn’t even know he was gay. I met him originally in the ’60s in Chicago. He hung out at the mansion quite a bit. He wrote a best-selling book within the context of religious literature called Are You Running With Me, Jesus? He was a good friend then and he’s a good friend today.
Were there other gay or lesbian people who were instrumental in the success of your company?
Probably, though I don’t particularly … [Laughs] To me, being gay is kind of like being black or being from some other country. I don’t particularly think in those kind of terms.
Did you ever consider publishing a gay or lesbian version of Playboy?
No. Though many people think that somehow we are associated with Playgirl. And the primary appeal of Playgirl is gay.
I know that you’re a big film buff and you’ve made a significant donation to the University of Southern California film program. I follow you on Twitter and have read that you show a lot of old films to the Playmates at the mansion. And I just learned that you were a producer on The Celluloid Closet documentary. How did that come about?
I don’t remember particularly the details of it. Throughout the last 20 years or so I’ve funded and been involved in the production of a number of documentaries, mostly about old Hollywood and about the making of movies. That was simply one of them.
Earlier this year you donated $900,000 for the land purchased to save the Hollywood sign. Why is the preservation of this landmark so important to you?
Well, quite frankly, back in ’78, I was the one who initiated the idea of saving the sign itself. I said at the time, “This sign is iconic. It is our Eiffel Tower. It represents the dreams of a great many people that are fueled by the movies and the history of Hollywood.” When it got around to supplying the last money to take care of keeping the mountaintop clear for it, I just felt it was important. That’s all.
You’re so often surrounded by Playmates or seen that way, anyway. How much time do you have alone to yourself and what do you like to do in your free time when you’re alone?
Well, I spend very, very little time completely alone. I spend most of my quiet time with my girlfriend Crystal Harris. Those are the best times. People’s general impression, of course, is that it’s party time all the time at Playboy, but that’s clearly not the case. There may be events and parties going on several times a week, but if I spend any time at it, it will be very limited. Most of my good time at night is upstairs with my lady.
A couple years ago there was a biography of you published called Mr. Playboy, and it said that when you lived in Chicago you were propositioned by a gay man, and being so sexually liberated, you went through with it just for the experience. What do you remember of that?
Not a great deal. You’re talking about something that would be 55 years — more than half a century — ago. Sexual adventure is rooted in curiosity.
You turned 84 a few months ago. What’s your secret to such a long, prosperous, happy life?
Well, I think it has to do, first and foremost, with good DNA. My mother lived to be 101, so if you want to live a long time, pick your parents with great care. Beyond that, I think it has to do with taking care of yourself and having a good mental attitude. I have always seen life as a celebration, and I think that helps to keep you young.