Photography by Mindas
During the Sixties, when you spent virtually all of your time in the Chicago Mansion, didn’t you ever feel like just taking a stroll around the block or a drive in the country?
When I felt like it, I went out. It’s that simple. Obviously, I didn’t feel like it very often, because there were often weeks, and sometimes months, when I didn’t go out at all. I remember one winter, Chicago had a record snowfall. I thought that was too good to miss, and since I couldn’t bring it inside-at least not without melting-my girl and I took a midnight walk and wound up building a snowman in front of the Mansion. When we got back, we learned that the news had spread through the house like there’d been a prison break-“Hef’s gone out! Hef’s gone out!” There were a lot of jokes of that sort-even around here-about my lifestyle, but life is always a matter of choices. I’m painfully aware that there simply isn’t enough time in one short life to do all the things I want to do, so I’ve tried to eliminate the distractions, inefficiencies and inconveniences that get in the way of whatever I’m doing. That’s really what the house is all about.
Then what made you decide, in the late Sixties, to widen your horizons-build your private plane, take trips, buy your West Coast Mansion?
I think a lot of men begin to reevaluate the pattern of their lives in their middle years, whether they’re married or single, successful or unsuccessful, and I decided that what had worked very well for me earlier in the decade wasn’t satisfying any longer. I was fortunate enough to be able to dramatically change the pattern of my life when I wanted to. That’s another example of the importance of staying in control of your life. The company had grown so big that one man could no longer hold onto the reins as tightly as I had. I began to delegate an increasing amount of authority to my key executives, and that wasn’t easy, because playboy has always been such a personal enterprise.
I agreed to host a new TV series, Playboy After Dark, to be taped in Los Angeles, because I knew that would force me out of the house and into new areas of activity. In addition to its obvious promotional values, the TV show was intended as a first step in Playboy Enterprises’ West Coast diversification into motion-picture, television and record production. We bought the private plane to provide prompt, comfortable transportation between our Chicago head quarters and our expanding enterprises throughout the country and the rest of the world.
The plane is a logical extension of the concept behind the house: We ordered a stretched version of a DC-9 from Douglas Aircraft, with additional gas tanks to give it international capability, and had a custom interior designed that turned it into an airborne apartment. In that way, whatever time is spent in transportation isn’t wasted, since I can do anything aboard the Big Bunny that I do in the Playboy Mansion. Well, almost anything. We don’t have a swimming pool or a bowling alley on the plane.
I’d had an apartment on top of the playboy office building in Los Angeles for several years, but with more of our activities centered there, I decided to get a house. What I found was something even more than I had envisioned-an elegant English Tudor home, set on five and a half acres of ground just a block and a half from Sunset Boulevard in Holmby Hills, that became Playboy Mansion West. I now spend almost as much time there as I do in Chicago.
What’s the attraction?
I don’t think anything I could say would adequately describe the place. The main building was inspired by a mansion in England called Holmby House; it’s built of stone, with slate roofs and leaded windows. The grounds are handsomely landscaped, with rolling hills, a variety of trees, plants and flowers and what is reputed to be the largest redwood forest in Southern California. We added a tennis court and a swimming pool, with adjoining ponds and waterfalls, and introduced exotic varieties of fish, birds and animals as a finishing touch. It isn’t as large as the Chicago Mansion, but it’s even more impressive because of the elegance of the architecture and the grounds. There’s a separate guesthouse, a green house and a game house, with an outdoor bar and buffet area done in the same stone as the main building. But the most popular spot on the estate is a grotto we built, as a part of the pool, that can be entered by swimming through a waterfall and includes an elaborate series of Jacuzzi baths that are enjoyed more as a center of social activity than for their therapeutic value. In short, the West Coast Mansion is a veritable Shangri-La, and rumor has it that you really do start aging perceptibly after leaving the grounds.
As a guy who earned rather than inherited his money-who started out as a middle-class working stiff-don’t you ever take a look around you at all this incredible luxury and wonder if it’s too good to be true, feel that it’s all a dream and maybe you’ll wake up and it’ll all be gone?
I still have a certain sense of wonder at all that’s happened, but that adds to my enjoyment of it. I don’t think I’ll ever become jaded by the success or the life I’m leading; it’s simply not my nature. As a matter of fact, I feel like a kid in the world’s biggest candy store.
Must you be so blase?
I could pretend to be blasé, but I’m having too good a time. Playing it cool, affecting that hip sense of weariness with it all that’s so fashionable these days, would be foreign to me. If my enthusiasm strikes some people as unsophisticated, that’s their problem, not mine.
A good deal of your enthusiasm is directed, during your leisure hours, toward games-backgammon, Monopoly, pinball, cards and a dozen other such pastimes. Why?
When I finish with my work, I like to lose myself in games of various kinds with friends. If my game playing is enthusiastic, it’s because that’s the way I approach almost everything I do. I enjoy the competitive nature of game playing, as well as the social contact that goes with it. Most of my friends are serious game players, too. Backgammon is what we’re really into now, as you know. It’s a great game-relatively simple in concept and easy to learn, but quite sophisticated in its strategy once you begin to really get involved in it. It’s a much faster and more exciting game than chess and, unlike cards, it’s an open game–played on a board where everyone can see the moves-with the opportunity for considerable interplay.
A couple of friends and I recently started a private club in L.A. called Pips-after the triangular-shaped areas on the board where you move your pieces-and the major appeal of the club, along with an excellent restaurant, bar and discothèque, is backgammon. Pips has become, in the few short months since it opened, the most popular celebrity hangout in town, just as backgammon has become the most popular game.
You said most of your friends are serious game players. Being serious about games seems a contradiction in terms. Isn’t it rather frivolous to devote as much time and energy as you do to that sort of thing?
The ability to enjoy such frivolous pastimes is part of what life ought to be all about. The notion that work is socially redeeming, but that play isn’t, is a puritan hang-up that still persists in our society. After the meetings, dictation and editing are done, I’m ready to relax and play-whether it’s in my rotating bed or in the game room with the gang.
Or in your rotating bed with the gang?
You’ve been peeping.
Your guest registers at both Mansions read like the proverbial Who’s Whoof show business, sports, politics, journalism, art, science, law and even religion. Do you consider yourself a celebrity buff?
Unashamedly so. But most of us are, no matter what degree of success we have achieved. I grew up in the Thirties and Forties, and film stars were my idols as a kid, so the celebrities of show business have special meaning for me. They’re the closest thing Americans have to royalty, and the biggest of them enjoy much the same prestige.
Among the celebrities you’ve entertained are George McGovern, Ringo Starr, Rudolf Nureyev, John Kenneth Galbraith, Liz Taylor, Timothy Leary, Ralph Nader and Linda Lovelace. What do you have in common with such a diverse list of people?
Some are close friends who stay at the house whenever they’re in town. Others are just casual acquaintances I know socially or with whom I share some common interest. In terms of common interest, I remember an evening of serious conversation with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and fellow clergymen Bishop John Robinson, Dr. Harvey Cox and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Jesse has become a close friend in the years since King’s death, and the Mansion is something of a sanctuary for him when he feels the need to get away from it all.
On another occasion, about a year before his marriage to Miss Vicki on the Tonight Show, Tiny Tim spent a nervous evening here asking my advice on women. He obviously didn’t take it.
The Rolling Stones stayed for four days at the Chicago Mansion during their last American concert tour. What can you tell us–for publication–about that legendary visit?
Mick and the boys spent most of their time with us conversing on important social issues of the day over brandy in the library. And for relaxation, we played a few games of chess.
Won’t buy that, eh? Well, let’s just say that a good time was had by all-starting in my Roman Bath and ending four nights later with an impromptu concert by the Stones and Stevie Wonder in the ballroom. When the tour was over, the Stones told the press that the high point of their eight weeks in America had been the time they spent at Hefner’s house in Chicago.
Does that kind of informal concert happen often?
Well, Buddy Rich is a guest in the Chicago Mansion whenever he’s in town, and one evening he brought his entire band over as a surprise. They set up their stands at one end of the ballroom and did an entire show for us. On another evening, we were throwing a party for some visiting dignitaries from Morocco when the entire cast of Haircame in singing Aquarius. They wound up naked in the pool doing most of the score from the show.
Most of the musical moments at the Mansions aren’t that elaborate, of course. Harry Nilsson entertained us around the piano with several of his songs at a party last New Year’s Eve. Tony Bennett did the same thing on a different occasion. She Silverstein-who is one of my closest friends and stays at one of the Mansions as much as he does on his own houseboat in Sausalito-regularly regales the Bunnies with his songs, a number of which have been inspired by incidents that took place here.
Including Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball?
Tom Jones has been an occasional guest of yours; has he ever performed at either Mansion?
Got any more hot items for the gossip columnists?
Well, let’s see. I don’t want to compromise Chuck Percy’s reputation, and I don’t know what this may imply in terms of his Presidential chances in 1976, but on a recent visit to the Chicago Mansion, the Senator challenged me to a game of ping-pong-and lost decisively.
That’s not quite the kind of story we had in mind.
Oh, no? Well, Masters and Johnson, the noted sex researchers, spent a night here prior to their marriage, and they stayed in separate-but adjoining-bedrooms. Norman Mailer and Budd Schulberg once spent a long weekend in the same two adjoining rooms, but their relationship didn’t work out quite as well. On the second night, I had to referee a verbal bout that threatened to turn physical. When Mailer invited Schulberg to step outside for some old-fashioned fisticuffs, Budd-the soberer of the two-declined with the observation that he had once refused to fight with Hemingway, and if he hadn’t fought Hemingway, he wasn’t going to lower his standards now and fight with Mailer.
Most of the time around here, though, it’s make love, not war. Warren Beatty, another noted sex researcher, spent a considerable amount of time at the Chicago house when we were both actively involved in the McGovern campaign; but I see him more regularly now at the L.A. Mansion, where he can usually be found heading in the general direction of the Jacuzzi, being a well-known lover of water sports.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet, stayed at the Chicago Mansion during one of his visits to America. Did you get along?
Well, we spent several hours debating the relative merits of our two systems of government. But he departed early the next morning, disgruntled because he hadn’t been able to interest any of the Bunnies in further cementing Soviet-American relations.
You haven’t mentioned the big parties you throw for a few hundred friends every week or so in either Chicago or Los Angeles. Do the stars come to gaze at one another on these occasions?
And at our Bunnies, and at the Playmates-and vice versa. But our biggest turnouts-in terms of show-business celebrities, at least-are the popular closed-circuit telecasts of sporting events that I host several times a year. Last summer in the L.A. house, we screened a Muhammad Ali fight, and half the male stars in town were there, plus a few female fans as well. Groucho Marx and George Raft were on hand, representing the old Hollywood; Bill Cosby, Jack Nicholson, Burt Bacharach, Joe Namath, Jim Brown, Tony Curtis, Bob Culp, David Steinberg, Jimmy Caan, John Derek, Clint Eastwood, the ever-popular Warren Beatty, Harry Nilsson with Sally Kellerman, Ryan O’Neal with Ursula Andress, Don Adams with Don Rickles-everybody was there. Tommy Smothers looked around at the room of familiar faces and said, “If somebody set off a bomb in here tonight, you’d have to start show business all over again.”
In another interview, you said you enjoy your reputation almost as much as you do your lifestyle. What did you mean?
I meant that I enjoy the public’s fantasies about the way I live almost as much as the way I really live. And I can’t deny being amused at the mixed reactions I arouse, often in the same people. Even if they put me down, they eat it up. They want to know what’s going on in those Mansions. What’s it like on that plane? What does he really do with those Bunnies? There’s even a story going around about the stars on the cover of the magazine representing the number of times I’ve made love with that month’s Playmate.
The version we’ve heard involves the girl on the cover.
I hate to spoil all those fantasies, but the number of stars designates nothing more than the geographical edition of the magazine. I think it’s been of great value to playboy, though, that the boss isn’t a faceless chief executive but a guy people can fantasize about and see as a representative of the good life the magazine promotes.
A number of your personal tastes-for simple clothing, food and drink-don’t exactly fit that image.
playboy has never taken the position that there’s only one right kind of neckwear or music or one right way to live your life. The magazine promotes not what people should be doing to look hip but an attitude that has to do with savoring life however you choose to go about it. I’m a living testimonial to that. It would be an affectation for me to wear things I didn’t enjoy because I felt I ought to. And Pepsi happens to be what I like to drink. As a matter of fact, I like Pepsi so much that I used to polish off 25 or 30 bottles a day, and I started worrying about putting on weight, so I began smoking my pipe, thinking that would cut down my drinking.
No, I just acquired another bad habit. As for my plain tastes in food, I simply enjoy fried chicken more than pheasant under glass. It’s a hang-up of mine, probably a result of retarded eating habits in my misspent youth.
Is it really true, as we’ve heard, that when you went to Maxim’s in Paris, generally considered one of the world’s finest restaurants, you dispatched an aide to the kitchen beforehand to provide them with your personal recipe for fried chicken?
It’s true. My aide spent the afternoon showing them how to prepare Southern fried chicken the way I like it, and with all due credit to Maxim’s, it was delicious. It tasted just like Colonel Sanders’. You must understand that at that point, we’d been traveling for a month through Africa, the Greek isles, Italy, Spain, England, and so forth, and by the time I got to Paris… it sounds like a song: “By the time I got to Paris, she was risin’.” Anyway, by then, I was pretty horny for some home-cooked chicken.
Did Maxim’s ever recover from your visit?
Apparently they took it rather well, because later they tried to sell me the restaurant. But I didn’t like the chicken that much. I guess the real bottom line about food is that it’s just not important to me. I’ve been known to go for two days without it. All it gives me is the energy I need to do what I really get pleasure from. Do I need to spell that out?
Is it a four-letter word?
Four letters, sounds like…. And besides being fun, it’s not fattening. I should have mentioned that in The Playboy Philosophy.
In areas other than food, drink and clothes, you could hardly be accused of simple tastes. Your lifestyle is so extraordinarily lavish, in fact, that some people regard it as an embodiment of the philosophy of conspicuous consumption.
Well, there’s no denying that I’m one of the nation’s major consumers-or that I haven’t tried very hard to conceal that fact-but my feeling, frankly, is that I earned it and I have a right to do with it exactly what I damn please. And I’d feel the same way about it even if I didn’t also spend a good deal of what I’ve made on the causes I happen to believe in. But beyond what anyone thinks of me, there’s an implicit assumption I can’t accept in the hostility some people-particularly among the affluent young left-feel not only toward conspicuous consumption but toward materialism itself, and the assumption is that it’s evil. They make no distinction between the ills wrought by materialism-corporate greed, urban blight, pollution, artificial obsolescence and the like-and the benefits of materialism, which include, thanks to technological progress, a longer and healthier life and a better ability to feed and clothe the people of this planet.
They also fail to appreciate the fact that, thanks to the benefits of materialism, their own lives-however simply they choose to live-are very different from, and very much better than, the simple life led by those in the underdeveloped countries of the world. If a kid gets hungry in Taos, he can wash dishes somewhere and make enough to get by on. Or he can hock a watch to pay for a meal-or a doctor. Or if worst comes to worst, he can always go home to San Francisco. The kids in Burma and Tanzania don’t have those options. I also don’t see too many of these idealistic young kids throwing away their motorcycles and their stereos, or using the money they spend on jeans and flowered shirts to buy food and clothing for the poor instead. I’m not saying they should; but they should examine their own values before condemning other people’s, and they should realize that by rejecting materialism itself rather than the excesses of materialism, they’re throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Many of these young people you’re talking about seem to feel that playboy accepts materialism as unquestioningly as you say they reject it.
We’ve never believed-or implied-that money can buy happiness. But we don’t feel it’s the root of all evil, either. It’s all in what you do with it. Money can certainly be used exploitively and for destructive ends; the Watergate campaign funds are a perfect case in point. But it can also be used to enhance life-for oneself and for others-and that’s what we’ve tried to promote in the magazine and the way I try to live myself. I’m fortunate enough to live very well, indeed, but it’s not the money that matters to me; it’s not even the things I can acquire with it. It’s the pleasure-and the personal freedom-it can provide for me and for those I care about.
Isn’t there any level on which the money itself-the fact that you made it yourself and that you’ve made as much as you have-is gratifying to you?
Certainly. The financial part of my success isn’t meaningless to me. But it’s much more meaningful to me that the thing I decided I most wanted to do when I was in college-to start and edit a magazine of my own that I could believe in-is exactly what I’ve been able to do. And I take great satisfaction in the fact that this has been the most imitated magazine of my time, that it’s had so many different impacts on our social and sexual values. All these things are much more meaningful to me than the dollars I’ve earned.
People who are major business successes, with whom our net worth would be all we have in common, hold very little interest for me. I have very few friends in business, and sitting around with the head of a huge steel company talking about how we got to the top would bore me shitless. I know there are men for whom it would be important to make an extra half billion dollars so they could rise from being the 64th richest man in the world to the 23rd richest man. But I’ve never had any interest in making Playboy Enterprises as large as General Motors. What I’ve really sought is to create a unique and exciting company that also shows a nice enough profit so that we can do what we want to do without worrying about money.
Two years ago, you decided to finance future expansion and diversification by going public. After keeping playboy an almost completely personal enterprise for so long, it must have been a painful decision to sell stock to the public.
Not at all. I only went from 80 percent ownership down to 70 percent ownership, so it wasn’t exactly like selling out my control. But you’re right to the extent that it wasn’t a decision that came naturally to me. I’d equate it with my decision in the late Sixties to start delegating more authority. They were both made reluctantly but for the good of the company. When we went public, it was because I felt it was a proper step to assure greater growth.
To judge from how the stock has fared, playboy’s position in the market isn’t very good.
I don’t think the stock market reflects the true value of the company. We just happened to go public immediately before a dramatic bear mood hit the market, and as far as I’m concerned, the drop in the stock is related to the period of recession, inflation and poor political leadership that has caused the market to fall so much, rather than to any problems in playboy , which is a very healthy and expanding enterprise.
playboy is entering what is going to be a very exciting period of growth in all kinds of entertainment and leisure-time activities. Among the projects we’ve planned are controlled-environment residential villages located on the grounds of our hotel properties and offering hotel services. In the last five years, we’ve also invested $50,000,000 in our new resorts in Wisconsin and New Jersey; they’re both expected to add considerably to the appeal of Playboy Club membership and to produce a very nice profit.
We’re also considering a number of new magazines-fresh concepts, all of them very different from playboy and Oui-that promise to tap fresh markets for us. The film division, which has several major theatrical features in the works, has acquired the rights to That Championship Season, which won not only a Pulitzer Prize but the Tony awards for best play and best director on Broadway. And ABC led off its fall made-for-TV movie season with Deliver Us from Evil, one of three major television features we’ve completed–all of them produced under budget and all of them turning a nice profit.
You lost money on your first film, Macbeth. Didn’t that chasten you?
It was only disappointing commercially, not artistically. It was well reviewed, and it was voted best picture of the year by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, so I’m certainly not sorry we made it. The film business is always a crap-shoot in which only a small percentage of films make money, but it’s a calculated risk I’m happy to take, because, on a long-range basis, film making is going to be an increasingly important form of expression as society moves beyond the print era, and I want to be personally involved in playboy’s development of expertise in that field. In the not-distant future, when cable television, cassette video tapes and even electronic publications become major forms of mass communication, playboy will have the experience to take advantage of those markets.
And we’re in the process of shifting the emphasis in our Playboy Clubs to match the changing lifestyle of the last decade-from the traditional night-club atmosphere to more informal dining and drinking and to more contemporary entertainment of every kind for young singles and couples in search of enjoyable alternatives to the tube and the movie theater. We’re also redesigning and expanding the facilities in many of our Clubs, and several of them-in Montreal, Detroit and, most recently, Los Angeles-have been moved to new locations that reflect the shifts in urban centers of social activity.
But the most important news for our members is that I’m going to be more personally involved than ever before in the policies of The Playboy Club, and there will be an even greater emphasis on catering to our clientele-just as we emphasize our readers’ interests when we’re editing the magazine-that should make our Clubs, resorts and hotels among the most popular gathering places on the contemporary scene in the years ahead.
How do you feel about the proliferation of playboy imitators in the past year or two, and the fact that some of them are obviously trying to copy more than your magazine?
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I guess I’ve been flattered more sincerely-and more blatantly-than any other magazine publisher in history, playboy has inspired an unprecedented number of similar publications since we started 20 years ago. The first of any significance was Escapade, followed by Nugget, Dude, Gent, Rogue and Cavalier. Each enjoyed some initial success, then floundered-to be replaced, more recently, by Penthouse, Gallery, Genesis, Coq, a black version titled Players and several dozen foreign variations on the theme, such as Lui in France, Playmen in Italy, etc. The trouble with most of these magazines is that they try to compete by shamelessly copying our own publication instead of offering readers something fresh and original. Penthouse is a prime example. It was going to be called Playgirl until lawyers warned its publisher, Bob Guccione, of the danger of trademark infringement in using a title so similar to playboy’s. So he settled on Penthouse, a name closely associated with playboy-our first TV series was titled Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy Club showrooms are similarly named-but not close enough to be actionable. The primary feature in each issue of Penthouse is a pictorial rip-off of our own Playmate of the Month, imaginatively retitled “Pet of the Month”-which, in turn, inspired such derivative spin-offs as an annual Pet review, “Pet of the Year” and a Pet calendar.
This copycat concept extends to other editorial features as well-including the Playboy Interview and Playboy Forum, which Penthouse picked up without even bothering to retitle. Recent issues have included a kinky comic strip, à la Little Annie Fanny, while Guccione’s personal cartoon contribution is pseudo Feiffer-an unreasonable facsimile of Jules’s distinctive style and format, without any of his wit or insight. Penthouse even has a small symbol-a key instead of a Rabbit-which it places at the end of each story and article. Such inspired innovation. The only thing missing is a “What Sort of Man Reads Penthouse?” ad; and, believe it or not, some of the other imitators even include a copy of that, along with an attempt to duplicate the art and design of our magazine that prompted Time to refer to one recently as “playboy plagiarism.”
Of course, the most blatant rip-off of all is Gallery. After taking offices across the street from the Playboy Building and hiring several lower-echelon playboy staff members, they produced a first issue that attempted to duplicate playboy exactly, page by page. Unfortunately, the result looked less like the original than one of the numerous playboy parodies produced by the college humor magazines.
Considering the debt that Penthouse, Gallery, Genesis and the rest owe to playboy, how do you react when their publishers tell interviewers that playboy is old-fashioned and that their own magazines are more in tune with contemporary standards?
I think it’s very funny, but what else can you expect them to say? Because they concentrate almost totally on the most obvious aspects of playboy’s appeal-the permissive sexual orientation and the nude pictures-these magazines are actually the old-fashioned ones, harking back to pre-playboy days when sex was separate from the rest of man’s interests. Actually, I think the appeal of Penthouse is the implied naughtiness of the Victorian-porn approach it takes in its kinky letters section and its nude photography. It’s so old-fashioned that it has the virtue of nostalgia going for it.
Considering the limited nature of its editorial content, how do you explain the favorable press coverage Penthouse has received in the past year?
The one thing Guccione does well is publicize his publication. He mounted an effective newspaper ad campaign a couple of years ago that used our Rabbit trademark as an attention-getting device and created the idea that Penthouse was out to give playboysome real competition. Guccione further dramatized the idea with personal attacks on playboy in the press. It’s an obvious technique, but the media went for it. There’s no denying that Guccione is a talented promoter, and he’s also a good photographer; he’s just not a very good editor.
In a recent interview with Guccione for Screw, the interviewer suggested that there’s a love-hate relationship underlying his compulsion not only to compete with playboy but also to follow your footsteps in other areas–with a Penthouse key club in London, a resort hotel, a Penthouse book club, a line of Penthouse products and a recent announcement of plans to get into motion-picture production.
The compulsion seems to extend to his personal life as well. He’s attempting to create a very familiar public image for himself. I’m waiting for the announcement that he’s moved into his own Penthouse mansion. But I don’t really object to this energetic impersonation of his: if I were he, I’d want to be me, too.
What made you decide to publish Oui, which might seem to some like playboyimitating itself?
I wanted to try some new ideas, variations on the theme, that wouldn’t make sense in playboy but might in a new, slightly more frivolous, far-out magazine. Oui is international in its editorial emphasis, which appeals to me, because I think nationalism is a dangerously outmoded idea, and we ought to start thinking of ourselves as one people living on this little planet together. Oui is a copublishing venture with Lui, the best of the playboy imitations in Europe; but Oui will be going its own way, unfettered by old boundaries-not only geographical but social and sexual as well.
In its first year of publication, Oui was aimed primarily at the male audience we were already familiar with and felt would respond to the innovative appeal of such a magazine. But the innovations have only just begun and, increasingly, Oui will be aimed at women as well–contemporary readers of both sexes who share a joie de vivre and take real pleasure in the liberation of our traditional roles and lifestyles in society. We printed a record number of the first issue-750,000 copies-and sold almost all of them in the first two weeks on sale. The circulation has grown to 1,500,000 copies per month in the first year, so the future of this new magazine seems very bright, indeed.
Oui certainly seems to have a promising future, but that’s only one aspect of Playboy Enterprises. Do you think the entire company is likely to be as important in the next 20 years as it’s been in the past 20?
As good as the first 20 years have been, the next 20 are bound to be better. People are going to have more leisure time than ever before, so a company devoted to leisure-time activities-especially one with playboy’s strong identification in that market-seems certain to be increasingly important. And just as clearly, the magazine is going to have even more influence in the future than it does today. Circulation is at an all-time high-far greater than any other men’s magazine in history-and its impact on our manners and morals probably won’t be fully appreciated for some time to come.
playboy will continue to play an important part in promoting social and sexual freedom for the individual, because those who suggest that the sexual revolution has already been won are naïve. Our society is more sexually schizophrenic than sexually liberated. We’re going through a painful and difficult transitional period in which many people have started to come to grips with their own sexuality, but we still live in a country where most adult sexual activity is illegal, and the voices of suppression are still being heard-and heeded.
Are you thinking of the recent Supreme Court decisions on obscenity?
Of course-as well as the apathetic and, in some instances, even favorable reaction of a press that is otherwise so sensitive to the suppression of our freedom. What can you say about a society that permits explicit images and descriptions of pain, violence and death, yet attempts to prohibit explicit images and descriptions when what is involved are acts of pleasure and love? I find it incredible, in 1973, that the Supreme Court of the United States can justify surrendering to what it calls “local communities” the right to decide what is pornographic and therefore illegal. Already one state supreme court–in Georgia–has decided that the movie Carnal Knowledge, written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols, isn’t artistically redeeming enough to escape being banned as obscene. What it amounts to is that the Nixon Court, which is supposed to be loaded with what he calls “strict constructionists” of the Constitution, has ruled that the First Amendment’s absolute protection of free speech and press doesn’t really mean what it says, that certain kinds of speech and writing aren’t necessarily free at all–speech and writing that has to do with sex. The Court has decreed that the ruling elite of every local community has the power to determine what everyone else in town may read or see.
There were rumblings, soon after the decisions, about “cracking down” on playboyand the other men’s magazines.
There were, indeed, but so far they haven’t come to much-primarily, I think, because the Supreme Court decisions weren’t aimed at playboy. They were aimed at hard-core, which has nothing to do with what we publish and never will. But there’s still harm in trying to suppress it. If there is an adult audience for this kind of material-and I make the distinction between adults and children-then how dare we say, in a supposedly free society, that adults can’t go to a theater and see whatever they want to see, or to a bookstore or magazine stand and buy whatever they want to read? The primary ones hurt when you censor aren’t the publishers or the editors but the people whose rights to that material are suppressed.
I find it very disturbing that some intelligent and learned people don’t understand that. I read an editorial in The Wall Street Journal about the decisions, suggesting that maybe the Court was right and talking about “the rights of the majority in a democracy.” Well, totalitarianism by the majority is not what America is all about. The greatness of America isn’t that it grants majority rule; it’s that it protects the freedom of the individual, the freedom of those who might want to read or see something that isn’t popular with the community. Too many magazines and newspapers take the attitude that this small limitation on someone else’s liberties is a price worth paying to get rid of the porno theater down the street, which they don’t patronize anyway. Well, they’re being very shortsighted, and they remind me, quite frankly, of the good citizens of Germany who felt it didn’t have anything to do with them if the Jews had their rights taken away.
The issue here is not obscenity; the issue is censorship. And what kind of bizarre notion is it that the depiction of sex is either too sacred or too profane to be protected by the First Amendment? Well, I send this message to the boys at Time and Newsweek and the country’s newspapers, who should have the intellectual capacity to recognize what this is all about, but who, for whatever reasons, look the other way and play into the hands of the enemy. Because there is an enemy out there. This country-indeed, the whole world-consists of two opposing forces: us, and those who would force their own values and attitudes on us. Totalitarianism has been the major evil in this world since the beginning of civilization, whether it came into power in the name of religion or a supposedly better nonsectarian society. The whole concept of this country was based on opposition to that kind of totalitarianism.
What actual effects do you think the Supreme Court decisions will have on sexual explicitness in the media?
That’s hard to predict. But it’s going to be difficult in the Seventies to find 12 people on a jury who will unanimously agree on what constitutes pornography; and that, whatever it is, it should be suppressed by law. In Binghamton, New York, and in Florida, they tried to ban Deep Throat and couldn’t get a jury to agree; that type of thing is going to be happening a lot. The market for pornography isn’t going to disappear. We’re going to have some variation on what we had with alcohol during Prohibition, and all we’re going to get from that is even more corruption in local politics. It’s too early to say for sure how this is going to work out, but whatever happens, my reaction as a citizen is one of outrage.
What’s your reaction as an editor-publisher? How will playboy be affected?
Except for those communities where some prosecutor is foolish enough to think that he can make a name for himself by going after us, they shouldn’t affect playboy at all. And let me tell you that anybody who does try to ban playboy under these decisions is going to look nothing but foolish, because he’s going to lose. You don’t win these cases against Playboy. Nobody ever has. Our reputation is too solidly established. I can say without any sense of glee, as a matter of fact, that Playboy is actually going to benefit commercially from these decisions, because if the more sexually explicit publications are suppressed, then the sexually oriented portion of Playboy is obviously going to have even greater appeal. Suddenly, we may find ourselves right back in the sexual avant-garde, and I don’t welcome that, because I don’t welcome censorship. But I’ve been fighting that kind of sexual oppression for 20 years, and I’m not going to back out of the fight now.
What, specifically, do you plan to do?
The main thrust of our reaction will be in the courts. I don’t welcome such problems, but if they arise, we’ll use whatever legal resources are necessary, not only when cases directly involve Playboy but by funding other anti-censorship activities through the Playboy Foundation.
Though you’ve been actively involved for many years, as you point out, in fighting censorship and supporting causes related to sexual freedom, it’s been widely reported that your interest in broader political issues dates from the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, when a cop gave you a whack on the rump with his night stick.
Some people might like to think it took a swat on the ass to make me socially conscious, but the fact is that I’ve had a deep concern over social issues most of my life. The magazine has reflected that clearly enough over the years.
Have you ever considered acting on your political beliefs by running for office?
I’ve been asked that before, but I really don’t have any personal political aspirations. I don’t think I’d be emotionally well suited to the life of a politician and, quite frankly, I think I can probably do more as a private citizen-through the magazine’s editorial policies and the Foundation’s philanthropy.
In the Philosophy, you wrote that America was undergoing a “moral rebirth.” Would you still say that?
I wrote that during the Kennedy years, when optimism seemed appropriate. There have been a lot of times since then when it was difficult to be optimistic, but in the past year my mood has been a good deal more hopeful. I feel strongly that the whole Watergate affair, for example, is one of the best things that’s happened to America in recent years. It shows that even at the highest level of power, it’s impossible to keep such total corruption under wraps. That’s a dramatic demonstration of the great strength of our system.
We’ve always had petty corruption at the state and city levels, and occasionally-thanks to Teapot Dome and Spiro Agnew-at the Federal level as well. All these scandals have had to do with people taking money that didn’t belong to them. But Watergate was corruption of a far more ominous kind and on an unprecedented scale. It was a conspiracy to subvert the democratic process. These men felt they were justified in what they were doing, regardless of the law, because they thought they knew what was best for the country and that their cause was just.
It’s the same attitude that was shown over and over again by Nixon’s reactions toward the various Congressional and Presidential committees that spent millions of dollars analyzing such problems as obscenity, drugs and civil disorder. In each case, Nixon heard the results, then promptly rejected them because they didn’t fit his own prejudices and his own political self-interest. But I don’t see why anybody is surprised by these failings of character in Nixon’s Presidency. Watergate was simply the culmination of the man’s entire record in public office.
Who would excite you as a Presidential candidate in 1976?
How about me?
You said you weren’t interested.
Well, if there were an honest draft and I felt the nation really needed me. … Uh, I’m kidding.
If that isn’t obvious, you’d better delete it from the interview.
We’ll take care of it. But other than you, can you think of any likely prospects?
There isn’t any one particular candidate who excites me at the moment. But the solutions to our problems as a society aren’t going to come from finding some hero to lead us to better times. The whole nature of our political system, and its separation of power, is predicated on the notion that no one individual should have too much power. Yet that’s just what was happening to the Presidency until we caught the emperor without any clothes on.
Even if steps are taken to curb Presidential power, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening again when the lessons of this experience are forgotten?
Nothing. That’s why a free press is so fundamental to a democracy. It’s the free press of this nation-the newspapers, magazines, radio and television-that refused to let go of the Watergate scandal, that refused to be intimidated by the Nixon Administration’s systematic attempts at repression, that refused to accept as scapegoats the half-dozen men originally on trial for the break-in, that eventually led to the exposure of the involvement of the highest men in our Government and established the atmosphere that made possible the Congressional and Justice Department investigations that may finally bring the true villains to justice. The only safeguard against a repetition of this sort of thing is a free and diligent press that will sound an appropriate warning if such demagoguery ever rears its ugly head again.
Do you think playboy has made any contributions to that end?
I certainly do. In a series of articles, interviews and editorials, we attempted to alert the people to the dangerous and truly totalitarian men who had come into power with the Nixon Administration. The last Presidential election was the first in which I became deeply involved personally, because I could see the ominous directions in which our country was headed under the leadership of these men. Unfortunately, the people didn’t listen-not enough of them, anyway. We lost the battle; but, with Watergate, we’ve won the war.
That’s why it’s so important for all of us to speak out against every from of tyranny-as we’ve tried to do, personally and editorially, over the years, from opposition to the war in Vietnam to legal support for victims of reactionary laws governing the private sexual behavior of consenting adults. That’s the only way in which a free and democratic society can survive.
You said earlier that playboy will be even more influential in the next 20 years than it has been in the past 20. But what about your own plans? Are you going to be running the magazine and the company until the 40th anniversary?
Somewhat longer than that, I hope. Voluntary retirement is difficult for me to imagine, playboy magazine is still the heart of all I do, and I don’t want to let go of more than I have to. I mean, I love it almost like a person. If I didn’t care so much, it would be easy to step back and say, “OK, you’ve done it. Great. Now go do something else.” But I can’t. Working as hard as I do. I feel occasional frustration about the demands it makes on me, but that’s about the only thing that ever brings me down. At the end of a difficult day, I can still relax with my friends, doing what I want to do and feeling like a million dollars.
Or even 200,000,000.
Nobody feels that good.
In view of the fact that Playboy Enterprises is such an extension and expression of your own vision, do you think it will continue to be as successful after you’re no longer running it?
After I’m no longer running it? That’s a delicate way of putting it. You mean after I’m “gone”? What can I say? Obviously, there’s a long-term preparation going on to make the company independent of the energy and expertise of any one person. In any case, you have to recognize that my vision is shared with a lot of talented people who work for me, as well as with millions of people in our society, or else we wouldn’t be so successful. There’s no reason to assume that playboy is going to pass from the scene when I do-unless, of course, I decide to take it with me.
Time once called your concern about your place in history as monumental as Lyndon Johnson’s. How do you think you’ll be remembered?
I don’t think I’m the best person to answer that. You should ask somebody more objective-like my mother.
Well, I think I’ve been a fairly important influence on contemporary sexual attitudes. Beyond that, not very important.
That sounds overly modest.
True. Actually, I think I’ll rank second only to Jesus Christ. I just can’t seem to find that middle ground.
Try once more.
Well, if we hadn’t had the Wright brothers, there would still be airplanes. If there hadn’t been an Edison, there would still be electric lights. And if there hadn’t been a Hefner, we’d still have sex. But maybe we wouldn’t be enjoying it as much. So the world would be a little poorer. Come to think of it, so would some of my relatives. Let’s go play a little backgammon.