She was born in December, 1953, on a kitchen table in a ramshackle apartment in Chicago. Today, at 49, she is still young, vibrant and the object of young men’s fantasies.
But she may die before she turns 50. Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy Magazine, says he may discontinue the Playmate of the Month because she is no longer relevant.
“We just live in a completely different world now in terms of the acceptance of sexuality,” Hefner told The New York Observer recently. “Explicit sexuality does not have the same kind of meaning that it had 20 years ago.”
Yeah, times have changed. When Hef published the debut issue of Playboy in December, 1953, he didn’t even put a date on the cover. He wasn’t sure there would ever be a second issue.
Marilyn Monroe served as Playboy’s first Playmate of the Month. She didn’t pose for Playboy, but Hefner tracked down a nude calendar photo of Monroe and paid the photographer a couple of hundred bucks for the rights to publish it.
The magazine sold out its first issue in days. That relatively innocent shot of Monroe reclining on a red sheet was scandalous as hell in 1953. Moralists were upset enough with Elvis Presley and his gyrating hips (TV could only film him from the waist up). Having Marilyn Monroe’s mammary glands on the newsstand was a sure sign society was going to hell.
Like most men in the 50s and 60s, I discovered Playboy as a teenager. I bought my first issue of the magazine in June 1963 when Connie Mason was the Playmate of the Month. I don’t remember a single article published in that issue but I remember Mason vividly.
Over the years, I would buy many more issues of Playboy and leer lovingly at the Playmates. I also learned to appreciate the writing that graced the covers of the magazine. As a young writer, I sent them story ideas and abstracts. All were rejected. Playboy’s power in the publishing world was so great that they never accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Only articles commissioned by the magazine’s editorial staff could be considered for publication. I wrote for other national mags, but never for Playboy.
In the 1970s, Playboy’s circulation topped seven million and the Playmate of the Month achieved cult status. Playmates appeared on TV. Mainstream movie actresses posed nude in the magazine. Hefner, the man who started a nudie magazine in his kitchen, lived the high life in a Chicago mansion and became a cultural icon.
In 1976, the gubernatorial campaign of Missouri candidate Kit Bond was rocked when one of his campaign workers, Patti McGuire, appeared as the November Playmate of the Month – right before the election. Bond lost.
I interviewed McGuire after her appearance. She was bright, witty and fun loving. A few years later, she would marry tennis star Jimmy Conners and start a family.
But Playboy’s image of the “wholesome girl next door” Playmate who just happens to pose naked for photographers started to fade under assault of new men’s magazines. Bob Guccuione led the attack with Penthouse, a down and dirtier version whose “Pets” were often porn film actresses in poses that would make a gynecologist blush.
At first, Playboy resisted the more graphic poses, but then tried to compete with more spread legs, more garish displays of pubic hair and more admissions that the Playmates were not all that innocent. At one point, Hefner, who had relinquished day to day control of the magazine, decided things had gone too far and ordered staff to tone down the pictorials.
But the public appetite for more had to be satisfied. Consumer VCRs brought porn films into the home. Then along came the Internet.
Last year, $5.7 billion was spent on online porn in the U.S.. According to Penthouse owner Guccione, the boom in cyber porn means there is now “no future for adult mass market magazines”.
Hefner and Playboy, now run by his daughter, seemed to agree. They expanded into cable and satellite programming, bought the Spice TV network, which included hardcore porn channels, and offered a “members only” web site with more graphic photos and sex material.
I stopped reading the magazine in the late 1970s and didn’t pick up another copy until last year when the magazine ran a short piece about Capitol Hill Blue’s series on Congressional corruption. The first thing I noticed about the current crop of Playmates is that they no longer looked like the girl next door, unless the house next door was a brothel.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the gutter. Softcore made a comeback. Magazines like FHM and Maxim feature lots of photos of young hardbodies in thongs, bikinis and lingerie but no bare breasts and no pubic hair. These magazines started growing in circulation while Playboy’s readership declined and Penthouse appears headed for bankruptcy.
“I still think there’s a stigma attached to buying Playboy,” says current Australian FHM editor John Bastick. “We can be quite salacious, we never show nudity, but we do run some graphic things and some very sexy things. But it’s to the extent where a guy can take it home, he can leave it on his coffee table, and his girlfriend or female friends that come round won’t be offended by it. A guy can read it on an aeroplane and nothing’s wrong with it. That’s just not the case with Playboy.”
So Hefner named James Kaminsky, a former executive director of Maxim, as Playboy’s new editorial director, and ordered him to tone down the sexual content and overhaul the magazine.
Hefner’s says he wants to introduce “journalism of importance” to Playboy. He told The New York Observer he wanted Kaminsky to bring “better non-fiction. More must-read pieces. More humor. Probably some celebrity pieces that are not as explicit. Big-name writers, yes. But also good reportage”.
“If you look at the magazine in the ’70s, what you would see is a remarkable mix of very topical stories, journalism that reached out and grabbed the reader,” Kaminsky told The New York Times . “But the world has changed, and what we need to do is take that great template and present it in a way that a modern reader, a guy 18 to 34, will feel more comfortable accessing.”
And, Hefner says, the Playmate of the Month may not fit with the new image of Playboy.
Damn. Another childhood fantasy goes down the drain.