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Will Hugh Hefner Be Remembered As A Visionary Or A Flesh Peddler?

By       Message Martha Rosenberg     Permalink
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Playboy founder Hugh Hefner may be in his golden years but he still makes headlines like celebrities a quarter of his age. After his bride-to-be Crystal Harris left him at the altar, he rallied with a new show on NBC, The Playboy Club, and reduced the October issue of Playboy to its 1961 price of 60 cents to help buzz the TV show.

And speaking of celebrities a quarter of his age, Hef apparently still has cred with actress Lindsay Lohan. After turning down Playboy's offer in 2008 to pose for $700,000, TMZ reports that Lohan has accepted a new offer for considerably more.

She is in good company. Many famous actresses have agreed to the proverbial "staple in their navel," from Marilyn Monroe, in the magazine's first issue,1953 through Bo Derek, Suzanne Somers, Farrah Fawcett, Jenny McCarthy, Cindy Crawford, Pam Anderson, Daryl Hannah and of course Anna Nicole Smith.

But there is one beautiful and famous woman Playboy did not collar--feminist leader Gloria Steinem. Steinman considered Hefner the nation's Pimp-in-Chief who commodified women as disposable sex objects and lifestyle ornaments in his magazine.

Steinem worked undercover as a bunny in a Playboy club in New York City in 1963 serving customers with the requisite back-arched, knees-bent "Bunny Dip" and donning a white tail and bunny ears. ("Always remember," said the job manual, "your proudest possession is your Bunny tail. You must make sure it is white and fluffy.") She wrote about her sexual tour of duty in Esquire magazine.

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Some credit Playboy with helping the nation lose its 1950s Puritanism in which women were either "good" or "bad" and unwanted pregnancies were hidden and ruined lives. Hefner, in his bathrobe, with his pipe, relieved the nation of its 1950s gray flannel workaholism and ushered in recreational drugs and sex, say supporters.

But others say he simply elevated porn from its peep show milieu and made the sexual debasement of women acceptable in polite company. They point to Playboy Enterprises CEO Christie Hefner, Hefner's daughter, as the ultimate casualty of his second class view of women; not pretty to enough to pose in the magazine but not worthy of Playboy stock either which dad bestowed on his sons in 1997 even as Christie toiled away at the magazine. A hare not an heir, said Chicago newspaper headlines .

Clearly the movie about Hef's life, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel subscribes to the former philosophy.

Playboy was an early civil rights voice, says the movie, pointing to how Hefner "liberated" the segregated New Orleans Playboy Club so that African-American men could enjoy cottontail service too. It gave a mainstream forum for entertainers like Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and   Sammy Davis Jr. It sent the Playboy jet to retrieve Vietnam orphans who were nursed back to health by bunnies (out of costume) and supported Children of the Night, a group that helps runaways evade prostitution, says the movie.

But the movie has a strong creep factor. After repugnant enemies of lust appear like Pat Boone, Jerry Falwell, Charles Keating, repugnant supporters of lust appear like Kiss' Gene Simmons, known for harassing NPR's Terry Gross in an interview, and a leering James Caan, linked to Hollywood prostitute broker Heidi Fleiss.

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Other supporters make no sense. What, for example, is the Rev. Malcolm Boyd, author of Are Your Running With Me Jesus, doing at an establishment where half the sky, as Nicholas Kristof puts it, is deemed worthy of wearing animal tails? Where have Hefner supporters Dick Cavett and David Steinberg been for the last 30 years to not notice that Oprah, Chelsea Handler and the women on the View have retired them? And what is up with Bill Maher's appearance?

Gratitude at the Mansion by Martha Rosenberg

Nor do interview clips with Hefner make him look big-hearted. He says the death of playmate Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her husband, Paul Snider, months after she was named the 1980 Playmate of the Year, gave him his stroke and that it was a "miracle," he got through it. (Let's talk about ME.) And he says the suicide of his former secretary, Bobbie Arnstein, who was found dead in a Chicago hotel room after an overdose of drugs in January 1975, was caused by drug officials and hurt the Playboy brand and image.

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Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)

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