To younger generations, Hugh Hefner is a soft-spoken household name, an old, silk-robed man who lives a curious dream-life in a Beverly Hills mansion with a harem of plastic and platinum cover girls. He owns a magazine that’s barely titillating in comparison to what’s a few mouse clicks away online. Yet at 84 years old, in the twilight of his remarkable life, how exactly Hef came to be an American icon in the first place is what’s most curious of all. Academy Award-winning documentarian Brigitte Berman agrees. She focused her lens on Hugh Marston Hefner’s evolution from Puritan family man to groundbreaking magazine publisher to social crusader. The result is her Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, an all-access look into Hef’s inner-life (in theaters this Friday). We had the opportunity to share in Hefner’s remarkable candidness, and to ask him about the documentary, today’s generation of men, and if he, of all people, truly understands women.
Considering you could probably have had any documentary filmmaker in the world tell this story, why did you choose Brigitte Berman? Well, it really was Brigette Berman’s decision rather than mine. The reason I said yes is because I trust Brigitte Berman, she’s a very talented filmmaker and her approach to the story of my life is unique. She told me exactly what she had in mind. As you know, I then open up about my biography and showed my scrapbooks and gave her full access.
Can you tell us about your sexual education? I was raised—and I think it probably was a cause and effect correlation here—in a very Puritan home and there were very few hugs and kisses in my home. No education or conversation about sex. I grew up believing in fairly traditional views and values about sex. I didn’t have sexual intercourse for the first time until I was out of college and I had spent two years in the army and it was with the girl I was planning on marrying. And she was my first wife. I believe that was typical of my peers. My friends and classmates and chums were all pretty much the same. It was the typical Midwestern, middle-class life. Very different then life today.
The majority of the documentary focuses on social barriers Playboy helped break down. Has Playboy run out of issues to stand up for? I think it keeps on going. Freedom requires eternal vigilance in every form. It’s almost impossible for young people to remember what life was like back in the middle of the twentieth century when Playboy began. The post-war era was a very conservative time: politically, socially and sexually. Nice young people did not live together before they got married and the only supposed moral purpose of sex was to have children. There were very strict laws related to sexual behavior and the worst penalties were the ones that involved any type of sexual activity that were related to not having a child. Oral sex, anal sex, both heterosexual and homosexual, married or single, those were the most heinous laws in some states. In Georgia, some laws could get you up to 50 years.
So for a man who has had so many incredible experiences throughout his life, what drives you these days? Quite frankly for me, on a personal level, one of the most satisfying things are the first Playboy issues any particular individuals saw. Their first images, their first playmates. They are iconic in nature. They are like first loves. They are part of the whole initial transition into maturity. It is very difficult to duplicate those images today as sexual images are now everywhere and one of the things which we have lost in the process is the romanticism. I grew up in a much more romantic time. You gain something but you also lose something. We have lost the romantic connection.
What do you think about today’s generation of men? Have we changed? Historically there would be romantic pursuit prior to marriage. But once a person got married the whole focus changes, for many people. You would get married, have a baby, and that would become the focus of the entire household. The baby would become children, and the wife’s attention would become transferred to the children and, meanwhile, the husband would take a mistress and the romantic connection would subsequently be transferred to the mistress. And I saw something very sad in all of that. I felt very much that one should try to postpone marriage until you were really ready to settle down, that they should try to keep the romantic part of their life alive inside the marriage, as well as before.
Do you think the magazine business is in danger of dying? I think it’s going to change, I don’t think it’s going to die. The methods of entertainment are changing. The internet is expanding horizons in terms of communication and information. At the same time, we lose something in the process of reading on the internet. It just doesn’t feel as good as reading something in a magazine. The nature of progress is that you gain something, but you lose something in the process.
Do you have any regrets? Well, of course. Both on a personal level and business level. I have made mistakes and people have been hurt around me at times. It’s a very dangerous game. Ray Bradbury wrote a story called The Sound of Thunder which was published in Playboy. It is about the Butterfly Effect, where a time-traveling hunter goes hunting prehistoric animals and steps off the time sled, crushes a butterfly and subsequently changes everything in the future. So when he goes back to the present, his whole world is different. My life has been so blessed and I have been so fortunate, I hesitate to say I want to change anything, because if I did I don’t know what the impact might be. I know I’m a lucky—a very, very, very lucky fellow.
In all your years working with and dating some of the most unique and beautiful women in the world, do you think you understand them? Do I understand women? (laughs loudly)Ah yes, well we’ll both laugh on that one. Everyone is an individual. I spent my life—and majored in psychology at the University of Illinois—precisely because I wanted to understand not only women, but both men and women, and why we are so hypocritical and why we are in relationships and why we hurt one another as we do. I think I have done a pretty good job. I’m a one-eyed man in a blind world. Beyond a certain point, it is all a mystery.
Which individual do you believe Playboy has helped to change the most? That’s tough to say. Well, I do think that Playboy itself and certainly the appearance of the Playmates—that people’s lives are changed by the magazine. Many of the women who have appeared in the magazine have had their lives changed for the better. Honestly, I’m probably the most changed.
Is life still as good as it once was? I recently celebrated my 84th birthday. I am in good health, I come from a good gene pool—my mother lived to be 101. This is, I must confess, one of the very best times of my life. I have a very good personal relationship with a young lady named Crystal Harris. I am getting positive approval and acknowledgement in the Brigitte Berman documentary, a new coffee table book from Taschen which covers the first 3 decades of Playboy in a six volume set, and the fact that there is a screenplay in the works for a feature film on my life over at Universal. Everything is coming together in a very nice way.