Hugh Hefner, who created Playboy magazine and spun it into a media and entertainment-industry giant — all the while, as its very public avatar, squiring attractive young women (and sometimes marrying them) well into his 80s — died Wednesday at his home, the Playboy Mansion near Beverly Hills, California. He was 91.
His death was announced by Playboy Enterprises.
Hefner was reviled, first by guardians of the 1950s social order and later by feminists. But Playboy’s circulation reached 1 million by 1960 and peaked at about 7 million in the 1970s.
His company branched into movie, cable and digital production, sold its own line of clothing and jewelry, and opened clubs, resorts and casinos.
The brand faded over the years, and by 2015 the magazine’s circulation had dropped to about 800,000.
Hefner remained editor-in-chief even after agreeing to the magazine’s startling decision in 2015 to stop publishing nude photographs. Hefner handed over creative control of Playboy last year to his son Cooper Hefner. (The magazine brought back nudes this year.)
The magazine was a forum for serious interviews, the subjects including Jimmy Carter (who famously confessed, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times”), Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and Malcolm X.
Hugh Marston Hefner was born April 9, 1926, the son of Glenn and Grace Hefner, Nebraska-born Methodists who had moved to Chicago. Decades later, he told interviewers that he grew up “with a lot of repression,” and he often noted that his father was a descendant of William Bradford, the Puritan governor of the Plymouth Colony.
He married a high school classmate, Millie Williams, and took a job in the personnel department of a cardboard-box manufacturer. He wrote advertising copy for a department store and then for Esquire magazine. He became circulation promotion manager of another magazine, Children’s Activities.
Meanwhile he was plotting his own magazine. When Playboy reached newsstands in December 1953, its press run of 51,000 sold out.
His own public playboy persona emerged after he left his wife and children, Christie and David, in 1959. That year his new syndicated television series, “Playboy’s Penthouse,” put Hefner, pipe in hand, in the nation’s living rooms. (A later show, “Playboy After Dark,” was syndicated in 1969 and 1970.)
The magazine was followed by the Playboy Club, which was crushingly popular when it opened in Chicago in 1960. Dozens more followed. The waitresses, called bunnies, were trussed in brief satin suits with cotton fluffs fastened to their derrières.
One bunny briefly employed in the New York club was an impostor, Gloria Steinem, who was working undercover for Show magazine. Her article, published in 1963, described exhausting hours, painfully tight uniforms and vulgar customers.
Hefner left Chicago for his second home in Los Angeles, an enormous mock-Tudor house in Holmby Hills, where he could orchestrate the company’s move into films.
The 1980s brought a huge retrenchment. The company lost its London casinos in 1981 for gaming violations and was denied a gambling license in Atlantic City.
The company shed its resorts and record division and sold Oui magazine, a more explicit version of Playboy. Bunnies were going the way of go-go dancers, and the Playboy Clubs closed.
Hefner relied more and more on his daughter, Christie, named company president in 1982 and then chief executive, a position she held until 2009. Hefner suffered a stroke in 1985 but recovered and remained editor-in-chief.
In 1989 he married again, to Kimberley Conrad, the 1989 Playmate of the Year. They had two sons: Marston Glenn, born in 1990, and Cooper Bradford, born in 1991. They divorced in 2010.
He married his third wife, Crystal Harris, on New Year’s Eve 2012.
In addition to his wife, Hefner’s survivors include his daughter, Christie; and his sons, David, Marston and Cooper.
The New York Times