Hugh Hefner
DPA

CELEBRITIES paid tribute yesterday to Hugh Hefner, the pipe-smoking and silk pyjama-wearing founder of the groundbreaking men’s magazine Playboy, who died at the age of 91.

The media mogul was a Los Angeles fixture, known for throwing lavish parties at his Playboy Mansion where he was surrounded by a bevy of buxom “bunnies” and Hollywood stars, well into old age.

The magazine helped launch the careers of many women since its first issue in December 1953, which featured Marilyn Monroe in the centrefold.

Paris Hilton, was on the cover five decades later, clad in a pink bunny costume sitting next to Hefner. “He was a legend, innovator, genius, one of a kind with a heart of gold,” Hilton wrote on Instagram.

Kim Kardashian West, who posed for Playboy in 2007, said she was “so honoured to have been part of the Playboy team” and called Hefner “legendary”.

Jenny McCarthy, an actress who got her start as a nude model for the magazine and was once named its 1994 Playmate of the Year, wrote on Twitter: “Thank you for being a revolutionary and changing so many people’s lives, especially mine. I hope I made you proud.”

Hefner died of natural causes at home while surrounded by loved ones, a company statement said.

He founded the adult magazine in a deeply conservative America in 1953 with just $600 (R8 121) of his own money and $8 000 more in loans.

Nude pictures were the magazine’s bread and butter, but Playboy also became known for thoughtful interviews with people like Arthur C Clarke and Martin Luther King jnr, and fiction from writers including Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami and Margaret Atwood.

Still, it was magazine’s frank and open attitude to sex that set it apart and turned it into a global cultural phenomenon.

Hefner became, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “the swingin’ godfather to three generations of American men” preaching against sexual hypocrisy at the same time as advocating a sexual extravagance that was way out of reach for most of his millions of readers.

In his signature pyjamas with a Bunny on his arm, he personified a glamourous, free-and-easy image centring on the magazine and his Playboy Mansion; he claimed to have slept with more than 1 000 women in his lifetime.

Nancy Sinatra, whose music legend father Frank Sinatra was interviewed by the magazine, posed in 1995. “One of the nicest men I’ve ever known. Godspeed, Hugh Hefner,” she posted on Twitter.

Despite his hedonistic lifestyle, Hefner was also a champion of serious issues such as integration, mixed-race love and free speech.

Jesse Jackson, a US civil rights activist and Baptist minister, praised Hefner’s advocacy. “Hugh Hefner was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement. We shall never forget him. May he rest In peace,” he wrote on Twitter.

The magazine and the Playboy empire achieved huge success in their heyday, with 22 Playboy clubs in the US in the 1960s and several in foreign countries.

By the 1970s, the magazine with its combination of centrefolds, tips for how to deal with the opposite sex, as well as insightful interviews and articles on current events, had a circulation of around 7 million.

Established authors like Saul Bellow, Woody Allen, PG Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, Roald Dahl, Norman Mailer, John Updike and James Mitchener all wrote for the magazine.

Hefner explained the magazine’s success as follows on the 50th anniversary of its founding:

“Playboy has never been the most explicit because we never really thought about it as a sex magazine.

“It’s a lifestyle magazine. But we were there at the beginning, making the case for personal sexual freedom. And I think that we now live in a Playboy world.”

Eventually, the magazine was eclipsed by changing mores and technological advances, which Hefner himself had helped kick off. The last of the Playboy clubs was shuttered in 1986.

The internet ushered in a new openness surrounding erotica.

By 2015, when easily available online pornography had drawn away readers, circulation dropped to just 800 000 and the magazine announced it would no longer feature naked women - a decision it later reversed.

Hefner is survived by his wife Crystal and four grown children - Christie, David, Marston and Cooper, who currently serves as chief creative officer at the company.