In 1953, 27-year-old Hugh Hefner was living the stereotypical American dream. He had married his first love and they had a baby, while he was working as a cartoonist and copywriter. His family was so picture-perfect that it had featured in a two-page article in the Chicago Daily News. Hugh, his wife Millie, and their young daughter Christie looked like a happy family in the paper.
But the pictures lied. Hefner loathed his life as an ordinary employee and his married life was crumbling. His wife had admitted to cheating on him before their marriage. He had followed the two Kinsey Reports on sexual behavior and was slowly becoming addicted to the topic of sex. In November of that year, Hefner launched his own magazine with a loan of $8000. That magazine was Playboy.
Here’s how he described his ideal life in the first issue:
“We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”
Everything changed after that. That first edition with nudes of Marilyn Monroe sold out—all 51,000 copies. The magazine had a million subscribers in 1960 and 7 million by 1972. Playboy had taken its place among Life and Time as one of America’s mainstream publications. Hefner never returned to that pleasant family in the newspaper photos. As Playboy’s public avatar and a masculine idol, he lived a glorious life surrounded by blond beauties in his mansion.
So what was the secret to Playboy’s rapid success? In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese wrote, “Prior to Playboy, few men in America had ever seen a color photograph of a nude woman, and they were overwhelmed and embarrassed.”
In fact, it wasn’t nude photos alone that had brought Hefner to this pinnacle. He recognized and affirmed people’s desires and brought them out from behind closed doors. It was still a time of puritanical values and people believed they had to repress and conceal their desires. Birth control couldn’t be prescribed to unmarried women and couples in movies were always depicted as sleeping in separate beds. The message Hefner launched within this social climate was revolutionary: “If you want to enjoy, enjoy. Desire is natural. Don’t be afraid to show what you want.” He filled his magazine with articles on clothes, travel, food, and wine and actively encouraged the desire to consume.
Men responded enthusiastically to Playboy. Consider an episode from the Vietnam War. Soldiers aged 19 on average covered their tent flaps and office walls with Playboy centerfolds and guarded them in their pockets, helmets, bags, and even inside their clothes. These soldiers also obsessed over articles about stereos, cars, and fashion. Whenever they had the money, they raced to the PX to buy whatever they’d seen in the magazine.
In August of 1967, Playboy got a letter from a soldier named Donald Iasillo. He said a Playboy magazine in his breast pocket had stopped a bullet and thanked the publisher, adding, “Usually for reasons other than its value as armor plate, Playboy is by far the biggest morale booster in Vietnam. For all this, we all thank you.”