When I was in middle school, my brother got busted with possession of pornography in our home. I found out it was something called Playboy, and I asked my mom “What’s so bad about it?” to which she replied: “It’s a dirty magazine, Haley. Not appropriate for young ladies and boys your brother’s age,” (he was in high school by then). Years later, when I was in high school and discovered my own college boyfriend had a stash, I had to discover what all the huff and smut was about: and I found it purely fascinating. I’m now 21 years old, and I read Playboy for the articles.
Debuting in 1953, with the then-unknown Marilyn Monroe as the first centerfold, Playboy set out to be not just any nudie magazine: they wanted to be “a sophisticated handbook for the urban male.” Along with beautiful naked women, the reader would find tips on food, culture, and fashion all presented with wit and visual humor that prevails in Playboy issues to this day.
What surprised me more than anything as a young, budding, literature enthusiast, was the list of reputable, classic, well-known authors that have been featured in Playboy over the past fifty years. Many of the works in Playboy were sneak-peeks and author printed before the novel was finished. Another impact on the literary world Playboy spawned was the Playboy Interview, which was made (in)famous for candid and casual dialogue with celebrities.
Ray Bradbury was one of the earliest well-known authors to appear in Playboy with an excerpt from his novel Fahrenheit 451 and children’s poet Shel Silverstein was a consistent contributor as he sent in doodles from his trips around the world. In 1960, Jack Kerouac’s “The Origin of the Beat Generation” appeared, and Playboy readers were introduced to a suave British spy called James Bond in a short called “The Hilerbrand Rarity.” Author Ian Flemming contributed Bond stories to Playboy on many occasions; Bond’s life of sex and adventure paralleled the bachelor dream that Playboy forever cheered.
Starting in 1962, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner began making his own literary contributions with “The Playboy Philosophy”, an editorial series that ran for twenty-five installments. (Playboy claims it helped spark the sexual revolution.) Later, showcasing the author instead of the prose, Leicaster Hemingway submitted a personal memoir, “My brother, Ernest Hemingway: an intimate personal biography of the writer as man and artist.” In September of 1976, a preview of Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick was featured. Years later, an illustration defending literary free speech by his daughter Edith was featured (it depicted Eve plucking a red book from a tree). Also in 1976, John Updike’s “The Rabbit is Rich” was published and later won the Pulitzer Prize.
Between the years of 1963 and 1973, the Playboy Interview became a hit by interviewing important political and entertainment figures such as Malcom X, Fidel Castro, and Frank Sinatra. Later interviewees included John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Jimmy Hoffa, Muhammad Ali. Most recently, filmmaker Michael Moore was interviewed in the wake of Fahrenheit 9/11 controversies. The Playboy Interview made history in 1976 when President Jimmy Carter claimed that he lusted in his heart when asked if he ever had an affair. Martin Luther King, Jr. was another famous Playboy interviewee, and his last published written work was to be found in Playboy.
Playboy maintained a hold on political pop culture in 1974 when Woodward and Bernstein’s poke at Watergate, “All the President’s Men” was featured. And before they were movies they appeared in prose-form within the Playboy pages: Ron Kovic’s “Born on the Fourth of July”, Cameron Crow’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and Larry L. King’s “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”
As Playboy aged gracefully into the ‘80s and ‘90s it kept a keen eye on the political scene by evaluating the first Bush administration, political sexual repression, and a squirrelly dictator named Saddam Hussein months before the first Gulf War. Ray Bradbury returned to Playboy with the short story, “The Witch Door” and Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet showcased his short story, “One or Two Steps Behind.”
Sad to say, but when I went to Indiana State University to get my theater minor I knew very little about David Mamet. Now I can say, “If I only read more Playboy.”
Over the years, Playboy has infused lowbrow fun with high culture in a mass-market tool: the magazine. As a culture we have had trouble over the years understanding that there is no defining line between high culture and morality, and yet people still don’t like to think of our great writers making a name or getting a start in Playboy. No one likes to think that the man who wrote “The Giving Tree” (Silverstein) doodled for Playboy. The magazine has made an art of the interview, made the “bunny” a symbol of sex, refined the lifestyle of the bachelor to a science, and has exposed thousands of flesh hungry-men (and women) to great literature.
Nowadays my brother works in computers and reads Japanese magna. I often wonder: if my mother let him read that Playboy cover to cover would he have somehow gotten into American literature? Then he and I would have more to talk about! (I have visions of my mother ripping out the fiction section saying, “OK, you can at least read this part.”)
That’s not to say that every piece of literature that comes from Playboy is an instant classic. There are still short stories that are published that can be downright crass in parts. In the most recent issue I own, May 2004, J. Robert Lennon’s short fiction “See You In Paradise” tracks a man’s fast-paced transition from normalcy, to lust, to a new job in paradise, and then to losing it all in one drunken unexplainable night. While entertaining, the piece seems to lack a purpose and the protagonist undergoes very little significant change. You have to expect pieces like this when reading Playboy; one magazine can’t be a guarantee to document literary genius all the time. Is James Bond a work of genius? Hardly. But the fusion of James Bond with Playboy is. When it comes down to it, the lowbrow fun like Bond’s adventures, and Robert Lennon’s short, make Playboy work.
Just because Playboy has evolved over the past fifty years and taken more risks in their writing doesn’t mean we as readers should discredit everything that comes from the pages as “smut”; after all, they obviously got a lot of things right in order to still be hopping along today.
Author’s comment: References used for this article were the 50th anniversary edition of Playboy, the May 2003 issue, and playboy.com.