Hugh Hefner, Making Sense of His Life

Hugh Hefner died a year ago on September 27, 2017. For several years now, I imagined I would comment on Hefner’s life once he died. But then my Dad died that October of 2017, and it didn’t seem fitting to address both in the same breath. For a reflection on my Dad’s life and death, see here. I loved my Dad and thought he lived a good life. Hefner’s life, by contrast, struck me as troubled and troubling.

I’m not going to moralize here about Hefner. He’s been widely labeled and insulted, especially by Christians who loathed his lifestyle. Here, however, I’m interested in the man, what drove him, and what made him a prophetic voice of our age, even if a false prophet.

I’m no Hefner scholar (yes, such exist, for instance Steven Watts), though I’ve read a few things about him. Indeed, he was a man who loved to be in the news, so it was hard over the nearly six decades of my own life not to have heard about him periodically, especially when he did something newly outrageous.

Yet if it was just that I had read a few things about him, I wouldn’t be writing about him here. Hefner was born in 1926 in Chicago, my home town. He went to high school in Chicago. My Dad was from Chicago as was his friend G.N., both born in 1923. Hefner, G.N., and my Dad were in the service in World War II. All three went to and overlapped at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana after the war as students. G.N. even remembered Hefner as selling magazine subscriptions on campus.

The similarities among all three now narrow down to G.N. and Hefner. Both G.N. and Hefner got married right after the war. Both their wives had affairs soon after the marriage. And both G.N. and Hefner got thoroughly cynical about marriage and love after their wives’ betrayal.

G.N. told my Dad how he was getting back at his wife, keeping track with how many women he slept with, which at the time was in the high twenties (this was related to my Dad in the 1950s, and G.N. still had many years of infidelity ahead of him).

Of course, Hefner lost track of the number of his partners. Turning to Alfred Kinsey and Kinsey’s bogus science to justify a life of sexual exploitation and betrayal, Hefner promoted licentiousness as the new normal and went to great pains to articulate in the pages of Playboy Magazine “The Playboy Philosophy,” which took a prudish and historically inaccurate conception of Puritanism, a caricature, and turned it on its head, thereby promoting the opposite.

Thus Hefner thought he was doing the world service by freeing humanity from sexual restraint. In consequence, he would rail against “born again basket cases,” as he called them, namely, women who had been sexual objects, whether in the pages of Playboy or at the Playboy clubs or at his mansion, and who, upon becoming Christians, saw in Hefner a prophet not of liberation but of confusion, pain, and bondage.

An irony in Hefner is that he worked extremely hard to articulate and market his playboy philosophy, and yet that philosophy bred a lassitude and hedonism at odds with his own energy to market his worldview or with real human accomplishment. I recall, for instance, working out at Sergio Oliva‘s gym in Chicago in the summer of 1984 and getting to know a football player from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (Hefner’s, as well as G.N.’s and my Dad’s, alma mater).

Earlier that year, the Fighting Illini had appeared in the Rose Bowl to face UCLA. According to my gym partner, Hefner fêted the team at his mansion. Yes, the team enjoyed the wild partying for which the Playboy mansion was famous. But the Fighting Illini also had their butts handed to them the following day when they lost to UCLA 45 to 9.

Hefner’s talent for inspiring people to be less than they could be seems to have been the pattern. Hefner himself worked extremely hard at cultivating an image of the ultimate hedonist and promoter of hedonism, and yet the hedonism imbibed from his playboy philosophy produced people diverted from their higher calling or useful accomplishment.

I recall, for instance, reading about one of Hefner’s blond concubines, who used the pen name Izabella St. James. (In his later life, Hefner’s concubines were invariably blond younger women who lived with him at his mansion and were given room, board, and a clothing allowance).

St. James, it turned out, had been a law student in southern California with aspirations to help, in the role of a legal advocate, dispossessed people around the world (she herself had been born in Communist Poland). She finished law school but never passed the bar, preferring shopping trips to Manhattan with Hefner over studying for the bar exam. According to her Wikipedia entry,

Since leaving the Playboy Mansion, St. James has been acting and writing… In 2015 she starred in the first season of the Polish reality TV series called Żony Hollywood (English Hollywood Wives) which is based on The Real Housewives franchise.

Some reading this Wikipedia entry might see her as a success (wow, she’s got a reality show!), and thus ascribe her success at least in part to her association with Hefner. But in St. James we see a life diverted from its true calling, just as in the Fighting Illini’s ignominious defeat to UCLA we see an embarrassment that need not have been but for the temptation of pleasure, courtesy of Hefner.

A verse of Scripture for me captures Hefner’s life: “Follow peace with all, and holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord, looking diligently lest anyone fall from the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.” [Hebrews 12:14-15]

Rather than take to heart the first part of this verse, Hefner, along with my Dad’s friend G.N., succumbed to the second part. Embittered by the betrayal of their wives, they both sought a life of ongoing betrayal against their wives and for Hefner ultimately against women in general.

And thereby many were defiled.


P.S. Whatever happened to my Dad’s friend G.N.? In the early 1970s, my Dad reconnected with him after a many-years absence. G.N. remained married to his wife, they had some children around my age, and our families would on occasion meet socially. I’m not sure to what degree his infidelities continued, but it seems that he and his wife came to an understanding. Sometime in the early 1980s he hit a hard time (almost went bankrupt), and started going to church and showing an openness to Christianity. I’m not sure if it took. I hope it did. G.N. and his wife have both died.

P.P.S. A friend, commenting on this piece, remarks: “So the principal outcome [of embracing Hefner’s playboy philosophy] was sloth. one of the less publicized Seven Deadly Sins. The story about the football players was certainly on target too. I hope you incorporate this approach into your educational work.” I intend to. Virtue has long lagged in American education.