The way the tributes have been pouring in from assorted celebrities, you’d think he was some kind of saint. But then, the death of Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine and America’s Swinger-in-Chief, was always going to symbolise the end of an era.
As the man who, in the very first issue of his magazine in 1953, gave the world a sensationally starkers Marilyn Monroe, he fed the fantasies of every young man growing up in the pre-internet age.
And although, by the end of his life, Playboy had long ceased to be the market leader in ‘entertainment for men’, he remained (with a certain amount of pharmaceutical assistance) a voracious lover of women.
He was an icon of post-war American liberalism, the man who turned titillation into a multi-million-dollar empire, who harnessed the spirit of free love and social revolution — and slapped a pair of bunny ears on it.
He was an icon of post-war American liberalism, the man who turned titillation into a multi-million-dollar empire, writes Sarah Vine
Hefner always rejected the notion that the adult lifestyle he sold, this world of wild parties, glamorous women and seemingly insatiable desires, was in any way sleazy or exploitative.
‘Liberating’ and ’empowering’ were the terms he preferred to use in reference to his famous coterie of cover stars and girlfriends.
Sexual freedom was the name of the game, and any suggestion of his narrow interpretation of those freedoms — scantily clad females pouting and preening for men’s pleasure — was dismissed as humourless feminist dogma.
Of course, there is no denying that he facilitated the careers of many young women who might otherwise not have become quite so rich and famous.
‘One of the nicest men I’ve ever known,’ wrote Nancy Sinatra on her Twitter feed (she stripped off for the magazine aged 54!).
‘I am me because of you,’ said a tearful Pamela Anderson. ‘You taught me everything important about freedom and respect.’
‘RIP Hugh Hefner,’ wrote Katie Price on her Instagram, alongside a picture of the pair of them up close, her over-inflated assets exciting the hairs inside his signature open-necked shirt.
Kim Kardashian joined in, too: ‘RIP to the legendary Hugh Hefner!’ she wrote, adding: ‘I’m so honoured to have been a part of the Playboy team! You will be greatly missed! Love you Hef!’
It is only natural for these women — and the many more identikit bimbettes he nurtured, bedded and variously encouraged — to feel indebted to him. Because of the world Hefner helped create, they have a global audience, undeserved wealth — and a reach that far exceeds the extent of their talents.
Hugh and Crystal Hefner attend Playboy Mansion’s Annual Halloween Bash at The Playboy Mansion in LA in 2014
Even that would not be so bad were Hefner’s influence limited to the sphere of sleaze.
The problem is that it extends well beyond, past the tacky gold taps of the Playboy Mansion and the stained dressing gowns, and into the wider world.
For the rest of womankind, for those of us unwilling to inject our bodies with silicone, or ill-equipped for posing in a thong, or simply reluctant to lead a life as a perpetual courtesan, Hefner’s legacy is one of the most toxic in human history.
No man ever did more than Hugh Hefner to popularise the sexual exploitation of women.
He paved the way for the ‘pornification’ of day-to-day society and for the widespread notion — in itself depressing enough, but in recent years rendered even more dangerous by the rise of extreme Islam — that all Western women and young girls are promiscuous moral degenerates, neither deserving nor desirous of respect.
It’s a path that leads all the way to online porn via explicitly sexual pop stars such as Miley Cyrus and Madonna, with their penchant for ‘twerking’ and every other act of graceless vulgarity that diminishes society today.
Thanks to Hefner and his army of acolytes, the aesthetics and morals of the Playboy Mansion have come to permeate every aspect of our culture, from pop videos to fashion, from TV screens to art galleries.
Quite simply, he did for sex and human relationships what Andy Warhol did to art: reduced it to the lowest common denominator, and dragged everyone else down with him.
Hefner was a very clever man. He was the first person to spot the commercial advantages of the post-war sexual revolution, to capitalise on those new-found moral freedoms and to turn women’s liberation and their justifiable desire for equality against them, exploiting their sexual emancipation for his own gains.
He knew that if he dressed up age-old vice in the latest fashions — feminism, intellectual rebellion, liberalism, a sneering disdain for conservative morality — people would lap it up. And they did.
Playboy, with its high production values and witty, debonair advertising, accompanied by Hefner’s seemingly magical ability to get classy women to take off their clothes, quickly established an identity as the thinking man’s smut.
Holly Madison, Hugh Hefner, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkins attending the 47th Monte Carlo TV Festival in 2007
Gradually, deliberately, and spectacularly, Hefner intellectualised and legitimised pornography.
He succeeded in seducing his readership into thinking that what they were doing was not so much looking at dirty pictures, rather joining an exclusive and rather witty club.
‘I only buy Playboy for the articles,’ became the in-joke in liberal circles. And perhaps some people really did — after all, the writing was good. But most bought it for the women.
And what women. He practically had them queuing up to appear in his magazine. Posing for his photographers was the perfect way to signal how modern and liberated you were.
Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Sharon Stone, Raquel Welch, Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, Drew Barrymore, even Dame Joan Collins (at the time 50): all have graced the cover and centrefold of Playboy. There weren’t marginal starlets, these were serious mainstream women, household names. They were well paid, of course. But Hefner exacted his price, too, growing rich by selling his magazine in its millions every month.
And as Hefner’s empire expanded, as more and more celebrities attended his parties and endorsed his libertarian lifestyle, the notion that all women — not just the pneumatic blondes favoured by Hefner — not only enjoyed pornography, but liked to take part in it, took hold.
Hugh, in the very first issue of his magazine in 1953, gave the world a sensationally starkers Marilyn Monroe
Crucially, where once it had been acceptable for a young woman to resist casual sex, saying no now marked you out as an impossible prude and bore.
If you weren’t ‘up for it’, there was a distinct sense that there was something wrong with you. Frigid, perhaps. Certainly not modern or glamorous like those glossy centrefolds.
So much for liberation: this was more of a tyranny.
The result is that people today are as much enslaved by our culture’s emphasis on sex as their great-grandparents were by the strict moral parameters of their day.
I am sure that, as a friend, Hefner was indeed ‘kind and thoughtful’, as his famous chums suggested yesterday. And maybe he did undertake many admirable philanthropical enterprises, for which he deserves due credit.
But, ultimately, there is no escaping the fact that the world he helped create is not a happy one or a kind one, or even a better one.
It’s not just the endless stories of unhappy Playboy Bunnies, of the drugs and mental health issues, of the controlling behaviour and the squalor that, over the years, have emerged from behind the glamorous facade of the Playboy Mansion.
It’s the fact that we live in a world where young women are willing to film themselves performing sex acts on their boyfriends, in the style of Kim Kardashian, in the hope of achieving fame and fortune.
A world where being old or ugly or fat or just a bit shy is a distinct disadvantage, where the way you look in a sequin-encrusted thong is more important to many than family, friendship or, dare I say it, faith.
It’s a world where women have plastic surgery on their vaginas live on breakfast television, for goodness’ sake. That is not a liberation; it’s a kind of madness.