A selection of stellar short fiction and essays by notable authors Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami and Ray Bradbury — as well as interviews with Martin Luther King, John Lennon and Miles Davis — show that “Playboy” has more than earned its literary legacy.
Last month’s Playboy issue was the first in history stripped of nudie pics, finally offering readers certifiable ground for claims that they really do “read it for the articles.”
Playboy is known, first and foremost, for inventing the centerfold. That said, Hugh Hefner’s legendary magazine has published some exemplary prose over its 60-year history. As Hefner once admitted to a group of former Playmates gathered for a Playboy reunion, “Without you, I’d be the publisher of a literary magazine.”
In a New York Times article from last year, the magazine attributed its reboot to the barrage of online nudity now just a click away. To put this in perspective, from the magazine’s heyday in 1975 to now, circulation has dropped from 5.6 million to around 800,000.
As of last month, Playboy can no longer rely on nudes—nor for that matter particularly riveting prose. Whether readers’ loss of interest is tied to online porn or the dwindling depth of articles penned for Playboy’s pages is uncertain. Most likely it’s a bit of both.
Sixty years ago, Hefner hired Playboy’s first literary editor, Auguste Comte Spectorsky, a New York sophisticate born in Paris in 1910 to American parents. Author James Gilbert, in his 2005 book Men in the Middle: Searching for Masculinity in the 1950s, said that Hefner “would furnish the lifestyle, the ‘philosophy,’ and the girls,” while it was Spectorsky’s job to “find the writers.” Find them he did, sowing the seeds of Playboy’s literary legacy.
“Spectorsky surveyed the world of letters in the late 1950s and despaired at his discovery—or better—at what he could not find, which was a thriving, masculine high culture,” Gilbert writes. “Spectorsky brought sophisticated cultural tastes and contacts with highbrow periodicals like the New Yorker to Hugh Hefner’s soft-core pornography. To Hefner, this veneer of high culture was an essential marker of the sophisticated lifestyle that the Bunny enterprises promoted.”
Writing in the journal The Mailer Review, Taylor Joy Mitchell, author of Cold War Playboys: Models of Masculinity in the Literature of Playboy, explains the pairing of visions that would go on to sculpt Playboy’s unique and successful blend:
Once on the editorial board, Spectorsky began recruiting personal friends to contribute the magazine. He solicited fiction and non-fiction pieces from Ken Purdy, Philip Wylie, Vance Packard and John Steinbeck. Even if Hefner and Spectorsky did not always agree on lifestyle choices, they were both committed to producing a virile, high-culture publication. Hefner’s vision was to embellish and surround sex with the trappings of high culture.
Of course, the magazine drew many detractors, from both the traditionalist set that made up much of the prudish ’50s, and later, feminists like Gloria Steinem, who became the very antithesis of the lifestyle and outlook promoted by Hef and his Bunnies.
But Playboy became a global phenomenon, selling millions of copies around the world, transforming, for better or worse, the way society viewed women and sex. As Mitchell argues, “Combining nude pictorials with good writing and sophisticated advertising allowed Playboy the opportunity to re-masculinize both reading and consumerism, two activities that were supposedly feminized during the postwar era.”
In a recent article on Sytlist, British journalist and feminist Rosie Boycott attempted to answer the question, “Was Playboy an intrinsic and vital part of the liberation of women, or was it, as many believe, the forerunner of all today’s abusive, misogynist pornography?” While she leans toward the latter point of view, she recognizes the role the magazine played in making society more open and realistic about sexuality:
The world into which Playboy launched was prudish and uptight. It was a world, in Britain as well as in the U.S., where women could not get a mortgage, buy a car or even rent a TV, unless their husband or father counter-signed. If a woman did have a job—almost always from dire economic necessity—she was paid a fraction of her male colleague’s wages.
Sexually, we were living in a world where abortions were illegal, the pill still a distant future, and our behavior rigorously policed by a society which expected its women to be chaste, a society which said that sex belonged in marriage, never outside it and not before it. The idea that women could actually enjoy going to bed with a man was, publicly at least, unheard of and shocking.
Perhaps the shock was tempered by Playboy’s literary aspirations, which proved to be quite successful, to which the following 11 examples can attest.
1. “The Fight,” Norman Mailer (1974)
There could not have been a better match of writer to subject than Norman Mailer covering the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” clash between heavyweight champion George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.
Norman Mailer in 1948 (Carl Van Vechten/Wikimedia Commons)
Known for his own fondness for raising dukes, Mailer was flown by Playboy to cover the match in the former state of Zaire. Though Mailer’s account was seen primarily through the lens of Ali, who was a global icon at the time (and who Mailer clearly idolized), his two-part piece is a unique and powerful portrayal of the title fight. So good in fact, that the New Yorker would later turn it into a book of the same name, which the New York Times called “a pugilistic drama fully as exciting as the reality on which it is based.”
2. “The Second Bakery Attack,” Haruki Murakami (1992)
Master of spinning magic out of the mundane, Japan’s Haruki Murakami published “The Second Bakery Attack” in Playboy a year prior to its inclusion in his collection, The Elephant Vanishes. The tale seamlessly weaves together such disparate elements as a sadistic baker who forces Wagner overtures on a young boy and an attack on a McDonalds in the middle of the night. To describe it further would be to miss the pleasure of journeying into the unknown which comes with reading Murakami. Accompany this with a Google seach of Miss March 1992 and you can really get an idea of just how radical Playboy once was.
3. “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” Gabriel García Márquez (1968)
This 1968 short story by South America’s literary sweetheart, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, was another instance of magical realism gracing the glossy pages. As its rather literal title suggests, it tells the story of a death, and in classic Márquez fashion the effect the death has on a small fishing village and its “mistrustful men…who felt the bitterness of endless nights at sea fearing that their women would tire of dreaming about them and begin to dream of drowned men.”
4. “The Bog Man,” Margaret Atwood (1991)
Although not exactly known for its record of promoting the feminist cause, Playboy scored a few points against the patriarchy when it published this story by Margaret Atwood. On the surface, “The Bog Man” is about a woman named Julie who uncovers a 2,000-year-old male corpse. Alongside this discovery, Julie learns of her partner’s extramarital affair which carries symbolic weight when viewed beside the decayed corpse. Add to that the fact this story was published in Playboy and you can just imagine the existentialism Atwood must have inspired.
5. “The Fly,” George Langelaan (1957)
Before Mailer’s words went on to enjoy a life beyond Playboy’s pages, there was Langelaan. While some may be familiar with the 1980s Jeff Goldblum-iam iteration of The Fly (or perhaps even the original 1950s version), the story first appeared in Playboy by the little known writer at the time, George Langelaan.
6. “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury (1954)
Ray Bradbury in 1959 (CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons)
Technically “Fahrenheit 451” was published a year before it appeared in Playboy. But as history will attest, it was only once Bradbury’s chilling yet titillating tale about the horrors of warfare was serialized in Playboy did it enjoy deserved mainstream success. Predating Spectorsky’s arrival at the magazine, it reveals that an initial seed of the literary was already there.
7. “The Visitor,” Roald Dahl (1965)
When Dahl wasn’t creating beloved children’s book characters, his mind occasionally wandered toward the gutter. In no instance was this characterized better than in his short story, “The Visitor,” which was later expanded into a novel (My Uncle Oswald). Written in the form of a diary entry, the story chronicles the adventures of Uncle Oswald, “the greatest fornicator of all time,” who finds himself embroiled in a series of midnight encounters with a wealthy Cairo businessman’s wife and/or daughter. Like all Dahl tales, the spike in the tail doesn’t disappoint.
8. Miles Davis interview (1962)
Besides fiction, Playboy should also be credited with publishing a number of extensive interviews with some of the last century’s greatest figures. One of the first and best examples was a conversation with jazz legend and all-round badass, Miles Davis.
Miles Davis (Tom Palumbo/Wikimedia Commons)
Among the many gems to be found in this interview is a zinger Davis gave regarding his rep for walking off-stage mid-set when a fellow musician would solo: “I ain’t no model, and I don’t sing or dance, and I damn sure ain’t no Uncle Tom just to be up there grinning.”
9. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. interview (1965)
Of all the profound insights shared during this interview with Playboy (the longest he would ever grant to a publication), MLK’s words on the idea of a militant moderate seem particularly prescient in light of this year’s presidential primary candidates:
I mean to say that a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist. If I am to merit the trust invested in me by some of my race, I must be both of these things. This is why nonviolence is a powerful as well as a just weapon. If you confront a man who has long been cruelly misusing you, and say, “Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong,” then you wield a powerful and a just weapon.
This man, your oppressor, is automatically morally defeated, and if he has any conscience, he is ashamed. Wherever this weapon is used in a manner that stirs a community’s, or a nation’s, anguished conscience, then the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause.
10. John Lennon and Yoko Ono interview (1981)
It seems like Lennon and Ono were forever making bold statements. Their interview with Playboy just a year before Lennon would be tragically assassinated was no exception. In particular was one response he gave regarding his reflections on the age-old question, did the Beatles produce the best rock ‘n roll around? In response, Lennon said, “I don’t.”
He went on to explain this as a matter of his own subjectivity as an artist. “When I was a Beatle, I thought we were the best fucking group in the god-damned world. And believing that is what made us what we were… But you play me those tracks today and I want to remake every damn one of them… But that’s the artistic trip, isn’t it? That’s why you keep going.”
11. “Sex Is Politics,” Gore Vidal (1979)
Vidal in 1948 (Wikimedia Commons)
Essayist and public intellectual Gore Vidal’s words graced Playboy’s pages on a number of occasions. In one famed piece, “Sex Is Politics,” Vidal made the case for how politicians use sexual issues as a controlling mechanism for society. Vidal illustrated his point with the example of the overarching heteronormative patriarchy that governs the U.S. political system, decades before such ideas would enter mainstream thought. And in Playboy no less.