Brigitte Berman’s documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, exposes the dirty truth about the pipe-smoking, silk-jammie-wearing, party-mansion-dwelling, big-boobie-girl-dating inventor of the Playboy empire: He is actually a nice guy. A gentleman—a civilized, educated, funny, and downright noble example of a human. When I picked up the phone to ask Hef a few questions about the other side of his public persona—his social activism and forward-thinking ideals that have helped shape sexual politics throughout the 20th century—I felt like I was about to talk to a wildly famous icon. When I put the phone down, after the interview, I felt like I’d spoken with true American royalty.
KELLY O: Hi, Hugh! How are you today?
HUGH HEFNER: Very well, thank you.
So I really loved this film—you just don’t stop! Will you ever retire?
I think, quite frankly, doing what you love keeps you alive. Retiring is the first step towards ending your life.
You still do quite a bit with the magazine then?
Oh yes. We have editors in three cities—Chicago is our main editorial office, and we have editorial offices here in LA, and in New York. I have daily contact with my editors, and a brown book dummy that we put together simultaneously in all three places. I am in constant contact with them—I approve the covers, the pictorials, the Playmates, the cartoons—the general layout of the whole book. I don't read every line, but I still oversee every issue.
What’s changed about the way you pick Playmates, from way back in the day to now in 2010?
Well, I think the major difference in the Playmates is simply that women have become healthier—better toned. Taller. Beyond that, I think the taste remains essentially the same. The original concept behind the Playmate is what set us apart from other glamour girls and models that appeared in women’s magazines back in the 1950s… A Playmate is a natural “girl-next-door”—that remains true today.
Taller! Wow. Listen, I have to say—it’s intimidating interviewing someone who’s published some of the best interviews to ever hit a printed page. The film discusses some of the magazine’s most controversial interviews: the Jimmy Carter scandal, Alex Haley vs. the white supremacist. What are your personal favorite top-five Playboy interviews?
That’s a tough one. We certainly have done a number of iconic interviews. I suppose Martin Luther King would pretty much be at the top of my list… Jimmy Carter, because he was running for president, and then became president—that interview caused a sensation. Malcolm X, probably because of its controversy, Miles Davis because it was the very first. The maybe Princess Grace… but you know, it’s a long list. From Fidel Castro to Frank Sinatra.
Is it true that Playboy published the last article that Martin Luther King ever wrote? “A Testament of Hope” in January 1965?
That is absolutely true. It was edited posthumously by his widow.
Did you know him? What is your favorite memory of that man?
I didn't know him that well—I think the occasion in which he visited the Playboy Mansion, which was not too long before he was assassinated. This was in Chicago. He was very concerned about segregation, particularly in the schools, in Chicago.
What if, say, you could throw a huge party at your mansion, and invite anyone living or dead, for one night… Who would be the top five people that you’d love to put in the same room?
I think the first would be Jesus Christ.
Really? Number one?
I’d like to find out what he, the man, was really all about instead of everybody else’s perceptions of him. Then, obviously, Marilyn Monroe.
Good combo! Three more…
Oh, um… [hums]… Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, and… The Beatles…
That would be a mix. In the film, you talk about writing that first “Playboy Philosophy” so that people would better understand what you really believed in, instead of everybody’s else’s perceptions of you. What’s different in your current philosophy, if you were to write one now?
I think my views and values have remained relatively unchanged. I think that I would probably be a little more concise—I wouldn’t take such a long time, and I wouldn’t be quite so verbose. I do think those thoughts came from the heart, and remain essentially the same.
What about feminism—back in the day, in the early days of the feminist movement, what was the most ludicrous, craziest thing you were accused you of?
Well, I think at the heart of it all, it was the notion that I somehow exploited women—that I turned them into “sex objects.” The reality, of course, is that this is a part of what women are. I mean, if women weren’t sexual beings, and weren’t sex objects, then we wouldn’t have a second generation. It is the attraction between the sexes that makes the world go round. My great problem, quite frankly, when the anti-Playboy feminists attacked me, was that I didn’t know what they were talking about, and I didn’t have the language to respond in that time frame. The Playmates, and my decision to feature beautiful women in the magazine came directly out of my conviction that too many other publications, and society at large, were giving sex a bad name. Playboy was intended to be a men’s magazine, but the focus of it was the romantic connection between the sexes, from a male point of view. I believed this then, and I believe today that this connection a very positive thing.
Also in the film, you talk about controversy that surrounded “The Crooked Man”—a science fiction story you published back in 1955—where straight men were the minority, and homosexuality was the norm. What are your thoughts on gay marriage today?
I believe in gay marriage. I believe in anything that brings people together. I mean, there are too many things on this planet that separate us. I think we need to knock down the walls and find a way to interconnect with other people—and we need to recognize that people are different, have different interests and different tastes. In a free society, we should all be more supportive of that.
Any thoughts on the scandal with Miss USA 2010, Miss Michigan—all the photos circulating of her doing a stripper pole dance?
There have been two or three different scandals related to Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss America. I’m not sure about this one—was it because there were some sexy pictures of her?
Pictures of her at a pole dancing competition called “Stripper 101” in 2007…
I think there is something very foolish and ironic about the notion that you hold a beauty contest, with girls in bathing suits on a stage, and then get upset because somewhere along the way in their history they also posed for some sexy pictures. What do they think the Miss America contest is all about?
If you could change one law, one piece of legislation in 2010, what would you change?
Oh my goodness gracious, that is a good question… a very good question. I really wish I had a good answer for it. You know, most of the most hurtful laws, over the last half century, I have played some part in trying to change—so we wouldn’t have to live under the kind of repressive censorship, and with the sex repression laws that existed when I was young. Hmm, what kind of hurtful laws are there, Mary? I am talking to my beloved secretary, Mary O’Connor. She’s sitting here next to me…
MARY O’CONNOR: I think that you think something should be legalized in order to stop crime?
HH: Ah yes, I would decriminalize the use of drugs. In other words, the notion of throwing people in prison because they smoked a little pot is bizarre. I am not in favor of drug use, but I think it’s just a social problem, not a criminal problem. It’s like prohibition, by outlawing these things, we actually cause much more harm than good.
What is the “Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award”? Tell me a bit about that?
It’s an annual event to give recognition to people that make a significant effort to support and protect the First Amendment. When I was writing the Playboy Philosophy, I also established the Playboy Foundation—this was, in effect, to put my money where my mouth was—to supply money to try to change laws. The hurtful laws.
Back to the film, how did you meet Brigitte Berman?
Our love of jazz brought us together. She won an Oscar for a documentary she did on Artie Shaw. Then I learned that she’d done a documentary that had never been released, on Bix Beiderbecke—a jazz cornet player from the 1920s. I supplied funds to get that released as a DVD. We became friends then, oh three years ago, she told me that she would like to do a documentary on the other half of my life, the part that most people don’t know about. She is a very good documentary filmmaker. I trusted her.
I think it’s great for younger people to realize you’re not just the man in the silk robe…
As Ray Bradbury commented, a long time ago, related to the magazine, “sometimes you can’t see the forest because of the tease.” The same thing is true of my life—a lot of people are not aware of the rest of my life because of all the pretty ladies.
Well, it IS a little distracting, ALL those pretty ladies…
I wouldn’t trade the ladies for ANYTHING.