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Giving Hef What He Deserves

Every single line of this Ross Douthat column about Hugh Hefner [1] lands like a rattlesnake’s strike — and every single line is deserved. Excerpts:

Hugh Hefner, gone to his reward at the age of 91, was a pornographer and chauvinist who got rich on masturbation, consumerism and the exploitation of women, aged into a leering grotesque in a captain’s hat, and died a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies.

Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution, with quaaludes for the ladies and Viagra for himself — a father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men much like himself.

The arc of his life vindicated his moral critics, conservative and feminist: What began with talk of jazz and Picasso and other signifiers of good taste ended in a sleazy decrepitude that would have been pitiable if it wasn’t still so exploitative.


Needless to say the obituaries for Hefner, even if they acknowledge the seaminess, have been full of encomia for his great deeds: Hef the vanquisher of puritanism, Hef the political progressive, Hef the great businessman and all the rest. There are even conservative appreciations, arguing that for all his faults Hef was an entrepreneur who appreciated the finer things in life and celebrated la difference.

What a lot of garbage. Sure, Hefner supported some good causes and published some good writers. But his good deeds and aesthetic aspirations were ultimately incidental to his legacy — a gloss over his flesh-peddling, smeared like Vaseline on a pornographer’s lens. The things that were distinctively Hefnerian, that made him influential and important, were all rotten, and to the extent they were part of stories that people tend to celebrate, they showed the rot in larger things as well.

Read the whole thing. [1] If you seek Hef’s monument, look around you at our degraded, pornified culture.

80 Comments (Open | Close)

80 Comments To "Giving Hef What He Deserves"

#1 Comment By bob On October 2, 2017 @ 8:23 am

Several decades overdue. It’s surprising to see so many NYT comments who felt this old degenerate was an old degenerate.

#2 Comment By Hound of Ulster On October 2, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

All people like Hefner did was rip off the pious facade of lies that covered up the truth of human sinfulness in even the most self-righteous hearts.

The per-capita consumers of porn in America live in Utah, not California.

#3 Comment By Dan Berger On October 2, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

Page one of the comments is not showing up.

#4 Comment By Lerty23 On October 2, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

The NYT comments regarding the man himself were interesting in the male/female breakdown. Most of the favorable comments came from men and most of the unfavorable comments came from women.

#5 Comment By EarlyBird On October 2, 2017 @ 2:19 pm

Excellent take-down of a man who ultimately was a selfish and manipulative boy-man, who tried to dress up his hedonism as a social “movement.”

#6 Comment By John Dixon On October 2, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

“If it weren’t Hefner, it would have been someone else” is like saying, “If it weren’t bin Laden, it would have been someone else”.

#7 Comment By EngineerScotty On October 2, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

How is Hefner different from Ray Kroc? There were dirty magazines before Playboy,i.e. Swank or Stag. There were cheap hamburger stands across the country before McDonalds. Hefner recognized a market and found a product to fill that market in the best tradition of corporate capitalism, as did Kroc. In Hefner’s case the result is porno everywhere and in Kroc’s case it is 10 year olds waddling to the counter to supersize it. Is this a great country or what?

Because, for “orthodox conservatives”, lust is a deadlier sin than gluttony.

(And when gluttony is opposed by an African-American first lady, it apparently becomes a virtue rather than a vice).

[NFR: These are remarkably silly comments, Scotty. Good grief. — RD]

#8 Comment By Floridan On October 2, 2017 @ 3:44 pm

I find it somewhat amusing that Hefner is considered one of the people most responsible for the evils of the 20th century’s second half, but hardly anyone considered it worth spending words on until he was dead.

Especially today (but actually too frequent to count), I consider Hefner’s influence much more benign than the NRA’s.

#9 Comment By Phil M. On October 2, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

I was always told not to speak evil of the dead, they are, after all, deaf to the charges that many might choose to heap upon them. Hef is gone, leave it be as nothing is gained by demonizing him now.

#10 Comment By Frederick W. Schmidt On October 2, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

Agreed. I posted this before Douthat’s article, but I agree:


#11 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 2, 2017 @ 10:24 pm

No argument. A prime symptom of the decayed culture of advanced capitalism.

#12 Comment By Craig On October 2, 2017 @ 10:44 pm

On the one hand, he was, for a time, a successful publisher. He either created a market trend, or recognized a developing trend very early on, and rode it hard, gaining for himself fame and money. Americans tend to celibrate sucess and often overlook any seediness that comes with it (Donald Trump being a prime example). The bright light of glamor and success tend to blind people to obvious flaws in the narrative.

On the other hand, I think he lived long enough that people had mostly stopped being blinded by the glare of success and fame. He had become a cliche for a time that is more fondly remembered than is warranted. At the end, he looked lecherous, and a bit ridiculous, like an aging glamor queen whose had too much plastic surgery, and doesn’t realise she is now something of a joke. Looking backward, the glamour of Playboy at it’s heyday looks dated, shallow, full of faux sophistication. Even liberals, if they are able to be honest, should be seeing some downsides to what was released upon society in the 60’s.

#13 Comment By Rob G On October 3, 2017 @ 8:11 am

Quite ironic that Hefner died the day before the return to the airwaves of Will and Grace.

“I pray God’s mercy on him, but I will not miss his ugly influence.”

Well said.

#14 Comment By Roland P On October 3, 2017 @ 9:29 am

“Because, for “orthodox conservatives”, lust is a deadlier sin than gluttony.

(And when gluttony is opposed by an African-American first lady, it apparently becomes a virtue rather than a vice).

[NFR: These are remarkably silly comments, Scotty. Good grief. — RD]”

Silly they may seem Rod but they still have a great deal of truth behind them.

[NFR: No, I’m sorry, they don’t. Any sin is separation from God, but sins of lust often harm the lives of innocent people, like spouses and children. — RD]

#15 Comment By Elijah On October 3, 2017 @ 11:06 am

“Why do all you puritans keep saying that hef exploited women?”

For the same reason we “Puritans” think pimps exploit women: because they use women for quick cash.

“He [Hefner] freed us all so blessings to him and his memory.”

Actually, I think you can make a very cogent argument that Hef & Co. enslaved a remarkably high percentage of men to pornography.

#16 Comment By March_Hare On October 3, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

Most of what I’ve seen in these comments, and in the original post, consists of arguments from ickyness. I actually share many of those ickyness sentiments. I grew out of my adolescent interest in Playboy models as I learned photography and came to appreciate just how heavily engineered most of the magazine’s photos (and the subjects’ bodies) were. In short, real women don’t look like that.

But ickyness and the attendant pearl-clutching do not constitute an argument. The women he hung out with were all free agents who could have left at any time. Even his most ardent critics don’t claim any use of force, threat of force, or anything else other than the sort of persuasion that we apply to all sorts of social choices. Yes, he wanted a lot of sex, on his terms and on his schedule. Was there any lack of clarity on this subject when he invited you to live with him?

It has always bothered me to hear feminists complain about how society was cutting women off from choices that they should have had, and then condemn Hef and the women around him for making choices they disagree with. Do these women have agency or not?

I run the risk of becoming Mr Whatabout, but it’s a risk I will take: I would rather live next door to a group of Hefners, or even be governed by them, than by a group of televangelists, or Penn State football coaches, or pedophile priests.

And if I’ve crossed the line into whataboutism, then I’ll step back, widen my focus, and point out that I’d rather live next door to Hefner’s customers than live next door to the enablers of the televangelists, coaches, and priests as well.

[NFR: Not all of us have a moral outlook that sees consent as the universal absolvent. — RD]

#17 Comment By JonF On October 3, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

Re: Looking backward, the glamour of Playboy at it’s heyday looks dated, shallow, full of faux sophistication. . Even liberals, if they are able to be honest, should be seeing some downsides to what was released upon society in the 60’s.

Looking back from 2017, a fair amount of the 60s (no, not everything) looks more histrionic than historic. Too many people took themselves far too seriously.

#18 Comment By EngineerScotty On October 3, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

[NFR: These are remarkably silly comments, Scotty. Good grief. — RD]

Au contraire; they’re quite correct.

Conservative Christianity, at least in its political advocacy outside of the pews, focuses extensively on sex and sexual sins as the target of its ire. US conservative Protestantism long ago made a deal with greed in exchange for access to political power; even those parts thereof that don’t accept the Prosperity Gospel and such. (In fairness, many liberal congregations both here and abroad do the opposite, focusing on the “social gospel” and such, and disregard or downplay church teaching on sex).

And were you not paying attention when Michelle Obama’s encouragements for children to eat healthier (and for schools and such to provide nutritious meals) was not only met with allegations of nanny-statism, but many rural white Americans openly embraced gluttony in response? (And likewise for soda bans in various coastal cities). If the Obamas had embraced and encouraged chastity, I suspect that you’d have Hannity, Limbaugh, and Coulter encouraging orgies in defiant response. Such is the depth of the cultural and moral rot on the political right.

Now, I’m not including you in the above criticism; there are many Christians who take the Bible seriously, not just the parts that inconvenience someone else. But the view of Christ as a cultural talisman for rural white Americana, is unfortunately persuasive in large parts of this country, no matter how theologically unsound it may be.

[NFR: I think Michelle Obama’s advocacy was right on target, and I applauded her for it. But the idea that people resisted it because she’s black is an assertion that needs substantiating. It’s far too easy to play the race card. Given how Americans are about our eating habits, if she had been a white Republican, she would likely have had the same reaction. — RD]

#19 Comment By Doug Bilodeau On October 3, 2017 @ 8:38 pm

Few people would remember today how pornified the culture of the 1950s was even before Hefner became a significant factor – a process which began immediately after WWII. Ordinary advertising and fashion were far more sexualized than today (now you would need an element of irony or self-mockery to get away with it – otherwise people would be thinking “so what?”), but with a veneer of innocence so that everyone could pretend otherwise. I remember there was a small-format pulp celebrity/sensationalist magazine called Pageant, which my mother often bought. It pushed the boundaries of the near side of porn as far as the publishers could, while giving the outward appearance and general tone of Saturday Evening Post respectability. I remember an article interviewing actress Maureen O’Hara on the title subject, “Are Breasts Really Attractive?” Included was a color photo of the actress bending forward with max décolletage. There were also photos of nude women, but shown in silhouette, like shadows on the wall. Some artists and models who produced porn also worked posing for or painting lurid covers for ordinary mystery novels. It was a small leap from one to the other. In fact, it seems almost any genre might have a lurid cover if aimed at a mass market. I remember seeing an academic title “The Sexual Lives of Savages”. I wondered if maybe Dell would come out with a pop version retitled “Savage Sex”.

Hefner was known in the mid-50s mainly as the guy who had published a nude pic of Marilyn Monroe. He had trouble getting the USPS to carry his issues to subscribers; I think maybe he had to pay off the Mob to get prime spots for his mags on newsstands. What really changed his status (it seems from my anecdotal perspective) was the post-Sputnik tech boom, and the hook-up culture which flourished in boom areas (e.g. the east coast of Florida near Canaveral in the many bars along US highway 1). The Playboy Clubs first opened around this time and became emblematic of the culture of Kennedy’s New Frontier; it was, after all, Kennedy who made James Bond a hit in the US by mentioning Ian Fleming when asked what kinds of books he reads. The status of the clubs boosted the status of the magazine. By the mid-60’s, Hef’s Playboy Philosophy was at its peak of … well, did anyone ever take it seriously? Some critic (can’t remember who) noted that at televised parties at the Mansion, the person who looked most out of place was Hefner himself – a nerdy, quiet, unimpressive guy trying to fit in with the sleazy-beautiful people.

Whatever cultural clout Hefner had was pretty much over by 1970; after that he was a relic who happened to publish popular nude pictures. The mainstreaming of porn movies (some producers expected Oscar nominations) made the Playboy world seem quaint.

I guess my main point is that, not only would the pornifying process have proceeded without Hefner, it was already in progress and gaining momentum. He was borne aloft on a tide which he exploited but did not create. He was lucky (or unlucky) to be in the right place at the right time. To see him as a mastermind agent of cultural transformation is a trick of perspective.

#20 Comment By Anastasios On October 3, 2017 @ 8:54 pm

It seems this week’s events illustrate a striking parallel among many of the issues that plague us. This week in the news we have Hefner and pornography, Las Vegas and gun restrictions, and attempted limits on abortion. In all cases, we see practices that majorities say they want regulated or restricted. But then the problems arise.

First of all, most of the majorities don’t care very much about these issues, whereas the gun owners, users of pornography, and abortion rights advocates care a very great deal. Secondly, the practices in question are protected by strong court rulings.

But the real issue is that the goods and services in question have grown so ubiquitous and easy to obtain that restricting access means fundamentally altering the nature of society. Liberals must face the reality of 300 million guns. Conservatives must face a world where the internet, as Ross Douthat observes, has convinced most Americans that it is simply not possible to control pornography. Abortion is readily available for middle and upper-class women (the kind that, sorry to say, count politically), and it’s hard to imagine policies that would seriously interfere with that access being successful, even should Roe v Wade be overturned. Oh, and gay marriage is here to stay even if conservative Christians win conscience protections, as is likely.

In the end, it just comes down to the fact that Americans won’t give up convenient and enjoyable practices once these become entrenched. Blame Hefner, blame the NRA, blame SCOTUS. But the real people who brought us to this pass are your friends and relatives and the person who looks at you out of the mirror.

#21 Comment By Leslie Jacobs On October 3, 2017 @ 10:14 pm

All empires rise and fall, rise and fall, and once they have moved this far down the road to total decadence arrogant nations are not likely to return to their more puritan roots. This emphasis upon screwing whomever one pleases extends as well to taking down an endless stream of foreign cultures and peoples. Would it not be better to encourage those who push this movement faster and faster toward its inevitable conclusion? The sooner America crashes the better for every genuinely conservative group of people on the planet. So, perhaps Hefner, like OJ Simpson should be encouraged to simply run wild.

#22 Comment By Philly gum On October 4, 2017 @ 12:22 am

My father’s collection of playboy magazines was kept in the basement on a bookshelf next to the National Geographic’s,so my friends had some choice about viewing bare breasts. Of course in America you have a large demographic that thinks Playboy is a greater evil than assault weapons.Thanks Mom and dad

#23 Comment By Philly guy On October 4, 2017 @ 12:34 am

Philly gum? Philly gub? Uggh

#24 Comment By Philip Tatler On October 4, 2017 @ 8:41 am

Curious if you’ve listened to the Audible exclusive (free right now) THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT by Jon Ronson. It’s ostensibly about the consequences of “free” porn (which is downstream from Hef’s bullsh*t dream/revolution). It’s nauseating and mostly amoral in its approach but there are some indelible scenes depicting the tip of the iceberg of the pornification of culture (and children). Worth three hours of your time for sure.

Putting this here because I don’t know how else to reach you. Not sure if it warrants a public comment or not.

#25 Comment By VikingLS On October 4, 2017 @ 11:12 am

“Because, for “orthodox conservatives”, lust is a deadlier sin than gluttony.”

Which is common sense for people who regard adultery as grounds for divorce and abortions as the deliberate taking of a human life.

As I recall even most liberals regard promiscuity and infidelity as worse than overeating.

[NFR: These are remarkably silly comments, Scotty. Good grief. — RD]

He’s here to Troll you Rod.

#26 Comment By VikingLS On October 4, 2017 @ 11:16 am

As someone else mentioned, I’m pretty sure Playboy as a commercial enterprise is going to be a victim of its own success. In the age of the Internet their product seems quaint and pointlessly expensive.

#27 Comment By John Dixon On October 4, 2017 @ 3:15 pm

Mock off, mock off, Cosimano;
Mock off, mock off, ‘Tis all in vain.
You throw the seed against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every seed becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Centerfolds of Hugh’s Playboy
And Hefner’s Photographic light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

#28 Comment By Nate J On October 6, 2017 @ 2:32 am

@Hound of Ulster: “All people like Hefner did was rip off the pious facade of lies that covered up the truth of human sinfulness in even the most self-righteous hearts. The per-capita consumers of porn in America live in Utah, not California.”

– – –

Inconclusive at best, and demonstrably false at worst. The methodology isn’t bullet proof, but I’ve seen sources that actually reveal a pretty clear red-blue divide (if you want to make it partisan), with red state porn usage *at the bottom* of the list.

But, hey, don’t let that get in the way of a conveniently manufactured narrative. Seriously, driving the “hypocritical Christians” argument? Don’t throw out your back bending down to grab that lowest hanging fruit. So edgy you are (40 years ago).

#29 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On October 7, 2017 @ 8:54 am

March_Hare said:

I’ll step back, widen my focus, and point out that I’d rather live next door to Hefner’s customers than live next door to the enablers of the televangelists, coaches, and priests as well.

I’d lay good odds that those two groups of people have considerable overlap.

#30 Comment By Floridan On October 7, 2017 @ 10:02 am

Given how Americans are about our eating habits, if [Michelle Obama] had been a white Republican, she would likely have had the same reaction.

Maybe you’re one of the few people in the United States who did not receive emails or Facebook posts calling Michelle Obama a gorilla, a terrorist. a murderer, a housemaid, a convicted felon, aperson who received her Yale degree only because of Affirmative Action, and uppity, but there is no way your assertion is true.