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Playboy creator Hugh Hefner has died at 91, leaving behind a complicated legacy

60 Playmate Bunnies Celebrate Playboy's 60th Anniversary Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Playboy
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Hugh Hefner, the creator of Playboy Magazine, died on Wednesday night in his California mansion. He was 91 years old.

Hefner leaves behind a complicated legacy. He was an advocate for civil rights for people of color and the LGBTQ community, and he fought for reproductive rights for women — but he also built a brand on the objectification of women’s bodies.

That brand was Playboy, which Hefner created in 1953 on $8,000 of borrowed money, with an early photograph of Marilyn Monroe that he’d picked up for $500 on the cover. The magazine rapidly exploded, and so did the brand Hefner built around it, down to the iconic bunny logo. (It was chosen, according to Hefner, because bunnies are “shy, vivacious, jumping” animals that have lots of sex. According to his biographer, it was because his beloved childhood dog used to sleep on a blanket printed with bunnies, and when the dog died, his parents burned the blanket.)

Playboy offered a fantasy of a life of both high culture and frequent, unashamed sex. In its first issue, Hefner imagines an ideal evening:

We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.

So while Playboy was famous for its nude centerfolds, you really could read it for the articles: It featured writing by Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, James Baldwin, John Updike, and Joyce Carol Oates. Most prestigious of all was the Playboy Interview column, which was developed by the great African-American writer Alex Haley. In the pages of Playboy, Haley interviewed everyone from Jimmy Carter to Johnny Carson — and he kept Playboy talking about race. It was at Playboy that Haley began the interview series with Malcolm X that would eventually become The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Hefner consistently made a point of turning his platform over to people of color, and as the Root noted in 2010, “Hiring a comedian and giving black women what were essentially waitress jobs may seem like small things today, but they weren't insignificant when Hefner did them. So he deserves recognition for the contributions he made in that era of far-reaching social change.”

Hefner was an also an advocate for same-sex marriage and for women’s reproductive rights — but his record on feminism is clouded.

“I don’t understand why feminists aren’t grateful to us, to the Playboy philosophy,” he told Gloria Steinem in 1970. Hefner’s basic argument was that in creating Playboy, he helped to free society from its rigid anti-sex past and allowed women to embrace their own sexuality.

“But don’t you understand that you’ve made women objects, more easily exchanged than sports cars? It’s like being on a meat hook,” Steinem returned, adding, “There are times when a woman reading Playboy feels like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.”

At the time Hefner told Steinem that she was being ridiculous, but in 2010 he was insisting to Vanity Fair that “They are objects!” Hefner’s public position was essentially that the desire to be objectified was an intrinsic part of all women’s sexuality, and that by creating the Playboy brand he was freeing women to become sexual objects.

According to Hefner’s former girlfriend Holly Madison, Hefner made sex a requirement of living in his Playboy Mansion. When she was first offered a spot in the mansion, Madison told BuzzFeed News in 2015, she was assured that none of Hefner’s “girlfriends” ever actually slept with him — but when she arrived, she found that there was scheduled group sex on two nights of every week, often fueled by Hefner-provided Quaaludes.

The women, Madison says, “knew it was kind of a quote-unquote requirement for living there, and expected. And it had kind of a chore vibe, I felt.” She added that Hefner was verbally abusive and controlling throughout their relationship. (Hefner denied Madison’s allegations through a spokesperson.)

Hefner may be gone, but he spent the past year of his life ensuring that his brand could live on without him. Last year he sold his mansion, on the condition that he be able to maintain residency until the end of his life. And his 26-year-old son Cooper Hefner took over Playboy Enterprises earlier this year.

Cooper believes that the brand his father established is still relevant but needs a little updating. “Yes, there are lifestyle components to Playboy, but it's really a philosophy about freedom,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in August. “And right now, as history is repeating itself in real time, I want Playboy to be central to that conversation."

Hefner will be buried next to Marilyn Monroe, in a plot he reportedly bought in 1992 for $75,000.