Love him or hate him, Hugh Hefner — the guy who built an empire on the idea that Americans should enjoy sex — made a huge impact.
The founder of Playboy, 91, who died Wednesday of natural causes at the Playboy Mansion in Southern California, is being remembered fondly by a diverse crew from Pamela Anderson and Jenny McCarthy to Barbra Streisand and Rev. Jesse Jackson, who viewed him as a positive force in the sexual revolution and supporter of people who are oppressed.
Others, including Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the LGBT activist group GLAAD, called him a “misogynist” whose exploitative empire caused “irreparable damage to women’s rights.”
In the 1950s, his Playboy magazine gave upwardly mobile men the chance to ogle pictures of naked women called Playmates, chosen personally by Hefner for their large busts and girl-next-door wholesomeness. It also had interviews with luminaries from Albert Schweitzer to Malcolm X; stories by Ernest Hemingway and John Updike; and advice on how to prepare the perfect gimlet.
The world’s best-selling men’s magazine, it made the often pajama-clad Hef — who personified the Playboy ideal –a millionaire many times over.
“If you don’t swing, don’t ring,” read a doorplate at the original Playboy Mansion in Chicago, a 48-room abode where Hefner reveled with Playmates on a circular bed. Later, he moved to Playboy Mansion West, a six-acre compound above Beverly Hills.
He shared his fantasy with the introduction of Playboy Clubs, where anyone, for a modest fee, could be served food and drinks by “Bunnies” — well-endowed women costumed in rabbit ears, puffy tails and tight corsets.
Just what the Bunny stood for — sexual freedom or sexist oppression — became fodder for cultural wars of the 1960s and ‘70s. Gloria Steinem fired one of the first shots when she posed as a Bunny and wrote a scathing expose in 1963.
He married three times — to Mildred Williams, Kimberley Conrad and Crystal Harris — but his famous girlfriends also included Barbi Benton, Brande Roderick, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson.
Hefner will be laid to rest in a Los Angeles crypt beside Marilyn Monroe, whose nude pictures helped launch him into history.
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