Playboy scholar Elizabeth Fraterrigo peeks under the covers
Scholarly mentors are known for passing along precious, essential gifts to their young acolytes: wisdom, inspiration — and, of course, stacks of old Playboy magazines.
At least that’s how it was for Elizabeth Fraterrigo, the Loyola University Chicago history professor who wrote “Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America,” published last month by Oxford University Press. “I’ve always been interested in issues related to popular culture,” said Fraterrigo in an interview from her Chicago home. “I had taken a graduate research seminar in 20th century pop culture and was interested in bachelorhood and the nuclear family.”
When she was casting about for a book project, she recalled, “my dissertation adviser said, ’I’ve got these Playboys from the early 1960s back here.’ He thought I might be interested.
“I started looking through them, and I was really struck by how the magazine wasn’t just the centerfolds. It was a consumer magazine with well-written, timely articles. Many of the articles were incredibly long, incredibly well-researched.”
Fully aware of the old joke — the one in which the man caught with a Playboy claims he’s only reading it for the articles — Fraterrigo made an intriguing discovery: Playboy was a touchstone for an unapologetically hedonistic lifestyle very much at odds with the dominant paradigm of the day. The magazine seemed to sneer at the button-down, well-behaved attributes commonly associated with that decade: stuffiness, conformity, sexual timidity and suburban living.
“Those stereotypes may have a grain of truth in them,” Fraterrigo said, “but if that were monolithically true, then how did a magazine like Playboy ever emerge at the same moment?”
The success of Playboy reveals “how dynamic the 1950s really were,” she added.
— Julia Keller
Here is all you really need to know to understand Hugh Hefner’s genius. In the first issue of Playboy magazine, published in November 1953, the attractive young woman whose image served as the centerfold was dubbed “Sweetheart of the Month.”
By the very next issue, the label had changed to “Playmate of the Month.” And “Playmate” it would be, forever after.
What Hefner understood, faster and better than anybody else at the time, was the vast ideological gap between the words “Sweetheart” and “Playmate.” Hefner wasn’t selling steady dates and monogamy; he was selling one-night stands and variety.
He wasn’t selling duty. He was selling pleasure. And plenty of folks — imagine that — wanted to buy.
Hefner was selling something else, too, as Elizabeth Fraterrigo explains in her enlightening new book, “Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America” (Oxford University Press). Unlike some commentators on the Playboy empire, who get sidetracked on the morality (or lack thereof) of drooling over racy pictures, the author takes Hefner seriously as a transformative cultural figure, a man who not only understood the times in which he lived but fought successfully to change their direction. In her painstaking explication of the actual contents of the magazine, Fraterrigo demonstrates how successful Hefner was at packaging an attitude, a mindset, a philosophy — and one that ran counter to the superficial tenets of the era.
“Its sexual content and glamorous depictions of bachelorhood made it roguish for the 1950s,” writes Fraterrigo, who teaches history at Loyola University Chicago, “but in its heyday, Playboy was more than a magazine filled with pictures of nude women and advice on how to make the perfect martini.” It was, she concludes, a crucial part of “mainstream debates about society, economics, and culture in postwar America.”
The Playboy ethos quickly spread beyond this country’s shores, and it became a powerfully ubiquitous brand. That bunny logo was stamped on everything from baseball caps to key chains to T-shirts to the mudflaps of 18-wheelers. But when Hefner created the publication in the early 1950s, it was no sure thing: New magazines, then as now, often failed.
Hefner, however, had a knack for seeing into the souls of his potential readers. He never sold them short.
He understood that men of his generation — and generations hence, as it turned out — liked to look at pictures of pretty women, yes, but they also wanted to read about politics and art and music and fashion. They wanted to read interviews with interesting people. They wanted to be stimulated — and not just in that way, so stop your snickering.
Playboy, for all of its international elan, was a distinctly Midwestern phenomenon. Hefner was born and raised in Chicago, and he insisted that his new magazine be published here, not New York.
From his vantage point in the middle of the country, in the middle of the 20th century, Hefner sensed a deep unrest in the men he saw around him, a frustration with the bland regularity of the roles they were expected to fill: husbands, fathers, corporate drones. His magazine would harness all the energy of that thwarted desire and present it to advertisers, tied up with a ribbon and sporting a bunny logo.
Fraterrigo’s book is filled with telling anecdotes about the magazine’s early days, as Hefner expanded its portfolio beyond the centerfold.
There was a Playboy TV show — “Playboy’s Penthouse” — that aired in 1959 and 1960. There were designs for Playboy penthouses and suggestions for Playboy musical playlists. It was not about “unbridled hedonism,” the professor cautions, but about an advocacy for “the link between work and play.” Hefner “envisioned his followers as energetic, virile free agents whose ‘upbeat’ outlook and self-possession brought them financial success.”
And the fullness of Hefner’s vision — the fact that it encompassed more than just provocative photo spreads — means that Hefner and his opponents, including some major feminists, actually may have been fighting on the same side. Fraterrigo writes: “Playboy’s distaste for traditional domestic roles, affirmations of women’s right to enjoy sex outside of marriage, and support for women’s reproductive freedom all embolden Hefner to assert, quite seriously, a half-century after starting his magazine, ’I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism.”’
In recent years, Playboy has seen its influence — and profitability — diminish. But as Fraterrigo’s book chronicles with thoroughness and exactitude, in its prime Hefner’s creation gave the world a new idea for what constitutes a successful life for American men. Playboy both caused and reflected important changes in politics, culture and commerce.
And as your father and your brothers — or any connoisseurs of pulchritude — might add: The pictures aren’t bad, either.