Gay Talese on Hugh Hefner, Playboy and Free Speech

As a gay man, I was never into Playboy like the other guys my age. But the “idea” of Hugh Hefner always fascinated me, even from a young age. In the documentaries I’ve seen and articles I’ve read about him, what always stands out to me is the work.

Hefner made his mark at just the right time. Sure, the nudes were the draw and always would be. But from an oppressive and conservative place and time, Hefner created a lifestyle centered around freedom: the freedom to be whoever the hell you wanted to be and do whatever you want to do with other consenting adults as long as you weren’t hurting anyone. I’m reminded of a line on Mad Men from Bobbie Barrett: “This is America. Pick a job and then become the person that does it.” Hefner did just that. Whether you love him or loathe him, you must give Hefner credit for creating the life he wanted and living it on his own terms.

In his pursuit of freedom, he defended civil rights and gay rights long before it was popular, though some could reasonably argue that he was behind when it came to women’s equality. (And he might counter by arguing that women’s progress need not negate sexuality, as all humans are sexual beings.) But I do know a couple of incredible women who worked for Playboy and loved their time with the company.

Hugh Hefner typing for Playboy in 1966. Photo by Burt Glinn / Magnum Photos.

With respect to freedom of speech, the legal beatings taken by Hefner and others in his wake like Larry Flynt and Bob Guccione, along with their refusal to back down in the face of hateful resistance, must be acknowledged. It is Hefner’s and other smut peddlers’ uncompromising pursuit of free speech that made an immeasurable contribution to what we are allowed to read, write and publish today.

No one, in my opinion, expressed this better than Gay Talese:

“The dirty work was done by the pornographer. It wasn’t done by Alfred A. Knopf or Random House of the Library Association of America. They did nothing in terms of free speech. It’s because the smut peddlers took the beating in the courts. They fought the government, they fought the Catholic Legion of Decency, they fought the moral code, and they made it open for Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates… they all owe to the smut peddler their freedom. Hefner is a major figure in fighting against repression. And that means any kind of repression. It isn’t the right to show naked women or naked men or whatever. If you can show naked women and naked men, you can show a lot of nakedness in language. You don’t have to put a fig leaf on a verb…. Let me tell you where I stand with Playboy: I don’t read it. I never read it. I’ve never published a piece in it; never submitted an article to be published in Playboy. My defense of Playboy is because Playboy made my life and the life of every writer easier.”

Listen to a segment on Hugh Hefner, including a 2002 interview with Gay Talese, on last week’s On the Media:

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