Playboy.com remembers its founder Hugh Hefner today. So does PlayboyEnterprises.com. Both homepages are static, the former depicting the above image and quote, the latter a press release outlining Hefner’s many accomplishments. It’s a mourning slightly at odds with the impulses of the person they’re remembering; spare, brief homages for a man who seemed to prefer the physical to the digital, who famously made thousands of scrapbooks commemorating his life and employed a full-time archivist.
At 91, no one would say that Hefner’s death was a surprise, but for his company—which was always the defining characteristic of his personhood, as he liked it—it means something more than such a loss would at most other brands, even those that don’t attempt to provide journalism as well as sell a product. What is Playboy without the man who so believed he was the ultimate one?
Though he didn’t start the magazine until he was 27, Hefner’s life once it began became increasingly entrenched in the brand he was creating. In every telling and retelling of his life story, the things he did before starting Playboy are painted as foreshadowing the greatness that was to come—whether it was the humor magazine he edited in college, or his lack of sexual experience before his first marriage, which pushed him to fully embrace that side of himself later on and promote his idea of a sexually liberated agenda. From the mansion where Hefner lived to the clubs he created, he submerged himself entirely into the lifestyle he was telling other men they too could not just yearn for, but actually have (and, because this is a capitalistic endeavor, in many cases, buy).
His argument was that women were an important narrative of that as well—that he loved women, and, like men, wanted them to embrace their sexual selves as well as their intellectual ones. But he was always the overarching part of that narrative. What he wanted was to feature the kinds of bodies he liked in the magazine; to date multiple women at a time and do with them what he wanted one day and be monogamous with just one the next; to believe what he wanted to believe and rarely be convinced otherwise. Hefner was not a man known for his flexibility, but rather his specificity. And he was proud of that, desiring that his vision be not just documented, but documented on his terms.
This kind of force of will is powerful; it, and his purposefully fascinating personal life, kept Hefner in the public eye even as the quality of what he produced waxed and waned. Though these controlling characteristics are not rare for someone who achieves what he did, the way they manifested with Hefner was certainly unique. It explains why the company Hefner left behind has struggled so much as he has gotten older, unable to fully let go of him and shape themselves to a new vision, perhaps even unwilling to risk losing what base they do have, which is so tied to him. It’s hard to keep the visually appealing retro-feel of Playboy and the good work they’ve published, but jump over the parts of his vision that don’t work anymore (or never did). One is reminded of the legacy of his friend Helen Gurley Brown, the former editor of Cosmopolitan. Both inarguably pushed American culture forward—until they found themselves part of a group that was, if not holding culture back, certainly not at the forefront of progressive social thinking when it comes to the ways in which we treat men and women. The world outgrew their visions as they clung to them.
What does the future hold for a faded brand that has so openly struggled with the impenetrable shadow of its creator? According to Hefner’s son Cooper, now Chief Creative Officer at Playboy, it means stepping away from the incredibly dated beliefs and behaviors his father held, while embracing the parts of him that were forward thinking, and not downright harmful to others. (For instance, “...it is clear as day that Playboy’s Philosophy today as well as tomorrow is as feminist as it gets,” Cooper wrote earlier this year in his updated take on his father’s famed set of essays.) Cooper faces a similar challenge to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner’s son Gus, who has been left with the legacy of a publication whose heyday seems to be in its past. While such a thing could only be hinted at before Hefner’s death, we can likely expect Playboy to, ironically, have more freedom to do as it pleases—as Hefner always espoused one should.
Publications and the companies that own them are, whatever the branding around them suggests, more than just one man’s vision; they are the ever-evolving push and pull of the people within them. It is rare to see one that was so confined for so long to that one man’s self-described philosophy. When Hefner said “Life is too short to be living someone else’s dream,” that was more than just a pithy quote. It was a mantra, one that he repeated and rearranged. In whatever form it took, he was summing up his life’s work. Playboy was his dream. Without him, it becomes something else entirely.