Joining the pantheon of famous people doing infamous things because they can (e.g., Bill Clinton's explanation for the Lewinsky episode), we learned, over the Christmas holiday weekend, that Hugh Hefner had become engaged to his latest girlfriend , Crystal Harris (a/k/a Miss December 2009). Hef, the titular (sorry, I couldn't resist) head of the Playboy empire, and ever the roué (a word that was probably coined to describe him), thus continues his reputation for lechery, choosing a 24-year-old to be his latest wife (surprisingly, only his third), at the ripe old age of 84.
You have to wonder, though: what could the guy be thinking? I mean, is he not the classic case of someone who doesn't need to buy the cow when he gets the milk for free? This is a guy who, at various times, has had a whole dairy at his disposal. Why, in heaven's name would he need to get married? Please tell us it's not because he's planning to have another family, the first new addition to which he might, if he's lucky, survive long enough to see graduate from kindergarten. And, it's not like he's a great prospect either. On the faithfulness scale, he ranks somewhere between Wilt Chamberlain and Tiger Woods. Nor is it likely his bride-to-be has tapped the mother lode. I can only imagine how air tight their pre-nup is going to be.
So, does this announcement deserve an “attaboy” or an “ick?” Frankly, I'm torn between repulsion and jealousy. What can you say about a man marrying a woman who's 60 years his junior? It verges on something that ought to be illegal, don't you think, almost a form of pedophilia. Well, at least it's not as eww-inspiring as the 63 year difference between the 23-year-old Anna Nicole Smith (coincidentally, a Hef protégée) and her barely sentient 89-year-old oil tycoon husband, the aftermath of which is still wending its way through the judicial system.
But, of course, Hef must be judged by a different standard. Although in some ways he's a relic of a bygone era (some might even say an anachronism), his honored place in the history of our culture is assured, in part precisely because of his iconoclastic disdain for conventional mores. We owe much to him for his largely successful crusade against the prudishness that characterized the U.S. in the early part of the last century, and spawned the kind of suppression we saw right here in River City with the likes of Lloyd Binford and his Memphis Censor Board.
Hef is less well known for his equally praiseworthy role in resisting Jim Crow laws, opening his clubs to mixed racial patronage in places where that was explicitly forbidden, or giving black performers exposure on his pre-civil rights TV show, “Playboy After Dark”. In addition to resisting the sexual repression of the 50's and 60's, he did something else that will forever endear him to me: he featured my all-time favorite sex symbol (NSFW), Marilyn Monroe, in the first issue of his magazine. Were it not for that, we might never have gotten to see her in what has to be the most provocative costume ever worn in a film, the one she wore in the seduction scene on the yacht (with Tony Curtis) in “Some Like It Hot” (which apparently got the film banned in Kansas City).
It's cruelly ironic, but also a tribute to his foresight, that Hef's success at loosening the bonds of an overly restrictive attitude towards sexual material was itself largely responsible for presaging the decline of the magazine he founded, which may be why he oversaw Playboy's diversification into other ventures. Playboy magazine reached the height of its popularity in the 70's, and has declined, at least in circulation, ever since. Who needs Playboy for titillation (sorry), whose boldest venture into prurient exhibitionism was its revelation of a glimpse of pubic hair in 1968, when (I'm told) the internet now makes all manner of full-on pornography available, 24/7, at the touch of a mouse. No longer need men riffle furtively through “skin” magazines at the news stand, or have “girlie” mags delivered by mail in plain brown wrappers when every imaginable form of aberrant sexual behavior, and many unimaginable ones, are so readily available, essentially gratis.
And yet, in spite of constantly being on the verge of irrelevance, Hef has always managed to evade his own obsolescence by repeatedly reinventing himself. He remains the object of curiosity, as demonstrated by the international attention to this latest development in his personal life, but also enough so that he is a central character in a current TV “reality” show ostensibly devoted to the lives of his girlfriends, yet revolving substantially in his penumbra. And let's not forget that this is the guy who, way before things like “pajamas media,” invented the idea you could be a corporate magnate while clad in bed clothes.
I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Hef. He and I go way back, you see. His magazine (or at least one of the photos in it), which I obviously looked at primarily for the articles, facilitated my epiphany as a pubescent teen that the male organ served more than one function. Later in life, I had occasion to meet him in my official, governmental capacity. I remember being disappointed not only by his diminutive (5' 9") stature and the vulgar stretch limo in which he and his entourage pulled up to my building, but also by the floozie who accompanied him, not playmate material by a longshot. One thing I did not do, however, on that occasion was thank him for helping me to (ahem) come of age.