Gay Talese’s Basement
by Matt Nippert
It is a covert rite of adolescent passage, and also the life’s work of an unapologetic old horn dog. It can be read for literate articles or gawked at for pixel-perfect crotch shots. Tom Wolfe calls it one of those “one-handed magazines,” and yet it has also engaged both sides of the brain for more than six decades. It is Playboy, the brainchild of eternal publisher and 80-year-old frat boy Hugh Hefner.
From small beginnings, the magazine blazed a trail for revolutions that followed. Beginning in 1953 with naked photos of Marilyn Monroe, Playboy’s first issue marked an unprecedented challenge to the U.S. Postal Service’s obscenity laws. Hefner’s empire grew, and by 1972 the magazine was established as a popular literary heavyweight with more than 7 million paid subscribers. Bylines included luminaries such as Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and John Updike.
For the sexual revolution Alfred C. Kinsey contributed his brains, while Hefner brought the porn. More than a magazine, Playboy has become a brand and a byword, and fluffy rabbit ears have never been seen as innocent since.
But in 2006, for all its history, is Playboy still relevant? Like Hefner—who now drinks Diet Pepsi for breakfast, prefers working from bed and constantly wears silk pajamas—has the magazine lost its mojo? Whereas once its shots of girls were scandalous, racy and truly unique, compared to today’s competitors in print (Maxim, Stuff) and online (Google “sex,” but not at work), they’re tame, even quaint. It is now your father’s pornography.
And the other half of this schizophrenic magazine, the writing (it’s true, you can just read it for the articles), has a similarly middling present. Its once-seminal “Playboy Interview” series, an in-depth Q-and-A culled from a day-long dialogue, used to feature the cutting edge of politics, philosophy and the arts. Jimmy Hoffa appeared in 1963, Jean-Paul Sartre in 1965, Germaine Greer in 1972 and Lech Walesa in 1982. By contrast, the last year has tended toward pretty-boy musicians (Kanye West), air-brushed actors (Pierce Brosnan) and pillars of the intellectual establishment (Thomas Friedman).
To be fair, some genuinely groundbreaking feature articles still slip through the increasingly gaping cracks. An extraordinary September 2005 piece, “The Man in the Bomb Suit,” sent a writer to Iraq for three months to follow an IED disposal unit, breaking the story of how the Army deals with devices that have caused nearly half of all American casualties. And it is pleasantly surprising, if a little jarring, to find a literary short story by Robert Coover and a dry dissection of the Internet stock bubble sandwiched between “Swedish Babes of the Month” and heavily Photoshopped centerfolds.
But despite flashes of brilliance, by 2005 Playboy’s circulation had shrunk to half of its heady 1970s height, and Maxim had twice as many paid advertising pages. Hefner knew something was stagnant at the turn of the millennium. The November 2000 contributors’ blurb began: “Hey Maxim—our cover girl can kick your cover girl’s ass.”
An experiment in “light” content saw stories shrink in length and become diamonds in the rough, written on such topics as “Russian Girls: They’re Beautiful and Wild.” The last five years have seen three changes of editor, more than had occurred in the previous 50. Tellingly, one of those editors, James Kaminsky, was poached directly from Maxim. He was dropped last year for a Hefner-trusted veteran. While Kaminsky’s former mag attracted 20-something wedding crashers with cover lines like “How to score at a funeral,” Playboy has stuck with cover girls like Darryl Hannah and seen its average readership age creep up to 33. This is evidence of Playboy’s failure to become an icon for the new generation—young readers who might become long-term subscribers haven’t been attracted.
Bob Love, Playboy’s editor-at-large, says the “light” approach has been dropped. The magazine plans to return to it roots, going back to the future, returning to longer and more topical features rather than being merely salacious.
The decline of Playboy has robbed the publication of its potency. It now feels established and comfortable, perhaps like its founder. Because of the long oversight by Hefner (who still retains the royal title of editor-in-chief), the magazine hasn’t really changed in its 53 years. Today it reads not as radical, but as a monument to what radical once was. Like the Harley-Davidsons featured in its advertisements, Playboy has become an American classic. But the magazine today, unfortunately, wouldn’t look out of place next to a 1957 Harley Sportster. In a museum.