The High Life

Playboy magazine was a significant catalyst for cultural transformation in mid-century America.

Book Cover There was a time when people would joke that they read Playboy for the interviews, eschewing any interest in the centerfolds and other decorative editorial. It should be obvious that what you can find on the newsstand is indicative of something about the cultural moment, and Loyola (of Chicago) University mentor Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s new tome, Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (Oxford University Press), effectively makes that point.

Hugh Hefner did not invent the titty magazine, but in the case of Playboy he imbued it with a pastiche of elements—serious interviews of interesting people, sex advice, mixological information, cartoons by the inimitable Gahan Wilson—that distinguished it from the other skin publications. Hefner explained (circa 1953):
Playboy isn’t very serious… [It offers] the kind of life part of the reader would like to live. It offers him an imaginary escape into the worlds of wine, women, and song. Then the other part of him says he has to go back to his family responsibilities and his work… If we have an editorial policy it’s only by implication; live and let live. It’s a wonderful life and lett’s enjoy it. It’s a kind of argument for a liberal democratic society with emphasis on the freedom of the individual.
This doesn’t refer to the money machine that became Playboy Enterprises—calendars, clubs, bunny tchotchkes, a Hefner TV program, the Playboy Mansion (in Chicago), and other shrewd branding. But those marketing initiatives were a large part of the deal. Ambitious lotharios could look to Playboy for style tips and necessary accoutrements for that sought-after good life.

Fraterrigo concludes:
Playboy took the figure of the carefree bachelor as a model for an elongated period of youthful enjoyment, sexual fulfillment, and pleasurable consumption, suggesting that young men who followed the advice of the magazine would ultimately lead more rewarding lives. The views and values of this iconic magazine have come to flow freely in the mainstream of modern America. Along the way, popular discussions of Playboy have become, in effect, debates about American life, then and now much more about the cultural preoccupations and anxieties of American society.
The transformation of mid-century America is an interesting moment to look back on. One does marvel at the way Hefner’s creation rooted itself in the mainstream, especially in light of those wild, drug-crazed, and orgiastic ‘60s. The Making of the Good Life does well in making sense of that.
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