Is the Midwest’s only great magazine heading into the sunset?by Rachel Shteir / April 25, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
At 7pm on the evening of 12th April in Chicago, about 20 people were gathered inside the Gold Star Sardine Bar, a tiny, dimly lit cabaret tucked away at the end of a corridor on the ground floor of 680 North Lake Shore Drive. After 59 years in Chicago, Playboy Enterprises was moving its operation to Los Angeles. The magazine, which had operated on the 15th and 16th floors since 1989, was hosting a party to bid farewell to the city where it had begun.
North Lake Shore Drive is in the smart Streeterville neighbourhood in downtown Chicago. From the Playboy offices—which will be occupied shortly by the Children’s Memorial Hospital—you can see Lake Michigan and much of the city.
The pastel-coloured invitation to the party showed a rocket, with the iconic Playboy bunny symbol on its side, steaming into the sky. It requested “proper attire.” Several men were dressed up. Jimmy Jellinek, the magazine’s baby-faced editorial director, served drinks from behind the bar in a white suit and black t-shirt. Most of the women wore sweaters and jeans. There were no bunnies. No one was naked.
Conceived as a homage to the 1940s, the Gold Star Sardine Bar, which had been shuttered since 1997, was specially opened for the evening. Looming over the bar was a portrait (framed by pink neon) of the cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short, who had played there to much acclaim. Hanging diagonally opposite, a monitor looped black and white video clips of the original Playboy Clubs which had opened in 1960 and which closed long ago.
Pungent smoke filled the room, ballooning down the hall and into the building’s foyer. Bottles of Scotch and wine kept appearing on the bar. Right next to me was a large glass bowl filled with red, pink, and aqua-coloured M&Ms with the bunny head on them. The magazine’s reclusive founder Hugh Hefner was not present, but this was no surprise—he traded his hometown of Chicago for the City of Angels over three decades ago and these days he rarely leaves his LA mansion. Still, the party was lively enough, considering the occasion. People kept telling me the stories of how they wound up working for Playboy for decades, which, even at this late date seemed to surprise them. Or they ruminated on the sad state of print media in Chicago.
Weeks earlier, Leopold Froehlich, currently managing editor and de facto literary editor, who has worked at Playboy since 1991, and who is one of eight people from the magazine’s Chicago office going to LA, said, “The magazine started out with four people and it looks like that’s what it will wind up with.”
Playboy has been struggling for some time. Circulation has been dropping since the 1970s; in 2009, the last year for which numbers are available, the magazine reduced the number of readers it promises advertisers from 2.6 million to 1.5 million. According to the Publishers Information Bureau, in the third quarter of 2009 advertising revenue fell by 44 per cent. In 1999 Playboy stock was $36 a share; in 2009 it was $3. “It speaks to the increasing irrelevance of magazines that Playboy will end its time in Chicago with only a murmur,” said Froehlich.
There is nothing like Playboy and there never will be again. When Hef founded it in 1953, men’s magazines contained grainy black and white pictures of semi-naked strippers and articles in which men conquered wild animals and bad guys. Sex was shameful. The word smut comes to mind. But Hef, who had grown up on the west side of Chicago in the 1920s and 30s, pursued a different vision. Having graduated from the University of Illinois and worked at magazines, including Esquire (then still in Chicago), he imagined a lifestyle monthly which would attract urban men with a mix of nice clothes, nice cars, culture, and colour photographs of the girl next door, naked.
Luck sided with Hef. In a famous coup, having read that the rights to some nude colour photographs of Marilyn Monroe—then already a movie star—were owned by a calendar company in Chicago, he convinced the owner to sell him the images. He ran the photos, which show Marilyn writhing on red velvet, in the first issue, December 1953. It sold 54,000 copies. In that issue, Hef defined Playboy, sincerely, with what now reads like a send-up of a Rat Pack mission statement: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex…”
Playboy emerged in the right place at the right time. In America, conspicuous consumption and personal fulfilment were replacing older, more ascetic ideals and by 1959 the magazine was selling a million copies an issue. In the early 1970s it sold around 7 million copies each month. By that time, Playboy had become a global brand under attack on several different fronts. It has been variously described as misogynist, feminist, kitschy, and irrelevant. Above all, however, it is a magazine that presents The Good Life, including sex, as a man’s natural territory.
To read through Playboy today is to go back in time. Many of the magazine’s trademark features first appeared in the 1960s and have changed less than you might imagine. There are pages of photographs of Hef and his friends partying. The Playboy Advisor, a column first started in 1960, steers readers on how to dress, date, and consume. The Playboy Forum, begun in 1963 to raise issues of importance to the magazine, these days publishes short provocative essays and confessional pieces. The legendary Playboy interview, which in the old days gave thousands of words to heads of state and literary figures—Gabriel García Márquez, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jimmy Carter, Camille Paglia—is also intact (although shorter). New York Times columnist and Princeton professor Paul Krugman did one in the April issue.
Two of the hoariest features are the Party Jokes page, a page of witticisms and gags that seems to have been dredged up from before the sexual revolution, and the full-page cartoons. Here is a typical one: a woman is reclining on an analyst’s couch holding a vibrator. “Do you mind, it helps open me up,” she asks as the Freudian figure looks on. Asked about these pages, editors told me that readers liked them.
The “pictorials”—images of nearly nude women—have changed over the years. There are still movie stars, as there were from the first. But more recently, athletes and professional women (there was a “Women of Enron” pictorial after the company’s 2001 downfall) have joined them. If anything, the pictorials have done more nodding and winking recently, as in the November 2009 pictorial featuring… Marge Simpson.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about Playboy is how much journalism and fiction the magazine still contains. In 2010, for instance, Playboy ran an excerpt of Lydia Davis’s dazzling new translation of Madame Bovary, while in 2008 the magazine serialised Denis Johnson’s novella, Nobody Move—10,000 words at a time, in four consecutive issues.
“The literary stuff is the piano player in the whorehouse,” said Froehlich, complaining that Playboy was under-recognised by the industry. “The magazine should have won a National Magazine Award for the Denis Johnson serial, but it is always branded as the whore of Babylon. If Jesus Christ wrote an appreciation of his parents for Playboy, ASME [the American Society of Magazine Editors] would find a way to ignore it.”
One reason Playboy has never been accepted in those elite journalistic circles is the centrefolds, which have been the heart of the magazine since its birth. What was new about the centrefolds was that they showed real women—not strippers or showgirls—naked and in real-life situations. By today’s standards, the images are not pornographic. But critics have derided them for years. In a 2006 New Yorker essay, Joan Acocella pointed out that the girl next door’s fresh appearance was long ago replaced with “utter texturelessness.” Last year, attacking the short-lived Playboy Club TV show, the comedian Nora Ephron wrote in Newsweek that the purpose of Hef’s whole project was to relive the “golden moment just before the women’s movement came along and ruined everything.”
Despite these jabs, the tell-alls and exposés of the 20th century have given way to more sober studies crediting Playboy (and Hef, for it is impossible to talk about one without the other) for its role as social reformer. These studies focus on the magazine’s championing of civil rights, the sexual revolution, feminism, and abortion rights. In 1955, Playboy sued the United States Postal Service over its attempt to censor the magazine. And won.
But the 21st-century image of Playboy-as-social-reformer may never override Hef’s reputation as a roué. You might think that a man from the Midwest who used his hedonistic magazine to support some of the key liberal causes of the past 60 years (including Roe v Wade) could not be easily dismissed. But because this man, now 86, continues consorting with blondes who could be his great-grandchildren, he is still regarded more as a porno Peter Pan than a Martin Luther King.
A few days before the Going Away party, I called Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago, to ask him what he thought of Playboy’s departure. Tom Anderson, one of Emanuel’s legions of press representatives, was unmoved. “From time to time companies decide to leave,” he said. He had not read the magazine for some time. He did not know if his boss did.
But Elizabeth Fraterrigo, a Chicagoan and author of Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, took the long view: “it’s the end of an era for a magazine that once commented on everything of social import.”
The end of Playboy in Chicago has been a long time coming. In 1975, following the death of his longtime secretary Bobbie Arnstein, Hef moved to LA for good. By 1980, the empire had begun to decline. The brutal murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten by her husband, a petty thug, made it seem as though the magazine was more like those smutty magazines Hef had tried to escape in the 1950s. Subsequently, during the Reagan administration, the attacks of the government-funded Meese Commission on Pornography sought to connect Playboy to crime, deviance and, most controversially, child abuse. At the same time, the appearance of hardcore pornographic magazines like Screw, Hustler, and Penthouse had made Playboy’s Girls Next Door seem positively Victorian.
Beginning in 1982, Christie Hefner, Hef’s daughter, began working at the magazine after graduating from college. For many years she was chairman of the board and CEO. And through the 1990s—even as internet pornography swept the market, the decline of print media atrophied readers, and the rise of the American “lad” magazines like Maxim tore into profits—still the magazine remained in Chicago.
It was only last year that moving began to look likely. After decades of being publicly traded, Playboy went private in January 2011. Icon Acquisition Holdings, an enterprise owned by Hef, bought back the shares he did not own, using financing from Rizvi Traverse Management, a private equity firm with offices in LA and no magazine publishing experience. At the time, Playboy planned to grow the brand licensing division—a strategy that James Petersen, who for years answered the lonelyhearts letters in the Playboy Advisor column, described as “putting bunnies on socks in China.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the company had earned $37m in licensing revenue in 2009, an increase from $9.2m in 2000.
The move has not been universally welcomed. “The people in charge don’t believe that you should pay magazine editors more than $20,000,” said one insider.
Another explanation for the move is cost-cutting—to consolidate all of the Playboy Corporation’s businesses on the west coast, where several executives already live. But one more colourful rumour explains that the purpose of the move is to be nearer to the porn industry; another speculates that the Playboy mansion will be turned into a softcore theme park.
The move is symbolically important too, since over the years many have mocked Playboy’s Midwestern roots. In New York, where Playboy established editorial offices from 2002 to 2009, the magazine is routinely dismissed. “Don’t write for them,” a New York magazine editor scolded me years ago. “No one reads it.” Yet the role that being in the centre of the United States—the so-called “fly-over zone”—played in the magazine’s success is often overlooked.
No other general interest magazine tried to reach readers in the wide swathe of land between New York and California. “It was a Midwestern magazine, designed for people there. If you wanted it to be hip, edgy, go toe-to-toe with GQ, you were making a mistake,” said Chris Napolitano, a former executive editor who began at Playboy in 1988.
Moving to Chicago 12 years ago I never thought that Playboy would have anything to do with my life as a writer. Actually, I never thought about Playboy at all. But if you live here and you are a writer, the magazine looms over the city like the Sears Tower—enormous and out of touch.
Around 2000, trying to finish my history of striptease, I went to 680 North Lake Shore Drive to do research in the extensive library then on the premises. I ended up writing for Playboy twice and both times the experience was very pleasant. Despite cost-cutting, the magazine was generous—even courtly—to its writers. Over the years, I met many writers and editors around town who would whisper about the Playboy staffers’ expense accounts and job security with equal parts jealousy and contempt.
I have now lived in Chicago longer than anywhere else and I confess to still being ambivalent about Playboy and the Midwest. I suspect that I will be until I drop dead. I was horrified, when, last autumn, about halfway through a dinner, my local-born date confessed that he subscribed to Playboy for the jokes. “Would you let me subscribe if we were married?” he asked, looking as if what he wanted most was for me to forbid him from subscribing.
I was unsure as to whether I was more horrified that I was on a date with someone who liked the ridiculous cartoons, or because this whole exchange seemed like some cliché of the battle of the sexes drawn from Playboy itself circa 1960, or because I was certain that I would never have such a conversation in New York. Maybe I was most horrified because I was worried that this man might think that Playboy’s vision of what went on between men and women was accurate. Or even desirable. Later, I thought of what Chris Napolitano had said: in contrast to New York magazines,“[Playboy] is speaking to people who are not living a breathless, media-injected existence.”
But the most important Chicago-ish thing about Playboy is the distance that Hef travelled from his origins to his status as founder of this empire. His journey recalls that of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, to whom Hef has often been compared. He himself has said the link between Fitzgerald’s most famous character and his own dreams were “powerful.” Just like Gatsby, Hef fled—not just from repression, as he has said many times—but from nowhere to become an iconic figure.
To see how far Hef came, you must go west on Fullerton Avenue, a broad, pot-holed boulevard that cuts through the city. As you move away from Lake Michigan, after one hour you reach the dull working-class neighbourhood where Hef grew up. From his small brick house with the tidy lawn, he dreamed of the glittering mess that is the Gold Coast district of Chicago—downtown—and its consolations. Head south, past miles of ghettoes to the edge of Hyde Park—also far from downtown—and you arrive at the apartment where in 1953 Hef pasted together the magazine’s first issue. It is now a parking lot. The other historic Playboy sites in the Gold Coast neighbourhood speak of money and success but also sly humour: the magazine’s first offices at 11 East Superior, across from the Holy Name Cathedral; 1340 North State Street, the Chicago mansion which Hef purchased in 1959 and which in its heyday was recognisable by the plaque on the front door which stated in Latin, “If You Don’t Swing, Don’t Ring”; the magazine’s second office in the 37-story Palmolive Building on Michigan Avenue, on top of which Hef plopped a nine-foot neon sign with the Playboy logo to rechristen it in 1965.
“This, of course, is an epic Chicago story that nobody in Chicago is paying much mind to…” writes Bill Zehme in an email. Zehme is a Chicago journalist and author of a book of aphorisms, Hef’s Little Black Book. Zehme agreed that if Hef had been born in New York, Playboy would never have existed. “It is the Midwestern guy who wants to learn about Living Bigger Without Apology that created the thing… for consumption by those he sensed were exactly like himself…”
Of course, not everyone agrees that Hef’s Midwestern origins—his non-cosmopolitan background, his naïveté—are a good thing. Mike Edison, who for a while was editor-in-chief of Screw, one of the more explicit American porn magazines founded in 1968 to compete with Playboy, characterised Hef as a “Midwestern rube eating fried chicken and drinking Pepsi.”
“As we get closer to month-end we realise that there are a lot of items in your cubicle or office that need to be sorted/shredded/chucked,” chirped an email sent around the Playboy offices on 15th February, two months before the Going Away party. “This is a huge task that none of us want to deal with, but in the end a team effort is best, right?”
On 22nd February, spring clean-out day, the oversized leather couches were still in the foyer on the 15th floor, but a large hole gaped where weeks earlier a piece of art had been hacked from the wall and presumably shipped to the new offices. On the 16th floor, free swag was heaped on card tables: hot blue silk teddies and garter belts with the word “Playboy” on them; a white men’s shirt with the logo, “100,000 Leagues Under My Nutsack: International Playboy Gangster”; black patent leather platform go-go boots with a bling-encrusted rabbit head pinned to the ankle. Used bean bag chairs, mini-fridges and microwaves (sans bunny heads) were to be raffled off.
A weary group of editors stood on the balcony overlooking the 15th floor, where management had kindly provided a “happy hour” open bar around which about 100 people gathered. The editors were whispering about the vending machines being removed a few days earlier and the servers being turned off, one by one, over the next few weeks.
The editorial tone was weary at other times, too. “I like smart women,” an editor told me, speaking slowly, as if to a child. And no, Playboy was not pornography. “There’s not enough in the magazine to keep a lonely guy busy on a Friday night…” said Christopher Napolitano.
Maybe critics were right: in our era the very existence of a general interest magazine for men—much less one celebrating the female body—is anachronistic. I flicked through many copies of Playboy while writing this article. What struck me more than the question of whether the images are or are not pornographic was the contrast between their technicolour monotony and how ill-at-ease Hef, who appears in almost every issue, looks. He is grimacing in some photos. In others, his face resembles a mask. He is surrounded by youth and beauty but he does not seem to be having a good time.
Hef’s impenetrability reminded me of clips from the Playboy TV shows in the 1950s and 60s. There’s something awkward about Hef, who plays the role of presenter, welcoming guests into his “penthouse.” He comes off less as an urban sophisticate than as a gangly white guy smoking a pipe. In one episode, he presents Sammy Davis Jr with a puppy. In another, Lenny Bruce rifles through the pages of Playboy and cackles, “you’re not interested in people without any money,” while Hef nods and sputters. He is hardly the suave seducer his magazine presents him to be. It is difficult to know who exactly Hef is, underneath all of the posturing. It’s possible even he doesn’t know.
But his persona, genuine or not, lives on. When I wrote for Playboy what struck me was how seriously the editors took Hef’s bon vivant lifestyle—after all, this was the core of the brand. These days magazine editors rarely drink or carouse. By contrast, over the years, the lunches I had with Playboy editors included two or three glasses, or sometimes a whole bottle, and a lot of food. One of my last lunches took place in the winter of 2009 at the Chicago bistro Coco Pazzo. Jimmy Jellinek, who had then just been hired as the editorial director, was lunching at a nearby table with another guy. Eventually, they stopped by to say that they were going swimming. In Lake Michigan. It was 4.30pm. In February.
The magazine seemed at that moment like a relic—a homage to a more abundant time, but also one I probably would have been excluded from. These days Playboy’s past feels more real than its present, more real than Hef’s Twitter feed, which has, according to Mike Edison, “the feel of old guys sitting around in their bathrobes.”
The same sort of haze hung over the Going Away party. People wandered in and out, making all sorts of pronouncements about the magazine’s future—it should be a bespoke quarterly; it was making money; advertising sales were up; it threw great parties. People were talking about their own stories of Playboy, the celebrities they had met and how they came to work there.
An hour in, the room was full. The music was extremely loud. Jimmy Jellinek had cut his lip and as he dabbed at it with a cloth, he made a speech from behind the bar, toasting the employees and thanking them for their service. We are grateful for all that you do, he said. The party lasted until 2:30 in the morning.
The next day, upstairs on the 15th and 16th floors, everything was packed in crates, ready to be shipped out west. On Monday, a cleaning crew would arrive. The lights would be turned off. A little while later, there would be nothing left of Playboy in Chicago.