Legends & Groundbreakers: Hugh Hefner

Dressed in his trademark silk pajamas, sipping from a bottle of Playboy-branded water and seated beneath a large bust of one of his greatest loves, Barbi Benton, Hugh Hefner has a lot to reminisce about.

Like how he launched Playboy magazine in December 1953, using his apartment furniture as collateral so he could publish the now-famous calendar nudes of Marilyn Monroe, at a time when newsstand nudity was unheard of; or how he weathered the slings and arrows of feminist attack while being an ardent supporter of women’s rights (the Playboy Foundation was the friend of the court in Roe v. Wade, helping fund the pro-choice campaign).

The 86-year-old media mogul — who will receive the inaugural Hollywood Distinguished Service Award today from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce in honor of those who “give back to the community” — has published some of the best American fiction and nonfiction of the past 50 years: Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Ian Fleming and Vladimir Nabokov were regular contributors, and more than 30 stories from the magazine’s pages have been adapted for film, including “The Fly,” “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “The Hurt Locker.”

And of course, there were the parties — those Gatsby-esque bacchanals at Playboy Mansion West in the 1970s, when the magazine’s circulation was peaking at 7 million readers; when he was operating 23 Playboy Clubs with 900,000 members worldwide; when online publishing, reality television and the economic meltdown of 2008 were unforeseeable specks on a distant horizon.

Today, Hefner is in a phase of intense forward motion, actively steering Playboy Enterprises into a new phase — back to being family-owned and operated, and L.A.-based. When we meet at his Holmby Hills estate, he’s a few weeks away from unveiling Playboy’s brand new headquarters in Beverly Hills, having closed his offices in Chicago and New York.

Last year he oversaw a $122.5 million buy-back of Playboy Enterprises with the help of Rizvi Traverse Management, placing him — not Wall Street or shareholders — firmly back in charge of the bunny again. “Once the company went public, we had to worry about the bottom line every year,” says Hefner. “And prior to that, I didn’t worry about the bottom line, I worried about the vision. Now I can worry about the vision again.”

So, what is that vision? “The company is basically moving towards becoming a branding company, because our marks are so iconic,” says Dick Rosenzweig, VP of Playboy Enterprises and executive VP of Playboy since 1988.

Brand licensing remains Playboy’s highest-margin business with $14.2 million in revenue in 2010, based on the company’s last earning report before going private. Worldwide, Playboy said it has 120 licensees in 130 territories.

Reality TV has also helped deliver Playboy to an entirely new demographic — young women. “When reality TV first became popular, everybody and his uncle wanted to do one at the Mansion and I was not interested,” says Hefner. “(Then) Kevin Burns, who had done a couple documentaries for A&E (about) me, came with a notion of, instead of focusing on me, focusing on the girlfriends, and that turned out to be an inspired idea.” Six seasons of “Girls Next Door” on E! and various spinoffs later, Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends are arguably as well-known as Hef himself.

Playboy is still running clubs despite just ending a relationship with the Palms in Las Vegas, and will “probably” have another club in the city. There is a Playboy casino in Macau, one soon to open in Cologne, Germany, and a casino club in London that opened about a year ago in the back of the Four Seasons hotel.

And the magazine, which has 29 foreign editions, is especially thriving in Eastern Europe, where it is seen as a bastion of the “American contemporary hipness” coveted by the rest of the world. “The magazine is really at the base of everything that we do,” says Rosenzweig. And while it may not have anywhere close to the circulation it once enjoyed (around 1.5 million in the U.S. in 2011), as a brand ambassador, “the magazine brings a lot to the party.”

Now that he has control of the brand again, Hefner has been swift to get rid of aspects of the company that gate-crashed that party, like porn. “Licensing has permitted us to get out of the part of the business that has never been my favorite,” says Hefner, referring to softcore porn channels on cable TV and websites operated by Playboy from 2001 until this year.

After going private again, he sold the adult portion of their company (once thought to make up about 60% of the entire business) to a German-Canadian company called Manwin, so that Playboy Enterprises could focus on mainstream entertainment. “Porn is something we never really wanted to get into, but Wall Street encouraged us to,” says Rosenszweig.

The relocation of Playboy to L.A., finally executed this year, has been in the cards for years. Hollywood has always been something of a spiritual home for Hefner, as evidenced by his extra-curricular passion projects. He championed the reconstruction of the Hollywood sign in 1980, and again in 2010, when he donated $1 million toward saving the landmark. Hefner has financed the restoration of more than a dozen classic b&w films, including 1945’s “The Big Sleep,” and funded historical documentaries on screen sirens Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth, Marion Davies and Louise Brooks, among others.

“Films had a major influence on my life growing up, so it’s my way of paying back what I felt I got out of the movies,” says Hefner.

So what does Hollywood mean to Hugh Hefner, the elder son of conservative Protestant parents, Glenn and Grace Hefner, and a direct descendent of distinguished Massachusetts Puritan patriarchs William Bradford and John Winthrop? “Dreams, of course,” he laughs. “Dreams.”

Legends & Groundbreakers: Hugh Hefner
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