×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Hugh Hefner, Playboy Founder, Dies at 91

Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner died on Wednesday at the Playboy Mansion in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of West Los Angeles. He was 91.

The media mogul’s influence went far beyond publishing — he created the sexual revolution nearly single-handedly (with some help from the advent of the birth control pill and the rise of feminism).

After starting the status quo-shattering Playboy magazine in 1953, Hefner went on to launch TV and film companies, finance documentaries, and preside over the Hollywood social scene from his bubbling Jacuzzi at the mansion, a frequent location for industry events. The mansion, which had became somewhat run-down, was sold in 2016, but the terms of the sale specified that he was allowed to live there until his death.

He is survived by his wife, Crystal, and four grown children: Christie, who served as CEO of Playboy Enterprise for more than 20 years, David, Marston, and Cooper, who currently serves as Chief Creative Officer at the company.

“My father lived an exceptional and impactful life as a media and cultural pioneer and a leading voice behind some of the most significant social and cultural movements of our time in advocating free speech, civil rights, and sexual freedom. He defined a lifestyle and ethos that lie at the heart of the Playboy brand, one of the most recognizable and enduring in history. He will be greatly missed by many, including his wife Crystal, my sister Christie, and my brothers David and Marston, and all of us at Playboy Enterprises,” said Cooper Hefner.

The man affectionately known as Hef created and guided the Playboy brand for half a century, helping to usher in the freewheeling ’60s and making a mark on that decade’s significant influence on movies, TV, and pop culture. It’s only fitting that Hefner planned to be buried in Westwood Memorial Park next to his fellow mid-century icon of sexual freedom, Marilyn Monroe.

Posing in Playboy served as a launching pad for a number of women who went on to greater fame, including Jayne Mansfield, Kim Basinger, Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith, Jenny McCarthy, and Kelly Monaco. A number of women who were already famous chose to pose in the magazine to boost their popularity, including Ursula Andress, Linda Evans, Raquel Welch, Nastassja Kinski, Joan Collins, Suzanne Somers, Sharon Stone, Shannen Doherty, Drew Barrymore, Farrah Fawcett, and Lindsay Lohan.

The eternal bon vivant personified the playboy image, dating many women, such as Barbi Benton, who appeared in his magazine and marrying Playmate Kimberley Conrad in 1989 when in his 60s (they had two sons, Marston and Cooper). They separated in 1998, and a rotating cast of young women moved into the mansion, spawning in 2005 the reality show “The Girls Next Door,” among whose stars were Kendra Wilkinson, who went on to her own reality show.

Among the Playmates with whom he was involved were Shannon Tweed  and Carrie Leigh, who filed a palimony suit against him. Eventually his reputation dimmed a bit as the octogenarian continued to prop up his hard-partying image amid a revived feminist movement.

Born in Chicago, Hefner was a writer for a military newspaper while in the U.S. Army, then went to work as a copywriter for Esquire magazine. Determined to create a better publication, he launched Playboy in 1953 for $600; the first issue, featuring a nude photo of Monroe, was a big hit, selling 53,000 issues. Providing a counterpoint to the repressive climate of the era, Playboy went beyond the sleazy girlie mags of the times with professional photography and articles by well-known authors.

Long before branding became a common concept, Hefner expanded the magazine’s reach through merchandising, nightclubs, event sponsorships, and TV shows and made the iconic bunny head silhouette a familiar signifier of male sophistication and hedonism.

Hefner hosted the talk show “Playboy’s Penthouse” after getting divorced from his first wife in 1959, then launched the Playboy clubs (at their peak, there were 40 around the world). He hosted the TV series “Playboy After Dark” in 1969 and ’70. “Playboy After Dark” was known for its inclusive approach at a time when many talk shows still booked mostly white male guests — the show featured appearances by artists including Tina Turner, Sammy Davis Jr., the Grateful Dead, Deep Purple, Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, Harry Nilsson, Grand Funk Railroad, James Brown, Iron Butterfly, Linda Ronstadt, and Joe Cocker.

Launching Playboy during the conservative 1950s was a risky move, yet somehow Hefner was not arrested until 1963 (he was subsequently acquitted on obscenity charges). The magazine rose in popularity throughout the 1960s, and Playboy Enterprises was at its peak when it went public in 1970. After suffering through a recession and competition from magazines such as Penthouse, the company sold its resort interests and gradually phased out the Playboy club business. As the cause of sexual freedom began to be taken over by hippies and the counterculture, Hefner moved to Los Angeles in 1975 to become more involved in TV and film production.

He dabbled in the film business, serving as exec producer on “Macbeth,” “The Naked Ape,” and “Saint Jack” in late 1970s, then was involved in several documentaries on classic Hollywood figures including Lon Chaney, Marion Davies, Clara Bow, and Rita Hayworth.

After 40 years as a publicly traded company, Hefner took Playboy private in 2011.

Playboy Entertainment has owned cable Playboy TV cable channels around the world and has an active Playboy online division. The empire at various times also included the Playboy Jazz Festival, involvement in “The Playboy Club” TV series, a record company, resorts, and merchandising operation Playboy Licensing, which put the ubiquitous bunny logo on everything from golf clubs to Troll dolls.

The documentary “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” came out in 2010. Several filmmakers had tried unsuccessfully to get a feature film biopic off the ground. Finally Amazon ordered the biographical series “American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story” from Stephen David Entertainment. The makers were given unprecedented access to his archives and footage.

Hefner had two children with his first wife Mildred Williams, Christie and David. Christie Hefner became head of Playboy Enterprises in 1988.

Hefner was a longtime supporter of causes including First Amendment rights; he donated money toward the restoration of the Hollywood sign and to USC’s film school, and at times supported the Democratic Party. He formed the Playboy Foundation in 1965 to fight censorship and support research into sexuality.

More TV

  • Little Mix Star Jesy Nelson Making

    Little Mix's Jesy Nelson Making BBC Documentary About Mental Health and Body Image

    Little Mix star Jesy Nelson is making a one-off documentary for the BBC in which she will explore issues surrounding body shaming and mental health in the age of social media. “Jesy Nelson: My Story” will launch on the BBC’s youth-skewed online channel BBC Three and then play on BBC One. Girl band Little Mix [...]

  • MMA Alters Faces of Asia Sports

    MMA Alters Faces of Asian Sports Broadcasting

    Bruce Lee was ahead of the curve by about four decades when he predicted back in the early 1970s that combat sports would one day take the world by storm. Hong Kong’s favorite son had encouraged his own students to mix up the styles of martial arts they were being trained in — to combine kung fu [...]

  • Variety Kit Harington Game of Thrones

    Kit Harington on How 'Game of Thrones' Mirrors Real-World Politics

    In Variety‘s March 19 cover story, Kit Harington opens up about the final season of “Game of Thrones” and growing into adulthood as part of the biggest show on television. In a conversation in London in December, Harington opened up about the similarities between the series’ politics and our own. “I think it’s always been about [...]

  • Chris O'Dowd

    TV News Roundup: Chris O'Dowd to Star in 'Twilight Zone' Episode

    In today’s roundup, The CW has released two clips from the upcoming “Riverdale” special “Heathers: The Musical,” and Chris O’Dowd will star in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”  CASTING Chris O’Dowd will star in CBS All Access’ rebooted “The Twilight Zone” episode titled “The Blue Scorpion.” The series will premiere with two episodes on [...]

  • Kevin Tsujihara

    Kevin Tsujihara's Ouster Kicks Off a Week of Major Disruption in the Media Business

    The sudden ouster of Warner Bros. Entertainment chief Kevin Tsujihara kicked off what is likely to go down as one of the most extraordinary weeks in Hollywood history, spelling enormous turmoil and transition across the media landscape. In addition to the news about Tsujihara, which comes amid a wider shake-up of leadership at AT&T’s WarnerMedia, [...]

  • Wendy Williams Sober Living House

    Wendy Williams Reveals She's Been Staying in a Sober-Living House

    Wendy Williams, during an emotional monologue on her talk show on Tuesday, revealed through tears that she has been staying at a sober-living house. “So you know me for being a very open and truthful person,” she began the segment on “The Wendy Williams Show,” fighting through tears. “And I’ve got more to the story [...]

  • Hong Kong Industry Executives Seek Clarity

    FilMart: Hong Kong Industry Executives Plead for Clarity on Mainland Chinese Tax Policies

    At a time of heightened scrutiny of tax affairs in China’s entertainment sector, even industry veterans in Hong Kong are struggling to figure out how to operate in the new financial environment and pleading for more clarity from the Chinese government. Hong Kong produces about 60 films a year, three-quarters of which are typically co-productions [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content