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.