Kicking Him When He’s Down: The Complicated Legacy of Hugh Hefner

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NO MATTER HOW you felt about him, the death of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, who died last week at his famous mansion in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles, was one of those passings that got a lot of people worked up.

Since Hefner passed away at the ripe old age of 91, a large chunk of what has been written about him has been pointed, harsh, and incredibly critical.

In fact, it’s been surprising that there’s been so much negative stuff written about a man who was pretty liberal and progressive all his life by a national media that seems to be growing more liberal and progressive themselves these days.

That’s an irony to ponder on another day.

Kicking him when he’s dead and gone

It seems like there’s a never-ending number of highly negative Hugh Hefner articles on the Internet, sort of kicking a guy when he’s down, or in this case, dead, gone, and unable to respond. Here’s just a small sample of what I’m talking about:

My favorite? It had to be this article from The Sun newspaper in the UK — The Only Thing Hugh Hefner Liberated Was the Zip on His Trousers.

Yes, it’s hard to argue with that one.

A very complicated legacy

Hefner’s legacy will undoubtedly be a complex and complicated one, and USA Today just scratched the surface on that last week when it wrote:

Some say Hefner … freed the country from its Puritan roots, and moved it toward sexual freedom. As the legendary founder of Playboy magazine, Hefner took nudity mainstream. He promoted what was, in the middle of the last century, a radical philosophy about recreational sex. Former Playboy models from Cindy Crawford to Pamela Anderson remembered him as a trailblazer, and many credited him with launching their careers.

But many feminists say Hefner objectified and infantilized those he claimed to liberate, in the pages of his magazine, in his business (grown women in bunny tails) and in his relationships.”

The Sunday New York Times jumped into this as well. It published a remarkable column from Ross Douthat, a guy I usually find to be fairly reasoned and thoughtful, that was just full of vitriol for the Playboy founder. Here’s a short but very telling excerpt:

Sure, Hefner supported some good causes and published some good writers. But his good deeds and aesthetic aspirations were ultimately incidental to his legacy — a gloss over his flesh-peddling, smeared like Vaseline on a pornographer’s lens. The things that were distinctively Hefnerian, that made him influential and important, were all rotten, and to the extent they were part of stories that people tend to celebrate, they showed the rot in larger things as well.”

Hefner DID save the Hollywood Sign

Say what you will about Hef, as his friends called him, but there are also a lot of things that you may not know about him that are pretty interesting:

Hugh Hefner, in pajamas, as usual.
  • Hugh Hefner jumped in when no one else would to save the famous Hollywood Signtwice — and he was remembered by Curbed LA as “guardian of LA’s most recognizable landmark.”
  • Hef hosted Saturday Night Live back in its third season on October 15, 1977, where he famously (and not surprisingly) sang Thank Heaven For Little Girls. As the TV Club described the performance, “The whole “poor Hef, he gets laid all the time and is rich beyond his wildest dreams” gag is as spineless as it is unfunny.”
  • According to the Los Angeles Times, the Playboy Mansion is “among a select number of L.A. homes to have a zoo license. Aviaries and arboretums filled with exotic birds and monkeys are among structures on the grounds. Other birds and animals roam freely throughout the park-like setting.” How many houses can you say that about?
  • His third wife, Crystal Harris, was 60 years younger than Hef. They married back in 2012 when he was 86, and she was 26.
  • He sold his famous Mansion back in 2016 to J. Daren Metropoulos, heir to a fortune built on Chef Boyardee meatballs, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and Bumble Bee tuna, for a reported $100 million. Under the terms of the sale, Hefner and his wife were allowed to continue to live in the mansion until his death.
  • The sale of the Playboy Mansion, according to the LA Times, set a record at the time as “the biggest home sale ever recorded in Los Angeles County. The newspaper also said that, “the Gothic Tudor-designed home of nearly 20,000 square feet has 29 rooms, including chef’s and catering kitchens, a game room, a wine cellar and a screening room with a built-in pipe organ. The master suite, one of 12 bedrooms, spans two floors.”
  • Hefner will be buried in a crypt next to Marilyn Monroe, who appeared on the cover and inside the first issue of Playboy, at Westwood Village Memorial Park. He bought the crypt back in 1992 for $75,000, and he said at the time that, “I’m a believer in things symbolic. Spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up.”

A complicated legacy

Hefner spent the last 45 years of his life living in Los Angeles, and his famous Playboy Mansion was a popular stop on all those “Homes of the Stars” tours. That’s despite the fact that the place had fallen into disrepair and was pretty rundown.

Vice described it back in 2013 as “kinda depressing.” With Hef now gone, the property will undergo a major renovation, according to the New York Post, and will become a private residence for J. Daren Metropoulos.

Love him or hate him, Hugh Hefner had a gigantic impact on America and the world for more than 60 years. As with so many controversial figures, I suspect that how history views him will change a great deal with a little time and perspective.

Back in 2009, Hefner reflected on his complicated legacy and told The New York Times: “We just literally live in a very different world and I played a part in making it that way.”

As the Huffington Post noted, “It’s hard to argue with that.”

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