In 1956, looking to raise the tone, Hefner hired Auguste Comte Spectorsky, an East Coast sophisticate, as his editorial director, and Spectorsky brought in fiction by Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, and the like. But to the history of journalism, and probably to the readers, too, Playboy’s fiction was far less important than its interviews, inaugurated in 1962. Among the subjects were Miles Davis, Peter Sellers, Bertrand Russell, Malcolm X, Billy Wilder, Richard Burton, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jimmy Hoffa, Albert Schweitzer, Nabokov, Jean Genet, Ingmar Bergman, Dick Gregory, Henry Miller, Cassius Clay, and George Wallace, and that’s just for the first three years. The questioning was long (seven to ten hours) and confrontational. Presumably for that reason—and maybe, too, because this was a skin magazine and what the hell—the subjects often said what they did not say elsewhere. As a result, their words are still being quoted.
In 1959, with the money rolling in, Hefner bought a palatial house in Chicago and spent four hundred thousand dollars, a fabulous sum in those days, on its renovation. The magazine repeatedly ran photo features on this seventy-room “Playboy Mansion”: the vast ballroom, presided over by two burnished suits of medieval armor; the indoor swimming pool with a glass side, so that from downstairs, on party nights (Friday and Sunday, without fail), you could watch the other guests skinny-dipping; and, most important, Hefner’s bedroom, with a round bed that could accommodate twelve. (He liked group sex.) The house also had a girls’ dormitory, and after 1960, when Hefner’s corporation opened the first of its Playboy clubs, in Chicago—there were eventually forty Playboy clubs, casinos, and resort hotels in the United States and abroad—many of the waitresses, the highly publicized Bunnies, lived there. Most of the women who were being photographed for the centerfold also stayed at the Mansion. Hefner says that during some years he was “involved” with maybe eleven out of twelve months’ worth of Playmates.
In the seventies, the Playmates tended to be photographed not outdoors but in a setting that bespoke the editor’s deluxe headquarters—wood-panelled rooms with Oriental carpets and brocade upholstery. It’s very clear that the woman in the photograph does not live there; she’s just staying the night. By this time, the centerfold was flanked by a lot of auxiliary material. There was a bio of the Playmate, its information no doubt heavily airbrushed. There was also a “Playmate Data Sheet,” where the woman, in a sort of Catholic-schoolgirl handwriting (which, curiously, was the same from month to month), listed her goals in life, her favorite movies, and so on. There were also side photos, in which, released from the master’s library, the Playmate is shown in more natural situations—taking a shower, walking on the beach—and finally she looks sexy. But in the centerfold she is stuck in the Ralph Lauren world of Hefner’s imagining, and she looks as though she were thinking about how much she’s going to be paid and whether, in consequence, she can get brocade like that for her couch.
In the nineteen-eighties and thereafter, the artificiality only increased, as did that of all American mass media. The most obvious change is in the body, which has now been to the gym. Before, you could often see the Playmates sucking in their stomachs. Now they don’t have to. The waist is nipped, the bottom tidy, and the breasts are a thing of wonder. The first mention of a “boob job” in “The Playmate Book” has to do with Miss April 1965, but, like hair coloring, breast enlargement underwent a change of meaning, and hence of design, in the seventies and eighties. At first, its purpose was to correct nature, and fool people into thinking that this was what nature made. But over time the augmented bosom became confessedly an artifice—a Ding an sich, and proud of it. By the eighties, the Playmates’ breasts are not just huge. Many are independent of the law of gravity; they point straight outward. One pair seems to point upward. Other features look equally doctored. The pubic hair becomes elegantly barbered—the women favor a Vandyke—or, in a few cases, is removed altogether. This was part of an increased explicitness. With the shrinking of the pubic hair, the labia majora become visible. From the seventies onward, the magazine now and then offered twin Playmates, even a set of triplets—all in the same bed, of course—and with them comes the first whiff of lesbianism. In Mirjam and Karin van Breeschooten’s centerfold, Mirjam is casually unlacing her twin’s teddy.
Much of the costuming is standard erotic wear: lace and leather. The poses, too, are often traditional. Again and again, we see the full-frontal stance with the déhanchement—said to have been discovered by the sculptor Polyclitus in the fifth century B.C.—in which the body’s weight is shifted onto one leg, thus creating two different, beautiful curves at the two sides of the waist. But, not infrequently, the magazine—or Hefner, for he is said to have carefully controlled all the centerfold shots—gets bored with these time-honored arrangements and puts the women in poses that no one else ever dreamed of. Isn’t it hurting Miss December 1966’s bottom, you think, to have it propped on the edge of those piano keys? That stereo turntable that Miss January 2004 is splayed over: Is it a B. & O.? How much is the repairman going to charge? Strangest of all are the scenarios in which the women are presented to us. Miss December 1992 is our waitress at the diner. She wears a collar and cuffs, a sporty little hat, red pumps, and nothing else. The magazine, in other words, has ceased trying to imagine a situation in which a woman might conceivably be naked; it has just come up with any situation—the girl might be receiving the Nobel Prize—and then removed the clothes. How much irony is operating here? I don’t know. Maybe none. In the introduction to “The Playmate Book,” Hefner says that looking through these pages should be “not unlike visiting your high school reunion.”