Hugh Hefner’s death Wednesday at age 91 brought to mind a special piece of history that we have in our house: a Braille edition of Playboy magazine.
Yes, when subscribers to the Braille version of Playboy say, “I only read it for the articles,” you know they’re not lying.
With all the visual appeal of a brown paper bag, the Braille Playboy is one of dozens of popular magazines reproduced for the blind at taxpayers’ expense by the Library of Congress since the 1970s — although it is the only one that is gender-specific enough to be described on the library’s website as offering “fiction, interviews and articles with a male perspective.”
Unfortunately, the regular Playboy magazine’s reputation among social conservatives as a creation of Satan led to what the Washington Post called the “Braille Budget Battle of 1985.”
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After heated debate, Senate budget hawks forced the library to stop funding the publication. Blind Playboy readers sued and won. A U.S. District Court judge ruled that depriving the visually impaired of “Party Jokes,” “Ribald Classics” and “Playboy Forum,” among the magazine’s famous features, was a violation of their First Amendment rights.
My wife, Lisa, then a staffer in the magazine’s public relations department, brought the Braille Playboy home after it no longer was needed as evidence. I am proud to have it, not only as a footnote to America’s history of constitutional freedoms but also as a symbol of the conflicts that still boil around Hefner’s legacy as a successful publisher, CEO, TV show host and agent of social change — for better or worse, depending on your point of view.
Hefner had fought similar battles against censors ever since his first issue came out in 1953 with a still-rising star named Marilyn Monroe on its cover and as its first nude centerfold.
As easy as it is today to write off Playboy and Hugh Marston Hefner as relics of a less enlightened misogynist past, I have long admired his legacy as a private sector CEO on the cutting edge of social change.
He famously launched comedian Dick Gregory’s career by hiring him as a one-night replacement at Chicago’s Playboy Club in 1961, a breakthrough at a time when black stand-up comics were still confined to black audiences.
The magazine also published such important black authors as James Baldwin and Alex Haley — and such famous black interview subjects as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
The magazine also occasionally published such important female writers as Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Hefner pushed similarly progressive lines for such other rising issues as gay rights and the war against AIDS. But, despite such gestures as a fundraiser for the Equal Rights Amendment in Chicago’s Playboy Mansion, the magazine’s relations with the rising feminist movement always have been fraught.
Feminist Susan Brownmiller drew the line during a debate with Hefner on Dick Cavett’s TV talk show. In a reference to the skimpy costumes worn by Playboy Club “bunnies,” she said he would have more credibility when “you’re willing to come out here with a cottontail attached to YOUR rear end.”
Yet the irony of the great Braille debate is that it came at a time when Hefner’s global empire was in decline. By the end of the 1970s, social change and competition with other media led to layoffs, the closing of the Playboy Clubs, the grounding of the Playboy jetliner and Chicago native Hefner’s move with the company’s corporate headquarters to Los Angeles.
In a breathtaking move of desperation, Hefner even tried publishing Playboys without nude women, a clear sign of an identity crisis for the iconic publication. In its heyday, Playboy struck a winning balance between literature and porn. It offered a visionary lifestyle — “What kind of man reads Playboy?” said its promotional ads — that, by Hefner’s own admission, appealed to the teenaged boy inside every man.
The irony of Hugh Hefner’s legacy, after years of trying to reconcile Playboy with the rising independence of women, may be that it appears to be largely flummoxed by the changing attitudes of men.
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