Hugh Hefner and His 'Playboy' Empire 25 Years In

Newsweek published this article under the headline "Playboy's Quarter Century" on January 1, 1979. Because the creator of Playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner, died Wednesday, Newsweek is republishing the article.

A playboy, 25 years ago, was a daring thing to be, and that's what Hugh Hefner's new magazine was all about. It celebrated sex in an age of repression, the swinging sybaritic life in an era of gray flannel suits. Today, Playboy still cheerleads for sex and the good life, but it is scarcely daring anymore. Rather, it has become an institution—sometimes a mainstream guide to living well in the me-decade, other times downright old-fashioned. What it remains is a remarkably close reflection of its founder's fantasies—and over two and a half decades, they haven't changed much.

Playboy's 25th anniversary issue is Hefner's unblushing paean to himself, at all his excessive best and worst. There are the prestigious writers (in this case Gore Vidal, John Updike, David Halberstam) who give the magazine the weight and respectability Hefner craves—though not always their best work. There is also the trademark "Playboy Interview," consistently an excellent if overlong feature.

But there are also the embarrassing '50s vestiges: outdated "party jokes" and excerpts from Hefner's banal "Playboy Philosophy." The anniversary Playmate, the trophy of a nationwide search, has characteristically enormous breasts and an untouchable aura. Her name, Hefner swears, is Candy Loving. Where she doesn't fit the centerfold formula, Playboy finesses the facts: the accompanying biography touts Candy as a college coed, even though she has dropped out, and fails to mention that she's married.


Still, in a vastly increased and gamier field of men's magazines, Playboy remains (just barely) the biggest of the bunch. In the mid-'70s, circulation plummeted with the onslaught of the sex magazines' "pubic wars." "We went through a period in which we lost our bearings and started imitating the imitators," Hefner concedes. Now the magazine has halted the erosion by returning to a fresh-scrubbed approach at a time when the public taste for explicit, hard-core sex seems to be on the wane. Indeed, Hustler, the most vulgar of all the leading men's magazines, lost more circulation than any of them last year and, in apparent desperation, may become even more hard-core.

By contrast, Bob Guccione's Penthouse is pitching for respectability. The magazine's more erotic, more explicit pictures helped it become Playboy's most powerful challenger (circulation is 4.5 million vs. Playboy's 4.8 million, and Penthouse outsells its rival at the news-stand). But founder Guccione boasts about its "serious editorial content," and Penthouse runs so many doomsaying investigative pieces that its editorial voice is positively grim.


Gallery, the best of the rest (circulation: 715,000), offers the clearest clue to the direction in which the skin-magazine business is heading. Its most popular feature is the "Girl Next Door," which aims to excite by authenticity rather than explicitness. Readers send in nude pictures of their female friends and wives, and the centerfold is chosen from among them.

Playboy itself has done some updating along similar, though slicker lines. Service pieces have been added and the magazine has begun featuring somewhat more believable women. There have been spreads on National Football League cheerleaders, the college coeds of the Big Ten and the Pac 10, and the magazine is planning a similar feature on the "Girls of the Ivy League."

Hefner has defused some organized feminist criticism by contributing to causes such as the Equal Rights Amendment and the pro-abortion lobby. And now his heir apparent is a woman, his daughter, Christie, 26, a Playboy vice president for promotion and a summa cum laude graduate of Brandeis University."The magazine is changing," she says. "It has to deal with more ways of intercourse between the sexes than just sexual."


The biggest changes at Playboy have been on the corporate level. After a long period of haphazard growth, Playboy Enterprises ran into trouble in the mid-'70s, just as the magazine itself was losing ground. The profit margin in fiscal 1975 plummeted to a meager $1.1 million on revenues of $197.7 million. Hefner responded by hiring a former Knight-Ridder Newspapers publishing executive, Derick J. Daniels, 50, as his chief operating officer, and Daniels promptly fired 70 employees, sold off two losing hotels, reduced film commitments and all but abandoned the record business. Revenues reached a record $246.7 million in fiscal 1978 and profits jumped 50 per cent over 1977, to $6.3 million.

With it all, the 52-year-old Hefner lives in much the same fantasy world he created for himself in the 1950s. He has moved to a 30-room Tudor-style house in sunny Los Angeles, but he still sleeps till midday, works largely from bed and regularly greets company executives in his pajamas. Evenings are often passed in his game house, a fantasyland of penny-arcade games, or watching movies with a parade of celebrity visitors ranging from actor James Caan to former grid star Lance Rentzel. Hefner's latest girlfriend, like so many before her, is a former Playboy centerfold, 22-year-old Sondra Theodore.

"The interesting thing," Hefner says, "is how one guy, through living out his own fantasies, is living out the fantasies of so many other people." The question, as he heads past middle age, is whether his fantasies can keep pace with those of the next generation.