Today is Hugh Hefner's 90th birthday. The Playboy founder has long been in California, but was born and raised in Chicago, started Playboy on the kitchen table of his Harper Avenue apartment, and ran his empire here until the mid-1970s.
Some people are captivated by Hef. I am not one of those people. I always shared the opinion of Mike Royko, who once wrote:
He is the world's most over-rated playboy. In fact, I'm not sure that Hefner is a playboy. He seems to be as middle-class as the people he criticizes in his giggle-giggle philosophy.Bingo. Not that there's anything WRONG with being middle-class. I certainly am. Still, I don't pretend to be the avatar of sophistication, which Hefner certainly did. Nor do I suggest that crass commercialism and unexamined carnality amounts to the nine-fold path to enlightenment.
That said, he was a personage of significance, no doubt about that. In this 2000 column, I found myself at one of his parties, and thought I'd share the experience, such as it was, to mark his birthday.
The principal of Queen of Peace High School phoned. Could I, she asked, come to their event on Monday?
Gee, I said, I'd love to, but I'm going to Hugh Hefner's party. He's showing off his twin girlfriends, Sandy and Mandy.
I could have just said, "Sorry, I'm busy." But I provided details, succumbing to the shameful braggadocio that sends people to such parties in the first place. Look at me! I was saying. I'm big and important!
Within such pride are the seeds of its own punishment. Having bragged about going, when Monday night came, I had to actually go.
That cuts across my core personality, which is to rush home each night and read Hop on Pop. First, I'm a tired guy, I like to rest. Second, when I go out, I avoid crowds. Why risk having your elbow jostled? Third, I have the most persuasive lobbyist in the world working on me not to linger downtown, in the form of a 2-year-old on the phone saying wistfully, "You come home fwum work now?"
But Hugh Hefner? The man is an icon. What guy doesn't cast a long, envious look at the life Hefner has had? Rich. Famous. All the babes in the world.
My wife thought I was going to ogle the centerfolds. But really I was going to ogle Hefner.
That view is not shared by all. The principal, for instance, surprised me by expressing disdain. Why, she asked, her voice registering part wonder, part icy disgust, would you want to go there?
I've met the principal, and like her, and was a little embarrassed to be caught bragging about something so clearly loathsome to her. Her displeasure hovered above me and kept me from joining in the easy dismissal of those protesting naming a street in honor of Hefner.
At first, the protest seems like a time warp, just for the terms used: "pornography," "provincialism," even that hoary 1920s chestnut, "free love."
It is easy to forget that the mainstream of America is a very conservative place. The fact is that sex and nudity send a big chunk of America screaming for the exits, and as fun as it is for hip urbanites such as ourselves to smirk at them, many people feel that the entire Playboy philosophy is grotesque and damaging to family life.
They're wrong, of course. Hugh Hefner has done more to foster family values than anybody. His party, for instance, was one long infomercial for being married and spending your nights at home playing Scrabble.
About 500 people packed into a dimly lit room. Unidentifiable techno disco wumping out of big speakers. Hef and three or four identical, improbably constructed women, the twins apparently among them, somehow transported through the crowd and placed on a raised podium surrounded by a nose-high wall. On tiptoe, you could just see them.
"Watch Hef dance!" a media pal urged. I gazed over the wall. Hef danced like my Uncle Max, his hands in little fists, feet planted, shoulders waggling happily for about 10 seconds.
Later, I tried to ascend to the empyrean to greet him, but was rebuffed. Having shown off to a high school principal, I was punished by being told to go stand with the other supernumeraries in the crowd scene.
My wife—her mind addled by love—had actually worried that I would become lovestruck by some Playboy centerfold and hie away with her to California. But in reality, such women are more anatomical curiosities than lust objects; closer to giraffes than people.
Frankly, the next morning, ears ringing, stomach uneasy, I realized, too late, that I would have had more fun at Queen of Peace High School, reminded yet again of the essential fact missed by both critics and defenders of Playboy: It's an illusion, harmful only to those who seek it out in reality.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, April 13, 2000