Sunday, April 18, 2021

Flashback 2000: "Front and centerfold"

Jeff Cohen, 2000 (Photo by Rich Chapman, used with permission)

     My friend and former Sun-Times colleague, photographer Rich Chapman, sent me a photo the other day. Did I remember this? I sure did. My wife later said she had never seen a wider, happier, more genuine smile on my face than when Playboy photographer Jeff Cohen posed us with the models we were covering the day we hung around the studio.    
Photo by Jeff Cohen
     If you had told me then that I'd outlast Playboy magazine, I would not have believed you. But I'm still going, while Playboy stopped publishing a print edition ... exactly one year ago. Yeah, I didn't notice at the time either. A lot was going on in the world. 
     I've never reprinted this story before because it never got into the online archive, I think because it wasn't for the newspaper itself, but for "NEXT," a short-lived insert. But I had a hard copy in my files—score one for old technology—and it was short work to type it in. After more than 20 years, I was interested to read it again, though a little dubious, given the subject matter, how it would bear up in the MeToo era. Surprisingly well, if I'm any judge. I'm glad that. I spoke at length to Cohen's wife, Gayle, and treated the material in a direct, non-leering fashion. 
     Rich Chapman has long had his own studio, Rich Chapman Photographers. As does Jeff Cohen, who retired from Playboy in 2011, and runs Jeff Cohen Photography in a storefront in the Ravinia district of Highland Park. "I’m busy and happy and challenged creatively each day as I have been for the past eight years photographing the most charming families, impressive corporate execs and wide eyed children," Cohen reports on his web page.

     Voluptuous Vixens. Playmates in Bed. Girls of Russia. Girls of Japan. Girls of the Adriatic. Farmers' Daughters. Sexy Girls in Sports.

     Give Jeff Cohen credit. He has never gotten bored with locating the most beautiful women in the world and photographing them with their clothes off for Playboy.
     He is a trim man with a neatly cropped beard and half-glasses that give him a professorial air. he is a perfectionist—"obsessed" is a word used by someone who knows him well. He is 55, weighs 150 pounds and has for the past 25 years. He golfs twice a week, rain or shine, despite troublesome arthritis.
     His office at Playboy is small and practical, maybe 12 feet square, decorated with photos of Cohen hanging around with Cindy Crawford and Michael Jordan as well as a couch hewn from the trunk of a 1957 Chevy, which Cohen takes pride in. An assistant—he has seven assistants, all women—walks in with big strips of jumbo 120mm film.
     "I just want you to know we have film," she says. Cohen, who has been taking photos and supervising the taking of photos at Playboy for 30 years, focuses his attention on the image of a pretty young woman who will appear on a calendar—one of the myriad ways Playboy photographs are repackaged to squeeze out every last drop of revenue.

     Posed on a couch. Straddling a chair. A wall. A fence. Lounging on a bed. under a table. On the floor. Wrapped in silk. Lace. Gauze.

     Upstairs, half a dozen women in black lingerie and high heels are posing for the cover of the January lingerie special issue. They've been there all day. Cohen ambles upstairs to supervise the action.
     The photo shoot has been going on since 7 in the morning. The winner of a contest, Mark O'Neill, of Austin, Texas, is there, but his face reflects the hard truth known by everyone who has spent time around a photo shoot or movie set: The magic is in the result, not in the doing.
     "I'm getting bored," says O'Neill, glumly, rushing up to visitors on the set, desperate for distraction. "It's kind of boring."
     Cohen extracts himself from the lucky winner and goes to stand directly behind photographer George Georgiou, peering over his shoulder, murmuring suggestion.
      "He has definite ideas of what he wants to see," says Georgiou, a 10-year veteran of Playboy. "He's an easy guy to work with. We communicate really well together."
      The studio where the six women are being photographed is enormous, white, cluttered with lighting equipment and makeup tables and little bottles of spring water. Three stylists rush in to primp and preen the model's while film is being changed.
     The six models — Laurie Wallace, Sung Hi Lee, Joy Behrman, Katalina Verdin, Alley Baggett and Sydney Moon — are all Playboy veterans, and have worked with Cohen before.
     "He's always a cool guy to be around. he always makes me feel equal," says Verdin, 25. "He's a businessman. he's really, really, really professional."
     The women, despite their perfect skin and black lingerie, floating in all that white, are also all business. Standing, kneeling, flashing a pout of darting a tongue, on command.
     "Very nice ladies, very sexy. Good eyes," Cohen says. He praises the women, generally aware of the competitiveness between them. "You have to be careful what you say," he says. "If I compliment one, I have to compliment them all."
     Cohen needn't worry. if he has one quality colleagues comment upon, it is a way of handling women, of setting them at ease."
     "He is masterful," says Joanie Bayhack, a vice president at WTTW who worked as a publicist for Playboy out of college in the early 1980s. "His sense. of humor and sincerity — a wonderful, amused look in his eyes. He doesn't take this all that seriously. And his creativity never ends. He's always looking for a pictorial idea."  
      Women of Mensa. Woman of the Ivy League. Women in the Military. Women of Wall Street. Women of the Top 10 Party Schools. Girls of the PAC-10 Conference. Women of Women's Colleges.

     It was Cohen who, when Playboy's availability in 7-11 became a hot political issue, thought up: "The Women of 7-11." he also turned the tables on Playboy's female staff with "Women of Playboy." The staff needed the same special handling that any first-time model requires.
     "Ninety-nine percent of the women we photograph have never been shot nude before," Cohen says. "They're nervous. Insecure. They have to be told what to do with their hands. What to do with their body. They have all the anxieties you can imagine. There are calls from boyfriends. Calls from parents."
     Given the difficulties then, why do the women do it?
     "So many of them are getting back at somebody—a jilted boyfriend maybe," he says. "The attitude is: I can hardly wait until he sees it.' Being in Playboy is a stamp of approval."
     In fact, one of the hardest parts of Cohen's job is breaking the news to women whose photos aren't running in Playboy.
     "Being in Playboy is such a badge, such a sense of recognition," he says. "Playboy defines them. That to not run the pictures... that is tough. I hate to do it."
      It was exactly that badge, the pride of being in the flagship Playboy magazine that gave Cohen pause before he took his latest assignment. Six years ago, he was offered the position as executive editor and publisher of Playboy's special editions—those themed issues put out in addition to the magazine. At the time, they published one a month. There are no news-making interviews, no literary fiction, very little text at all. Just as the burlesque marquees used to shout, Girls Girls Girls.
     "It is what it is," Cohen says. "Each edition is 96 pages of pretty pictures of pretty women. It cuts to the chase; no bones, no apology. If you are looking for articles, for tips, buy the magazine. If you're looking for pretty women, come to us."
     For Cohen, who had traveled the world shooting spreads for Playboy—the girls of Russia, the girls of Cuba—taking the new job required soul-searching.
     "I really wrestled with it," he says. "I talked to my wife."
      Yes, he has a wife. And three kids—daughter Phoebe, 16, and sons Axel, 13, and Stephen, 18. They live in Highland Park. Gayle Cohen, manager of the Materials Possessions boutiques in Winnetka, is constantly asked the same question, delivered in many sly ways, but always boiling down to: "But Gayle. All those beautiful women. your husband, traveling, alone, without you, to all these exotic countries, meeting beautiful women in luxurious settings. Evening eventually arrives. The photo shoots must end. Don't you, ah, worry?"
This originally appeared in "NEXT," a
short-lived weekly publication.
     "I get asked that question at least once a month," she says. "How can you stand it? You must be the most secure woman on the face of the earth. The fact is, I'm not. I just know we have a really good marriage. We have a wonderful family. If he met somebody there who would make him want to reconsider what he had, and to ruin that, then he's not the person I fell in love with, then he's somebody different. It's really very simple. I trust him absolutely, completely. It never, never even crosses my mind. It did when we were first together, when I was a lot more insecure. Now I just know that what we have is really solid, the best marriage I know of."
     Gayle Cohen's impression is confirmed by the modes who know him.
     "He talks about his family. He's a very, very family person," says Verdin. "He mentions it to everybody."
     Under his guidance, special editions went to two a month, or 24 a year. Put another way, Cohen is responsible for some 2,300 pages of erotic photographs a year.
     "The challenge is finding new and creative ways of marketing the same product months after month," says Cohen, who grew up in Wilmette, graduated from New Trier, then went to Syracuse University, where he majored in economics and journalism.
     He graduated in 1967, at the beginning of the Summer of Love, and almost disappeared into a life in the advertising business.
     "I graduated on a Saturday and was set to start work on a Monday," he remembers. "Then I said, 'What? I've been going to school all my life and I get one day off?"
     Instead he hopped into a buddy's 1967 Camaro and they headed — where else? — to San Francisco. When he got back, the copywriting job was gone. Instead, he heard Playboy was hiring people, and he ended up a photographer's assistant, loading cameras for $25 a day.
     "That summer I fell in love with photography," he says. "I completely forgot about economics, thank you very much."
     Asked to describe the trademarks of a Jeff Cohen photograph, Cohen instead praises the work of other photographers, and it was that kind of self-effacing quality that nudged him toward supervision.
     "They liked my ideas more than my photos," says Cohen. "they made me a photo editor."
     Over the years he has filled many roles—for a while he was editor of Oui, Playboy's short-lived entry into more risque fare. He has seen the proliferation of silicon implants as well as tattoos, which hardly ever look good in a photo spread and, besides, can give you away if you flip the negative for layout effect and are not careful.

     Women underwater: in bathtubs, swimming pools, showers, waterfalls, ponds, oceans, rivers. Women in red: red cars, red underwear, red lipstick, red shoes.

     The six women in the photo shoot are not blushing amateurs, but seasoned Playboy models. They are a far cry from your farm girl with a dream. Alley Baggett has her own comic book and action figure. Sung Hi Lee just starred in "Nurse Betty."
     The women pose fetchingly, but not obscenely. Given the heat Playboy has received, it is actually one of the tamer men's magazines, if not the tamest. You will rarely, for instance, see a man in a Playboy photograph. "A male in the picture intrudes into the fantasy for our readers," says Cohen. "They say 'Wait a minute. I want to fantasize about her and think maybe she's fantasizing about me. If there's a guy in the picture, he's clouding it. Very rarely do we put a guy, or even a guy's hand or the semblance of a guy. All the other men's sophisticate magazines, far too many to mention, that's the new thing: couples, twosomes, threesomes, all the various machinations. Our readers are very clear about the sexual temperature we like — we like it right where it is. We're not embarrassed when we buy it. It's Playboy: good, healthy sex. We can leave it out on the coffee table."
      Except of course at his house, where Gayle Cohen tries to keep her husband's work back in his office, at least when her kids' friends are around.
     "Frankly, I don't like them laying out on the coffee table," says Cohen's wife of 22 years. "We do live in the suburbs, and I do have kids. [I tell their friends] 'I don't want to get in trouble with any of your parents.' If they call me and say it's OK to look at Playboy magazine, then all right."
     And has any parent ever called and given permission?
     "No," she says.
     That said, Gayle Cohen who met her husband while she was working at the magazine, fiercely defends both the women's right to pose naked, and her husband's right to market the result.
     "I thought being a feminist was allowing a woman to choose to do whatever she wants to do," she says. "having worked there for 10 years helps. I met these girls, lived with them, traveled with them. They're just like anybody else. They come from small towns, want to get out, don't know what their future holds. But they have a beautiful face and a wonderful body and have youth, and somebody makes them an offer they can't refuse. They are treated like queens for however long their ride is, are paid a lot of money, and for the most part they really do enjoy the experience and walk away with something."
     Jeff Cohen is no stranger to the controversy around Playboy. He has taken flack — public flack, on TV, on the old "Phil Donahue Show."
     "I was duped," he says. "I went on, and they had this feminist who had gotten her Ph.D. on Playboy. She accused me of every wrong since Eve. I dragged myself off the stage, called the PR department, and said, 'Don't ever do that to me again.' It was brutal."

     Overbite beauties. Women of Walmart. Women with Phony Smiles.—No, those aren't real pictorials, but from a Mad Magazine parody—"Playboy Newsstand Specialties"—proudly framed on the wall of Cohen's office. You know you've made a mark in the culture when Mad Magazine takes a poke at you.
      But it does reflect the central professional challenge of Cohen's life. Thinking up new layout ideas, which even the most seasoned Playboy veterans are in awe of.
     "I'm one of the biggest admirers of Jeff Cohen," says Pompeo Posar, the legendary 40-year veteran of Playboy, for whom a young Jeff Cohen first worked. "I respect how he does everything. He's incredible. He knows what he wants, always comes up with this new magazine, two a month. It's not easy, to have a new idea, something new to do. It's incredible."
     Cohen has no particular explanation for his stamina.
     "One year ago I started to get burned out," Cohen says. "But that was about the time I started to get involved with the Internet."
     Now he makes sure that those who log onto have something to look at. And something to buy.
     "This is our first foray into the calendar business," he says, showing off "College Girls 2001." "Sales are unbelievable."
     Into his fourth decade at working for Playboy, Cohen is still in top form.
     "He is the happiest man I know," says Gayle Cohen. "I once had somebody who was very impressed with Jeff say to me, 'It'
s really such a shame because he could have done so much more with his life.' I said, 'Excuse me, what more could you ask for out of life?' He gets out of bed, every morning, and has a family that he loves, smiling wonderful children, all happy and healthy and well-adjusted. He makes them breakfast, then goes happily to work every day, and never complains about it."
     Maybe the secret is that Cohen never takes himself too seriously.
     "It's fun, exciting, but my buddies get a bigger kick out of it than I do," Jeff Cohen says. "We're not working on the cure for cancer here. We're taking pretty pictures of pretty women."
                               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 17, 2000.


  1. Glad to read this. I had relationship with Playboy when I was doing radio in Chicago in the 70's. Used to "read" the magazine in front of the rack in front of a little local store store in Cupertino when I was about 13 and became a card-carrying member of the Chicago playboy Club 30 years later.

    It was always a classy place. Anybody got out of line, they were out for good.

    Did some events for Mr Hefner at the club, did some commercials for the company and one of the Playboy employees did voices and writing for my radio show.

    Sat with "Hef" and Barbie Benton in the mansion once and class.

    The photography, cartoons, articles....all great. (Yes, men DO read the articles)

    Thanks for letting me know something I enjoyed most of my adult life was as I thought.

    1. I had a classmate, in junior high and high school, who eventually became one of the major illustrators for Playboy in the Seventies and Eighties. He is a well-known and highly successful commercial artist. He's Japanese, and he signed my seventh-grade yearbook with a very small pen-and-ink drawing of the face of a samurai warrior, instead of his name.

      His Asian-themed paintings have been used in Hollywood productions, and some of his work now sells for big bucks online. And, yes, he still draws those faces of samaurai warriors. Only much larger...and in vibrant, eye-popping colors.

      I no longer have anything he did for Playboy, but sixty years later, I still have that yearbook. The best and the brightest often start very early.

  2. I'm just surprised that our host's influence did not result in one of the future issues featuring "Girls of the leafy, suburban paradise."

    Fortunately, I looked at the photos before reading today's post. (For some inscrutable reason.) Thus I had already thought -- "that's quite a broad, genuine smile on Neil's face" -- before reading his wife's spot-on observation.

  3. Picture shows you were "Taking one for the Team" that day. Certainly looks like one of the more pleasant days of working in the field. I'm sure your co-workers were happy that you got this assignment.

  4. I appreciated Playboy as much as any heterosexual male growing up in the 1970s.

    But looking back, there's one thing that bothers me slightly in retrospect:

    A lot of the "girls" who posed were aspiring actresses, students, and other types who often looked like they might be strapped for cash. I remember one particular "pictorial" featuring flight attendants from an airline that had just gone out of business. One photo showed a photo of a nude young woman sprawled on a bed, along with an inset of her on a pay phone with a page of want ads, some circled in red, in front of her. (You can tell this was a while ago.)

    Playboy may have been all about seeing the girl next door naked, but for some of those girls, it was about paying the rent on that place next door.

  5. Mr. Cohen seems a gentleman. I hope (yet doubt) that he is representative of their photography staff over the years.

    Let's not kid ourselves about the majority of the men seeking these photos that their attitude toward their subjects is one is respect, or that they'd be comfortable with their wives our daughters in that role or aspiring to be in that role.

    1. Forgive the typos, please. Hey, I'm in New Orleans.


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