It was just another Sunday in Beverly Hills, Calif., for Hugh Hefner. His latest girlfriend, Crystal Harris, and other playmates lounged by the pool at the Playboy Mansion, while Hefner played backgammon nearby with “the boys.” In the evening, it was movie night in the screening room: Inception, which Hef declared “a mind blower,” though he and Crystal went on to watch f afterward before calling it a night.
I know all this not because I was there, but because for the last month or so I’ve become an avid follower of Hef’s Twitter feed, a slightly anachronistic thing for an 84-year-old who wears pajamas all day: As he recently told Larry King, Harris gave him an iPad and “I’m now a Twitter bug. When I was a kid, I was a jitter bug.” In fact, I wouldn’t pay much mind to Hefner if not for the curious news recently that he was planning to make an offer to take Playboy Enterprises, the company he founded 57 years ago, private. At first glance, this would seem to be evidence of Aging Macher Syndrome, wherein people with money and power in their dotage do silly things to remain in the mix. (For instance, check out Sumner Redstone’s recent voice-mail flap with Daily Beast reporter Peter Lauria.) But now I’m thinking: maybe El Hef-e is a sharper old codger than most people give him credit for.
Playboy ceased being a giant dot on the cultural radar quite a while ago, as its magazine suffered from the same recessionary technological forces beating down everyone, and the company’s core competency—hot young ladies in suggestive repose—was usurped by the easy availability of hard-core pornography in videos and now online. In the latest quarter, revenue at the magazine in the U.S. plunged by half compared to a year ago, and the company overall posted a small loss. When most people think of Hefner today, I expect the first image that comes to mind is the benign and slightly goofy supporting role he plays in the reality show The Girls Next Door on E!.
But then watch the fascinating new documentary: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, by Oscar-winning Canadian filmmaker Brigitte Berman. In the film, you see that Hefner not only pushed the bounds of moral acceptance in the magazine’s early heyday, but that he was also a crusader for racial equality and women’s rights and even used his private jet The Big Bunny to ferry Vietnamese war babies across America. More than that, you see the present-day Hefner as lucid and thoughtful as he was as a young man hosting Sammy Davis Jr. on his syndicated black-and-white TV show Playboy’s Penthouse.
Berman said people tend to overlook Hef’s serious side because the hepcat and sexual persona is just too distracting. (Typical of Hef’s charity, he recently committed $900,000 to save the Hollywood sign from being sold to developers, the second time he has rescued the landmark since moving to L.A. from Chicago in the mid-’70s.)
Where his bid for Playboy is concerned, it’s a peculiar thing because his ostensive reasoning is that he is unhappy with the direction the magazine is taking. And, yet, he controls nearly 70 percent of the votes at Playboy Enterprises and is the magazine’s editor and chief creative officer. “It really isn’t that personal,” he told Larry King. “I want to be sure that the brand and the magazine are secure and going in the right direction.”
Hefner’s offer was initially seen by analysts as too low, and sure enough a rival company—an Internet outfit that now publishes his once great rival, Penthouse—has made what it calls a higher bid. As controlling shareholder, Hefner says he’s not selling—and he has a private-equity firm ready to go in with him on his offer. One theory, put forward by a Reuters columnist, is that Hefner understands that there are undervalued assets in the company, including its 5,000-piece photography and art collection, and particularly the storied mansion. Purchased in 1971, the 20,000-square-foot house is on Playboy’s books at $1.2 million, but ought to fetch $25 million or more were it to sell. Hefner, who is paid $1.5 million a year by Playboy, sends about $800,000 of that back to the company to pay for rent and personal expenses at the mansion.
Can the octogenarian reverse the trajectory of print publishing or Internet porn and otherwise turn back the clock to Playboy’s glory days? Of course not, but behind the wizened face and loungewear he knows the party can’t go on forever—and he knows a seductive opportunity when he sees one.