Hugh Hefner is best known as the swingingest guy on the planet and the man behind Playboy magazine, but before he became the biggest playboy of them all, Hugh Hefner was an Army soldier in World War II.
A descendant of Plymouth governor William Bradford from America's colonial days, Hefner was born in Chicago in 1926. He always had smarts (he had an IQ of 152 as a child) and showed interest in journalism early on when he started a high school newspaper.
Upon graduation in 1944, he enlisted in the Army as an infantry clerk. During basic training, he won a sharpshooter badge for firing the M1 and made it through "Killer College," in which troops went through maneuvers while throwing real grenades.
Posted at Camp Adair in Salem, Oregon, and Camp Pickett in Virginia, Hefner contributed cartoons for Army newspapers.
Upon his release from the Army in 1946, he continued his pursuit of art with classes at the Chicago Art Institute, along with a bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In the early '50s, Hefner made his first mark in the publishing world with a job as a copywriter at Esquire magazine in Chicago, but he left the magazine in 1953 after he was refused a $5 raise.
Hefner was determined to make his own name and wanted to create a magazine that appealed to spicier tastes. "Esquire was always for older guys, but it had changed, and like other magazines that were more popular, it was very much devoted to male bonding and outdoor adventure," Hefner said. "... I wanted to read a magazine that was a little more sophisticated and was focused really on the romantic connection between the sexes from a male point of view."
Hefner raised $8,000 on his own (including a $1,000 contribution from his mother) to launch his magazine; the name "Playboy" came from a suggestion to adopt the name of a defunct auto company in Chicago. (Originally, the publication was to be called Stag Party, but Stag magazine owned the rights to the name).
The first issue was produced in Hefner's kitchen, but when he included a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe in the middle of the magazine, a new word ("centerfold") and a phenomenon was born.
As founder, publisher and CEO of Playboy Enterprises, Hefner built a new image of himself: forever clothed in silk pajamas and a smoking jacket, surrounded by fabulous beauties, living the jet-setting bachelor lifestyle in his famous mansion. There have been a few bumps in his personal life, including an arrest in 1963 on obscenity charges (he was acquitted) and several divorces, but Hefner continued to live the high life into his 90s.
Whether one reads his magazines "just for the pictures" or not, he has had an undeniable impact on American pop culture, as it moved from the straight-laced '50s into the more sexually open '60s and beyond.
"I've never thought of Playboy, quite frankly, as a sex magazine," Hefner said. "I always thought of it as a lifestyle magazine in which sex was one important ingredient."
Hefner embraced his free-swinging lifestyle to the end, dying on Sept. 27, 2017, at his home, the Playboy Mansion, in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles. He was 91.
"I would like to be remembered as somebody who has changed the world in some positive way, in a social, sexual sense, and I'd be very happy with that," he once said. "I'm a kid who dreamed the dreams and made them come true."
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