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Hugh Hefner: Inside ‘Playboy’ and the Race to Show More in America’s Magazines

From Bob Guccione’s ‘Penthouse’ competition to the publishing race to show more nudity in America’s magazines in the 1970s

This is Part 1 of the story, titled ‘The Pubic-Hair Papers,’ that originally appeared in the December 20th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.

hugh hefner 1973 rolling stone cover

It was the summer of ’36, and Henry Luce had a problem. Just off the press was the dummy of his new magazine Rehearsal, ultimately it would be called Life. The problem was this feature devoted to the camera of Paul Outerbridge Jr. On one of the center pages was a female nude, frontal full as anything and untroubled by the airbrush.

“It was just something for the advertisers,” a surviving executive recalled. “Of course we couldn’t go ahead with it.”

Western Civilization was not yet ready for pubic hair.

PART I: Stations of the Crotch

It was the summer ’56, and Arnold Gingrich had a problem. Gingrich was the editor of Esquire, a sophisticated mix of prestigious writing, upwardly mobile storytelling and such spicy artwork as the Petty Girl, the Vargas Girl and photographic spreads of, for instance, Anita Ekberg, laid out on Gingrich’s own invention: the centerfold.

This formula had pushed Esquire to a circulation of 800,000, but Gingrich was not happy. “The visual side had become absurdly over-emphasized. The pinups!'” he recalls. Gingrich had tried to prune the raunchiness a bit, yet Playboy magazine, a far raunchier, three-year-old upstart, had already built up two-thirds of the Esquire circulation and was gaining fast. Drastic steps had to be taken.

“I remember it was over the Fourth of July,” says Gingrich. “l took a whole briefcase full of those sleazy magazines home with me – Playboy, Dude, Gent, Nugget, Cavalier – and I discovered that the one thing they had in common was the gatefold, the fold-out center spread. Well, my God. We still had that. I came back and said, for God’s sake, let’s get rid of it!”

New staff was brought in. Ralph Ginzburg, who had caught Gingrich’s eye with a piece on the then tricky subject of eroticism, became an editor along with another new man, Clay Felker. Ginzburg was violently opposed to Gingrich’s new perception.

Playboy was a peanut whistle at that time. but it was a comer,” recalls Ginzburg, “and they figured that the best way to get rid of the problem was to cut the sex out or Esquire, which, in effect, was self-castration.”

“So that was the end of sex in Esquire; they just gave the field up to Playboy.”

Felker disagrees. “Playboy had out-titted us. We had a lot of advertising and it would have been a matter of giving up the advertising For many years Playboy could not sell advertising, in any significant quantities. At that time, it was an absolutely proper decision for Esquire. We’re going to get rid of the girls! Gingrich created the centerfold, and he took the thing that he had created, and abandoned it! A terrific piece of editorial courage.”

Eighteen months later, Ralph Ginzburg was fired; he moved on to Eros, Avant Garde, and three years’ jail for sending obscenity through the mails. Clay Felker now edits New York magazine. Arnold Gingrich is still publishing Esquire, whose circulation at first dropped, then recovered, and now stands at around a million and a quarter. Playboy sells nearly six times that.

Did Gingrich realize he would be limiting the growth of his magazine? “Oh well, you see, I always thought of it as limited. Our decision was to try and make a magazine in which thinking could be fun. I never dreamed of a mass acceptance, and” – ruminatively – “I don’t think Hugh Hefner did either. He was just caught in this great upsurge of the times. He happened to be standing in the way.”

The rise of Playboy and Hugh M. Hefner has already acquired the lineaments of legend.

It is told how Hugh Hefner. then a $60-per-week promotions department man, was offered $80 when Gingrich decided to move Esquire to New York and Hefner quit, partly because he had held out for $5 more, but mainly because of his distrust of the effete metropolis.

It is told how Hefner then went to work for George von Rosen, whose small stable of magazines included such successful girlie products as Modern Sunbathing and Figure Annual. There followed a brief stint in the circulation department of Children’s Activities, during which Hefner was already laboring in, his apartment on his own magazine together with Eldon Sellers, an attorney, and Art Paul, a freelance Chicago artist. Sellers has since returned to private law practice; Art Paul, who was paid off in stock, remains the art director, presumably the richest art director in the world.

It is also told how Hefner produced the first issue on $600. What is perhaps less well-known is that it was to have been named Stag Party, an unabashed steal from another male mag of the time, Stag, and that Art Paul went so far as to produce a jaunty little stag emblem. But Stag threatened to sue.

“Some people don’t realize how close we come to doing it. We actually had the first issue ready to go to press with the stag instead of the rabbit,” Hefner recalls at his Los Angeles chateau.

The first issue was out in November, 1953, undated because Hefner was uncertain how long it would take newsstands to move 67,500 copies at 50 cents apiece. It contained much editorial matter written by Hefner himself; out-of-copyright, namely free, fication reprints (Ambrose Bierce), plus its first splash nudeness, the Marilyn Monroe calendar, which was to become the most famous pinup ever. Since Marilyn had hit it big, the calendar was a little-seen but much-discussed scandal. Hefner bought the rights for $500 from the Baumgarth Calendar Company, and attributes to it much of the first success. The issue sold 52,000 copies, a smash.

Marilyn had, in fact, been called Sweetheart of the Month. The Playmate was an innovation of the second issue and didn’t blossom onto two pages until the third. By the beginning of the third year, Hefner wrote, “Playboy‘s Playmates lie in the desk drawers of lie in desk drawers of junior clerks and top executives of the nation’s biggest businesses. … The Air Force is considering the use of Playmates with their slide lectures to hold the pilots’ interest.”

Playboy was on its way, but as a pure girlie magazine? No. From the beginning there was a fuller vision. Volume 52 of Hefner’s meticulous Graphic Autobiography, written while Playboy was at the planning stages, includes this revelatory passage: “I’d like to produce an entertainment magazine for the city-bred guy – breezy, sophisticated. The girlie features would guarantee the initial sale, but the magazine would have quality. too.” Later, he reasoned, with cash in hand, they could reduce the sex and increase the quality – really produce an Esquire-type magazine.

playboy plane bunnies big bunny hugh hefner

Well, the years passed, and Playboy did indeed wax fat and rich. Auguste Comte Specktorsky arrived as managing editor and proceeded to upgrade the contents. “At first,” Hefner recalls, “he even wanted me to change the name.”

Lofty rates, equaled only by the Readers Digest, were paid to writers and artists. Irreproachable liberalism prevailed. Certainly Hefner was never mad enough to cut back on the sexiness too far, any more than he would have changed the name, but the fusion of sex and upward-mobility was complete: Class. Stockbrokers, instead of sliding the mag into their briefcases lot privy moments, read it quite openly on the subway. Playboy was established.

And now, years later, Hugh Hefner, like Arnold Gingrich before him, had a problem.

Much the same problem, in fact – another apparently seedy magazine rapidly achieving alarming sales. It was called Penthouse.

Bob Guccione, 43, is the editor/publisher of Penthouse. He brought it from England to America in 1969, spewing out statistics, threats, predictions. “I know exactly when we will be overtaking Playboy,” he exulted. “Five years from the time we came here. We are increasing by the rate of 350%. Each year without fail. And if this started diminishing by 50% a year, even 70 or 80%, simple mathematics show that we shall overtake them by September 1974.”

Playboy is no longer dismissing the mau-mauing. They do not, for a start, enjoy the Penthouse advertising. The first ads exploited Art Paul’s $10-million bunny, but with variations. The rabbit had, for instance, a twisted grimace, and the copy read What Bugs Bunny? “We’re just waiting for Hefner to sue,” Guccione says, “but he isn’t that dumb.”

At one advertising conference Guccione was discussing roughs with a balding adman and with Ron Guccione, a cousin, formerly a marketing consultant out on the West Coast. The first ad was tricky, especially since it was destined for the New York Times. It read: ARE WE HARD ON AGING PLAYBOY?

“My feeling,” said Ron Guccione, “is that a lot of people really look forward to these ads. We hit them pretty hard, but it’s acceptable because it’s all in good, clean fun.”

But the New York Times ad, he felt, was a bit raunchy. Another showed the bunny avidly reading Penthouse.

The copy: PENTHOUSE ENVY?

“The age thing,” Bob Guccione said, “it murders them. Believe me, that upsets them.” But, he wondered, is the rabbit quite Playboy enough? “I think one of the strong points is keeping the logo as close as possible to the original,” he said.

“We’re abusing their logo,” said Ron. 

“Defacing their precious little bunny that nobody ever touched before,” agreed Bob. “And there is merit in people mistaking the ad for a moment.”

“When people start mistaking Playboy and Penthouse, Playboy is in trouble,” said the adman.

“That,” said Bob, “is when you’re really bashing away.”

The conference took place in Bob Guccione’s private hotel suite. Guccione is not a man who works in the office. A handout details his modus operandi:

“Working in any country in Europe or the Americas, at any hour or the day or night, Guccione maintains a complete and personal interest in both the larger strategy or besieging the Playboy stronghold and in the minutest details of his magazine and clubs.

Rarely seen by his staff, he keeps in touch, Hughes-like, by telephone, telex and through the medium of his personal aides, who are invariably girls of Penthouse centerfold caliber – that breed of cool, elegant, beautiful but very real women that Guccione has made his hallmark throughout the free world.

“His assault on Playboy is exceeding expectations, his Penthouse book-publishing division is burgeoning, and he has new and substantial interests in hotels and leisure resorts.”

Is there a touch of deja vu about this?

“I’m not trying to compete with Hefner,” Guccione claims. “I’m not trying to imitate him. The sort of thing l’m going after now is what I’ve always wanted. It’s the way I like to live.”

Yet Guccione seems to find it difficult to discuss Penthouse except in terms of Playboy. “Penthouse is more realistic than Playboy. It isn’t hypocritical,” he says “Playboy projects the sexual identity or Hugh Hefner – which is the closest thing to a closet queen that I know of.”

hugh hefner playboy mansion

And the Penthouse girls?

“They’re real people. They enjoy doing what they’re doing. They aren’t the traditional girl next door. Playboy will shoot a luscious, desirable, sexy nude on one page, and on the next they’ll show her playing softball with her Uncle Harry, or at home batting pics with her mother. On the one hand you want to fuck her, on the other you think, what kind or dirty-minded guy am I?”

The first Penthouse show of pubic hair – a discreet fluff belonging to the then Miss Holland – was published in February, 1970. “We just decided to go ahead and do it,” Guccione says. “It was the right time … Pussies are in, breasts are out.”

We are looking through some up-coming photo possibles. Coverage on various women. Penthouse girls, I remark cautiously, often appear to be fingering themselves.

“That’s right,” says Guccione.

Uh. Why?

“Because that’s what girls do. Don’t take it from me. Ask them.”

He digs out a new picture, posterior, shot sort of through. The female organs, while not quite attaining Danish Blue definition, are quite unmistakably there. Isn’t that unusual?

“Yes, very,” he says. whisking out a couple more and examining them fondly, “Great pubic hair,” he concludes.

How does one tell great pubic hair from merely good pubic hair!

“Like everything else. Like the hair on a girl’s head. Some girls have a … nice, well-shaped, well-defined pubis. Some girls have straggly hair. and long hair. Sometimes I have to take scissors and cut it and shape it myself.”

Oddly enough, it’s widely accepted – even in the Playboy Towers – that Penthouse was responsible for breaking the pubic hair barrier. But that’s simply not the case. Playboy was there first.

It happened in November, 1969, but there was a curious prelude 10 years earlier in the August ’59 issue, in a feature entitled, “On the Town in Chicago.”

“There was a spot in Cicero called the 4811 Club that Hef wanted us to cover,” recalls former photo editor Vince Tajiri. “The club was topless-botlomless a decade before San Francisco. And there’s pubic hair evident in the picture. It’s more than a shadow. And I say to Hef, ‘Aren’t you going to retouch it?’ Hefner says, ‘No. I’m going to run the picture as it is.’ And he ran the photograph. But small.”

Small indeed. The entire woman is about an inch high, but Vince Tajiri was taking no chances. He ordered up a set of 8-by-10s and asked for some retouching. “You know, shaped up the triangle where it was a little ragged. Made it look like a G-string. And I said, ‘Make it look like it just didn’t reproduce.'”

The original contact sheet, as used in the magazine, was concealed in Tajiri’s desk, while fresh contacts were made from the treated prints. Duly, the FBI arrived a few days later, scrutinized the prints with avidity and glumly left.

Over the next few years. Playboy simultaneously savored its growing respectability and cautiously pushed forward. “At first the breasts couldn’t be facing the camera,” remembers photographer Mario Casilli. “I couldn’t show the nipple. In fact, my first Playmate was covered with a rose. The next thing was that you could show the nipple in profile. And then, if the woman was nude, you couldn’t have any hand contact with a male.”

But 1969 was the formative year. First there was the feature coverage of nude performers from the Living Theatre (in August) and Oh! Calcutta! (two pieces, the first in October). “They provided us with certain kinds of rationales,” remembers an editor, “because these were performances being put on in public; it was a reportage type of thing to document these performances and show them to our readership. It wasn’t a thing which we, Playboy, were creating.”

Then in November Playboy went all out in its display of Paula Kelly, a dancing member of the Sweet Charity musical. She was photographed by Lawrence Schiller (who recently produced the Mailer : Monroe book) and is shown dancing in time-exposure against a black background – seven separate out-flung poses, moving from right to left.

The pubic regions are quite explicit in poses two and three. This was three months before Guccione’s Dutch treat.

The heavens did not fail, The photographic treatment was notably “artistic,” suggestive of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Also the treatment was more athletic than erotic. In fact, the spread quite likely would have produced no reaction at all if Paula Kelly didn’t happen to be black.

“The only readers who commented on it were black readers,” remembers an editor. “They wrote in and said, ‘So, when you want to show pubic hair, you have to show a black woman: They were outraged.”

The next step was predestined. If Playboy has a female anima, it resides not in the cartoons or the action reportage, but in the centerfold. Yet more than a year went by before Playboy, perhaps waiting for the shock waves that never broke, presented its first pubic Playmate, Liv Lindeland.

The edition was January, 1971, and the photographer was Alexas Urbas. “I didn’t set out in my head to do it,” says Urbas. “It was a matter of arriving at a pose in the test pictures in which her figure looked best.”

The picture was sent up to Chicago, where it found Hefner in a receptive mood. “It wasn’t a decisive thing, immediately,” says Tajiri. “It was left in kind of art ambivalency until the last moment, when Hefner said: ‘Let’s run this one, and we‘ll see. Let’s do it.’

“I happened to see the proofs in the production manager’s office. The pubic hair was very definitely there. The photograph was lit with sidelights and everything, so that the hair itself was highlighted and obvious. And I said, ‘I think we’re gonna have to knock down the highlights on the hair: The production manager, John Mastro, said, ‘OK. We’re gonna do that.'”

hugh hefner 1966 playboy bunny club london

Mastro took the proofs over to the Hefner Mansion. Hefner pored over them on his light-box. Considered. Came to the final decision, alone. “Leave the highlights as they are,” he said.

“You know, it was kind of a drastic change for us, so Mastro and l were both a bit surprised by it,” Tajiri recalls. “But that was Hefner’s decision.”

Hefner is inclined to minimize the Penthouse influence on his own thinking. “Penthouse is trying to make promotional mileage out of the notion that they were involved in our making the decision,” he observes, somewhat bleakly. “Quite simply, at that point, their circulation was so small that their influence on us was comparable to Screw‘s. There were other things happening. At the top of the list was the more permissive attitude in films. The decision to make the magazine what I call, not more permissive, but more mature, is a matter of what we felt, in our judgment, out part of society was ready for.”

What seems to bug the bunny crowd most about Penthouse is its success through raunch – that, in fact, it isn’t a closer imitation. Which raises the question of how far Playboy will be willing to go in future pubic competitions. Would it, like Esquire, give up its numero uno spot in the male rating for “good taste”?

“Yeah, sure,” says Mike Lawrence, an energetic Playboy editor. “Assume the worst. We’re off a few hundred thousand, and this diminishment occurs at the peak of Penthouse‘s self-promotion. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that we are losing readers to Penthouse. But I have to ask, who are those readers? lf we’re losing readers who want to read letters about sex with girls with stumps instead or legs, if we’re losing readers who are really interested in seeing a picture take-out on bondage, it we’re losing the waterworks crowd, I’m very happy to be rid of them. I’d be tickled to death lose the jerk-offs, so that we can be freed to produce a magazine of greater excellence!”

Meanwhile, Hefner, publishing genius and man of the world that he is, realized that you didn’t necessarily have to choose between the two: You could publish a magazine of greater excellence and still keep the jerk-offs. The solution was to publish a magazine of, well, lesser excellence, one that, like Penthouse, was sexier, funkier and more international. It was called Oui.

At that time, Parisian publisher Daniel Filipacchi was trying to hawk the U.S. rights to his Lui magazine, the best of the foreign Playboy rip-offs. He had already approached Guccione, with whom he publishes the French edition of a Penthouse spin-off, Forum, and Guccione had turned him down. He was about to close a deal with Ladies Home Journal when Hefner heard of it and moved in, reportedly settling on a 50-50 arrangement.

To translate Lui into Oui, Hefner assembled a small staff on the 15th floor of the Playboy Towers. The first dummy proved one thing: Nobody had actually read Lui. “And when they did,” recalls an editor, “they found it a drag. The articles were about boring things, which nobody here cares about; or if they were on American subjects, they were totally misleading, filled with great assumptions the French have about the United States. And the magazine was going into production it was a panic situation.”

Jon Carroll, managing editor or the Los Angeles Times‘ now-defunct Sunday magazine, West, was hired as editor. He arrived in Chicago on June 20th, 1972, the wrap-up date, and ripped the whole magazine apart, then brought in a Mission Impossible team of radical California journalists to patch it together. “Jesus, it was bizarre,” one remembers, “We were these out-of-town weirdos overrunning the place. I didn’t leave the Playboy complex for six days.”

Somehow the plan worked. The first issue, published in September, sold 800,000 copies. Six months later, the magazine was averaging sales of one-and-a-half million. “In terms of growth of circulation,” Carroll said later, “we’re the most successful magazine in the history of the world.”

Yet older Playboy executives began to have doubts about the young rebels at Oui, quickly dubbed the California Mafia. “They have a sort of contempt for the work they do,” said a Playboy editor, fretfully. “And you can’t produce a magazine like that.” For instance, the Oui staff would take the girlie pix from Lui, junk Lui‘s banal tits-n-ass captions and replace them with their own irreverent vision:

“Robin Olson bounces when she walks. Her tits grin. Little birdies in the trees wave and smile. Small forest animals cavort and snorkel at her feet. … Why is Robin Olson happy? Have you ever seen a tit grin? Under what circumstances?”

After a lew issues, Playboy decided to take some control; it began slottingits own staffers into the Oui masthead. A memo was issued on May 28th, 1973:

“You realize. of course, that we’re in a tight circulation bind now, and it will get worse before it gets better. Playboy, Penthouse, Gallery and Oui are all fighting for the Same buck … only Penthouse isn’t hurting.

“We’ve done some pretty deep analyses of Penthouse, and there’s no getting away from the fact that one of their greatest appeals is an unabashed preoccupation with sex. Without imitating them, or even trying to compete with them in the magnitude of their preoccupation, I think we’ve got to get into sex in a major way. …

“Of course, Oui has gotten its toes in the water. But frankly, I’ve detected an attitude I think is unhealthy (for circulation). … Some of the people on Oui resent Hefner’s insistence on putting sex into the magazine. On the one hand, they fight it, and on the other hand when compelled to give in, they say to themselves: ‘Well if he wants sex, we’ll give him sex,’ and they go an reproduce vulgar, unappetizing manifestation of it.”

That same month, Carroll resigned, amiably, and moved to Berkeley, California, as a contributing editor. At his farewell party he was told, “The trouble is, you were never a company man.” Nat Lehrman, a Playboy veteran, was installed as acting editor of Oui.

Oui has got to be frisky,” Lehrman said later. “It’s got to be Continental, and European. And it’s got to get into sex.”

Are there significant new frontiers?

“I think all the frontiers have been reached, except for the fucking shots … I would have no objection – and I don’t think Hefner would either – to running good fucking shots in Oui. If we thought we could do it tastefully, in a good-looking way. And not shock our readers.”

Lehrman grinned, benignly. “And not get arrested.”

As Oui was conceived to counter Penthouse, Gallery came into the ring against Playboy. It was the brainchild of Ron Fenton, an Ohio financier who has built up a tidy computer business in London, where he was impressed by the Guccione success story. Gallery’s figurehead publisher was attorney F. Lee Bailey; its first editor was James Spurlock, a bearded and disgruntled former staffer at Playboy.

Gallery made its debut in November, 1972, one month after Oui; and if Penthouse and the rest were spin-offs from the Playboy format, Gallery came out looking like a defective clone. The cover logo is so close to that of Playboy‘s that somebody in a hurry could well buy it by mistake. The Gallery Interview was with Jack Anderson, the Playboy subject that same month, and the joke page following, yes, the centerfold is embellished with a female sprite much like Playboy’s Femlin, sporting thigh-length boots instead of black stockings.

A publisher’s letter from the super-lawyer confides. “You may expect a Hefty supply of dressed and undressed ladies.” However, “this is not to declare an intent to enter the current publishing contest to see who can print the most daring display of pubic hair.”

Gallery was not, in other words, about to tangle with Penthouse. It was after Playboy, and the closeness of the imitation reportedly outraged F. Lee Bailey. I met Spurlock while passing through Chicago; he told me that now Gallery was going for quality – an identity. There would, he assured me, be changes made.

There were. By the time I returned to Chicago, Spurlock, Bailey and the fake Femlin had gone.

The new editor is Don Pierce, formerly a producer of TV commercials and still very much the rakish adman, with glasses on top of his just-too-long hair, a medallion, buckled loafers and an air of as much enthusiasm as is compatible with hip.

The Gallery office is on Michigan Avenue, about a minute‘s stroll from the Playboy Towers. “They’re right across the street, OK?” says Pierce, “I love it I’m sitting here and it’s 2 o’clock at night, OK? And I’m getting tired. I just go and lean out of the window: There’s the competition! The lights have been on a lot more, recently.”

He Ieafs through some piles or conceptual centerfolds. “Penthouse started the pubic hair war, right? They were the first to show pubic hair . The next step Guccione innovated again. He got to showing girls touching feeling themselves, masturbating. Playboy has had its leadership usurped, This,” he explains, “is the Seventies.”

And what happens next?

An odd, covert expression comes into Pierce’s face. “There is the Ultimate Centerfold, OK?”

The Ultimate Centerfold?

“Well, we experimented with a guy and a girl, and it’s not very erotic. As a matter of fact, it’s really pretty phony. And here’s one which implies oral sex. OK? But it’s weak. Does it turn you on?

“We’re actually developing a centerfold concept right now. I would say that if you’re not developing a concept now, you’re in trouble. Pubic hair is a concept. Touching is a concept. All we’re dealing with is concepts.”

I am still, frankly, a bit puzzled.

“The problem has been that the centerfold is such a static concept,” he explains. “Let’s shake it up a bit.” He claps his hands. “Gallery has more open sexuality. There were two girls in it. The thing to do is to give it … a life. By making it a fantasy, or kinetic in its implications or its set-up, OK? You can make it more than what it is.”

Awed, I pressed for details. Again, that covert look.

“We’re going to be more erotic, OK? We’re going to be more erotic. I can’t tell you exactly what we’re gonna do; we have to have a few things up our sleeves.”

Pierce sets up a meeting with Ron Fenton. “He’s a dynamite guy. A fabulous, fabulous guy to work with. Completely opposite or Hefner. We’ll fix for the limousine to take you to the Mansion.”

The Playboy Mansion, I know. The Penthouse Mansion, I have been house-hunting for. And this is?

“The Gallery Mansion,” Pierce says.

I prepare to leave, trying at the same time to sort out all the new information spinning in my head. As I approach the door, Pierce calls after me: “I don’t know who is gonna do the Ultimate Centerfold. But I think we have a pretty good shot at it.”

In any event. the limousine (a black Lincoln Continental leased by Fenton to the company) is laid up, so I reach the Gallery Mansion by cab. It is on North Astor, a matter of yards from the Big Bunny Mansion, and a small Hefneresque TV camera zeroes in on me at the door. Fenton is in conference, so I am conducted past the fountain in the hall to a murky Gothic living room. Female statuary protrudes here and there from the dimness, and a gilded cupid offers a basket of plastic fruit. And – surprise – there is a girl, a wasted redhead in a shorty smock, darning her blue Levis by the light a color TV.

Another girl enters and asks what I would like. “Champagne,” I suggest; I get Cold Duck.

Fenton’s conference is over. He comes in and conducts me next door to the Conference Room, at one end of which stands a pool table in a drizzle of yellow light. Fenton picks up a cue and pots a few. “Hefner may be mad for backgammon,” he says, “this is my game.”

“A lot of people,” I say, “accuse you of–”

“Plagiarism?” Fenton asks.

“Uh, yes. What are the reasons for the—”

“Similarity?”

I get the feeling this ground has been gone over before. Why is the cover slug so similar?

“It’s identical,” says Fenton. “It was a business decision. And it’s not a registered trademark. Hefner was allowed 30 days to challenge, and he didn’t. I’ve got a statistical head. Statistically, at a newsstand the decision is made in less than 22 seconds. So how do you get their attention? You look like a similar successful product.”

And if people accuse him of producing a rip-off?

“I say sure. Why not? I’m not going to copy a loser.”

How then will Gallery actually differ from Playboy, or Penthouse?

A brooding pause. “Penthouse is erotic. Playboy tends to be plastic. And we are . . . realer. We don’t like to project a girl in a degrading posture. In one issue we have Xaviera Hollander licking her own tit, but that’s in context.

“Only the other day I had somebody come in and say, ‘You know what Gallery is? It’s like Playboy, but funkier.'” He sweeps an arm through the air, taking in the pool table and, through the doorway, the redhead danseuse still stitching to Mission: Impossible.

“More!” raved Fenton. “Now!

Probably even Ron Fenton is surprised at how fast his Xerox thinking has caught on. Coq is aimed in the same direction. It was put together by George Santo Pietro, a former associate of Ron Fenton’s on Gallery, and it likewise originates from Chicago. And Santo Pietro has carried Fenton tactics to some sort of logical conclusion by acquiring Bailey’s jealous rival, Melvin Belli, as front-publisher. (Belli says he has since resigned.)

I telephone. “Coq magazine,” says a receptionist. She pronounces it Coke, not Cock.

George Santo Pietro comes on the line. He is effervescent. “Do you want to see our Mansion?” he inquires.

The Coq Mansion is downtown in a disused warehouse, next door to the Kafka Manufacturing Company. A seedy neighborhood, but, says Santo Pietro, hereabouts both Playboy and Gallery were launched. The Mansion occupies an upper floor, converted with a certain chic: dark cork walls, graphics, gloom, and I Sing the Body Electric playing on an SAE unit. “I found this in Playboy merchandising,” says Santo Pietro with a laugh of controlled hysteria, “and I’ve laid … so many chicks since I got it.”

I ask if there is actually room for another Playboy-type book.

“I don’t believe the field’s crowded,” he said. “Right now, you have 13,600,000 circulation in this field.” Some $450,000 has been raised, and within a year, he predicts, Coq should have snaffled 10 percent of the market. An empire: Coq merchandising further magazines. “This is a challenge to Oui. And Gallery. Gallery is not a quality magazine; there’s room for a magazine with Good Taste.”

Ah yes, taste. A three-page color brochure shows the sort of thing that George Santo Pietro has in mind. It is not unstylish. On the cover, a blonde peers through sherry-colored light, seeming pensive, as well she might since a bulky copy or The Last Days of Pompeii is balanced on her right bosom. Interior pix show Mick Jagger, a sailboat, and five naked women in various phases of sexual togetherness. One of them, Guccione-style, kneels on a white wicker chair, displaying the essential pubes and twiddling her nipples as though tuning in on some unfathomable station.

“I see the Coq girl as being entirely diferent from the others. A girl who is natural,” exults San Pietro. “Girls who are natural are much kinkier. If you realize this, and realize that good taste brings it about, you’ll have no trouble realizing what Coq will be. Nudity is a beautiful thing, provided it’s handled properly.”

Rocky Aoki, the former Japanese Olympic wrestler, now a millionaire restauranteur, was the subject of a piece in the first Gallery. “It’s a good bet that most of his dreams will materialize,” said the profiler, not anticipating that his next dreams were to be a magazine, Genesis, and a hostess club of the same name.

On May 2nd, 1973, the first issue of Genesis was sent to the printers (date-lined August), and included a special gimmick: two centerfolds. The editor’s introduction disclaimed any notion of joining the “imitators of Playboy,” and tut-tutted that Penthouse pictorials are “an exercise in permissiveness which closely approaches the underground press.” Genesis, contrariwise, will show the goodies “without losing sight of the fact that beauty as well as good taste should not be separated.” This issue is distinguished by 20 separate tasteful pix of the pubic regions.

“Hugh Hefner,” Aoki says, “is a man for the Sixties. I am a man for the Seventies.” (This, by the way, is more flattering than Guccione, who says that Hef is a man for the Fifties.)

And how will Genesis differ from Penthouse, Gallery, Oui, or whatever?

“We intend to become a combination of Esquire, Sports illustrated and Gentleman’s Quarterly,” Rocky explains ebulliently. “Don’t be fooled by the first issue. It was just slapped together.”

By mid-1973 the pubic hair race was wide open, and there seemed to be no limit to the number of entrants. Playgirl, “The Magazine for Women,” appeared in June with naked photos of Lyle Waggoner and Ryan Macdonald, plus ads for Frederick’s of Hollywood and the Playgirl Club in Garden Grove (“one-and-a-half miles south of Disneyland”), California.

“We came from Orange County and started in a crummy little office,” explains art director Norbert Jobst. “We printed 600,000, and it was sold out in three days. There was such an interest, an overwhelming interest, even in a piece of shit like our first issue.” Within a few months, Playgirl had grown to two million, running neck-and-neck with Oui.

In September there was the inevitable assault on the black market with a magazine culled Players, featuring black nudes exclusively. “Sure, we’ll use white girls,” says editor Wanda Coleman. “When we’re established.”

That same month, the women’s market was entered by, of all people, Bob Guccione with Viva – “Edited by men who really love women for women who really love men.” It was promptly derided as “Penthouse in drag.”

As more pubic publications sprouted, editors and artists bounced between them like members of the Sexual Freedom league. Coq’s staff was joined by Myrich Feldman, formerly of Oui and Gallery. Don Pierce, former editor of Gallery, went to Oui. James Spurlock quit Gallery to design his own magazine, Touch, with art director Ron Blume, formerly of Playboy.

Touch, says Spurlock, will be a male-female magazine. “It will be couples. We may show pubic hair, but it will be romantic rather than sexual.” It will do Rocky Aoki’s Genesis one better by including a centerfold plus two fold-outs. And, oh yes, there will be a Touch Mansion, says Spurlock.

And there are more hairy titles on the horizon: ValleyVenusEasy. Sighs Dick Rosenzweig, Playboy senior vice president, “It’s amateur night in the publishing business.”

Inept as these publications might be individually, they’ve had an undeniable cumulative effect. Playboy finally started hurting … not too badly – circulation drilled down a few thousand from the desirable seven million mark – but for a magazine accustomed to a steady climb, it was infuriating.

The questions are: How long will the trend continue? And now that the pubic frontier has been crossed en masse, what next?

“We’re waiting,” a Playboy editor told me gloomily. Waiting for what? “Waiting for Guccione to go pink.” “Going pink” is just what it sounds like – a photographic genre introduced mainly in Copenhagen, wherein the female sex organs are opened for inspection. It may be as erotic as open-heart surgery, but its effect on sales is literally incalculable. Would Penthouse Do It? And what would Playboy do?

“I hear that Penthouse is crossing the next barrier,” an editor told a photographer.

“I heard they were gonna show clit. And Hefner will have to test it with Oui,” said the photographer.

Playboy editor Mike Lawrence disagrees. “You can’t compartmentalize a corporation like that. Publishing a beaver magazine would reflect very poorly upon Playboy.”

Then on June 21st, Chief Justice Warren Burger and his Supreme Court voided their own liberalizing 1966 safe-guard, laid down obscenity laws and pushed the buck to “communities,” leaving the laws uniquely susceptible to vigilante interpretation.

“This puts the skids on the search for the Ultimate Centerfold,” Don Pierce said, “and the search for the cracked beaver shot is gonna end.” Bob Guccione publicly took up an attitude of Churchillian truculence, but privately conceded that a certain slowing of the pace would be in order.

Hugh Hefner’s feelings were complex. It so happened I was speaking to him at his Los Angeles Mansion within hours of the decision; his reaction was decisive, if mixed.

“It’s going to hurt some of the others more than us,” he said. “But that doesn’t stop it being a … preposterous and devastating decision. It’ll close up hard core ’round the country. Unhappily, as far as we’re concerned.”

What about the Great Pubic Race? Will there be some rollback here?

“Conceivably. l couldn’t say.”

Didn’t he expect something like this?

“We expected it. But we didn’t expect it to be as foolish as this. We didn’t expect that a split level decision should return the country to a state where there isn’t free speech.”

Well, at least it won’t put Playboy back there, on the frontier?

The skin above Hefner’s nose became corrugated. He didn’t think that Playboy ever left the frontier. “Listen, all the sexual revolution being won – it shows they still need us.” A glow. “There’s the Good Fight still to be done.”

Later, at a party, Hefner added, “All the crazies can come out of the woodwork. All the weirdos will come out and play with themselves.”

“The Return of the Klan,” said a movie distributor.

“I didn’t know they went away,” said Hef.

But it is Penthouse, not Playboy, that has been stopped in its tracks. “It’s deplorable, of course,” says a Chicago Playboy executive with a bit of gloat in his voice. “But it shouldn’t affect us too much. We’re not an obscene publication.”

In This Article: Playboy, Playboy Mansion

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