Legalese Column: Remembering Hugh Hefner

Clyde DeWitt's Legalese column originally ran in the December 2017 issue of AVN magazine. Click here for a link to the digital edition.

I grew up in Hugh Hefner’s hometown of Chicago, graduating from high school in 1966. Being the typical, hormone-charged teenager, I was fascinated with him and Playboy. I made a living in high school and college as a drummer; my drum teacher, one Jimmy Slaughter, was the drummer in the house band at Chicago’s original Playboy Club. Jimmy was awesome! I wasn’t, at least compared to him.

I was sort of a Hef groupie. Little did I ever imagine that someday I would be a lawyer in California—and that I would someday represent Playboy and meet Hef at the Holmby Hills Playboy Mansion.

Born in 1926, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was a couple of years late to qualify for what Tom Brokaw described as “The Greatest Generation,” but Hef’s contributions were a mix of characteristics of that generation and the Baby Boomers born in the 1950s. Hef took on Victorian morals with the tenacity of the Manhattan Project and the Normandy Invasion.

Not many readers of this magazine were around in the 1950s and ’60s. Those who were not have never lived in a society in which there was no “pill”; election of a Catholic president was a shock and a divorced president was unthinkable (as divorce generally was kept under wraps whenever possible); few mothers of minor children held a job; television was black and white (but those appearing on it all were almost all white); and government was composed of virtually 100 percent white men. Filmmaking was governed by the Hays Code, created in 1921 and including some of the following language:

“No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

“The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

“In general, passion should be treated in such a manner as not to stimulate the lower and baser emotions ...

“Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden.

“Miscegenation (sex relationship between the white and black races) is forbidden.”

What’s more, marital bedrooms were required to have twin beds—and absolutely no cussing!

(For the exceptions and how some filmmakers got around the Code before it became strictly enforced in 1934, see Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.)

In 1953, those standards, which were materially equal to those in the publishing industry, were firmly established and rigorously enforced. It was that year when Hugh Hefner challenged those standards by publishing the first issue of Playboy, including a nude picture of Marilyn Monroe. Published in December of 1953, the issue had no date on it because Hef wasn’t sure that there would be funds available to finance another issue, but hoping that enough revenue to do so would be generated from the sale of the 44,000-copy print run, financed by a $1,000 loan from his devoutly religious mother.

The theretofore unthinkable act of putting a nude photo (albeit pubic area obscured) in a magazine was the first of his many challenges to mainstream thinking. He would go on to challenge monogamy, segregation, objections to pre-marital sex, marijuana laws, discrimination against gays and more.

Not only did Hef take the Hays Code head on, he challenged the Vietnam War from the get-go. Understand that this was a time when the “Greatest Generation” was running the country—and if you didn’t live in those times, you never will completely understand how World War II dominated the Greatest Generation and its culture. War movies were ubiquitous; television shows (from only three networks) featured Men of Annapolis, West Point, Steve Canyon (“a salute to the Air Force Men of America”), Flight and many more. Even The Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko) was a comedy in a military setting, without any of the message humor of M*A*S*H, which came a decade later. The military, in which most of the Greatest Generation had served, was absolutely revered.

Hef ingeniously parlayed intellect, of which he had no shortage, with the beauty of the female body. However, Playboy wasn’t just a magazine; it was the entre into a lifestyle. Playboy featured exotic automobiles, high-fashion men’s clothing, advice for men (the Playboy Advisor), liquor (remember, 1953 was only 20 years after the repeal of Prohibition) and a host of other things—what every high-testosterone member of the species would fantasize.

And the guy made a bundle of money, which he parlayed into the Playboy Mansion in Chicago; and the Playboy Club there—and then all over the world—and even the “Bunny Jet.” And that begat the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, yet more spectacular than the Chicago version that preceded it. In the early 1960s, Playboy’s Penthouse, a show hosted by Hef and featuring a cavalcade of liberal celebrities and edgy comedians (along with, of course, bunnies) was syndicated to a number of television stations—and banned by others. In the late 1960s, Playboy After Dark was the Technicolor version of Hef’s earlier production.

Remarkably, Hefner was charged with obscenity only once, resulting in a hung jury and no retrial.

During the time I represented Playboy, the company sent me Christmas gifts. Two most interesting are a Hef bobble-head doll and a reprint of the first issue of Playboy. On one occasion at the Holmby Hills Playboy Mansion, the photo accompanying this article was taken. At the far left is Burton Joseph, FALA lawyer and then-counsel for the Playboy Foundation. While still in that position, he died of brain cancer in 2010. Burt was a terrific guy and excellent lawyer.

Far right is Jerry Kraig, another FALA lawyer. He was the president of FALA, who preceded me (early 1990s). Jerry was caught up in the DOJ’s assault on anyone who had anything to do with Reuben Sturman, who owed the IRS $27 million. Jerry was one of four attorneys who were indicted in the DOJ’s zeal to collect the money. Jerry was sentenced to prison. While he was there, he was offered to have his conviction set aside and released from prison if he would testify against his clients. He said to the FBI agent something not too different from “Fuck you!”

Hugh Hefner left a mark on society matched by very few. As suggested above, it is difficult to understand what life was like in the 1950s if you weren’t there, which was the driving force for this piece. Much, much more has been written about Hefner and Playboy—and it’s worthwhile reading.