Within Playboy's pages, evocative images were often the work of its writers

Playboy magazine was once so big that jesting about "reading it for the articles," not the nude photos, was itself part of the American cultural zeitgeist. Everybody knew to what you referred. It was, after all, Playboy.

Imagine: The November 1972 issue sold more than 7 million print copies. Magazine editors today would drool. But they also know that if you did want to actually read beyond the gauzy bios of busty centerfolds, there was much to devour in an eclectic, idiosyncratic feast (or at least a Hilton Hotel-like Sunday brunch buffet for $13.95).

Vladimir Nabokov. Norman Mailer. Miles Davis. Garry Wills. Ray Bradbury. Margaret Atwood. George Carlin. Gay Talese. Jimmy Carter. Steve Jobs. Roald Dahl. And, obviously, all those nude women.

"Such a strange magazine to think of now, Playboy," says David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. "Was it liberating? It thought it was. Hefner thought it was. And that's the way it's portrayed with conviction in Gay Talese's book on the sexual revolution. And I guess for some — for some men, in particular — it really was, a break from Victorianism."

"But for my generation and certainly most younger people there came to be, inevitably, something antediluvian about it, particularly the imagery, which, after all, was the heart of the matter. The interviews were often amazing — I still remember Dylan, Nabokov, Miles, Lennon & Ono, Bette Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr., old weird Ayn Rand, and more, never really replaced elsewhere."

"And I remember some of their better nonfiction (Mailer on boxing) and their usually second-tier fiction by first-rate writers like Updike and Atwood and others. And yet it was the sex that was at its heart and the whole business and soon enough (and a long time ago), the whole shebang — the centerfolds, the objectification, the Mansion, the velvet couches and curtains, the grotto — came to seem as distant as the Flood. What might have been liberating at first became hard to recall."

Even a cursory prowling of the internet — much of the content is behind paywalls, though ultimately everything is archived and available, albeit at a price — is daunting. And a reminder of Hugh Hefner's legacy. He died Wednesday night at 91.

As The Washington Post's Hefner obituary put it, "The magazine’s in-depth interviews with leading figures from politics, sports and entertainment — including Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Steve Jobs — often made news. One of the magazine's most newsworthy revelations came in 1976, when presidential nominee Jimmy Carter admitted in a Playboy interview, 'I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.' ”

And as The New York Times obit noted, "The magazine was a forum for serious interviews ... Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and Malcolm X. In the early days Mr. Hefner published Ray Bradbury (Playboy bought his “Fahrenheit 451” for $400), Herbert Gold and Budd Schulberg. It later drew, among many others, Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, James Baldwin, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates."

Politico's Jack Shafer caught the atmospheric and editorial disjoint of it all in a tweet on Thursday: "Hefner essentially ran a private WPA for writers in the 60s & 70s that he financed with soft porn. Updike Singer Marquez Mailer Heller etc."

Like the real Works Progress Administration during the New Deal, it was a helluva concentration of talent. Garry Wills, the prolific and esteemed historian-journalist, emailed Thursday about an early 1970s Playboy writers conference:

There, he and his wife, Natalie, met for the first time a diverse A-list, such as Harvard economist Kenneth Galbraith, syndicated humorist Art Buchwald and author Nora Ephron (then still with husband-author Dan Greenberg, though the couple would see her through subsequent marriages to journalist-authors Carl Bernstein and Nicholas Pileggi). Wills spoke on a panel on "The New Journalism."

Arthur Kretchmer, who'd be the magazine's editorial director for 30 years and over beers could regale one for hours with Hefner stories (I speak from experience), would later ask Wills to do a Playboy interview with Daniel Berrigan, the prominent activist Jesuit priest. "Dan said a horrified 'No.' " And get this:

"The conference offered the world premiere of (Roman) Polanski's "Macbeth,' Kenneth Tynan as his literary consult introducing the film. I talked later with Tynan about the sleepwalking scene in the nude, asking if he had ever been in a Scottish castle at night (the cold would kill her for sure). He answered that the only reason Shakespeare did not stage the scene that way was that all his 'female' actors were boys. Deep!"

Well, the magazine's archive is certainly deep, at least quantitatively. The interviews can all be found on Amazon, such as a compilation of those with authors.

There are also offerings to be found on what individual writers deemed the most notable pieces, such as this offering on the supposed 11 best articles.

How to pick? Of those I recall in this inevitably arbitrary list, there's Norman Mailer on the "Rumble in the Jungle" fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (why can I remember every moment but not lunch two days ago?). It also goes with Bradbury's 1954 "Fahrenheit 451" (the book was actually published before but this sped sales) and a 1981 John Lennon-Yoko Ono interview.

The list includes other interviews, including one in 1962 with Miles Davis. The interview included this historical riff:

"In high school I was best in music class on the trumpet, but the prizes went to the boys with blue eyes. I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn."

To quickly peruse some of the interviews is to be reminded of how Playboy offered a big audience to a variety of cultural notables, including Martin Luther King a year after the "I Have a Dream Speech."

How about a 1968 sit-down with director Stanley Kubrick, not long after the release of "2001: A Space Odyssey" in which he took this shot at New Yorkers' response to the film:

“New York was the only really hostile city. Perhaps there is a certain element of the lumpen literati that is so dogmatically atheist and materialist and Earth-bound that if finds the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema.”

Here was actress Bette Davis in 1982:

“I believe abortion is better than having 10,000,000 children you can’t support … When I was a child, born in 1908, education taught you that your destiny was to marry and have children. Just because you’re a woman — but that is not your destiny. There are many great women who were just never meant to be mothers, that’s all. We are improving this way enormously.”

And a Steve Jobs session in 1985, the very year he was canned at Apple and started NeXT Computer, opined on new tech companies taking over from an older guard.

“That’s inevitably what happens. That’s why I think death is the most wonderful invention of life. It purges the system of these old models that are obsolete. I think that’s one of Apple’s challenges, really. When two young people walk in with the next thing, are we going to embrace it and say this is fantastic? Are we going to be willing to drop our models, or are we going to explain it away? I think we’ll do better, because we’re completely aware of it and we make it a priority.”

If your tastes inclined to the more cerebral, there was the 1964 look into the mind of Nabokov, author of "Lolita."

"For my nymphet I needed a diminutive with a lyrical lilt to it. One of the most limpid and luminous letters is ‘L.’ The suffix ‘-ita’ has a lot of Latin tenderness, and this I required too. Hence: Lolita."

"However, it should not be pronounced as you and most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta, with a heavy, clammy ‘L’ and a long ‘o.’ No, the first syllable should be as in ‘lollipop,”’ the ‘L’ liquid and delicate, the ‘lee’ not too sharp. Spaniards and Italians pronounce it, of course, with exactly the necessary note of archness and caress."

Got it?

In 2013 Amy Grace Loyd wrote for Salon about her being hired in 2005 to revive the great literary tradition of the magazine (as it was clearly on its downward path). And she wrote about a dinner party.

"'It’s all assholes! Naked assholes!' The sixty-something woman, New England born and bred, well assembled with a Roman profile and bright coral lipstick, was apoplectic. The dinner party had been going well, without incident anyway, until my mother mentioned I worked at Playboy as an editor. She was proud that I did."

And so was Loyd during her tenure, which included running a Denis Johnson original novel, "Nobody Move," at 10,000 words an installment. Yes, 10,000 words an installment. Of course, just working there had its pluses and minuses. She had to constantly fight off the notion that she was "available," as the vernacular of the day went. 

"My time there made me a better editor, probably a better and certainly a more resilient person; and even when I knew I had no place there anymore, as the editorial direction changed and the New York offices and then, only a few years later, the Chicago offices closed, I didn’t regret a day of it. I still don’t."

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former chief media writer, The Poynter Institute.


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