Rob Hilburger for NPR News
Hugh Hefner in his Playboy Mansion library.
Ed McNulty, NPR News
Holly Madison, one of Hefner's seven girlfriends, in the Playboy Mansion's private aviary.
Ed McNulty, NPR News
The Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, Calif., seen from the front lawn.
In 1953, Hugh Hefner was a 27-year-old freelance cartoonist when he pasted up the first issue of Playboy on the kitchen table of his South Side Chicago apartment. It was a humble beginning, but in many ways the magazine and the philosophy it espoused transformed the way the modern world looks at sex and romance.
That first issue had no date on the cover, which was a picture of a then-unknown Marilyn Monroe. Hefner wasn't sure there would be a second issue of Playboy.
Fifty years later, Hefner summed up the impact of his magazine and the media empire it spawned. "I think in a large measure we live in a Playboy world today," he says. "I recognize that I remain, even after 50 years, a controversial figure. But America has always had conflicts about sex — We remain a Puritan people."
NPR's Scott Simon recently visited Hefner at his fabled mansion in Holmby Hills, Calif., to talk about Playboy's 50-year milestone — and discovered Hefner still receives guests in his working clothes: black silk pajamas and a red velvet smoking jacket.
"He has lived here, in persistently-publicized opulence, for most of the past 25 years," says Simon. "Hefner has thrown many legendary parties over the years. The mansion is classically furnished with expensive good taste."
Some parts of the mansion seem preserved from the 1970s, when Playboy's circulation peaked at more than seven million. Hefner's media empire has since waned somewhat, but endures under the stewardship of daughter Christie Hefner, the company's president and CEO.
Playboy's circulation has stabilized at 3.2 million readers — about the same as Time and Newsweek and about three times the circulation of Rolling Stone, Men's Health or Vanity Fair.
And some people really do read it for the articles. Hefner and his editors like to point out his magazine has printed stories from some of the world's most highly regarded authors, and has scored exclusive interviews with some of the most famous and infamous figures of modern history.
Playboy's interviews with Malcolm X by Alex Haley became the foundation for Malcolm X's famous autobiography. Hefner made Dick Gregory the house comic at the Chicago Playboy Club — his act was as much social commentary as comedy. Hefner championed the caustic — and groundbreaking — satiric observations of Lenny Bruce.
But Hefner admits that the primary draw is the glossy photos of nude women inside — in particular, the centerfold.
"What I wanted to create was a pinup phenomenon that was devoted to the girl next door," Hefner says. "Beauty is everywhere — on the campus, in the office, living next door. That was the concept... Nice girls like sex too — it's a natural part of life. Don't be ashamed of it.
"Part of the sexual revolution is bringing rationality to sexuality," he says. "Because when you don't embrace sexuality in a normal way, you get the twisted kinds, and the kinds that destroy lives."