RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here's a television statistic that could make you go: hmm. "The Girls Next Door," a reality show that chronicles the lives of Hugh Hefner's three beautiful, blonde live-in girlfriends, has an audience that's 70 percent female and most of them younger women. Today we turn to the much older Hugh Hefner as part of our series The Long View. It's been more than five decades since he first launched Playboy magazine.
We arranged to meet him at the Playboy Mansion here in L.A., of course. We were ushered into his wood-paneled library. As I was peering at his Picasso and ceramic tiger and family pictures, Hugh Hefner strode in wearing his signature silk pajamas.
Mr. HUGH HEFNER (Founder, Playboy Magazine): It's a big event when I put my pants on, you know. And the reason I wear pajamas all the time is because along the way I discovered I could get away with it. And as a matter of fact, people were kind of disappointed if I showed up in a suit.
MONTAGNE: Before he was Hef, Hugh Marsten Hefner was born in 1926 on Chicago's West Side, when it was still, he remembers, surrounded by prairie.
Mr. HEFNER: My folks are farm people from Nebraska; both teachers, both university graduates. Very happy childhood, but a very Puritan childhood, a lot of repression. So I escaped very early into dreams and fantasies that were fueled by and large by the movies and the music of my childhood.
MONTAGNE: What would you have been seeing in that dark movie theater?
Mr. HEFNER: Well, all sorts of films, but probably the ones that had the most impact on me were probably the musicals - the Astaire and Rogers films, the Busby Berkeley films, Alice Faye. I think I still am smitten by girls who look like some of those - I think that's part of where that blonde thing comes from right now. And I think that directly related to the images that came from childhood. I think a lot of us, whether it's conscious or unconscious, create love maps in our early years that we play out then thereafter.
MONTAGNE: You were in uniform during World War II, in the Army. I wondered, between the two biggest pin-ups at the time, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth?
Mr. HEFNER: Betty Grable all the way for me. Yes. And before her, Alice Faye, and Jean Harlow.
MONTAGNE: So all these girls or these women - they're sexy, but really, Betty Grable you would say was something of a girl next door.
Mr. HEFNER: Yes.
MONTAGNE: When I realized that the reality show was named "The Girls Next Door" - I mean, to me that's not an accident.
Mr. HEFNER: Oh, no. No, quite the contrary. The Playmate of the Month, the centerfold, came directly out of the influences of pin-up photography and art from World War II and before. But what set them apart was what I described at the time as the girls next door. But it all comes from that notion of being a fresh, wholesome all-American person, and in the context of the Playmate, a sexual icon. The recognition that - and it was the statement that the Playmate of the Month was all about - that nice girls like sex too. Very revolutionary in the 1950s; in some quarters radical even today.
MONTAGNE: Did you have a girl next door?
Mr. HEFNER: But always, of course, from grade school on, but there was a classic story in my 16th summer, in 1942. My summer of '42, in which I met a girl whose name was Betty - Betty Conklin. She knew how to jitterbug. We learned to dance the jitterbug together. She had a full set of drums in her living room because she was a big fan of big band Gene Krupa. She was a member of a girl club and they held a hayride and all the girls invited boys, and she invited somebody else. And it crushed me. And as a result of that, I reinvented myself. Started referring to myself, instead of Hugh - a name that I didn't particularly care for - I referred to myself as Hef. Changed my wardrobe.
MONTAGNE: From what to what?
Mr. HEFNER: From clothes that my parents had bought for me - gabardine suits and etc. - I started wearing yellow cords and saddle shoes, and what I thought were cooler clothes. And created a comic autobiography. I called it School Daze - D-A-Z-E - in which I was the center character in a world of my own. And in the last year, year and a half of my high school, I became a class leader, wrote songs, sang with a campus band, etc., all as a result of that rejection.
MONTAGNE: Have you ever written her to thank her?
Mr. HEFNER: I see her several times a year.
Mr. HEFNER: Oh, yes, sure.
MONTAGNE: Oh, you're still good friends.
Mr. HEFNER: Oh yes. Yeah. She lives in California and she comes and visits. I have tended to stay in touch with some of the people who were important to me from long ago. I tend to do that. I tend to stay in touch with the boy who dreamed the dreams. Yeah. And in 1959, 1960, after I had started the magazine, I used the magazine to reinvent myself in a very similar way as I had done in high school, and became the living personification of the magazine; became, in effect, Mr. Playboy.
MONTAGNE: What did you make of the point at which the women's movement would have focused in on Playboy and your philosophy...
Mr. HEFNER: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: ...and said this was demeaning and insulting to women?
Mr. HEFNER: Yes. Well...
MONTAGNE: And you've had a lot of time to think about it.
Mr. HEFNER: Yes. I think that my initial reaction to it was what are they talking about? I mean, the women's movement - the best part of the women's movement is a direct result of the sexual revolution that we've been trying to make a case for, you know, since the 1950s.
MONTAGNE: But you knew that they meant it seemed to be in the service of men's fantasies. I mean, you knew that's...
Mr. HEFNER: Well I would like to hope that it's also a female fantasy.
MONTAGNE: I mean, how much evidence of outrage do you get about the fact, though, that you're 80-something and you're living with three women, not one, not two, but three...
Mr. HEFNER: Remember, I'm cutting back; there were seven a couple of years ago. So I'm showing my signs of my years, you know.
MONTAGNE: So it's a little harem - a compact harem.
Mr. HEFNER: And a primary relationship that will last the rest of my life.
MONTAGNE: This would be...
Mr. HEFNER: Holly.
MONTAGNE: Hugh Hefner.
Mr. HEFNER: Yes.
MONTAGNE: Eighty years old - eighty-one years old. It's ridiculous.
Mr. HEFNER: He's doing what a lot of other people wish they could do. What he's doing is basically not having life dictated by years. That's what he's doing. Now, is my life the life that everybody else should be living? Of course not. Everybody should be picking their own road to Mecca. But I would hope they would do it with as much love and compassion and celebration as I do.
MONTAGNE: Hugh Hefner, still editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine. Hear more conversation at npr.org. Tomorrow we talk to another, tinier legend in the world of talking openly about sex - Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She once made videos for Playboy.
Dr. RUTH WESTHEIMER (Sex Therapist): First of all, the videos for Playboy, nobody was naked. Put that down right away for NPR.
MONTAGNE: Taking The Long View with Dr. Ruth - tomorrow.