INTRODUCING "THE EPIPHANY," one of the "Etc." pieces in Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc., Lethem explains that selling the piece to Playboy amounted to "a secret victory, since I'd had several stories rejected on the basis that 'Hef has a policy against any mention of masturbation.' I suppose they figured he wouldn't know what le petit mort meant."
Le Petit Mort was the name of Lethem's villain, and of Hefner's silent business partner. "Hef told me he thought everyone who masturbated was deeply ashamed of masturbating, and so it was Playboy's job to keep it 'our little secret,'" Dian Hanson tells Mike Edison in the latter's new newsstand-porn chronicle, Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! Of Playboys, Pigs, and Penthouse Paupers: An American Tale of Sex and Wonder. Hanson, the former editor of Leg Show and Taschen's "sexy books editor," with The Big Book of Breasts, The Big Butt Book, and the new Big Book of Pussy among her titles, took a different tack:
What they didn't realize is that a lot of their readers felt guilty because they really thought that no one else was masturbating to the pictures, that they were the only ones, that it was shameful ... One of the first things I did with Leg Show was to acknowledge that it was for the purposes of masturbation, and that we were happy with that. It was a big part of the attitude. We said that what really turns us on is, Look at us and masturbate.
For both Hanson and Edison, "Look at us and masturbate" is the sine qua non of the adult-mag biz, which Hefner singlehandedly turned into an over-the-counter business rather than an under-the-counter one by denying, with a wink, that it was what his magazine was for. To Edison, a former Screw editor and Hustler writer, Hefner's basic denial of this fact — his insistence that Playboy was, is, or might be something other or, God forbid, better than good old wank fodder — is tantamount to betrayal, as it was to Edison's old bosses, Screw publisher Al Goldstein and Hustler magnate Larry Flynt.
The key to Hefner's longevity, as Edison grudgingly admits, is that he's never gone hardcore (though in the mid-seventies Playboy, like so much else at the time, flirted with it). His magazine has succeeded as a global icon in large part because Hefner's sexual tastes — sunny blondes with big boobs, in the main — became an American archetype. Twelve years before Brian Wilson wrote "California Girls" for the Beach Boys, Hugh Hefner had cast the video for it running through a lot of listeners' heads. Apart from blowing the door open on sexual mores in America, Playboy's lasting contribution may be its codification of a certain wholesome glamour — the Petty and Vargas girls crossbred with the Barbie doll — as the archetypally American sex symbol.
Edison, who has covered the downscale spectrum nicely by writing not only for porno but also for pro wrestling, refers to Hefner's robe-wearing, pipe-smoking, urbane He-Man act as a "kayfabe," a wrestling term for method acting so thoroughly that you never leave the role. That lavish lifestyle was part of the magazine's bran...