The Complete Centerfolds is a coffee-table book compiling every Playboy centerfold published from the magazine’s inception in 1953 until 2007. Six short essays preface the decades, but there is no other text. As you might expect, the pleasures of the book are instant and visual. My favorite Playboy centerfold is Miss September 1983, dressed for a college football game in striped socks and a tartan scarf. She has a flask, a fuzzy wool cap, and a team pennant. Her neo-Gothic surroundings are meant, I think, to evoke Yale. A single branch of ivy cascades next to her, and a textbook lies abandoned at her feet. She is naked. It sounds funny in writing, but somehow there’s nothing funny about the photograph, or about any of the photographs in The Complete Centerfolds. Is laughter an anti-aphrodisiac?
The first thing that strikes the casual reader is the anatomical variety among bunnies. Nipples, for one thing. Some are as big as cupcakes, others are the size of a penny. They are occasionally erect and come in a range of colors as varied as drugstore lipsticks. Pubic hair is another delight to behold, appearing first in 1971 and thriving until 1997. Gauzy coronas of pubic hair, technicolor dreampubes of every shade. You forget how assertive a healthy growth of hair can look. It comes as a pleasant shock in the midst of a creamy-smooth expanse.
Pubic hair diminishes as the nineties draw to a close. Neat triangles turn to Band Aid-sized strips, which become little Hitler mustaches or nothing at all. The modern crotch is a bit prim, a bit less forthright. You’d think that depilation would lend a youthful look to the genitals but it has the opposite effect instead, making the girls look older and slightly jaded. (Intimate grooming signals forethought.) The youthful quality of the early centerfolds disappears.
A 1956 memo to Playboy photographers listed Hefner’s criteria for the centerfolds. The model must be in a natural setting engaged in some activity “like reading, writing, mixing a drink.” She should have a “healthy, intelligent, American look—a young lady that looks like she might be a very efficient secretary or an undergrad at Vassar.” Many centerfolds feature the implied presence of a man: a flash of trouser leg in the corner, a pipe left on a table. These props transform the pinups into seduction scenarios. Their premise is simple: by identifying with the absent man, a viewer can enter the scene.
The centerfold’s signature is what we might call the “Playboy aesthetic”—something responsible both for Playboy‘s long run of success and its schmaltziness. As Hefner put it in a letter to Russ Meyer (director of Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill!), the ideal centerfold is one in which “a situation is suggested, the presence of someone not in the picture.” The goal was to transform “a straight pinup into an intimate interlude, something personal and special.” Playboy readers are meant to be participants, not voyeurs. Hefner’s vision of American sexuality was a distinctly pasteurized one—sex cleansed of its ugly (and often exciting) power plays. “Clean sex,” he insisted, “has greater appeal than tawdry sex.” Strippers, threesomes and S&M had no place in his magazine. The Playboy centerfold was a world away from the European ideal of a sexually-sophisticated temptress. Hefner’s girls were always girls, first of all, or bunnies— not women. There was no knowing gleam in a centerfold’s eye.
By packaging the photos with cosmopolitan content (stories, interviews), Hefner hoped that sex and culture would seep into each other by dint of their page-to-page proximity. A taste for babes, he claimed, was just as fine a taste to cultivate as one for Scotch, fast cars or sharp suits (all of which Playboy advertised). The magazine lavished its readers with aspirational rhetoric. In 1955 Playboy described its typical reader as being “in the midst of the biggest buying spree of his life. Cars, cameras, and hi-fi cabinets. Clothes, cognac, and cigarettes.” When these items appeared as props in the centerfold layouts, their connection to a stupendous sex life was visually underscored. Of all the lifestyle accessories Playboy celebrated, a bunny was the easiest to enjoy vicariously.
In those days Hefner liked his centerfolds “round, soft, and with a maximum emphasis on the beauty of being female.” The Playmates of the first three decades follow this formula, flashing biteable bottoms and breasts. Things go downhill in the 1980s as breast implants became popular: the new boobs are globe-like and tactile only in the way that bowling balls are tactile. Some of them cast a glare, like cartoon balloons. Food metaphors no longer apply.
Something else (related) happens around this time: Playboy ceases to be about the erotic everyday encounter. Flesh and blood women turn to images; the “girl next door” becomes distinctly mediated. The bunnies were always mediated, of course, but something about the earlier photographs made you forget the medium and feel as though you were staring straight into the eyes of a luscious partner. Enthusiastic photoshopping has aided the transformation. Gone are the freckles and downy arm hairs of the predecessors. Breasts are surgically standardized; gym routines and spray tans produce identically toned and tinted bodies. Girls of all ethnicities blend together into one latte-colored woman, and the result looks computer-generated. When you try to imagine how the models might feel and smell, things like rubber come to mind.
This is partly the book’s fault. Centerfolds that appear in the magazine are accompanied by a block of text describing the model’s job, activities, hobbies, and attitudes—bits designed to enhance the bunny’s appeal by demonstrating her personality and sexual interests. These are excluded from The Complete Centerfolds. The book’s pages, too, are reduced to a rectangle only slightly larger than a Chinese takeout menu. Why have the publishers done such a thing? To scrimp on costs? To give the book a modicum of portability? It still weighs nearly six pounds—no one is toting this thing further than the distance from coffee table to lap. Plus, the allure of a pinup was always its mondo size. The book’s shrunken pages undermine the tone of luxe comprehensiveness suggested by its press materials and ritzy design (matte black cover, discreet bunny). To catalogue every centerfold would be amazing indeed, but these are just girls without clothes on. Still, there are worse ways to pass an hour than with 648 cute nudes.
Steven Watts’ Mr. Playboy is a biography of Hugh Hefner and an account of Playboy‘s trajectory. In a way, there is nothing in the 450-page book that you can’t parse from the centerfolds. If the Playboy centerfold easily stands in for the magazine, the magazine easily stands in for Hefner, who comes across less as a person than a sensibility. Watts, a history professor at the University of Missouri, has a tricky subject in Hefner. How many ways are there to say “shifting bevy of girlfriends”? How can a biographer get across the gooey sentimentality of his subject without floundering in clichés? The book opens with a forlorn twenty-six-year-old Hef standing on a bridge, muttering “Is this all there is?” and silently vowing to escape the ennui that threatens to suffocate him. The episode marks a turning point, and within fifteen years Hefner takes the country by storm. Thankfully, Watts makes it clear that Hefner is the one who sees himself in such cornball terms.
In many ways, the Playboy founder seems a person specifically bred to be the subject of a biography. We learn that he was inspired by The Fountainhead and Jay Gatsby. In Mr. Playboy we get the story of a man obsessed with crafting his own story. The biographer’s instinct to mythologize is inverted as Watts goes about politely demystifying (or complicating) Hefner’s gilded self-conceptions.
The most interesting parts of the book involve Hefner’s childhood. As a kid consumed by pop culture, he doodled and daydreamed his way through class. When a girl rejected him in high school, the young Hefner gave himself a montage-worthy makeover: buying new duds, improving his dance skills, learning hip expressions, and adopting a “suave manner.” Many people revise their image in high school, but Hefner was eerily thorough, producing an entire comic series about his new self. He described the character in writing as “a very original fellow” who “calls everyone ‘Slug’ or ‘Fiend’ and his pet expression is ‘Jeeps Creeps.’”
The campaign was successful. Hefner grew into a popular and unusually horny teen. He also came to consider himself a sort of representative American male, confident that his own dampened urges and acquisitive mania were shared across the nation. What Hefner wanted, he figured, America must also want. Throughout his biography, Watts regards Hefner as a sort of human Richter scale attuned to the subterranean desires of American males. It is this instinct, combined with a right-place/right-time circumstance, to which Watts attributes Playboy‘s success.
What Hefner wanted, in his words, was “a pleasure primer styled to the masculine taste.” The quote is revealing. It nods to Playboy’s instructional quality and to Hefner’s belief that a man might become his ideal self. In Hefner’s terms, masculine taste is a single and definable force. As Watts puts it, Hefner “edited Playboy for himself.” He was a work-obsessed, bunny-centric monomaniac, the “editor, publisher, and, at the same time, audience” of the magazine.
If Hefner’s private yen for sexual and material plenty was risqué in his youth, a certain freedom was de rigeur by the mid-1960s. Teens were no longer punished for cuddling in the rumble seat, and everyone knew that nice girls enjoyed sex. The 1970s brought trouble: economic decline soured Playboy‘s buy-more credo, and rival magazine Penthouse took a bite out of Playboy readership by offering raunchier material. X-rated films like “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door” attracted huge audiences. The Playboy enterprise collapsed in the 1980s.
As a record of influence—Hugh Hefner’s influence—both The Complete Centerfolds and Mr. Playboy are entertaining. His achievement was to give great credence to his fantasies, and to the idea of fantasies in general. His gift was to commercialize something he knew from personal experience: that girls liked sex. More specifically, that they liked sex with Hefner. He extrapolated from this.
Hefner fit the cherished American mold of an ambitious, diehard dreamer and his description of the Playboy Mansion sounds a little like Xanadu—a place where a person “could work and play without the usual inconveniences, conflicts and concerns that were commonplace in the outside world.” It is an apt summary of his business model. Step one: articulate fantasies. Step two: realize them.
The point of the Mansion was the same as that of the centerfold: a place in which to enjoy an idyllic sexual experience. The act of unfolding the spread, like undressing a girl, was meant to give the reader a private sensation. Just him and her; no politics, judgments, or restrictions—none of the things involved in a public discourse about sex. Such things have always been excluded from Playboy. They are too complicated.