He was eulogized by his only son as a media and cultural pioneer as his death at the age of 91 was announced late on Wednesday.
It was an apt description for Hugh Hefner, the pipe-smoking, hedonist Playboy creator who revved up sexual revolution in the 1950s and built an empire out of the tried and tested notion that sex sells.
As much as anyone, Hefner helped slip sex out of the confines of plain brown wrappers and into mainstream conversation.
In 1953, a time when states could legally ban contraceptives, when the word ‘pregnant’ was not allowed on ‘I Love Lucy,’ Hefner published the first issue of Playboy, featuring naked photos of Marilyn Monroe (taken years earlier) and an editorial promise of ‘humor, sophistication and spice.’ The Great Depression and World War II were over and America was ready to get undressed.
It was a wayward path for a middle class boy from Chicago whose religious parents banned all talk of sex in their home.
Hefner was born in Chicago on April 9, 1926, to devout Methodist parents who he said never showed ‘love in a physical or emotional way.’
‘At a very early age, I began questioning a lot of that religious foolishness about man’s spirit and body being in conflict, with God primarily with the spirit of man and the Devil dwelling in the flesh,’ Hefner said in a Playboy interview in 1974.
‘Part of the reason that I am who I am is my Puritan roots run deep,’ he told the AP in 2011.
‘My folks are Puritan. My folks are prohibitionists. There was no drinking in my home. No discussion of sex. And I think I saw the hurtful and hypocritical side of that from very early on.’
Hefner loved movies throughout his life, calling them ‘my other family.’
He screened classic films and new releases at the mansion every week. Every year on his April 9 birthday, he’d run his favorite film, Casablanca and invite guests to dress in the fashions of the 1940s.
He was a playboy before Playboy, even during his first marriage, when he enjoyed stag films, strip poker and group sex. His bunny obsession began with the figures that decorated a childhood blanket. Years later, a real-life subspecies of rabbit on the endangered species list, in the Florida Keys, would be named for him: Sylvilagus palustris hefneri.
When Hefner was nine, he began publishing a neighborhood newspaper, which he sold for a penny a copy. He spent much of his time writing and drawing cartoons, and in middle school began reading Esquire, a magazine of sex and substance Hefner wanted Playboy to emulate.
He and Playboy co-founder Eldon Sellers launched their magazine from Hefner’s kitchen in Chicago, although the first issue was undated because Hefner doubted there would be a second. The magazine was supposed to be called Stag Party, until an outdoor magazine named Stag threatened legal action.
Hefner recalled that he first reinvented himself in high school in Chicago at 16, when he was rejected by a girl he had a crush on.
He began referring to himself as Hef instead of Hugh, learned the jitterbug and began drawing a comic book, ‘a kind of autobiography that put myself center stage in a life I created for myself,’ he said in a 2006 interview with the AP.
Those comics evolved into a detailed scrapbook that Hefner would keep throughout his life. It spanned more than 2,500 volumes in 2011 — a Guinness World Record for a personal scrapbook collection.
‘It was probably just a way of creating a world of my own to share with my friends,” Hefner said, seated amid the archives of his life during a 2011 interview. ‘And in retrospect, in thinking about it, it’s not a whole lot different than creating the magazine.’