Welcome to Typewriter Tuesday, a series from the American Writers Museum that aims to shed light on the typewriters and other tools behind some of your favorite works of literature. Our special exhibit Tools of the Trade features more than a dozen typewriters on loan from Steve Soboroff’s impressive collection, as well as other writing implements and instruments used by American writers. Today, we’re checking out Hugh Hefner’s 1963 Royal Empress and Playboy Magazine’s literary legacy.
“We are concerned by the tendency among some magazines today to place less emphasis on the non-established, non-agency-represented newcomer. As far as I’m concerned, this is the future of writing…I think it’s beholden upon us and others in the field to do everything possible to motivate new people to sit down and write.”-Hugh Hefner in a 1964 interview with Writer’s Digest
Hugh Hefner is a complicated figure, as Peter Clark put it, “distorting sexuality as much as he liberated it, supporting important social causes while simultaneously perpetuating a culture that enthroned the white male ego.” But there is no denying Playboy Magazine’s impact in the literary world, serving as a launchpad for lesser known writers who would go on to become literary giants. Bylines for the likes of Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin and more can be found between the nude photos so often associated with Playboy. This dichotomy is one of the reasons Hefner, and Playboy, has captured the attention of America for so long.
Hefner had a background in writing before launching Playboy, working as a copy editor for Esquire. After that men’s magazine didn’t give him the raise he asked for, he quit and raised the funds to start his own men’s magazine, Playboy, which launched in December 1953 and promised “entertainment for men.”
But beyond the nude photos and silly jokes, Playboy proved to have top-notch literary content as well behind the editorial direction of Hefner, and more directly the editors he hired such as Nat Lehrman, Robie Macauley, and Alice K. Turner, who presided over Playboy’s fiction pages for two decades. The magazine included many forms of fiction, but largely focused on science fiction, even garnering numerous Nebula Award wins and nominations. Acclaimed sci-fi writers Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke are just some of the household names who have been published by Playboy.
Playboy’s appreciation of science fiction was not without some sexism, though. Sci-fi legend Ursula K. Le Guin submitted a story, “Nine Lives,” to Playboy under the name U.K. Le Guin. Playboy accepted the story but upon learning “U.K. Le Guin” was a woman they asked if they could publish the story but only use her initials because they feared their readers would be “frightened if they saw a female byline on a story.” As Le Guin recalled, “Unwilling to terrify these vulnerable people, I told [my agent] Virginia to tell them sure, that’s fine.” And when Playboy asked for an author biography, Le Guin couldn’t help herself: “I wrote, ‘It is commonly suspected that the writings of U. K. Le Guin are not actually written by U. K. Le Guin, but by another person of the same name.’ Game to the last, Playboy printed that. And my husband and I bought a red VW bus, cash down, with the check.”
This was perhaps the main draw of Playboy from a writer’s standpoint. Hefner and the magazine were willing to pay top dollar for stories and Playboy‘s wide circulation meant writers could get their names and works in front of a large audience. As Peter Clark wrote, “By proximity to sex, a lot of really good fiction made its way into the world.”
Playboy was also well-known for its in-depth interviews of intriguing subjects, such as Bette Davis, Vladimir Nabokov, John Lennon, Steve Jobs, and many, many more. But Playboy’s most notable was its 1965 interview with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., conducted by Alex Haley, who also wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This was the longest interview Dr. King ever gave, addressing the Civil Rights Movement and sharing intimate moments from boyhood that shaped his worldview. It also included this hauntingly prophetic passage:
“I must face the fact, as all others in positions of leadership must do, that America today is an extremely sick nation, and that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel, though, that my cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.”-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a 1965 interview with Alex Haley published in Playboy, one of the many literary contributions Playboy has made to American letters.
In ways such as this, Hugh Hefner and Playboy Magazine have had a profound impact on American writing, not to mention the philanthropic work of the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation, which was established in 1964 to “facilitate individual rights in our democratic society.” As Hefner’s daughter and former Playboy Enterprises CEO Christie Hefner says:
“We honor and recognize America’s unsung heroes: the individuals who put themselves and their organizations at risk by bravely defending their constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression.”
Tools of the Trade is sponsored in part by the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation.