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No one did more to promote, and personify, the sexualization of our culture than Playboy magazine founder and editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday at his Los Angeles home, the Playboy Mansion, from natural causes, according to the publication. He was 91.
“My father lived an exceptional and impactful life as a media and cultural pioneer and a leading voice behind some of the most significant social and cultural movements of our time in advocating free speech, civil rights and sexual freedom,” Hefner’s son Cooper, chief creative officer of Playboy Enterprises, said in a statement. “He defined a lifestyle and ethos that lie at the heart of the Playboy brand, one of the most recognizable and enduring in history. He will be greatly missed by many, including his wife Crystal, my sister Christie, and my brothers David and Marston, and all of us at Playboy Enterprises.”
As the risqué filmmaker — and early Playboy centerfold photographer — Russ Meyer once commented, “The real driving force behind the increasing permissiveness of our society is Hugh Hefner. I simply put his illustrations to movement.”
Hefner was raised by strict Methodist parents in Chicago, but he became fascinated with sex at a young age after seeing George Petty’s lubricious airbrushed portraits of women in Esquire magazine. In 1953, he started publishing Playboy, which featured short stories and cartoons but would become most famous for its nude centerfold photographs. Indeed, the debut issue’s pictorial featured a naked Marilyn Monroe. Hefner’s publication was not the first to include photographs of unclothed women, but it was the first to promote sex as a healthy pastime rather than one that readers should feel guilty about. Playboy was an immediate hit and eventually reached a circulation peak of 7 million in the 1970s. The magazine frequently ran articles on Hefner himself and the “swinging’” lifestyle he pursued at the Playboy Mansions, first in Chicago and then Los Angeles.
Hefner had many critics, notably Gloria Steinem, who in 1963 wrote a highly negative article after going undercover as a “Bunny” waitress at one of the Playboy nightclubs. The fortunes of the magazine waned during the mid-’80s when it was attacked by a coalition of feminists and the Christian right. But Hefner remained an iconic figure and acquired new fans in 2005 with the debut of the E! series The Girls Next Door, which starred his three girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. Earlier this year, his life was chronicled in an Amazon docuseries, American Playboy. Even in death, Hefner will not be lacking in female company. He long ago purchased the burial plot next to Marilyn Monroe at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.