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A publisher’s life, from inside a Chicago mansion’s panic room

Hugh Hefner circa 1969.

Review—Hefner by Frank Brady (1974)


My first thought: who thought this was a good idea for a book cover?

Hefner by Frank Brady

(The cover folds out, btw, to reveal even more Hugh, avec fluffy-tailed cherubs.)

I bought it on a whim; I’d never heard of this particular volume, although I knew (if I’d thought about it) there had to be at least one or two biographies of the king of the Playboy empire.

Anyway, last week I finally pulled Hefner by Frank Brady down from the Shelf of Books Bought and Which I’ve Been Meaning to Read (which is actually several shelves). It was a quick read – I burned through its 250 pages lickety-split, in three days.

The first half is low on titillation and heavy on Hefner’s Early Days of Struggle, his resourcefulness and the ins and outs of the 1950s American publishing industry. As a publisher myself, I found this part of the book fascinating. I especially appreciated the portrait of Hefner as a publisher; he didn’t set out to put together what would become the world’s best-known girly magazine, at least at first. His prime directive was to become a publisher, period. That he ended up buying that famous nude Marilyn Monroe calendar photo (the first brick in the making of Playboy) was just the result of a series of (happy?) accidents.

The second half of Hefner is a little less interesting. The author, Frank Brady, is a former Playboy magazine editor. As such, he had access to Hefner, the Playboy offices and the Chicago mansion. But he is also obviously constrained by remaining loyalties as well as timing. When this book was published, in 1974, Playboy was still more or less in its infancy. Reality TV (The Girls Next Door), Pamela Anderson, and so much more still lay in its future — or at least, adolescence.

Hefner by Frank Brady
Hugh Hefner Playboy, Activist and Rebel movie image

Legal battles and sour grapes

In one section, Brady describes the mansion, then still located in Chicago, and its owner’s wanton-yet-workaholic lifestyle. Squirrelled away in the equivalent of a publisher’s panic room, Hefner directed his empire from a circular bed as he popped pills and fulfilled his every whim.

It’s compelling stuff, at least compared to, say, the details of Playboy’s legal battles, or the sour grapes of former employees. I guess there’s only so much you can write when the story you set out to tell is nowhere near complete (well, at least from hindsight). In 1974, Playboy (the magazine, not necessarily the lifestyle) was still considered cutting-edge (from a design and even civil liberties perspective), Jimmy Carter had lust in his heart but wasn’t yet in the White House, and Hefner had just relocated from Chicago to L.A.

Another problem is that it’s never clear how much of the book’s quotes are from interviews the author conducted with Hefner, or from other sources. Some notes about sources would definitely help with the book’s credibility. (I also recently had problems about the lack of credible sources in Teresa Carpenter‘s story about murdered Vancouver Playmate Dorothy Stratten, which I touch on in my review of the movie Star 80.)

Also, outside of the money (which may have been substantial), Brady’s motivation for writing the book is never clear. It’s neither a hagiography or a hatchet-job. The author seems mostly fair to his subject, although he does slip into a slightly hectoring and judgmental tone now and then. His feelings about his (former) boss are obviously a complicated mix of admiration, envy, loyalty—and a desire to distance himself from the whole thing.

Hefner by Frank Brady is by no means the last word on its subject. But, with its mid-70s insider’s perspective into an unparalleled publishing phenomenon, it’s an interesting, early rabbit’s-eye perspective.

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