Hefner by Frank Brady

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Hefner by Frank Brady book cover

Who thought this was a good idea for a book cover?

That was my first thought on coming upon this paperback in a Powell River used book store last summer.

(The cover folds out, btw, to reveal even more Hugh Hefner and 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 it 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 1950s publishing industry. As a wannabe 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, was a Playboy magazine editor and had access to Hefner, the Playboy offices and the Chicago mansion, it seems, but is obviously constrained by some remaining loyalties as well as timing. When this book was published, in 1974, Playboy was still more or less in its infancy – reality TV, Pamela Anderson and so much more still in its future — or at least, adolescence.

In this section, Brady’s description of the mansion, and how Hefner squirreled himself away in a publisher’s equivalent of a panic room (i.e. a luxuriously appointed one) for nearly a decade, reads like something out of every introspective teenage boy’s dream – imagine a room you never had to leave, where every want and desire is fulfilled and you control an empire from your bed.

However, the stuff about Playboy’s legal battles and former Playboy employees’ sour grapes is just not all that compelling. I guess there’s only so much you can do when the story you set out to tell is nowhere near complete. Hefner was published in 1974, while the magazine was still good, Jimmy Carter wasn’t yet in the White House and Hefner had just moved to his Los Angeles mansion.

It’s never clear, either, just how much of the quotes Brady uses are from interviews he conducted with Hefner, or were overheard in other contexts. Some notes about sources would definitely go towards the book’s credibility. (Coincidentally, or not, I also recently had problems about the lack of credible sources in Teresa Carpenter‘s wretched piece of yellow journalism about murdered Vancouver Playmate Dorothy Stratten, which I touch on here.)

Also it’s never quite clear, outside of the money (which may have been substantial), why Brady wrote the book. 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 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 a start.

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