The genius of the Playboy interview

Hugh Hefner (who died at 91 on September 27th) was a complicated individual whose notions of sexuality and human relationships were at once woke and predatory, who stumbled upon a brilliant idea at a time when American culture was milquetoast. A loss of identity in the 1950s, particularly among men, was palpable for a generation who no longer had a war to fight. It took a magazine that paired the mind and the body, high culture and naked women, to shake the male from his slumber.

Since the magazine’s founding, the joke “I read it for the articles” was always tongue in cheek. Yes, Playboy did publish some of the country’s most celebrated writers. No, the articles weren’t all great. Playboy was rather conservative in which stories made it past final proof. The magazine paid well — fantastically so for freelancers — and so the best and the brightest of the typewriter set clamored for decades to get between Playboy‘s covers.

But what truly set Playboy apart from the Esquires, Saturday Evening Posts, and Rolling Stones was its interviews: Thousands and thousands of words spilled from some of America’s greatest activists, thinkers, and celebrities. As Hefner explained in an editorial for Playboy‘s inaugural issue in 1953, which offered a never-before seen set of nude Marilyn Monroe photos, “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” To live life with a diverse set of interests fascinated Hefner, and he banked on it fascinating millions of American men. It was that diverse intersection that Hefner hoped to exploit with the Playboy interview.

Hefner didn’t launch the format until about a decade after the magazine’s founding, following the closure of Show Business Illustrated. According to G. Barry Colson, the magazine’s executive editor, who edited the 1981 anthology The Playboy Interview, writers often came back with at least six hours of taped conversations; it wasn’t unusual for a writer to submit twenty hours of recordings for transcription. The hours-long chats revolutionized the idea of the magazine interview.

The series began with Miles Davis, who spoke with Alex Haley only after the writer spent hours tailing Davis, eventually boxing with him at a gym in Harlem. From the start, subjects were leery of appearing in the magazine. (Some of the early interviews featured European intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell.) It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, and certainly into the ’70s, when the Playboy interview was viewed as a cultural imprimatur. Playboy featured some of the most important figures of the day, including Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Walter Cronkite, and appearing on the magazine’s pages guaranteed their words and message would reach an audience who might otherwise miss the point.

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