Hugh Hefner: Media Entrepreneur, Philanthropist and Social Activist

Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner passed to the other side at the ripe old age of 91 at his home in Holmsby, California yesterday.  

As I scrolled my social media timeline, there was a noticeable, palpable atmosphere of utter apathy, and even disdain, for the man who published his first issue of the mens magazine back in 1953. However, underneath that ether of apathy, there was yet another element present when speaking of the late Hefner, ignorance.  

So, it is up to those who are aware of the many times he risked everything to help empower those who the system would readily do away with to bring his accomplishments to life.

In this age of protest and unrest, it struck me as odd that many believed Hefner to simply be an amoral pornographer, an inaccurate moniker if there ever was one. Additionally, some brothers were lambasting his legacy as if he was some delusional polygamist in soiled overalls in a desert shack somewhere.  

The Last Word: Hugh Hefner

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, passed away at 91 years old. In 2008, the founder of the Playboy empire sat down with The New York Times to talk about his influences, his well-publicized lifestyle and his labor of love. Subscribe on YouTube: ————————————————————— Want more from The New York Times?

Quite simply, if it werent for efforts made by Hugh Hefner on behalf of the black man, woman and child in America, the country would be far worse off than it is.  

I understand the weight of that statement considering the tumult that permeates the news cycle on a daily basis. Hef was instrumental in several movements for social justice, as well as pivotal moments of philanthropy as well. 

He published the first issue Playboy in December 1953, featuring republished photos of Marilyn Monroe from a calendar shoot she did four years earlier. That first issue sold over 50,000 copies.  From there it was clear that Hefners business model was on point. However, perhaps realizing that he couldnt just stuff his magazine with nude photos and no editorial content, Hef sought out some of the best writers, and most controversial subject matters, he could find. 

The science fiction short story The Crooked Man, written by Charles Beaumont, was one of his earliest controversies. The story was about straight men being persecuted in a world where homosexuality is the norm. 

In response to the deluge of angry letters, Hefner responded: “If it was wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society then the reverse was wrong, too.”

Smitty Smith on Twitter

The Man, The Myth, The Legend, Hugh Hefner; Fly High Bro.. You Were Truly The Definition Of a Boss.. #RIPMrPlayboy

So, basically, Hefner supported gay rights via science fiction in 1955.  That was only one of many great science fiction pieces published in Playboy, which also included  the controversial Fahrenheit 451 by Bobb Bar. As a heterosexual male, he was light years ahead society in that regard.   He was also instrumental in launching the careers of Dick Gregory and single-handedly pulling jazz music into the mainstream.  

His love of black music, and support of black artists, was well known. James Brown once performed Say It Loud (Im Black and Im Proud) for Hefner on his long-defunct Playboys Penthouse. And Playboy After Dark television featured black music greats as well.   Hefner was televising black people in the ’50s and ’60s. Meanwhile, we were begging for inclusion on some networks just as recently as five years ago. 

Dick Gregory: How I Got My Big Break with Hugh Hefner


His jazz and soul guests of honor are a pantheon of acoustic negritude of the highest order; Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr, Ike & Tina Turner, and Nate King Cole are just a few of the many that walked across the stage. 

Spurned by a broken heart, the result of an admission of adultery from his first wife, Hefner birthed the mythical image of the devil-may-care bachelor; with all night parties, scantily clad women and binge drinking.  Though this is how many will recall him, but he was much more than that.

A staunch proponent of free speech, Hefner would face great resistance from conservative, religious and feminist sectors of American society, many of whom felt he was nothing more than a pimp and a peddler of filth.  But those labels didnt hinder Hefner from doing his best to make the world a better place. 

In the late ’60s, as the Vietnam War waged on, he is said to have loaned his private jet to Elvis Presley to fly Vietnamese orphans to the United States. The late, great Dick Gregory once revealed that Hefner gave him $25,000 to post as a reward for information about the murder of three civil rights workers in Meridian, Mississippi.

Additionally, he supported Martin Luther King Jr in word, and financially as well.  Hefner also provided funding for Jesse Jacksons Rainbow PUSH Coalition and is credited with helping fund the first rape kit via his Hugh Hefner Foundation. 

Ike & Tina Turner – Live at ‘Playboy After Dark’ – 1969 (HQ) 30 years old Tina Turner performing with Ike and The Revue live at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Penthouse with a 4 songs showcase and an interview! Broadcasted as part of Hefner’s show “Playboy After Dark” in December 1969.

He also provided a much-needed mainstream outlet for black writers whose voices would have been segregated or silenced by other publications. Roots author Alex Haley conducted his first interview with Miles Davis, another favorite of Hefs. The words of Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis Jr, Malcolm X and Dr. King found a home within the pages of Playboy as well.

Once upon a time, independently-owned Playboy-branded nightclubs could be found in many major cities across the country. He made headlines for his dedication to diversity by forcibly buying back clubs in Miami and New Orleans that discriminated against African-Americans at a great loss.

Hefner fought against injustice, and fought to change, and to bring about a truth in this country, says Jim Brown in the film Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel. ‘Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel. He maximized his influence to make this a better country, and thats all he was trying to do, to make it an honest country.

Brown continues, Anytime youre free like Hef was in America, youre dangerous. A CIA agent once told me, if youre doing all the great work in the world, and youre influencing people, but youre not controlled by the government, they dont like it. So, Hef had too much influence and nobody could control him. Theres only a few warriors left from the 60s, and Hef is definitely one of them.

Hugh Hefner got rich off carnal images of women, which leads many to believe he was exploiting them. However, Hefner supported the sexual revolution in words and deeds.  

At the time, many men believed women were biologically incapable of having an orgasm.  But he promoted the idea that women can have sex, enjoy sex and, in doing so, exhibit control of their bodies and decisions.  

Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Cosby, Hugh Hefner, and Jerry Lewis

Taped Dec. 19, 1968. Hef’s Playboy After Dark show, Bill Cosby being funny, Sammy singing, and Jerry being Jerry.

That was a groundbreaking viewpoint for a man of his times. In 1965, he named Jennifer Jackson as the first black Playmate of the Month.  In 1971 Darine Stern became the first black woman to appear on the cover.

The twice-married publisher and activist is survived by his third wife Crystal Harris, as well as four children.

You can call Hugh Hefner many bad things, and he probably deserves many of those darts.  However, at the end of the day, call him a fighter for social justice and equality, or just keep your damn mouth shut at let others mourn his memory and appreciate his legacy.

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