BY Jeremy Kinser
July 30 2010 7:30 PM ET
Hugh Hefner, a vital cultural figure of the past 50 years, has frequently been vilified by militant feminists for objectifying women and praised by activists for championing civil rights. In Oscar-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman’s riveting new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (opening Friday in select cities) both sides of the 84-year old mogul are revealed — the hedonistic playboy and a man who’s been a tireless advocate and catalyst for civil rights and the First Amendment.
When Hefner launched the iconic Playboy magazine in 1953 after ingeniously purchasing pre-fame nude photos taken of Marilyn Monroe by photographer Tom Kelley, he became a champion of the burgeoning sexual revolution. Almost immediately, the forces of church and state began a war against him that has raged on for decades.
But there’s another side to Hefner besides the man surrounded by buxom arm candy on E!’s The Girls Next Door: In 1955, Playboy published a short story by Charles Beaumont titled “The Crooked Man,” in which homosexuality was presented as the norm and heterosexuality was stigmatized. Hefner integrated the popular Playboy Clubs in the South and dared to book integrated musical acts on his late-’50s TV show Playboy’s Penthouse. In Berman’s film, Hefner emerges as a man passionate about equality for all, who contributed immeasurably to the national discourse. Hefner speaks with The Advocate about the documentary, gay friends, and same-sex encounters.
The Advocate: In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about you that’s cleared up in the documentary?
Hugh Hefner: Well, I think when we talk about misconceptions it depends on the individual. A long time ago, and maybe in the film itself, I said my life is like an inkblot test, a Rorschach test: people project their own prejudices and dreams and fantasies onto my life and onto Playboy. So it’s very difficult for me to say what the major misconception to me is, because it depends on who we’re talking about.
What do you think your life would be like if Marilyn Monroe hadn’t posed for Tom Kelley?
Well, it would kind of be pretty much the same. The second issue of Playboy sold better than the first one. It was the concept, I think, that led to the success. I think I needed a gimmick of some kind, and the Marilyn Monroe nude was absolutely perfect for that purpose and got us off to a fast start.
A decade and a half before the gay rights movement officially began, you published Charles Beaumont’s short story “The Crooked Man,” which even today seems groundbreaking. Did you publish it because you thought it was good literature or because of its message.
I published it first and foremost because I thought it was a good story, but I was well aware of the fact that it would be perceived as controversial because Esquire had already turned it down. Beaumont did a story for us on jazz called “Black Country” that was the first original story of note that we published. So when “Crooked Man” became available, I simply thought it was a very good story. At the same time I was obviously aware of the fact that it would be controversial and, as we discovered, in some corners misunderstood. Some people felt it was homophobic.