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Book Review: Playboy Cover to Cover — the 50’s by Playboy and Bondi Digital Publishing

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“When the first issue of Playboy hit the streets in 1953, the United States had no counterculture to speak of…the Beats were still a few years away, and Elvis was driving a truck in Memphis. Toting around a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer could get you branded a degenerate, maybe even land you on a chain busting rocks.” – The Los Angeles Times

Since its founding in 1953, with a premiere issue left undated for fear that there wouldn’t be a second, Playboy Magazine has transitioned from an out-of-bounds affront to the supposedly “moral” America of the 1950s, to a veritable national treasure. The Playboy Cover to Cover — the 50’s package features every page of the magazine from its inaugural decade (an archive’s worth of interactive discs), a coffee table book detailing Playboy’s rise, and a facsimile of the first issue.

It is part history text, part nostalgic glance into the past, and a wholly worthwhile read.

The only complaint I’d lodge about the disc portion, and indeed about the entire Cover-to-Cover package, is that it centers around the 1950s. Subsequent decades, especially the 1980s, would have been just as interesting in showing the magazine’s transition from one that men bought and quickly shuffled into their briefcases, to an icon that has featured such interviews as Bob Dylan, and pieces by such notables as William F. Buckley Jr.

The coffee table book, and its 200 plus pages of high-quality, glossy photos, is the MVP here, with the facsimile first issue running a close second. While the discs are better for private enjoyment on one’s personal computer, the coffee table book not only looks good on your coffee table — big shock — it also provides a rare hint of the World Before Hef (that grim reality so aptly described in the L.A. Times passage above).

After a December 1952 alumni review at his high school, during which Hefner was forced to appraise his life in serious fashion for the first time, he stood on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue Bridge “with tears in my eyes, realizing I had to make a change in my life.”

“In Hefner’s case,” Leopold Froehlich writes in the introduction, “the fantasies he had pursued were not to be in vain. The magazine was built on a dream, but it was also the result of a gamble. It expressed the longing a young Hefner felt when he looked up into the brightly lit windows of Gold Coast high-rises, a longing to be liberated from the deadening constraints of domestic America.”

No one handed anything to Hefner. His dream was born largely of his own moxy and seed money from supportive family. They supported the man more than his enterprise, to be sure. Friends and investors who looked askance at the young man — wondering whether they’d ever see their money again — were moved by his unshakable faith that he was doing the right thing.

And that there was an audience dying for his product.

Hefner’s roots and resources may have been humble, but his confidence was king. “I didn’t really think about the possibility of failure,” Hefner told Froehlich. “This was my chance. If I had thought about failure, I wouldn’t have put out a magazine.” That belief paid considerable dividends. The first issue sold 54,000 copies; the last issue of the decade, 1.1 million.

Now that Hef’s journal and his player lifestyle are not only accepted, but mainstreamed, Hefner admirers one and all will find it comforting to see that he was, once, a regular guy who put on his pants one leg at a time. In fact, Hef was a guy who actually wore pants and shirts at one point, rather than flowing silk robes, velour suits, and Italian smoking jackets. Hef was once a young writer struggling to find success and appreciation in the professional world.

Indeed, had Hefner’s boss at Esquire simply given him the raise of $5 a week that he asked for when the publication moved East to New York from Chicago, it’s doubtful he would have been sufficiently motivated to pursue his dreams. The complacent, after all, aren’t much for revolution. A cushy job with extra spending money typically leads one to get over their head in debt. An over-reliance on credit also keeps one chasing the nut, going into work day-in and day-out, hoping – aching! – for another bump up the ladder, another $5 a week.

But because Hefner took the risk and gave his ideas value by acting on them, it is now he who controls the ladder. Nothing else would work for a man deeply so committed to his vision, and accountable to his dreams.

Upstart writers, musicians, and dreamers of all stripes will find inspiration in Hef’s story.

“Had Playboy failed,” Hefner wrote in a letter to friends and supporters in the summer of 1955, “I would have been in debt for, almost certainly, years. Instead, it appears that I will be able to spend a lifetime doing the work I love best and, in the process, become a very wealthy man.”

Seeing that Hefner’s rise wasn’t inevitable, and that he batted off his fair share of detractors in favor of doing things his way, will provide a shot of confidence for anyone who needs to remember to trust their voice above all. And certainly above the voices of those who fundamentally don’t believe in them.

If Hef had been born into a wealthy family, his magazine subsidized by a blank check, one could easily shrug his shoulders and say “well, Hef just had it like that” — excusing himself from thinking big because he doesn’t come from money. The realization that Hef is actually a self-made man, will prove empowering for anyone considering whether they want to walk on the wild side or merely be satisfied with a little bump up the ladder here or there.

For providing a window in Hef’s transformation from everyday guy to international playboy — who makes and lives by his own rules — the Playboy Cover-to-Cover package is an enlightening and inspiring endeavor.

And, yes, I only picked it up for the articles.

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About James David Dickson

  • Yahweh70

    Surely a series of retrospectives has to start somewhere, and where better to start than at the beginning. I reckon PEI must have put this package together to test the waters, as well as allow recent collectors/buyers of Playboy a cheaper way of seeing how it all began, than spending thousands on Ebay tracking each individual issue.

    I see Rolling Stone are about to embark on a similar product run.

  • Looks like a hell of a set. Good article, too.