Playboy founder Hugh M. Hefner, the pipe-smoking hedonist who revved up the sexual revolution in the 1950s and built a multimedia empire of clubs, mansions, movies and television, symbolized by bow-tied women in bunny costumes, has died at age 91.
Hefner died of natural causes at his home surrounded by family on Wednesday night, Playboy said in a statement.
As much as anyone, Hefner helped slip sex out of the confines of plain brown wrappers and into mainstream conversation.
In 1953, a time when states could legally ban contraceptives, when the word "pregnant" was not allowed on "I Love Lucy," Hefner published the first issue of Playboy, featuring naked photos of Marilyn Monroe (taken years earlier) and an editorial promise of "humor, sophistication and spice."
Within a year, circulation neared 200,000. Within five years, it had topped 1 million.
By the 1970s, the magazine had more than 7 million readers and had inspired such raunchier imitations as Penthouse and Hustler. Competition and the internet reduced circulation to less than 3 million by the 21st century, but Hefner and Playboy remained brand names worldwide.
Asked by The New York Times in 1992 of what he was proudest, Hefner responded: "That I changed attitudes toward sex. That nice people can live together now. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction."
He was a widely admired but far from universally beloved figure. Many feminist and religious leaders regarded him as nothing but a glorified pornographer who degraded and objectified women with impunity.
Women were warned from the first issue: "If you're somebody's sister, wife, or mother-in-law," the magazine declared, "and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to Ladies Home Companion."
Hefner ran Playboy from his elaborate mansions, first in Chicago and then in Los Angeles, and became the flamboyant symbol of the lifestyle he espoused. For decades he was the pipe-smoking, silk-pajama-wearing center of a constant party with celebrities and Playboy models. By his own account, Hefner had sex with more than a thousand women.
Hefner was host of a television show, "Playboy After Dark," and in 1960 opened a string of clubs around the world where waitresses wore revealing costumes with bunny ears and fluffy white bunny tails. In the 21st century, he was back on television in a cable reality show — "The Girls Next Door" — with three live-in girlfriends in the Los Angeles Playboy mansion. Network television briefly embraced Hefner's empire in 2011 with the NBC drama "The Playboy Club," which failed to lure viewers and was canceled after three episodes.
Censorship was inevitable, starting in the 1950s, when Hefner successfully sued to prevent the U.S. Postal Service from denying him second-class mailing status. Playboy has been banned in China, India, Saudi Arabia and Ireland.
Playboy proved a scourge, and a temptation. Drew Barrymore, Farrah Fawcett and Linda Evans are among those who have posed for the magazine. Several bunnies became celebrities, too, including singer Deborah Harry and model Lauren Hutton, both of whom had fond memories of their time with Playboy.
Other bunnies had traumatic experiences, with several alleging they had been raped by Hefner's close friend Bill Cosby. Hefner issued a statement in late 2014 he "would never tolerate this behavior." But two years later, former bunny Chloe Goins sued Cosby and Hefner for sexual battery, gender violence and other charges over an alleged 2008 rape.
One bunny turned out to be a journalist: Feminist Gloria Steinem got hired in the early 1960s and turned her brief employment into an article for Show magazine that described the clubs as pleasure havens for men only. The bunnies, Steinem wrote, tended to be poorly educated, overworked and underpaid. Steinem regarded the magazine and clubs not as erotic, but "pornographic."
"I think Hefner himself wants to go down in history as a person of sophistication and glamour. But the last person I would want to go down in history as is Hugh Hefner," Steinem later said.
"Women are the major beneficiaries of getting rid of the hypocritical old notions about sex," Hefner responded. "Now some people are acting as if the sexual revolution was a male plot to get laid. One of the unintended by-products of the women's movement is the association of the erotic impulse with wanting to hurt somebody."
Hefner added that he was a strong advocate of First Amendment, civil rights and reproductive rights and that the magazine contained far more than centerfolds. Playboy serialized Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" and later published fiction by Doris Lessing and Vladimir Nabokov. Playboy also specialized in long and candid interviews, from Fidel Castro and Frank Sinatra to Marlon Brando and then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, who confided that he had "committed adultery" in his heart.
The line that people read Playboy for the prose, not the pictures, was only partly a joke.
Playboy's clubs also influenced the culture, giving early breaks to such entertainers as George Carlin, Rich Little, Mark Russell, Dick Gregory and Redd Foxx. The last of the clubs closed in 1988, when Hefner deemed them "passe" and "too tame for the times."
By then Hefner had built a $200 million company by expanding Playboy to include international editions of the magazine, casinos, a cable network and a film production company. In 2006, he got back into the club business with his Playboy Club at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas. A new enterprise in London followed, along with fresh response from women's groups, who protested the opening with cries of "Eff off Hef!'"
Hefner liked to say he was untroubled by criticism, but in 1985 he suffered a mild stroke that he blamed on the book "The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980," by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich. Stratten was a Playmate killed by her husband, Paul Snider, who then killed himself. Bogdanovich, Stratten's boyfriend at the time, wrote that Hefner helped bring about her murder and was unable to deal with "what he and his magazine do to women."
After the stroke, Hefner handed control of his empire to his feminist daughter, Christie, although he owned 70 percent of Playboy stock and continued to choose every month's Playmate and cover shot. Christie Hefner continued as CEO until 2009.
He also stopped using recreational drugs and tried less to always be the life of the party. He tearfully noted in a 1992 New York Times interview: "I've spent so much of my life looking for love in all the wrong places."
His bunny obsession began with the figures that decorated a childhood blanket. Years later, a real-life subspecies of rabbit on the endangered species list, in the Florida Keys, would be named for him: Sylvilagus palustris hefneri.
Not surprisingly, Hefner's marriage life was also a bit of a show. He was a playboy before Playboy, even during his first marriage, when he enjoyed stag films, strip poker and group sex. In 1949, he married Mildred Williams, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1958. In July 1989, Hefner married Kimberley Conrad, the 1989 Playmate of the Year, who was then 27. The couple also had two children.
On the eve of his marriage, Hefner was asked if he would have a bachelor party. "I've had a bachelor party for 30 years," he said. "Why do I need one now?"
They separated in 1998 but she continued living next door to the Playboy mansion with their two sons. The couple divorced in 2010 and he proposed in 2011 to 24-year-old Crystal Harris, a former Playmate. Harris called off the wedding days before the ceremony, but changed her mind and they married at the end of 2012.
"Maybe I should be single," he said a few months later. "But I do know that I need an ongoing romantic relationship. In other words, I am essentially a very romantic person, and all I really was looking for, quite frankly, with the notion of marriage was continuity and something to let the girl know that I really cared."
He acknowledged, at age 85, that "I never really found my soulmate."