"Hugh Hefner is the luckiest man in the world."
But of course, as with most stories of this nature, Hef's luck is self-created. Hef, shockingly a virgin until the age of 22, was a married, 27-year-old father of a newborn baby when he started Playboy with $8,000 in 1953. Until that point, he had been a copywriter for Esquire, a cartoonist, a personnel manager for a box company and the circulation manager of Children's Activities magazine. But he thought America was ready for a more sophisticated form of entertainment. His idea was for a magazine called Stag Party, but there was already a magazine called Stag. And so, Playboy was born.
The magazine -- which sought to combine beautiful women with sophisticated tastes in fashion, music and literature -- caught on quickly, and Hef used his position to influence the culture as best he could. He started the Playboy Jazz Festival, giving exposure to many of the great jazz musicians of the '50s and '60s, both in Playboy's pages and on the stage. He was an early supporter of comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and George Carlin, helping usher in a whole new era of adventurous, politically-oriented comedy. And his effect on politics and sexual relations was more acute than most remember, as he not only promoted a freer version of sexuality than America was accustomed to and supported freedom of speech issues in the pages of Playboy, but gave financial support to lawsuits that resulted in the legalization of birth control and Roe v. Wade.
But no icon can survive unscathed forever, and as the sexual revolution was a boon for Hef (who was probably one of its creators), the rise of AIDS, conservatism, the Internet and lad mags have meant a changing of cultural sensibilities that left Playboy seeming like a bit of a relic to college boys and twenty-somethings. So the past few years have seen several editorial changes at Playboy, as the magazine searches for its place in the 21st century. Despite the challenges, though, Playboy remains strong, selling over 2.5 million copies a month, and making it still, after all these years, one of the top-selling magazines in America.
Hef's new book (co-written with Bill Zehme), "Hef's Little Black Book," tells his story, and gives his advice on everything from business to a few things he's learned about women in his 50 years at the top.
Bankrate spent a few minutes with Hef, talking about the business of Playboy, and how one becomes an icon in America.
Bankrate: How do you think the society perceives Playboy these days?
Hugh Hefner: I think from very early on, the way the magazine is viewed has been pretty much in the eye of the beholder. Playboy is a Rorschach test. It reflects on the individual's point of view of life and sexuality. But that was obvious from the very beginning. I wouldn't be here if the magazine had not been more than a magazine from the very beginning. I started it with absolutely no money, and it pushed buttons that prompted response from the very beginning, or we wouldn't have been able to publish the second or third issue.
Bankrate: You transformed yourself from an oft-rejected, awkward student to the world's most successful playboy. What's the key to changing your life in that fashion?
Hugh Hefner: Bring it to a conscious level. A lot of us walk through life in lock step, just following whatever's been done before and not really thinking about it. There are a lot of pressures in society to conform, and I think that most of your dreams come when you're young, and we settle for something less. Life by its nature is not simply dreams. It requires some compromises in order to survive. But what I would urge anybody who is any kind of dreamer to do is take stock of their life and think about how you want to spend your days.
Bankrate: Considering that Playboy as a brand has branched into so many areas, what advice would you give to someone who was starting a new business and wanted to really grow it into not just a business, but something that people really cared about, or even an empire?
Hugh Hefner: First and foremost, see what it is you really want to do. Hold on to the specific dreams that you have, and then stay focused on it. A lot of people have dreams, and they don't stay focused. I think one of our great inventors said, a genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. You have to look at what it really is you want. But I think the opportunities are everywhere now. The changes in technology make all things possible. The Internet and all of that make it possible for people to start businesses of all kinds with much less capital than was once true. You can go into publishing by starting your own little Web site.
Bankrate: With all your business endeavors, what's the most important thing you've learned about investing?
Hugh Hefner: I wouldn't even know how to answer that question. I don't think about myself as much of a ... I'm fairly successful in business not because I'm a good businessman, but because I'm a very good entrepreneur. My skills are essentially marketing, editorial and creative. It's the products and services that I created that speak to people, the things related to the magazine and the company and my life. These are the things of which I'm proudest, and that I do best.
Bankrate: So you leave the financial details ...
Hugh Hefner: ... to other people.