It was 1965 and I had just landed my second job out of college—working as an editor in Playboy’s newly formed book division—Playboy Press. I learned a great deal about Hugh Hefner that very first day on the job. There was a memo waiting for me on my desk, a memo typed on a distinctive yellowish-orange paper, a color I soon learned was exclusively reserved for Hefner memos. It was 68 pages long, single-spaced and devoted to an exhaustive analysis of every page in a soon-to-be-published newsstand special entitled “The Best from Playboy.”
It didn’t simply criticize the selection and placement of photos and type—it pulled every page apart and put them back together.
And as I read the memo and examined the accompanying layouts, I was amazed that Hefner’s every modification and criticism was spot on. This man knew exactly what he wanted and demanded that the product match his expectations.
In the 35-plus years that I worked for Hef (no one who knows him calls him Hugh or Hefner), I saw his demand for quality, his vision of what his magazine should be repeated over and over. When the ’70s arrived, I moved to Playboy’s Photo Department and in 1975 to the position of Photography Director. I was now Hefner’s instrument for turning his vision into the photos that went into the magazine. It was a unique vantage point and I soon learned to do things Hef’s way.
While Hefner was still living in Chicago, there was an editorial meeting at his mansion once a week. The meetings usually started at 4 pm in the afternoon and often didn’t end until the sun was coming up the next morning. Hefner would appear at the meetings—yes, in his pajamas—intense, seldom given to small talk. He would have several small pieces of paper in his breast pocket, things he wanted to suggest, questions to which he wanted answers.
Photos, features, Playmate centerfolds would be laid out on the table and Hef, pipe in mouth, Pepsi in hand, would begin scrutinizing, critiquing. He might approve something, in which case he would initial it. No centerfold could go to press without those initials. He would look at Playmate candidates, at suggestions for lifestyle features, at cover ideas both executed and presented as concepts.
After a few hours, sandwiches and cookies might be brought in for the crew. Hef never ate. He would drink a Pepsi halfway down and then push a button on a little brown box on the table that signaled a butler to bring in a fresh Pepsi. As the evening wore on, I observed him chewing on a tissue I learned was wrapped around a dexie (amphetamine). No wonder he often worked sometimes for two or three days without sleep. We were challenged to match his energy, his endurance.
Hefner’s demand for exactly what he wanted sometimes reached ludicrous proportions. We shot a centerfold of Karen Christy. There was a goldfish bowl in the photo. Hefner rejected several versions of the shot, demanding reshoots—her hand wasn’t right, her expression wasn’t quite what he wanted, the light behind was distracting. Finally, after innumerable reshoots, he said “Finally, you got it.” An audible sigh of relief could be heard in the room. “Except for one detail: The goldfish is turned away from the camera.” It was long before Photoshop, but we found a way to strip an image of the fish at the correct angle. Success.
Hefner was never concerned about cost. If it wasn’t what he wanted, he didn’t hesitate to reject it or demand it be redone. He may have made a lot of money, but I never had the feeling he was motivated by profit. It was all about the realization of his vision. His passion for his magazine went well beyond the photos of women: Humor, music, sports, compelling interviews, lifestyle were all part of Hef’s vision, a vision that eventually dimmed with age and finally is now extinguished.