No more Playmates? Thanks Brazzers. Makers of the magazine that defined three generations of
men’s people’s lives, especially when found discarded in a field behind your school, announced its second redesign in three years will do away with the naked centerfolds. Oh well. While this change may be the truest reflection of Hefner’s vision in a half-century, it is also likely the publication’s last drawn-out breath.
In the late-1990s, I was a clerk at a Rand McNally store in Century City a couple doors down from the Brentano’s bookstore. Brentano’s was sort of the place to go if you wanted to be around people who knew things about books. Not literature. Books.
Back then, there was no raft of amateur critics trolling Amazon, no Goodreads to weed out the tasty lit morsels from the failed first efforts of recent Iowa Writers’ Workshop grads and the NYT’s Sunday Book Review was in print only—and I mostly couldn’t afford the paper. If you wanted to know what people were reading in Los Angeles, or more accurately, what the curators of their day thought people should be reading in Los Angeles, you went to Brentano’s.
One day there was a Help Wanted sign in the window. I walked in with my Rand McNally tag on and a mall pizza stain on my khakis and asked for an application.
“Where do you work?”
I pushed my chest forward to show off my badge.
“What do you do…outside work?”
“I write a little. I’ve tried standup. I do dumb sketches. I saw Vinnie from Doogie Howser at my Pavilion’s.”
“Where do you live?”
“Melrose and Wilcox.”
“What do you read?”
I didn’t have an answer.
The guy refused to reach for a job application. Instead, he went back to inserting the little magnetic security strip things one by one into a stack of children’s books. “I didn’t know kids were your chief concern for stealing,” I said in an attempt to sound hopeful, humorous.
He didn’t smile and I went back to selling neck pillows, globes and DK Eyewitness Guides. The Help Wanted sign wasn’t there the next morning. I’d missed my big break.
I was relegated to spending my break time in Brentano’s as a curious onlooker and aspirational patron—and truthfully, avoiding the daily grind of being under their employ probably perpetuated the illusion of the bookstore for me to this day. It was there I saw Diana Ross thumbing through a copy of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. It was there I picked up my obligatory new-in-town copy of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. It was there I stared at Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw cooing over a copy of Above London.
Brentano’s was the center of the universe I so desperately wanted to be a part of. It’s like I could walk in and be jolted from a thousand ideas just by feeling that prickly hum coming off the people who shaped our society. In other words, I’d never seen anyone read a magazine they were on the cover of (Michelle Pfeiffer) until then. And never since. To me, it was like visiting the most exclusive zoo in the world and having access to these rare and beautiful creatures. Everyone seemed to be on display, albeit hair a little messier, a little taller or a little shorter, hands a little more veiny. Cheeks always seemed sunken in and forehead lines a little more pronounced.
Because they were there and because I was there, it was the place to be. I’ve come to learn, that’s a fleeting feeling.
It came to pass that Brentano’s book signings would occupy the majority of my free-time and spare income. I would literally save pennies in a change jar to be able to afford a purchase at the next signing and couldn’t wait to stand in line for hours in exchange for 15 seconds of facetime with a notable author or bio-slinging celeb of the day. I shook Jimmy Carter’s hand and it felt like a vacation. I tried to get Scott Turow to tell me what he thought of Harrison Ford and he looked at me like he had no idea who I was talking about. I asked Joan Rivers if she hated Carson or Leno and she said, “After awhile you hate everyone honey. But you learn to get along.”
But nothing compared to Hef.
My first impression of Hugh Hefner was he was exactly the man he’d created four decades earlier. He was sharp and swarthy and coy. He was unattractive in pieces: elongated nose, beady eyes, a vampire’s long fingers—but the sum of him was dashing. He wore a smoking jacket. He walked on air as he entered the bookstore with two women bobbing like buoys on each arm—he was their ocean. He carried a tumbler full of something brown that had been yellowed from melting ice. Someone asked him where he got that drink and he said, “I know a good bar down the street.” Everyone laughed.
I bought his book, some whatever-decade hardback anniversary edition of the magazine. He asked me who to sign it for. It was a last-second audible, but I told him to make it out to my girlfriend at the time. “Smart move,” he said. “If I’ve learned nothing else in this life, it’s to be inclusive.”
He handed the book back to me and gave me a wink (<—maybe I’m making that up, but that’s how I remember it).
The line for the Hef signing died out after about a half hour. Sometimes writers would sit in their seats and squirm for a bit like a kid who wants down from his high chair—waiting for the publicist to come over and pull him up. Hef stood up on his own, dignified. Sometime in there someone came and freshened his drink.
He took a sip, cleared his throat and asked if anyone had any questions before he left. These were the days before camera phones and everyone just kind of half swayed with hands in their pockets. He started again, “You sure, no questions? You just bought a book. You’re entitled to a few.” A couple chuckles but still no questions.
“I started Playboy because I was going broke as a writer,” he said. “I figured, I might as well go broke as a publisher.”
The crowd thawed.
“The women and the mansion and the celebrities—people, things—things especially—they come and go. But I believe in that lifestyle,” he said and took a little sip of his drink. “Men and women should try to get the most from one another. In every good way they can. That’s what I think of when I think of Playboy. You may disagree—but it’s my baby.”
Depending on how you interpret those words, it was either a moment of contempt or a tacit acknowledgement that sometimes folks simply get lucky and whatever they’ve built grows up to be bigger than they are. Bigger than their imagination.
I also look back at this as one of the last times I arrived in a place where people just sort of all stood around amongst each other, amongst celebrity—and were just OK with whomever was around or whatever was going on. You know, being content with being there. People now want to accumulate images of what they’re doing more than they actually want to be doing it. And they force it on everyone like some kind of fucking awful performance art.
Even if Hef’s ring-a-ding image is a farce, like the Rat Pack is a farce, like Taylor Swift’s #girlsquad is a farce—the difference is back then we knew we were being had and we were complicit. The wink, in other words, wasn’t totally imagined.
Hef is now 89. His magazine still has a reported 800,000 subscribers though that number seems grossly exaggerated considering the last time I saw an issue of Playboy in the wild my messages were from an answering machine, my playlist was a five-disc changer and my biggest pet peeve was finding the new release wall at Blockbuster empty on a Friday.
From the time I saw Hef in Brentano’s to today, the reality of Playboy never quite stacked up to the brand. But that’s true with pretty much everything. The difference is today we live for the premise of something better, not the promise of it. And that’s why we’ve moved on from airbrushed cheesecake to Eastern Bloc hardcore. I’m not as sentimental as I am disappointed …knowing my son won’t ever view sex with the same kind of wonder and paucity. The first images he’ll be exposed to, along with the messaging implicit, won’t be so inclusive.