The Steven Watts Interview

Today I interview the author of Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream, a much-buzzed-about new biography of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner--I'm currently reading it and it is fascinating (plus my friend Jessica got mentioned in the acknowledgments). Steven Watts is also a professor of American history at the University of Missouri and has penned two other biographies of American titans: The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life and The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century

What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions about Hugh Hefner?

Probably the biggest misconception is that he is a non-stop party animal. In fact, he lives an extremely ordered, even rigid life. The schedule at the Mansion lays out the same activities for the same nights of the week on an unchanging basis. Hefner tends to eat the same meals the same nights of the week without change as well. He is a very controlled man, and quite the opposite of the public impression (although in the privacy of his bedroom suite, of course, he still cuts loose).

Do you keep up with Hefner news now that the book is out?
With promotion activities for the book still ongoing, I have been out in Los Angeles quite a bit since Hefner has been participating to a certain extent. So I have talked to him a lot as we have done some book signings and television interviews, as well as catching up with a lot of friends at the Mansion. And Hef and I talk by phone once in a while as well.

I sense an attempt to rebrand him lately (via E!), with the new girlfriends and him wearing bluejeans and such but I've gotten the impression that he's actually an old fogey (bringing his food to restaurants, a strict curfew for the girlfriends, etc). Which is the real him?
Actually, both of these impulses are part of his makeup. On the one hand, Hefner has a young man's attitude toward life even now and is determined to remain vital and engaged as he can. On the other hand, not only is he 82 but he is a man of deeply ingrained habits. He likes to eat what he likes to eat (even at a restaurant--he's been bringing his own food for forty years) and he has some rather traditional views on men and women's relationships.

The Playboy bunny has evolved over time, obviously reflecting the ideal woman of the time: has she also reflected Hefner's ideal? Or would he still take Marilyn Monroe over Pam Anderson?
Actually, Hefner sees Pam Anderson as a kind of updating of the Marilyn Monroe ideal--the curvy blond bombshell--of which he has always been very fond. But Playmates have evolved over time, particularly in two respects. First, with the modern habit of working out, they tend to be a bit sleeker, slimmer, with better muscle tone all over than they were in the 1950s and 60s. Second, with the popularity of breast implants and other kinds of plastic surgery, many modern Playmates have a more "perfect"--some would say too perfect--kind of look. But overall, Hefner still strives to select Playmates that have that "girl next door" image about them.

Where do you see Playboy in the future? How will it stay relevant as pornography evolves and becomes more accessible?
Playboy, having inspired a host of magazine competitors since about 1970, and now competing with the Internet, has resigned itself to having a smaller market share than it did in the old days. It sees itself now as more of a niche publication, aimed at upwardly mobile, reasonably affluent young men in urban areas who are interested in lifestyle as much as eroticism. Surprisingly, the licensing of the Playboy image--the real moneymaker for the company now--has generated a substantial appeal among young women with jewelry, clothing, accessories, etc. As to staying relevant, who knows. The operation has survived, and often flourished, for 55 years now so I suspect it will continue to do so for quite a while.

How was Hefner shaped by Chicago? And changed by LA?
Hefner, in my view, continues to be a Midwesterner in terms of his core personality traits--hard work, settled habits, plain tastes, a firm commitment to his own brand of morality. The only way LA changed him, as far as I can see, is that it brought him into the heart of Hollywood, a place that has always been magical for him. Since he was a kid, the movies offered a kind of fantasy land and since the 1970s he has been able to immerse himself in it actually as well as emotionally.

How does he feel about growing old?
He sees it as a nuisance because it has slowed him down somewhat physically. But it also has provided a vantage point for him to look back and contemplate what he has achieved with his life and career. In recent years, he has become more concerned with his historical legacy, and this is what prompted him to cooperate with me when I came to him with this biography proposal.

How did Hefner view Playboy's competitors?
He saw them as inferior, either seeking to copycat his formula (eg. Penthouse) or moving way out there into raunchy pornography rather than tasteful eroticism (eg. Hustler).

Did you make a conscious decision not to include any nudity in the book?
Yes, my editor and I agreed that the book should have a PG-13 rating. Not only would nudity set up certain roadblocks in terms of a potential audience, but it would detract from the central burden of the book--a serious analysis of how Hefner and Playboy influenced, even shaped, American cultural values over the last half of the twentieth century.

Why does Hefner so obsessively archive his life when there are other people doing it for him?
Since he was a teenager, Hefner has been compulsively compiling a "scrapbook" of his life that records nearly every detail of his daily existence. It is now close to 2,000 volumes long and takes up much of the third floor of the Mansion. It indicates, I think, his conviction that his life has been an important one--he often says that it, along with the magazine, have been his two greatest creations. For a historian, of course, this has created a gold mine of material to mine.

Is there anything that Walt Disney, Henry Ford and Hugh Hefner all have in common?
They are hard-working Midwesterners who gambled everything on what they believed in and demanded much from those who joined their enterprise. And being the right person at the right time with the right idea, they were all fabulously successful.

Which of those three men would you most like to get a beer with?

I've already had a lot of drinks and conversation with Hefner, so between the other two I would choose Disney. Ford, in a lot of ways, was not a very nice guy while Disney, as long as you didn't work for him, could be extremely charming.

Of the three of them, which legacy do you think is making the easiest transition into this century?
They are all having their problems, of course. Ford, with the larger economic crisis in the American automobile industry; Disney, with its corporate shakeup and declining popularity of the movies in recent years; and Hefner/Playboy, with the growth of competition and the Internet. So for none of them has the transition been easy. My crystal ball is pretty cloudy, I'm afraid, because how well they do in the 21st century will depend on how well they adapt to, or develop, new entertainment and transportation technology. That is impossible to predict.

I heard you were invited to the Playboy Halloween party: did you go? How was it?
I have gone for the last several years, and it is always the best party of the year at the Mansion. Hefner always has some Hollywood experts turn it into a kind of horror movie set, compete with a spectacular haunted house and grounds filled with characters and props from famous spooky films. And the party has some of the best costumes you will ever hope to see. In addition, my wife and I go to the New Year's Eve party, which is a smaller, formal, more elegant affair that is still great fun. In fact, Mansion parties really spoil you for the more normal kind in the regular world.

What are you working on now?
I'm putting together a proposal right now for another biographical project, but I can't divulge it yet. Some contacts and negotiations are underway that need to stay private right now.

What are some of your favorite biographies, as a reader?
Here are a few: Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain; Ron Chernow's Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller; Ronald Steel's Walter Lippman and the American Century; Robert Caro's several volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson; and Peter Guralnick's two volumes on Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love.


How does it feel to be the 225th person to be interviewed for Zulkey.com?

It's been a great honor and privilege.