A common refrain when an elderly person dies is he’s in a better place now.
No one’s saying that about Hugh Hefner.
The iconic magazine editor and cultural crusader passed away Wednesday at his home—the most famous private residence in America—at the age of 91. This is final proof that no one lives forever.
It’s not as though we didn’t see this one coming. There had been what I’d call “radio silence” on Hefner’s health for some time and, let’s face it, The Man was 91 years old.
Ninety-one very well-lived years.
The things people will call to mind most quickly are the beautiful women. The parties. The pajamas. A baronial lifestyle with bacchanalian excess. Kings and queens and presidents and potentates have had far less.
But there’s the other side of Hugh Hefner as well. The side who really did read the articles. Articles about personal freedom, first and foremost, and an openness among grownups and governments. Playboy was and remains at the forefront of civil rights, gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and a host of other issues once taboo that are now mainstream. One might add sex in that category as well.
Pictures of naked women were the hook. Anyone could have done that though. The genius was to associate sex with upward mobility. Those pictures weren’t just sold in paper wrappers behind counters anymore. They were viewed by people who wore tuxedos and listened to Henry Mancini. “It’s a lifestyle available to most, in one form or another. It has to do with celebrating life with a little style. It has to do with reinventing yourself and becoming the person you really want to be. Life is much more rewarding that way.”
Those were the words sent to me in the only correspondence I ever had with the man I long considered my greatest idol and influence. Yeah, it’s basically a form letter, I’m sure, sent to many a fan over the years, but it does sum up the philosophy. Hugh Hefner didn’t have horns or want to corrupt your children as was suggested by his detractors through the decades. He wanted everyone to enjoy life and be happy. That’s something sadly lacking from this world.
Over the past 36 hours there has been wall-to-wall coverage of Hefner’s death on all major news stations. At one point yesterday four of the top five articles on CNN’s website were about Hugh Hefner. That’s pretty good. I’d thought long ago he’d sort of outkicked the coverage, that his death wouldn’t be as celebrated as it would have been 20 or 30 years ago. Nope. It was like the passing of a head of state, as celebrity and regular joe well-wishers proclaimed condolences. Nary a tweeter yesterday didn’t have a nice thing to say about Hef.
Hugh Hefner holds two world records recognized by the folks at Guinness, ones that I don’t see falling any time soon. One: longest editorship of a magazine. That one ended Wednesday night at nearly 64 years. Second was the world’s largest personal scrapbook. Something close to 3,000 volumes last I heard. In addition to putting out a magazine read by millions Mr. Hefner has kept a private collection of his own materials that take up something like an entire wing of his famous abode. (Haven’t heard what the new owner’s doing with those yet.) No one was ever able to say he or she knew Hefner better than he knew himself; the man was the ultimate chronicler of self, and some day those mansion walls are going to talk.
And the man who came closer than anyone to eternal life just gets a little closer.