Hugh Hefner is trending because Hugh Hefner has died.
News reported this morning that the founder of Playboy Enterprises died last night at the age of 91.
Hefner has been an iconic individual in western culture since the 1950s when launched the first issue of Playboy magazine. The first issue featured Marilyn Monroe (whom Hefner never met) on the cover in a photo from her 1949 nude calendar shoot. That issue sold 50,000 copies and a new industry of acceptable and easily-accessible pornography was born.
Hefner's biography has been told in snippets, documentaries, and streaming mini-series, but most remember the image he portrayed as a playboy (go figure) who wore silk pajamas all day, surrounded himself with beautiful women, had numerous girlfriends, lived in a mansion, created the Playboy bunny imagery, and developed an entertainment empire that amazingly is now considered mainstream by many in the culture.
The son of traditionally conservative midwestern parents became a voice for sexual freedom as a revolution took hold. Yet, as tweets and statements of thanks fill social media today with people attempting to be humorous by thanking Hef for all the "articles" in his magazine, it is with deep sadness that as a Christian I heard of his passing.
Dr. Russell Moore says it well (full article here)
The death of any person is a tragedy. Hugh Hefner is no exception to that. We can’t, though, with his obituaries, call his life “success” or “a dream.”
There is no doubt that the pornification (a word borrowed from Pamela Paul's book Pornified) of America and western society has harmed individuals and families and continues to do so. When Hefner and others pushed against the boundaries of decency, cultural outrage was high...and now, what was once deemed as harmful is considered "no big deal" by many.
Pornography is a $50 billion industry (and that's a conservative estimation) and with the pushing of boundaries, it became newsworthy with Playboy announced just a few years ago that they would no longer feature nude imagery not for moral reasons, but as was stated in an article featured in The Week at the time:
The decision was made by top editors and founder Hugh Hefner, who agreed that Playboy and its nude women don't pack the same punch they did when the magazine launched 62 years ago.
Nevertheless, Playboy has gone back to nudes. It seems that the shock of clothed women in magazines wasn't as profitable as originally expected.
Every Man Has a Story
The stories about Hefner and Playboy keep trending today. From references to his many girlfriends, the launch of his Playboy Clubs, his arrest for breaking decency laws, to appearances in The Simpsons, references in Iron Man movies, and the mainstreaming of the grandfather-figure who lived carefree and without boundaries.
Yet, at some point, from the biblical worldview, we must concede that the image presented publicly was likely not the full story. It never is.
A number of years ago Karen Covell and her husband Jim found their calling in Hollywood. Jim is a composer for film and television. Karen is a producer. As followers of Christ in the entertainment Mecca, they seek to live as lights in the darkness.
It was a number of years ago when Karen was hired as an associate producer for Headliners and Legends with Matt Lauer. The show aired on MSNBC and featured interviews with some of the individuals who had proven instrumental in shaping culture. Karen mentioned that her desire was to start by featuring an interview with Dr. Billy Graham. She was overruled and her first feature would focus on Hugh Hefner. I shared of this encounter at a men's retreat a number of years ago. Here's the story of Karen's encounter with Hefner:
Karen’s first reaction, “It really disturbed me. I came home to Jim and I said, 'I don’t think I can do this.’ Jim sat and looked at me and said, ‘You know, you need to start praying right now for Hugh Hefner and for the opportunity God is going to give you.'"
Karen felt like she’d been hit by a ton of bricks. After all, Paul went to Athens and Corinth, the seat of pagan influence and sexuality in his day, why should she run from the Playboy Mansion? And so, the next day while talking to Rick, her producer, Karen took the risk of sharing the conversation she and her husband had had the night before, knowing he might not understand or support her perspective, her jaw dropped when he responded, "You know, I’ve struggled with this - doing this interview." Together, as producer and associate producer, Rick and Karen decided to develop a different slant on the story. They would focus, not simply on Hefner’s successes and renown, but on why he became who he did. After all, everybody has a story.
When the day of the interview arrived, they sat down with Hugh Hefner and the producer asked questions based on their research. What were Hefner’s parents like? What was his upbringing? What characterized the early days of his life? Imagine the shocked crew, listening as Hefner began to pour out how he had been raised in a puritan home of religious tradition. His parents believed in God, but not a God of grace, love or compassion. Theirs had been a rigid religion. They never told Hefner, nor his brother, ever, that they loved him. His mother never kissed him because she wanted to avoid germs. And so, Hefner set out to find love wherever he could. With dry eyes, Hefner recalled how his parents had given him a blanket, when he was a child. His security blanket. He painted a very vivid picture going to bed at night, hugging his blanket, the only thing he had to hug, the only thing that returned any warmth. The blanket was bordered with bunnies. It became his bunny blanket. Hefner recounted how, as a boy, he always wanted a puppy. But his parents, especially his mother, said that dogs spread germs, so there couldn’t be one in their house. It was only after they discovered a tumor in Hefner’s ear, that they thought they would finally buy Hefner a dog. No one could have predicted, however, that the dog would unexpectedly die after just five days. Hefner recalled how he wrapped his dying dog in his bunny blanket as a means to comfort the puppy. But when they puppy died, his mother buried the dog and burned the blanket. Both, sources of his deepest comfort, were suddenly gone.
And then he said very matter of fact, “I guess I’m still just that little boy, trying to find love.”
Karen said, "The room was hushed in silence as we all sat and listened to this famous man pour out his story. We realized the gaping void that had existed deep in this man’s soul. He went on to tell us that every Friday night, he gets together with close friends and watches old romantic movies because he’s still searching for the love that he never had. I realized that this man had confused sex with love and had turned a desperate need, into a way of making money."
It was after that interview that she had the privilege of writing Mr. Hefner a letter. “I thanked him for the opportunity to tell his story. I thanked him for time he allowed us to get to know him better. I told him that in spite of all he had accomplished, I still believed there was one thing still missing in his life. He hadn’t met a loving God and did not know him personally. And so, I challenged him to seek him out.
I was amazed when, two weeks later, he wrote me back. He thanked me for the interview that he said he enjoyed very much and he would consider my words. That following Christmas, after running into him again, I gave him a beautiful Bible with his name on the front.”
Now does that necessarily mean that’s going to change Hefner’s life? No. But what it does mean, is that the Covells understand what it means to be salt and light in the workplace. (story from Bob Reccord and Randy Singer's book Made to Count)
Many stories and responses today regarding Hefner's death will continue to enter the public discourse. There are those who revere him. There are those who revile him. Yet, as I read Karen's account, I'm reminded that every person has a story. Each person's story reveals a gap, an emptiness. Clearly only Christ can fill that need.
Even for Hugh Hefner. He was a man who lived with a deep father wound. A wounded man who sought healing and peace in places that led to deeper wounds.
Hefner was no different than anyone else. And, as far as we know, he did not respond to the free gift (not just the Bible, but the message within.)
And for that we can grieve.