Hugh Hefner, Playboy founder who embodied the contradictions of the sexual revolution

To live out one’s teenage fantasies when you’re in your eighties, to be hailed as co-author of an American social revolution, and for good measure to have an endangered subspecies of Florida rabbit named after you…

One way and another, it’s a pretty remarkable set of achievements – to be acknowledged even by those who persisted in seeing the man as a marketer of smut, throwing open the gates of Gomorrah for his hitherto innocent countrymen.

The giveaway of course is the animal – sylvilagus palustris hefneri, to give it its proper name – better known as the Lower Keys marsh rabbit. The name is the backhanded tribute of the US wildlife protection agency to Hugh Marston Hefner: founder of Playboy magazine, creator of the voluptuous bunny that was its mascot, and indefatigable silk pyjama-clad stud – at an age when most other men find a cup of Ovaltine as much excitement as they can handle.

Love him or loathe him, Hugh Hefner was undoubtedly a monument of American civilisation in the second half of the 20th century. He didn’t invent sex, or bring about the sexual liberation that took over from the prim and prosperous 1950s; that pioneering distinction must go to Dr Alfred Kinsey, whose report on male sexuality was published in 1948.

But no one grasped its significance quicker than the young Hefner – then a postgraduate student at Northwestern University in Chicago – who in 1949 wrote a term paper on the impact of the report on America’s existing sex laws.

A year or two earlier, he’d already given an even clearer hint of the future. Having served in the US Army in the closing months of the war, Hefner enrolled at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. There he found time to publish a humorous campus paper called Shaft, complete with a feature called “Co-ed of the Month” featuring a (clad) female student. Where co-eds led, Playboy playmates would soon follow.

Hefner graduated with degrees in…

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