I got an email from a documentary filmmaker a few weeks ago. She was wondering whether she could interview me for a feature she was making about Hugh Hefner. She wanted to know more about my role, and about the “cultural context” of the time.
I told her that I’d been the editor of Oui magazine for one year in the early 70s. I said that the cultural context of the magazine was vaginas.
I haven’t heard back.
But what I said was literally true. That’s the beginning of my memory core dump. In the 70s, the cultural context of pretty much everything was different. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I often feel like a time-traveler these days. Look, Maude, it’s a telephone with pictures.
Let’s start with Bob Guccione, a name that is thankfully sinking beneath the waters of history. Guccione started Penthouse magazine in 1965. It was intended to copy Playboy, but without the jazz-and-fine-wine gloss that was part of Playboy’s gestalt. But it was still all about naked women.
Guccione was not a particularly adept magazine publisher — Hef was an absolute pro, although his image was very much of a louche sybarite who happened to publish a magazine. Guccione did know how to do one thing: Torment Hefner.
At that time, showing any hint of actual vaginas in girlie pictures was strictly forbidden. Hefner never wanted to challenge that convention, because his aesthetic was all about improbably smooth skin and improbably large breasts. But Guccione didn’t care. His photos began to take the viewer closer and closer to the promised land.
In the industry, the phrase was “showing pink.” Penthouse girls were threatening to show pink. Actual pubic hair was hinted at. The circulation of Penthouse soared, while Playboy’s suffered. Clearly, it was a race to the bottom.
I had been living in Berkeley for a decade, so I knew that going to work for a T&A magazine was not a cool thing to do. But I’d just spent time as an editor at a fashion magazine (Rags) that had upended the traditional model. Our thesis was that fashion in our time came up from the street, not down by fiat from designers and rag trade executives. Maybe I could do the same thing with sex. I figured I could hire women in creative positions, which I did, and connect with feminist organizations to begin what you might call dialectic. I did that too.
For a man of my generation, the sexism was baked in. I grew up with a set of assumptions that I didn’t know were assumptions. There was no push-back from the dominant narrative. So I was a good liberal (equal pay for equal work, etc.) but I did not see the sexism in my heart. It has been a long struggle for me to understand the reality of reality. I’m still learning new things.
So yeah, I objectified women. I viewed advertising images, probably thousands of them, that treated women as attractive accessories, and I did not say a word, did not think a thought. I was clueless; it was 1972 and cluelessness was all the rage. But half a century later, I’m still clueless, although I like to think that my cluelessness is of more nuanced kind.
So I shut up and listen. I no more understand what it’s like to be a woman in this culture than I understand what it’s like to be a black man. About two years ago, I decided to refrain from opinions about African-Americans. They are having their own conversations about their experiences and their identity. It’s a great, eloquent, angry conversation, and its existence out in the open is a tribute to the idea of democracy.
The same with women. They too are now telling their stories, claiming their narratives. It’s exhilarating to listen to, and listening is what I should do. I have a sense of the patriarchy crumbling, and I’m sure that’s scary to people, particularly older white men who grew up learning things about masculinity that are not true. (You don’t have to “prove” you’re a man; you already are one. So whoever you really are, that’s masculine. Relax).
Donald Trump has become a radicalizing force. I find that fascinating; I find the whole thing fascinating. Scary as fuck, but useful. I await developments.
I understand that I was complicit. I had millions of unindicted co-conspirators. I think back on those years, and I realize how bloody naive I was. I was in a world I absolutely did not understand. Dumb as a bridge abutment? Oh yeah. This is horrifying, and it makes me wonder why I didn’t notice it. Perhaps I did not want to see it. Maybe. Probably. Anyway.
Back to Hef’s dilemma. He did not want his faux-respectable magazine tied up in court if some sheriff in Omaha busted a 7-11 for selling Playboy. So he thought: I’ll start another magazine! If they bust that, no problem. But his advisers said: Too expensive. So he came up with another plan.
There was a French magazine called Lui. It was a direct rip-off of Playboy. So Hef thought: I could buy the American rights to Lui, hire a few French people to run it, translate the articles and use the pre-existing photographs. He would call the magazine Oui, which was what French women say when approached by a slick American stranger. Because, you know, French women.
Alas, it turned out that the articles (which no one seemed to have read) were either libelous, boring or on topics Americans didn’t care about. Also, the woman they’d hired to translate was the girlfriend of the editor they sent over, and while her conversational English was fine, she was not a writer and had scant experience at translation.
The new magazine had been announced. They were a month from “color closing,” when the photos had to be shipped to the printer. They needed an American editor, they needed an American staff. And they wanted someone young, someone who knew what the kids wanted.
I had worked for Rolling Stone, so clearly I was an expert on those darned kids. I was employed by the Los Angeles Times, so I clearly wasn’t one of those drug addled rock writers. I was a 29-year-old journalist. Candidly, I really had no idea what the kids wanted. Also, I didn’t want to live in Chicago. I didn’t want to edit a T&A magazine.
As my cousin John used to say, “no” is the sexiest word in the English language. My reluctance made me irresistible. Hefner put on the press. Private late-night conversations at the mansion. Bonding over being magazine geeks. Drinking amazing wine and shooting the shit. So I said yes. The money was good; the perks were incredible.
Also, they let me hire my own staff. Desperate? I should say.
Three weeks later, we walked into the iconic Playboy building on Michigan Avenue for the first time. We were given a wide berth — it was a little like the magnificent seven walking into a troubled town while the residents cowered in fear. Color closing? No problem. We were magazine cowboys. Among the people I brought with me, then or later: John Burks, Mary Robertson, Carol Troy, John Lombardi, Ed Ward. We all stayed in the Playboy Hotel and drank in the hotel bar. We made up stuff as we went along.
I never saw a live naked woman in a professional context. All that happened in France with Lui photographers. Here’s what I remember from my first week on the job: There was a big corkboard in the art department. Pinned up were 12 or so candidates for the centerfold. Five middle-aged white guys were staring at the photos.
I was invited to join them. Perhaps I knew what kind of boobs the kids liked. There was a long silence as the men pondered the issue. One them, a guy with a brush mustache that made him look just a tiny bit like Hitler, finally pointed to one of the photos and said:
“There’s a muscle in her thigh.”
It was apparent that I was not an ideal representative of the Playboy world. I dressed in flowing Indian shirts. I had a rabbinical beard. (Lettuce got caught in it several times). I played a wood flute in the office. I was uninterested in the details of the planned invasion of pink.
The disconnect between me and the organization was quickly manifest. As Arthur Kretchmer, the smartest of the Playboy executives I met, once said, “it’s hard to work at a place you have contempt for.” The executives were already circling, waiting to include Oui in their expanded fiefdom.
Then the unthinkable happened: The magazine was a success. The first issue sold out in 24 hours. Dick Cavett made a joke about it. Plans to can me were deferred. Maybe I did know what the kids wanted after all. (My own theory is that its popularity had nothing to do with my no-doubt outstanding editing, and more with the overwhelming adolescent desire to see a racier Playboy).
We kept selling magazines. I went to Paris. I went to London. I met dope-smoking provocateurs. I rode on hippie buses and assigned stories to a diverse group of people, some of whom were talented. I tried to subvert the dominant paradigm, but in an outstandingly half-assed way.
Of course, I was eventually forced out. My territory was too attractive, and my intransigence was irritating. By that time, real pornography was overtaking mock pornography. Oui went on for years; Playboy is still with us. Me, I got money, experience and fun. Four months later, I met Billie Jean King and helped start WomenSports magazine. I worked for free. I guess it was my penance.
I’m not sure when I’ll produce the next column. We’re going to Argentina pretty quick now, so my writing logistics are unclear. But I’m relatively certain about one thing: It’s going to be a letter from Argentina. Which is either exciting or not, depending on your interest in mate, gauchos and the tango.
See, I’m stereotyping again. I was in the journalism business far too long.
Photography by Tracy Johnston
Various helpful things by Michelle Mizera