Hugh Hefner, who died on Wednesday at the age of 91, put together the first issue of Playboy in 1953 at his Chicago home with borrowed money. Unsure that there would be more than one issue, the first Playboy edition—now sold as a collector’s item—only had a volume and issue number but no publication date.
Despite opposition, Playboy went on to become so popular in and beyond America, even without the internet, that it was a household name among the English-speaking urban population as far as India. “Buying old issues of Playboy from the second-hand bookstores at Free School Street in Kolkata, Brigade Road in Bengaluru and South Mumbai was a common activity right from the 70s till the early noughties," said Chetan Shah, a Pune-based businessman and Playboy collector.
“There are now probably two generations of Indian writers and journalists who bought Playboy on the black market for the nudes, but got hooked on the long interviews, essays and short stories, not to speak of the book, theatre, film, alcohol and record reviews. And it shows in their work, although I suspect few will own up to ever having seen an issue of the magazine," said Samantak Das, a professor in the department of comparative literature at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, who has guided an M.Phil thesis on the literary and cultural impact of the magazine.
That Playboy inspired an Indian version, Debonair, which was launched in 1973, is common knowledge. “Debonair, especially when edited by Vinod Mehta, tried the Hef formula with some success," added Das.
Mehta, in his book Lucknow Boy, shares how he used to rent copies of Playboy by the hour from the lending library Shemaroo to get ideas and inspiration when he was editor of Debonair. In the book, he admits that he decided to “lift the concept of the one-to-one interview from Playboy".
In 2012, PB Lifestyle Ltd was incorporated and signed a license agreement with Playboy Enterprises Inc. for 30 years. PB Lifestyle has two brands: Playboy and Sunset Ashram, which run clubs in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi. While the launch of Playboy clubs across India in the last few years is mistakenly thought of as the brand’s first direct contact with the country, it started in the 1970s with R.K. Narayan, the author of Swami and Friends and Malgudi Days. Narayan’s short story God and the Cobbler appeared in the February 1976 issue of Playboy. The magazine described his story thus: “another fictional treat is God and the Cobbler, a philosophical fable by R.K. Narayan, who is generally considered India’s foremost English-language novelist".
Among original works by authors such as Ray Bradbury and Vladmir Nabokov and Nobel winners such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Nadine Gordimer, the late Indian academic and a Berkeley professor of English, Bharati Mukherjee’s The Middleman was also published in Playboy in the April 1986 issue. It’s the title story for a collection that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1988.
It was a decade later, in April 1996, that Playboy announced “a startling interview with Salman Rushdie", against whom Iran’s supreme leader issued a fatwa in 1989 on grounds that he hurt Muslim religious sentiments with his book The Satanic Verses. In the interview, Rushdie spoke candidly of his anger at his book being burned, the fear he felt, about British Airways and other airlines not letting him fly, and how and why he stopped writing for two years after the Iranian leader’s order.
Much before all of this, tales from the ancient collection Panchatantra had also been published in Playboy.
Hefner’s run-ins with feminists, especially Gloria Steinem, who went undercover at the New York Playboy Club as a ‘bunny’ in 1963, are widely known.
All along, however, Hefner insisted he was a champion of women’s liberation and women’s rights. “You’re partly responsible for Women’s Lib, in a way," wrote Steinem in 1970.
“Hefner might not have had the best interests in his mind, but he did encourage women to take what is rightfully theirs and break the barriers of societal oppression," argues Shah.