In 1954, sex icon Marilyn Monroe was a rising star, having just starred in the classics Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Monroe was poised to take Hollywood by storm, and people – men especially – were in love with her sexy, yet sweetly innocent persona. She was the next big thing to take America by storm.
Then came the first issue of Playboy magazine and the photo scandal that almost sent her rising career spiraling downward.
Playboy was, in large part, responsible for the sexual revolution.
The brainchild of ex-Esquire cartoonist, Hugh Hefner, Playboy was meant to be a lifestyle magazine with a twist – it had nude centerfolds. A direct successor to the pinups of the ’40s, Playboy was built on the idea that the ‘girl next door’ could have sex appeal too.
Hefner started Playboy with only $8,000 and a dream.
When he was denied a measly $5 raise at Esquire, he decided to strike out and create his own magazine. He raised $8,000 from 50 investors – his mom chipped in $1,000 – and started the magazine in his Chicago kitchen.
But he needed a hook. So he created the ‘Sweetheart of the Month,’ the idea that would later become the Playboy playmate.
The Playboy “playmate” was a very specific type of girl.
She was the sexually liberated girl next door. She was young, willing, and financially savvy. She had ownership of her own body and wasn’t tied down by society’s expectations.
In a 2007 interview with NPR, Hefner noted, “The playmate of the month, the centerfold, came directly out of the influences of pinup photography and art from World War II and before. But what set them apart was what I described at the time as the girl next door: It all comes from that notion of being a fresh, wholesome, all-American person, and — in the context of the playmate — a sexual icon. The recognition … that nice girls like sex, too. Very revolutionary in the 1950s.”
Hefner and his friend, the aptly-named Eldon Sellers, sold 53,991 copies of Playboy’s first issue. It was a monster hit, instantly cementing Hefner as one of the thought-leaders of the day. People “read it for the articles,” but really, what they came for was the playmates.
Hefner’s success was based on the fact that he had used the most sexually desirable woman of the time as the first playmate – Marilyn Monroe. But there was a catch.
Making her the ‘Sweetheart of the Month,’ Hefner put Marilyn Monroe on the cover of the magazine and made her the centerfold. She wore a slinky black dress and a gigantic smile. Inside, however, he used full frontal nude photos of her reclining on a red background. There was just one big problem.
Monroe had never actually agreed to be in the magazine.
Hefner bought Marilyn Monroe’s nude shots from a calendar company.
In 1949, Monroe was a poor aspiring actress. To pay her rent, she posed nude for photographer Tom Kelley. He paid her $50 for the shots. Within one year, Monroe was hitting it big, acting in such classics as Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve. By then, Kelley had already sold the risqué pictures to Western Lithograph Company, a calendar company.
At the time, he’d never even met Monroe, but he knew that her nudes would cause a sensation. He bought the nudes from Western Lithograph and made them the first Playboy centerfold, leaving Monroe and her studio scrambling for explanations.
Marilyn was a big star, already ranking on the top highest paid celeb lists of the time. As 20th Century Fox, Monroe’s studio at the time scrambled for a way to combat the controversy, Monroe came up with a solution.
She did an interview explaining that she was broke at the time and desperately needed the money. The public bought it, and Monroe’s star rose higher than ever. She and Hefner eventually became friendly, but…
Monroe never actually consented to have those pictures on Playboy. Yes, she did a nude shoot, and yes, she did it with the expectation that it might resurface at some point, but she didn’t consent to have it on a nation-wide magazine. Which is what Playboy became. Hefner had essentially capitalized on the fact that Monroe’s nudes would cause a scandal.
Hefner used Monroe to propel himself to fame, which was problematic, given Marilyn Monroe was a survivor of sexual abuse.
Marilyn was abused as a child by a male boarder in one of her foster homes and shuttled from home to home primarily because the men in those homes kept propositioning her. She was a child at the time. She married when she was sixteen (also abuse, fyi) and then spent a career being sexually bullied and intimidated by her co-stars and directors.
Hefner may not have understood it, but he was just one in a long line of people who’d profited off Monroe. But then, Hefner had a complicated relationship with feminism.
Hefner modeled himself as a feminist. In fact, he supported abortion rights and other feminist causes, and even hired such noted feminist writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood (of The Handmaid’s Tale fame). However, his continued depiction of a very narrow idea of womanhood and his exploitation of female nudes put him in the crosshairs of the feminist movement. By the 1970’s he’d stopped being regarded as a sexual revolutionary and started being regarded as a male chauvinist.
But they were not good friends. Monroe lived in California, and Hefner lived in Chicago, among other factors. Still, Hefner was enamored of her. In a 2012 interview with CBS Los Angeles, he said, ‘I’m a sucker for blondes, and she is the ultimate blonde.’
In 1992, Hefner bought the vault next to Monroe’s in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
“I will be spending the rest of my eternity with Marilyn,” he said.