It is less than three weeks since the “American icon,” Hugh Hefner, breathed his last in the Playboy mansion and was transported to California to be interred in a mausoleum next door to the body of Marilyn Monroe. He and Monroe never met, but she was the first of the naked celebrities who became the hallmark of Playboy, appearing both on the cover of its first 1953 issue and as its first centerfold and apparently ensuring that the magazine sold out. Ever the sentimentalist, Hefner spent a full $75,000 on a grave in this desirable location. He liked the idea, he said, of spending eternity next to the famous and fragile movie-star.
Marilyn was not available for comment, but she might have been annoyed that none of the $75,000 went to her, just as she never received any payment from Playboy for the photographs that began the making of its fortune. Four years earlier, badly needing the cash, she had received $50 for the photographs which, in the manner of these things, passed through several hands until they reached Hefner’s and those of his customers.
If Hefner and Monroe end up in the same part of the Next World, which is questionable, she might have something to say about this pay differential. But then so might a large number of other “playmates.”
These and other details of “Hef’s” iconic life were revealed with a sympathy at times amounting to reverence in most of the media obituaries that followed his death. Their theme was that he was the man who brought the sexual revolution to America, advanced the civil rights revolution alongside it, and combined these two revolutions in a sophisticated liberal lifestyle package that appealed to an American middle class then emerging from a restrictive puritan ideal.
There were, of course, qualifications. Hefner had some help in spreading the Playboy philosophy from the Pill, the Kinsey Report, and the growing liberalism of American law. The philosophy itself, together with the consumer lifestyle it promoted, were obviously directed more to the tastes and interests of men, in particular bachelors, than to those of women. (Indeed, Hefner was quick to identify the feminists of the Sixties and Seventies as enemies of the entire Playboy phenomenon.) As a result of such changing tastes, Playboyism, like its leading exponent, looked increasingly dated and “unsophisticated.” And, finally, it was impossible to ignore that the high-minded philosophizing and consumer empire both rested on naked female flesh.
The New York Times got the balance right. Its obituary leaned to the favourable:
“Hefner the man and Playboy the brand . . . . both advertised themselves as emblems of the sexual revolution, an escape from American priggishness and wider social intolerance. Both were derided over the years — as vulgar, as adolescent, as exploitative and finally as anachronistic. But Mr. Hefner was a stunning success from the moment he emerged in the early 1950s.”
And an assessment by the paper’s leading conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, was close to an exorcism:
“Hugh Hefner, gone to his reward at the age of 91, was a pornographer and chauvinist who got rich on masturbation, consumerism and the exploitation of women, aged into a leering grotesque in a captain’s hat, and died a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies.
Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution, with Quaaludes for the ladies and Viagra for himself — a father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men much like himself.”
When I read Mr. Douthat’s words of brimstone, I thought he might be stoned by righteously indignant libertines. He did attract some abuse, but also a surprising number of sympathizers who began along such lines as: “I never thought I would agree with Mr. Douthat but . . .” That becomes more understandable when you read both Douthat and the anonymous editorialist carefully and realize that they contain more overlap and less contradiction than a hasty reading might suggest.
Their rhetoric is sharply different; the facts they describe are much the same. What makes the difference is the attitude each writer takes to Hefner’s life. Planting himself firmly on traditional Christian ground, Mr. Douthat, a believing Catholic, thinks he opened a gateway to the moral squalor of today’s American popular culture; the NYT scribe, standing on a surfboard as it hurtles down the stream of that culture, treats Hefner as, on balance, a pioneer who (doubtless reacting to an oppressive puritanism) went too far in the right direction and so into seedy, exploitative, and vulgar territory.
Mr. Douthat is confident; his colleague uneasy. It is almost as if they both sensed that a social change was on the way — or even that one had occurred but not yet been fully sensed by the cultural arbiters of the modern world.
Two weeks later the New York Times published the story that one of those cultural arbiters, Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer, had sexually harassed at least a baker’s dozen (and apparently many more than that) of young actresses in ways both bizarre and disgusting, managed to keep this news out of the media by bribery or legally silencing his victims, been protected by an omerta permeating the film industry and subscribed to by both sexes, constructed a protective image of contemporary virtue by loudly allying himself with liberal political causes and politicans, and in general created an image that he was both formidable and untouchable.
That he was neither became clearer as every passing day revealed more actresses he had allegedly harassed (or in three cases raped — according to the New Yorker), some of them famous names, some who had appeared in his movies, some who had won awards doing so. Within a week he had been dismissed summarily by the company he created, been abandoned by his friends, threatened with losing the Oscars he had won, lost his wife, and was facing the prospect of criminal charges and a prison sentence.
It is always unpleasant to watch a pack of hounds turn on and rend a fugitive even when the fugitive has it coming. All his old associates run for cover; no chits for past favors can be redeemed; his accusers grow in number and vehemence (though not necessarily in credibility.)
We never knew!
Yet it was apparently common knowledge in the movie business, whispered about by the Weinstein staffers, gossiped about by waiters at his favorite restaurants (who knew his modus operandi when it came to seducing starlets), and even joked about at Oscar performances and on the sitcom 30 Rock. It’s the old, old story: everyone knew and no one knew until it was in their interest to know it — as it had previously been in their interest to be ignorant about it. Now the difference is that they are volubly ignorant.
It was a different time.
But what time was that and who made it different? Modern social etiquette, even in Hollywood, was not always either brutally transactional or coercive. Ray Milland, learning that Audrey Totter (one of film noir’s bad girls who was actually a good girl) was about to have dinner with a notorious seducer, insisted on going along to help her escape. It was Hefner-ing of sexual revolution that put a stop to that kind of chivalry, making it seem a different kind of coercion and delegitimizing it to the point where people looked away from harassment as well as from flirting.
Sexual harrassment is what powerful men do.
Really, all of them? That’s the feminist interpretation of Weinstein’s M.O., and we’ll be hearing a lot more of it. Even in this case, however, the hypocrisy and lies are not all on the one side. If the silence of the stars was transactional, as it plainly was, maybe some of the sex of the starlets was transactional too. But the coming new sexual etiquette is likely to insist that we must believe the victims at all times, even when that same rule in the child-sex abuse panic of a generation ago led to innocent teachers of both sexes spending years in prison before the lies of their accusers and prosecutors were exposed.
And this is not just another tale from Hollywood. Weinstein was an influential donor in the liberal politics and the Democratic party. He was a friend of Hillary Clinton. He bankrolled Tina Brown’s magazine, Talk, to enable Hollywood to influence Washington and vice versa. He had talked his way into national prominence by proclaiming that Hollywood was the compassionate conscience of America. And as his world was collapsing, his first response was to offer to redeem himself by destroying the National Rifle Association. You couldn’t make it up.
So more hangs alongside Harvey than some Hollywood reputations, as his former friends realize. When Tina Brown gave a qualified defense of her old boss, some instinct prompted her to mount a pre-emptive attack on the vast right wing conspiracy that might profit from the scandal: “Harvey is an intimidating and ferocious man,” she wrote. “Crossing him, even now, is scary. But it’s a different era now. Cosby. Ailes. O‘Reilly, Weinstein. It’s over, except for one — the serial sexual harasser in the White House.”
But that only drew attention to an obvious name missing from her list: a serial sexual harasser who used to be in the White House and whose enabling wife she championed passionately until recently: the Big He, Bill Clinton.To be sure, there are risks to Donald Trump in this scandal. But the Clinton machine and its cash nexus with Hollywood is definitely finished. Hugh Hefner doubly so. He died at just the right time. His obituaries today would all be written as if by Ross Douthat.
And Marilyn Monroe must be turning away in her grave.