Hugh Hefner said he hopes his magazine "Playboy" has been able to help change the world for the better.
(CNN) -- For generations, the name Hugh Hefner has been inextricably linked to the subject of sex.
Indeed, the founder and editor-in-chief of the world famous -- or infamous -- Playboy Enterprises Inc. arguably could be credited with fueling the sexual revolution of the 1960s, allowing for subjects that were once only whispered in back alleys and bars to be discussed openly on television and radio.
Would it have been possible for TV and radio sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer or MTV's explicit phone-in talk show "Loveline" to delve so deeply and publicly into sexual discussions without Hefner's past contributions? Perhaps not.
Those contributions have made Playboy's Bunny symbol an American icon, and the joke phrase, "I read Playboy for the articles, not the pictures," virtually universal nationwide. In addition, he coined the word "centerfold," a term that is firmly imbedded in the English lexicon.
Born in Chicago
Hefner was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 9, 1926, to Glenn and Grace Hefner, who both worked as teachers. The Hefners were conservative Protestants and although his upbringing was nurturing, displays of affection were rare.
"There was no hugging or kissing or displays of emotion of any kind," Hefner said. "And because ... they were farm people from Nebraska and they were raised in typically repressive environments themselves ... I think to some extent you pass that on."
Entering Chicago's Steinmetz High School in 1940, Hefner began to break out of his shell of shyness. He learned how to dance the jitterbug and he fell in love for the first time.
"She was working at a drugstore that summer -- my Summer of '42 -- and the age of 16 and I was an usher in a neighborhood movie house," Hefner said. "So when I got through with that, I would go and pick her up and take her bowling or take her dancing ... that was a very sweet and delicious time for me."
In 1944, after graduating from high school, Hefner joined the U.S. Army as a writer for a military newspaper. After his honorable discharge from the service in 1946, Hefner began playing with the idea of publishing a men's magazine while working as a promotional copywriter at Esquire magazine.
"Esquire was always for older guys but it had changed and like other magazines that were more popular, it was very much devoted to male bonding and outdoor adventure," he said. "And I wanted to read a magazine that was a little more sophisticated and was focused really on the romantic connection between the sexes from a male point of view."
Playboy, started by Hefner with $600 in 1953, was an immediate success, Hefner theorized, because it featured a nude photograph of actress Marilyn Monroe. Fifty-thousand issues of the first Playboy sold nationwide.
"I mean, he couldn't even get funding for it when he proposed it," said comedian Bill Maher, the host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect." "You know he was trying to sell this idea to publishers and he said, 'You know, sex is a sure thing.' And they were like, 'I don't know, that's a risky idea, naked women in a magazine.' You know, I mean, who were these people back then?"
As Hefner's public life as a magazine editor climbed, his personal life took a turn. He and his first wife Millie divorced in 1959.
"I was too young," said daughter Christie Hefner, one of two children Hefner had with his first wife, "but if I had to try and describe it, I think they got married too young. I think they were typical of a generation that -- unlike my generation -- got married right out of school and it's hard to know who you are and what you want to grow up to be and whether you're ready to be married when you're 21 years old."
In the same year as his divorce, seizing to utilize the new medium of the decade, Hefner began hosting the television show "Playboy's Penthouse." He also expanded the Playboy brand by launching a chain of exclusive nightclubs known as the Playboy Club.
Accusations that Playboy violated obscenity laws led to Hefner's arrest in 1963. He was acquitted in the subsequent trial. Hefner said sex was only a part of what Playboy was about and then proved it by publishing articles and stories by some of the most respected writers of the day, including Alex Haley who interviewed musician Miles Davis, and a piece by the late astronomer Carl Sagan.
"I've never thought of Playboy, quite frankly, as a sex magazine," Hefner said. "I always thought of it as a lifestyle magazine in which sex was one important ingredient."
In creating Playboy, Hefner was at the right place and the right time, said Lois Banner, a professor at the University of Southern California's Gender Studies Program.
"He was at the right place and the right time and he was very bold," Banner said. "Much of his brilliance is as a marketer. A lot of his brilliance is not necessarily as the creator of a cultural icon, because that cultural icon is women ... He simply raised it up to a kind of epic phenomenon in culture."
Monthly circulation of the magazine peaked in 1971 at 7 million issues, the same year the company went public. There also were 23 Playboy Clubs in operation at the time, offering entertainment and libations to lovers of the Playboy lifestyle.
Hefner also moved West in 1971, purchasing a sprawling California mansion in Beverly Hills that became the Playboy Mansion West.
During the 1976 campaign for president, Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter shocked some people by granting Playboy an interview, making him the first future U.S. president to be interviewed by the magazine. A Carter quotation that appeared in the published interview became a campaign controversy.
"I have looked on a lot of women with lust," Carter said. "I've committed adultery in my heart many times. God recognizes I will do this and forgives me."
Hugh Hefner is flanked by some of his girlfriends at his 75th birthday party in March 2001. Hefner has seven girlfriends: Cathi O'Malley, Buffy Tyler, Tina Jordan, Tiffany Holliday, Stephanie Heinrich, Kimberley Stanfield, and Regina Lauren.
But by the 1980s, the Playboy franchise had lost much of its popularity. Approaching age 30, Playboy began a kind of mid-life crisis. Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten was murdered in 1980. In 1982, the company lost more than $51 million, according to the Star Tribune, and in 1988, the last Playboy Club in the United States closed. Hefner suffered a minor stroke in 1985 and, after he reportedly re-evaluated his lifestyle, he turned over all Playboy business operations to his daughter Christie.
"I had a relationship with my father," Christie Hefner said. "And I was protected from the hardest part, which would have been in the public eye and [people] meeting me for the first time, seeing me not as Christie, but as Hugh Hefner's daughter."
The younger Hefner admitted that the 1980s were a low point in the magazine's life. "Well I think in the 80s we certainly wrestled with what was the role of Playboy magazine in a post-sexual revolution, post-feminist world."
But in 1989, things began looking up. Hefner married Kimberley Conrad -- a former Playmate of the Year -- and fathered two boys.
"You know I was there to do my shoot," Conrad said, describing their courtship. You know, six, seven months later, he asked me out. He was in a transition. He and his girlfriend had broken up. So he asked me out ... and I declined a couple of times. I wasn't sure. And then finally we went out and had a great time."
The couple separated in 1998 and eventually divorced. She currently lives with her children in a home on the mansion grounds.
"Even though there were conflicts in the marriage," Hefner recalled, "the love was still there. The sense of continuity was still there and once the decision was made to separate ... and when this place became available right next door ... it just seemed too perfect an idea. And it is because, you know, for the boys, I mean, always, in the best of all worlds, children should be raised by both parents."
By 1999, Playboy was enjoying revitalization, the Star Tribune reported. Subscriptions on college campuses had increased by 62 percent from the previous year.
A year earlier, Hefner received proof that his empire had achieved some legitimacy in the publishing world when he was inducted in the American Society of Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame, joining other successful editors such as Cosmopolitan's Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem of Ms. magazine.
With the approach of Playboy 50th anniversary in 2003, Hefner's kingdom is again paying additional attention to a newly popular medium -- the Internet. The Web is the new bearer of the Playboy message, which was first announced in the 1953 premier issue: "We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex..."
Playboy's Web sites have not yet made a profit, although the company is projecting its first online profits before the end of 2002. Revenues in the fourth quarter of 2001 were up 18 percent to $7.7 million, the company said.
But Wired magazine reported that Playboy's online operations have lost $50 million in the past two years and intend to reach profitability partially by launching a mobile phone picture service called Mobile Playmate of the Month. Playboy also is wagering that its online casinos will help it cash in on the Web.
The company itself has a market capitalization of $425 million and the magazine's total U.S. paid circulation is 3.15 million. The company estimates that an additional 5 million adults read the 17 international editions of the magazine.
Hefner marked a milestone last year, celebrating his 75th birthday with a much-touted and star-studded "pajama and lingerie party" at the legendary Tudor-style Playboy Mansion.
"I literally have seven girlfriends at the present time," Hefner told CNN, "and we're like a bunch of kids."
Hefner's vision in sexually repressed 1953 helped to change American society's ideas about sex and may have helped to open the doors for the nation's sexual revolution. The success of the Playboy brand and its aim to provide articles by respected writers eventually led to Hefner being recognized as a pioneer magazine publisher and a visionary.
"I would like to be remembered as somebody who has changed the world in some positive way, in a social, sexual sense and I'd be very happy with that," Hefner said. "I'm a kid who dreamed the dreams and made them come true."