Hefner Decrees: Less Sex Better in New Playboy

He wants to “pull back.”

Hugh Hefner-the 76-year-old, Viagra-gulping geezer, the man who sells sex and a sense of male inadequacy every time he steps off an airplane with six or seven artificially D-cupped 23-year-olds- thinks Playboy needs fewer tits.

“I want us to pull back a little bit,” Mr. Hefner said in an interviewwithOff the Record.”Pull back from the explicit nature of sexuality, to try to re-establish the connections for the reader and the advertiser that were there in earlier decades. We can compete [with hard-core pornography], but that would only erode the uniqueness of Playboy .

“We just live in a completely different world now in terms of the acceptance of sexuality,” Mr. Hefner said, “and we need to find ways to do things with style and taste. Quite frankly, what I’m looking for is a contemporary version of what Playboy meant in the 60’s and 70’s.”

Finally Mr. Hefner said: “I want to make the magazine better.”

Creators are like parents-they see only their baby’s initial entrance into the world, their first steps, rather than what the kid is like at 15 or, in this case, nearly 50. And when Mr. Hefner has spoken about the magazine-not the clubs or the mansion or the grotto or the twins-it often seemed that he was describing the magazine he first created in Chicago, not the unintelligible Playboy hidden behind the bottles of empty malt liquor in fraternity quarters that it has since become. Where he saw Alex Haley and David Halberstam, the rest of us saw LaToya Jackson in fish nets.

“In the 1950’s and 60’s,” said Esquire editor in chief David Granger, ” Playboy expressed a particular idea of the good life. The naked pictures were the candy: You can have a really cool life, and have beautiful women love you. But now, that takes a back seat to semi-famous celebrities naked. They don’t have the aspirational thing going for them. There’s no passion to it.”

Indeed, it seems that Mr. Hefner wants nothing less than a complete refashioning, a recalibration of what the idea of sex, and especially what the Playboy idea of sex, should be.

“It isn’t something that I hear from a specific outside source,” Mr. Hefner said. “It’s something that I recognize. It has something to do with the realities of today’s world. Explicit sexuality does not have the same kind of meaning that it had 20 years ago.

“It’s one of the things you can see in Maxim and FHM and other magazines of that kind,” Mr. Hefner continued. “You see that a non-nude or near-nude pictorial with celebrities can have the same kind of meaning as a nude pictorial.”

Enter James Kaminsky-the 41-year-old former executive editor of Maxim , who on Oct. 7 will begin his transition into the editorial director’s role at Playboy , which Arthur Kretchmer has held since the early 1970’s. Mr. Hefner said his own role as editor in chief will not change-he still will look at all page proofs and layouts and cartoons, and have final approval over the cover and centerfold. He still will be in “constant contact” with his editors and art director.

“Sometimes,” Mr. Hefner said of his involvement, “that means pulling pieces. Other times, that means re-organizing the book.”

Yup, Hef’s still in charge. But certainly Mr. Kaminsky’s arrival comes as a jolt to a place that has a reputation for a staff as ancient as the wallpaper in the Chelsea Hotel. It also signals a geographic and sensibility shift: away from Chicago, where both Mr. Hefner and his magazine were born and nurtured, to New York, where Mr. Kaminsky will continue to live.

“He has good connections in New York,” Mr. Hefner said of Mr. Kaminsky. “And that was important to me, because in the revitalization of Playboy , Madison Avenue and the New York connections are important to us.

“He’ll be working in both places,” Mr. Hefner said. “But he’ll be in New York. Increasingly, I think our editorial staff will be there, too.”

Mr. Kaminsky said: “Being in Chicago has been great, but it worked against having buzz for the magazine,” said Mr. Kaminsky. “I don’t want to have sleepy Playboy on any level anymore.”

Asked what he wanted from Mr. Kaminsky, Mr. Hefner told Off the Record: “A fresh eye. Better nonfiction. More must-read pieces. More humor. Probably some celebrity pieces that are not as explicit. Big-name writers, yes. But also good reportage.”

And for that he turned to someone from , um, Maxim ?

Mr. Hefner said he liked the beer-and-babes books, liked their humor and their “vitality.” But he also acknowledged: “It’s kind of intentionally dumb. It’s an irreverent sort of dumbing down. It’s part of the appeal to dumber guys. But also, it’s humor. It’s attitude. And so is Playboy ! Playboy ‘s the next step after Maxim . It’s champagne instead of beer. Or martinis instead of beer.”

Mr. Hefner seems to be caught in the crosshairs between wanting the newsstand growth of the beer-and-babes set (though Playboy still beats everyone, with its circulation of over 3.2 million) and craving the cultural oomph of William Shawn’s New Yorker , by creating pieces (and not pictorials) that set the agenda for the national conversation. In reconfiguring Playboy , Mr. Hefner said he wanted “journalismofimportance”and “things that become must-reads and things that people talk about.

“I remember growing up, and people got their information from reading,” Mr. Hefner said of his dilemma. “Now it’s quick hits that will play well. When you tell stories or when you emphasize things that are more visual, you end up with more car crashes and more murders on the air, and that passes for news.

“I think the same thing is true for media in general,” Mr. Hefner said. “One lives in that world, but one tries ways to refine it and re-establish the things that really help your audience find who you are, or who they want to be.”

What Mr. Hefner wants from the magazine would seem at odds with the direction of other parts of his company. Last year, Playboy Enterprises paid $70 million to acquire three decidedly explicit pay-for-porn networks.

“I don’t know if you can go back,” said Stuff editor in chief Greg Gutfeld. “What are you going to do-stop showing bush? Playboy is one of these really unique situations where the brand extension has outgrown the actual brand. You probably have more guys masturbating to Playboy videos than the magazine.”

As for whether his readers would become Mr. Hefner’s someday, Mr. Gutfeld-whose magazine has a circulation of 1.1 million-said: “I never saw Playboy growing up. I only saw it at the barber shop, and it always creeped me out.

“My dad didn’t read Playboy ,” Mr. Gutfeld said, “or if he did, I didn’t know about it. It was always something other men read. If [Mr. Hefner] really thinks that the guy who reads Maxim or FHM is suddenly going to say, ‘Well, now it’s time for Playboy ,’ he’s deluding himself.”

Still, Hef being, well, Hef, he remains optimistic. When asked how he envisioned what Playboy would look like 20 years from now, he said: “What it looks like becomes less important than what I hope it will be. What I hope it will be is what it was in its early decades, and I hope it will be the paramount lifestyle magazine for single men. More than just a magazine-a magazine that readers can really identify with as a projection of their own lives.”

Y up, he’s already seen it … twice! That’s what Brendan Lemon, editor in chief of Out , said when Off the Record approached him about attending Richard Greenberg’s Off Broadway play Take Me Out with us.

For those who don’t understand the shamelessness of the proposed stunt, here it is: More than a year ago, Mr. Lemon wrote an editor’s note disclosing his relationship with an unnamed Major League Baseball player. The note became fodder for media types and in major-league locker rooms. Take Me Out is a story about Darren Lemming, a baseball star who comes out of the closet. Who better, we thought, to watch it and pick it apart with us?

Sadly, Mr. Lemon had little interest in doing an “At the Theater With Off the Record.” However, in assessing the work, Mr. Lemon said: “I think it’s a very good story. It deals with the legitimate question of what the heck would go on if the star of a team would come out of the closet. No question it would change the chemistry in the clubhouse.”

Mr. Lemon, who reviewed the play as part of his regular gig at The Financial Times , did have two quibbles with Take Me Out , however: The first was the uncharacteristically self-righteous reaction of Darren’s best friend to his revelation in the second act of the play. The second? Clubhouse dialogue that Mr. Lemon felt was merely “representative” of different ethnic groups rather than the words of fully realized characters.

“In Bull Durham ,” Mr. Lemon said, “Ron Shelton gets that locker-room banter down very well. But Ron Shelton used to be a minor-league baseball player. Richard would be the first to tell you that his background includes virtually no athletes.”

Mr. Lemon said he was sure Mr. Greenberg would fix things in rewrite. As for Player X, Mr. Lemon’s no longer his spokesman. The two have parted ways as a couple, and in the October issue of Out , the unnamed ballplayer writes about the “deep-sea degree of pressure” surrounding a decision to come out.

“What’s remarkable about this,” Mr. Lemon said, “is that he wrote it himself. And he’s a good writer, which I suppose makes some of the Internet sites go, ‘Well, if he’s a good writer, then it must be this one’ or ‘It has to be that one.’ Well, fine-that doesn’t particularly concern me.

“We’re still close,” Mr. Lemon said. “But we’re not any sort of item. So, I guess, onward from there.”

Y ou can forgive the folks at The Wall Street Journal for being a little freaked out these days. After the paper’s parent company, Dow Jones, recently warned that its third-quarter results would likely be lower than expected, worry began to seep into a newsroom beset by layoffs in 2001.

“People are concerned.” one WSJ source said. “With the numbers and this market, it has everyone worried.”

Another WSJ source was more blunt: “People are definitely scared. They’re worried sick they’re going to start laying off again.”

And those fears weren’t exactly eased any when a memo dated Sept. 18 began circulating around the newsroom. Sent out by Dow Jones vice president and chief technology officer Bill Godfrey to human-resources I.T. director Tracey Hogan, it read: “I would like to get an inventory of all IAPE members who have or are having a title change concurrent with our process. I want to make sure we are (1) fair in our treatment of staff, (2) we do not give the perception we are gaming titles (I know we are not but we must make sure to have our documentation in order and proper notification given to staff on why the change, (3) insure that we are properly QAing the job cuts that are being recommended.”

Tim Martell, a representative of IAPE Local 1096, the union that represents The Journal and Dow Jones employees, said “gaming” referred to switching people’s titles or moving them from a particular division in order to “target or layoff certain employees.”

“We don’t know what job cuts the memo’s referring to,” Mr. Martell said. “We suspect it’s in the I.T. division, because that’s what Bill Godfrey’s in charge of. We’ve voiced our concern with the company.

“It’s not the first time we’ve heard layoff rumors in recent weeks,” Mr. Martell continued. “We expect layoffs with the company.”

On the matter, a spokesperson for Dow Jones would only say: “It’s an internal memo. What I can tell you is that the company is in the middle of the budget process, and it’s too early to say what the final outcome will be.”

F or years, employees at Time Inc. could count one thing: the mug of Isabella Van Meter Leland showing up in their mailbox every two weeks, on the back of FYI , the company’s internal newsletter.

Ms. Leland began the publication in 1940 under the direction of Time Inc. founder Henry Luce. And with its own staff, FYI often produced plucky and acerbic material, while serving as a springboard for writers like Henry Muller (who went on to become Time ‘s managing editor.)

But then, the merger! In June 2001, in the wake of budget cuts following the Eddie Fisher–Elizabeth Taylor-esque marriage between AOL and Time Warner, Time Inc. shuttered FYI and let its staff go.

But Time Inc.’s the side that won … remember? And the week of Sept. 22, FYI and Ms. Leland returned to the House that Luce built. Sort of.

To be sure, this isn’t Ms. Leland’s FYI . For one thing, it’s monthly instead of a bimonthly. Moreover, the higher-ups at Time Inc. have made FYI into the company’s class hamster-passing the chore of taking care of it to a different magazine each month.

The first issue fell to the kids at InStyle , who produced something entitled “The Look of Time Inc.,” which mirrored an issue of the clothes-and-celebrity bible.

So, for its cover, InStyle ‘s FYI featured a giant shot of Fortune senior writer and Enron sleuth Bethany McLean (in a sleeveless blue top and light purple skirt) flanked by dreamy Ramiro Fernandez, an associate photo editor of People , and Subira Shaw, a reporter for InStyle . Inside, FYI featured a talk with Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine, teased as “Inside Norm’s Office: a chat with the stylemaker-in-chief.”

Even Ms. Leland got the InStyle makeover, with a tongue-in-cheek how-to for Time Inc.-ers wanting to look like this “style pioneer.”

InStyle managing editor Charla Lawhon was traveling and unavailable for comment.

Ms. McLean, when asked about her new role as a cover girl, said: “I didn’t know it was going to be so big!

“They called and they said they were doing something on stylish Time Inc.-ers,” said Ms. McLean, who is currently working on a book about Enron. “And I was flattered, because my mother would never let me leave the house when I was little because I would wear orange and purple together.

“But,” Ms. McLean added, “when you see it in reality and [the photo's] that big, it’s still kind of embarrassing.