Determination, $8,000 and an Idea: The Story of How Hugh Hefner Started Playboy

Magazine mogul and pop culture icon has passed away at 91

By Samantha Schnurr Sep 28, 2017 1:36 PMTags

Hugh Hefner was a man on a mission to make a change. 

As people all over the world mourn the loss of the late visionary, who died of natural causes Wednesday at the iconic Playboy Mansion, some may be wondering how his iconic contribution to pop culture—Playboy—began. 

In short, the then-25-year-old Esquire copywriter saw a need and tried to fulfill it. It was in the early 1950s when Hefner, a former Army noncombatant with a knack for art and the written word, stepped away from the magazine after he was denied a $5 raise. 

As his own boss, he set out to serve his fellow young man by way of a magazine that he thought would cater to their interests. "What I was trying to create quite frankly was simply a lifestyle magazine for single guys and there had never been anything like that before," he explained to Biography.

Hugh Hefner: A Life in Pictures
AP Photo

"I looked back on the roaring Twenties, with its jazz, Great Gatsby and the pre-Code films as a party I had somehow managed to miss," he once said. "After World War II, I expected something similar, a return to the period after the first war. But when the skirt lengths went down instead of up, I knew we were in big trouble. It turned out to be a very conservative, serious period—socially, sexually and politically."

Amid the sexually repressive backdrop of post-World War II America—of which the Chicago native was not a fan—Hefner raised $8,000 with the help of investors and his mother and published the first issue in December 1953; 50 cent "entertainment for men." The issue also was undated because the creator was not sure if there would be another. 

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As the face of his first—and possibly only issue—Hefner chose a smiling Marilyn Monroe in black and white on the cover with a previously shot calendar nude of the blond bombshell stretched out against a red velvet backdrop as the magazine's first "centerfold."

In a full circle moment, Hefner also planned to be buried next to his original muse's crypt at the Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery. "I feel a double connection to her because she was the launching key to the beginning of Playboy," he told CBS Los Angeles in 2012. "We were born the same year."

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Bettmann Archives / Getty Images

As for the name, Hefner originally wanted to dub his polarizing creation Stag Party, but that dream fell through when another magazine titled solely Stag threatened to sue. Instead, the mogul's friend and founding colleague, Eldon Sellers, suggested Playboy. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Well, except for the bunny. The magazine's signature logo—the silhouette of a bunny wearing a bowtie—did not debut until the second issue. Art Paul, the magazine's first art director, looked for an animal that could represent a "frisky slice of life" and an hour of sketching later, the Playboy bunny was born. While initially it was meant to be an endnote to articles, it was quickly adapted as the magazine's official logo and, more than six decades later, its faithful mascot. 

As Hefner told LOOK in 1967, "The rabbit, the bunny, in America has a sexual meaning; and I chose it because it's a fresh animal, shy, vivacious, jumping—sexy."