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The Ultimate Bunny-Hop: The Rise of the Playboy Empire

Hefner was now unemployed and had just $8,000 to create the magazine of his dreams. He used $75 to purchase the rights to the never-before published nude pictures of Marilyn Monroe, before she had become a star. Ignoring the legal risks, Hefner decided to feature the photos on the cover and in the centerfold of his first issue. Named Playboy after a sports car that was struggling to get into production at the time, Hefner was not optimistic about its success. “On the first issue we put out we left the date off [December 1953] so that, if it didn’t sell right away, it could stay on the news-stands until it did,” he recalls.

Exceeding all expectations, all 50,000 copies that were printed immediately sold out nationwide at 5 cents each, which gave him enough money to cover his costs and finance another issue. Realizing that there was indeed a market for a new style of men’s magazine, Hefner set out to refine his vision. He wanted to create a handbook for single urban men instead of simply publishing nude pictures of women.

Hefner hired Art Paul as the magazine’s first art director who designed the now-famous rabbit head in half an hour. The symbol was meant to convey a mixture of sexual suggestions (the bunny) and sophistication (the tuxedo). The logo has become so famous that there is now a rabbit species – the now-endangered Sylvilagus palustris hefneri – named after him. He also tried to upgrade the quality of the articles by inviting such notable authors as Tennessee Williams and Ray Bradbury to write for the magazine. By the end of the 1950s, Playboy had refined its image and was selling more than one million copies each month. It remains the leading monthly men’s magazine in the world, with a worldwide circulation of 8 million copies.

Inspired by the success of his magazine, Hefner began to branch out and expand the Playboy empire. He launched a TV show called Playboy’s Penthouse and created two other magazines, Trump and Show Business Illustrated, none of which achieved similar success. Hefner went on to create Playboy Clubs Unlimited, a successful chain of members-only nightclubs feature ‘bunny’ waitresses, as well as a number of casinos in London. In 1965, Hefner also created the Playboy Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars to social causes that fight for freedom of expression.

When Playboy Enterprises went public in 1971, the magazine was selling 7 million copies a month, and Hefner was raking in money from his 23 Playboy clubs, resorts, hotels and casinos. The corporation further expanded into book publishing and merchandising, and would later include a modeling agency, a limousine service, a record label and a TV and motion picture company. He has also ventured online, with Playboy.com becoming one of the leading male lifestyle sites on the Internet.

By the mid 1980s, the Playboy empire was suffering a crisis; Hefner had a stroke, the company was losing money, the Playboy Clubs had closed down and magazine circulation was declining. Hefner handed over the reigns of his company to his daughter Christine in 1998, who slowly began to revitalize it. As the Playboy name regains some of its former luster, the massive growth and influence of Playboy Enterprises over a fifty-year period was undoubtedly due to Hefner’s keen business sense and passion for the worlds of publishing and sex.

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