Hugh Hefner

He swings. He misses. 

Hugh Hefner, who is too harmless to offend anyone these days, is surely giddy about the Playboy Mansion party brouhaha. During the Democratic Convention, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., will host a fund-raiser at Hef’s Los Angeles castle for her Hispanic Unity USA political action committee, which promotes Latino voter registration. Hef, who will spend $75,000-$150,000 to throw the bash, has supported Sanchez since she challenged and defeated Playboy nemesis Robert Dornan in 1996.

The event has turned into a Democratic debacle. Republicans are gleefully mocking the Democratic-Playmate alliance. Democratic leaders are appalled at the idea of Hef, resplendent in a silk bathrobe, all four girlfriends by his side, emerging from the Grotto to bless the party. Al Gore’s spokesman sternly declared that the vice president does not “condone” Sanchez’s party and won’t attend it. (The Hef tiff has deflected attention from the really demoralizing fact about the fund-raiser. Click to see what that is.)

Sanchez and her aides, perhaps embarrassed by the Playboy connection, won’t return phone calls about the dinner. Hef and his deputies, on the other hand, have worked themselves into delightful indignation about their martyrdom to American prudery. They are loving being bad boys again. “I am surprised at the Democrats. We have supported them over the years. This really shows the Puritanism in this country,” waxes Playboy Executive Vice President Richard Rosenzweig. The dinner will be a “classy”—and bunny-free—formal affair, he insists. “I don’t know what people think goes on at the mansion—[oh yes you do, Richard]but it is a stately setting and we have the most elegant parties,” Rosenzweig declares.

This squabble marks another step forward in Hef’s bizarre renaissance. In 1998, Hef separated from his wife, discovered Viagra, hooked up with his concubine quartet, and began waging a relentless campaign for attention. The glossy media obliged. Vanity Fair, Details, and Esquire have slobbered over the 74-year-old hedonist. A major biopic about Hefner is planned. Harper’s Bazaar crowned the Playboy Mansion the coolest spot in the United States. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz won’t miss Hef’s parties. They schmooze among the peacocks with old mansion stalwarts like James Caan and Jack Nicholson.

Hef is unabashedly joyful at the attention. With no more taste for self-criticism than for middle-aged women, he doesn’t see the poignancy in his return. He doesn’t seem to recognize that he has been revived not because he is cool, but because he’s not. He is the human bellbottom, an ancient artifact unearthed for giggles, soon to be discarded. Hef’s current popularity does not signify a resurgence of the Playboy Philosophy. It is mere retro. The culture that valorizes Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack is reveling in Playboy nostalgia, looking back—winkingly—to the days when men were men and women were girls.

Hef plays his role perfectly, because he has not changed. He is Unfrozen Caveman Swinger, cryogenically preserved since the ‘70s. His face is strangely unlined: He looks the same now as he did at 45. He is still wearing pajamas. There’s still a mirror on his bedroom ceiling and soft lighting in the Grotto. He peppers his speech with phrases that haven’t been uttered since 1975: He’s “back on the scene” and playing “the mating game.” His girlfriends—identical twins Mandy and Sandy, as well as Brande and Jessica—are the same pneumatic twentysomethings he used to frolic with 20 years ago, or 30, or 40. (Hef, only slightly younger than the four nymphets combined, is the living incarnation of the lech in Dazed and Confused: “That’s what I like about these high-school girls. I keep getting older, they stay the same age.”) He brags incessantly that he is living every American man’s dream, a half-century bacchanal of blondes and Diet Pepsi. Forty years ago, this life was shocking. Now it is simply goofy: an old man who couldn’t stay married, flinging himself on girls and bragging about his sexual prowess. History is repeating itself—the first time as nudity, the second as farce.

This is too bad, because Hef’s current life makes it easy to forget that he once mattered. He launched Playboy in 1953 into a United States split between the conformity of Leave It to Beaver and the dark rebellion of the Beats. Hefner straddled these worlds: He stripped the girl next door to her birthday suit but made sure she still looked like the girl next door. Arm-in-arm with its female cousin Cosmopolitan, Playboy made sex a proper subject of conversation and made the single life glamorous. Playboy kick-started the endless sexualization of everyday American life. From Playboy sprang the dubious glories of R-movies, swimsuit issues, high-class strip joints and, most of all, the right—no, the obligation—to discuss sex around the dinner table.

Hef was deadly serious about his task. He was liberating America from corseted oppression. In the early ‘60s, he issued the 26-part, 250,000-word “Playboy Philosophy,” his disquisition on the evils of inhibition and prudery and the glory of sexual experience. His adventures in the skin trade were not simply pleasure—though with 1,000-odd sexual partners, he certainly had his share of that—they were a calling. He regarded himself as a prophet of freedom. (Hugh 36:24:36.)

But the Playboy empire crumbled in the ‘80s. The 1980 murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten shook Hef and the company. The Playboy Clubs folded as singles bars stole their business. Playboy lost its casino licenses. Profits withered, and so did Hef. He had a stroke in 1985. He passed control of Playboy’s business operations to his daughter Christine several years later. In 1989, he ended a 30-year bachelor party, got married, and holed up in the Playboy Mansion, disappointed.

Hef blamed Playboy’s decline on his favorite boogeyman: the puritan. He believed that Playboy was being crippled by the nation’s growing conservatism. President Reagan’s Commission on Pornography roughed up Playboy, AIDS doused the sexual hedonism of the ‘70s, and the women’s movement lost patience with Hefner’s retrograde style. Playboy, however, faded not because it was too threatening to a conservative country, but because it’s too tame for a wild one. Hard-core pornography stole a huge number of Playboy subscribers—the men who had never read the magazine for the articles. Magazines such as Penthouse and Hustler (and worse) were willing to be gynecological where Playboy was blurry. (Different strokes for different folks.) Playboy’s readership got older and smaller: Paid readership plunged from more than 7 million a month to barely 3 million today.

Hef’s current blip of fame hasn’t altered this grim reality. Hard-core porn still owns the more onanistic segment of Playboy’s old market. Magazines such as Maxim, which publish shorter, crasser articles, are attracting the boys who once snuck a peek at Dad’s Playboy. While porn and publishing are banking record profits, Playboy Enterprises lost $5 million last year and another $6 million in the first quarter of this year.

Playboy still outsells other men’s mags, claims the top spots on video sales charts, and runs a busy Internet site, but its staid, Vaseline-on-the-lens style has no obvious future. The girl next door is still cute, but it’s no great thrill to see her naked. Playboy occupies an awkward no man’s land: It’s blue enough that you don’t want your mom or girlfriend to see it, but it’s not raunchy enough to qualify as porn. Hef, seeking some kind of entree, desperately promotes Playboy as the Cadillac of skin mags: “We’re a class act with a history, a heritage, a continuity of accomplishment. Entire generations have grown up with Playboy.” But Hef and Playboy have not grown up. That’s why Hef is no more than a diverting museum piece, and why his company is floundering.