The passing of Hugh Hefner leaves a huge void in the creative space and with the success of Playboy, he used his massive platform to support Black creatives and expression unbeknownst to some. While history might be moved to paint Hefner simply as a purveyor of nudie magazines, he was definitely more progressive than he’ll ever get full credit for.
Hefner welcomed Black entertainers with open arms when much of mainstream America was fearful of losing white viewers unable to process the wide scope of talent that existed in all of us. One major example of this is Hefner giving the late activist and comedian Dick Gregory his first big break in 1961 after seeing the funnyman play in Chicago. This led to Gregory, who was fiery and quick-tongued for much of his public life, working at the famed Playboy Club in the Windy City. While most white club owners would have told Gregory to tone down his act, Hefner welcomed the comedian’s wit.
And that’s just one example of Hef’s willingness to stick his neck out for equal rights on the behalf of Black people. Influential Manhattan fashion designer Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes moved in many of the high-end circles that Hefner did, and her designs caught his eye. He commissioned Valdes to create the first of the iconic “Bunny” costumes which made their formal debut in 1960.
Often erased from Playboy‘s history is the fact that it gave voice to the boldest of Black Americans by way of the infamous “Playboy Interview” section. Roots author Alex Haley, before his Pulitzer Prize win, was employed by Hefner to conduct the magazine’s first interview with jazz great Miles Davis. The interview went to print in 1962, leading to other pivotal moments that included interviews with the Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Brown, and Malcolm X, which sparked Haley to pen the civil rights leader’s autobiography.
With his television show in the 1970’s, Playboy After Dark, Hefner provided an outlet for entertainers like Richard Pryor, Sammy Davis Jr., and Nat King Cole at a time where major white late night shows would not. According to ESSENCE co-founder and publisher Edward Lewis, Hefner invested $250,000 into the magazine in its early days.
By now, most are reading obit pieces about Hef’s work in supporting civil rights groups and other causes, all things he did without fanfare or even name recognition. Yes, Playboy didn’t exactly move the needle forward on all fronts, most especially in how we view women. But it would be a shame if Hefner’s contributions to Black creatives and expression continue to go ignored.
Rest Easy, Playboy.