You always remember your first. Mine was Marissa Mathes. I was six.
Ms. Mathes was Playboy’s Miss June, 1962. Full disclosure, I had to look up her name, but I will never forget that centerfold; an undraped woman lying supine as nature intended out in a field. I glimpsed her splendor in the grass while waiting for a haircut in Ken’s Barber Shop. The magazine was in the chair next to me and I idly picked it up, and began to look at all the pictures (At that age, I was too young to claim I was reading Playboy for the articles). I was stunned and stirred all at the same time, and kept returning to the centerfold to ensure I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing.
Marissa came to mind when I read the news last week that Playboy would cease publishing its signature nude pictorials. In reflecting on Playboy’s no-nudes direction, I find myself sounding like one of those cranks who lecture young whippersnappers about having to walk five miles to school everyday. When prurient images and videos are a mere click away on your smartphone, how can today's youth appreciate the illicit thrill of standing in a drugstore ostensibly looking for the latest Archie comic, but anxiously waiting for the druggist to turn his head so you could sneak a peak at Playboy's latest issue? They will never know the cunning and subterfuge needed to slip your brother’s copy of Playboy that arrived that day in the mail out of its green mailing envelope, “read” it and slip it back in a still-pristine condition.
Now, they can just Google “every Playboy Playmate” (as I did to find Marissa Mathes’ name) and there will be a gallery of more than a half century of Playmates spread over 16 screens.
Video killed the radio star, as the song says, and the Internet killed the centerfold. The New York Times reports that Playboy’s circulation has dropped from 5.6 million in 1975 to about 800,000 now. But perhaps this PG-13, Maxim approach might keep the Playboy brand (its logo is one of the world’s most instantly recognizable). In August 2014, Playboy.com became Safe for Work. The average age of visitors to the site dropped from 47 to the coveted 30, and web traffic got a Viagra-like surge from about four million users to 16 million.
Playboy is still aspirational, perpetuating a lifestyle first proposed by Hugh Hefner in 1953: “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two,” he wrote, “putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”
Hef had me at hors d’oeuvres.
I avidly watched “Playboy After Dark” and imagined myself among the party guests.. I got to an age where I received permission from my parents to buy my own copies of Playboy (although I still felt the need to hide them away in a suitcase in my closet. Believe me, four words you never want to hear from your mother are, “I found your Playboys”). And for a time, I was just the kind of man who read Playboy; musically speaking anyway. My picks for the annual music poll (Ginger Baker best drummer, Eric Clapton best guitarist) dovetailed with the readership at large.
As an entertainment writer, I got to interview Mr. Hefner and even visited the mansion in Los Angeles. How my most feverish fantasies had changed. It wasn’t the hideaway grotto that lured me, but the game room with its pinball machines and bowls of M&Ms on the tables. I even got to contribute DVD reviews for the magazine; my byline in Playboy!
Playboy’s new direction will be unveiled in the March 2016 issue. End of an era, and all that.
The thrill has been long gone, but like Joni Mitchell said, you don’t know what you had ‘til it’s gone.