BROOKE GLADSTONE: 2003 marked the golden anniversary of an American institution - although it wasn't always an institution. In the early days when Eisenhowers roamed the earth, Playboy Magazine was a phenomenon for the very reason that it challenged the institutions of government and cultural propriety. In a pinched postwar America, Playboy celebrated spending. In an era of sexual repression, it made hedonism the "ism" of choice for the nation's elite. And by the way, it's still the leading men's magazine in the world.
BOB GARFIELD:The 27-year-old Hugh Marston Hefner produced the first issue of Playboy at his kitchen table. He even drew the cartoons himself. There was no cover date because he didn't know if there would be a second issue as no one had ever dared to challenge the anti-obscenity laws of the U.S. Post Office by distributing nude pictures through the mail as a commercial venture. We'll hear from Hef in a moment. But first, we asked author Gay Talese to assess Playboy's impact on American society, a topic he explored in the 1981 book "Thy Neighbor's Wife." He says that what distinguished Playboy was not nudity per se but how the nudity was deployed.
GAY TALESE: Before there was Playboy, there were nudist magazines. One of the best-known was Sunshine & Health. But those people in Sunshine & Health, the women -- and there are men in Sunshine & Health -they were airbrushed and they were also not necessarily attractive people. The whole point of the nudist magazine was to say to the reader: nudity is not lewdity. What was important about Playboy was that the nude model, invariably a good-looking young woman, was looking at the camera and ergo making contact with the reader, and there was a kind of a illicit relationship between the man who was the consumer, the reader, and the woman who was the exhibitionist on the glossy pages of Playboy.
BOB GARFIELD: Now America in the '50s was an America of I like Ike and the Red Scare and the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and-- was certainly pre-sexual revolution, long before the birth control pill. What impact did Playboy and its near-propriety have on the culture?
GAY TALESE: Hefner in, in the 1950s introduced into Middle America a sense that women with their clothes off belonged in our lives and they were okay -and that was the big thing, in the beginning at least, of Playboy's contribution to popular culture. What it did was bring to the jury system a diminution of shocked by nudity, because they'd seen so much of it. All that nudity that Playboy extended into small towns and, and restricted areas and into home life -- it gave a kind of a, a sense of being blase toward the nude female form so that when they, in pornography cases, voted whether to or whether not to punish a person who was brought up on charges of obscenity, they tended to acquit rather than convict.
BOB GARFIELD: But did the, the legal decisions that resulted from the anti-smut prosecutions by the postal inspectors and other agencies -- did they extend beyond the issue of pornography into other areas of free speech?
GAY TALESE: They most certainly did. The dirty work was done by the pornographer. It wasn't done by Alfred A. Knopf or Random House or, or the Library Association of America. They did nothing in terms of free speech; nothing in terms of freedom of expression. It's because the smut peddlers took the beating in the courts -- they fought the government - they fought the Catholic Legion of Decency - they fought the Moral Code, and they made it open for Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates -- they all owe to the smut peddlar their freedom! Hefner is a major figure in fighting against repression, and that means any kind of repression. It isn't just the right to show naked women or naked men or whatever. That's part of it. But if you could show naked women, naked men -- you can show a lot of nakedness in terms of language -- you don't have to worry about putting a fig leaf on a verb, don't you see.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about Playboy Advisor and -which told you what stereo to buy and how to mix a Martini and-- and the Playboy Interviews which went in depth as mainstream journalism seldom did with very important cultural and political figures, and all of the things that are not the pictures of naked women that have defined. Were these fabulous contributions to journalism ever anything fundamentally more than a delivery system for soft porn?
GAY TALESE: Obscenity in order to be not obscene has to have redeeming social value. So Playboy had, in addition to the naked women we all might have lusted for, redeeming social value in the form of a lot of boring interviews with, with Noam Chomsky [LAUGHTER] that was there in the pages of Playboy. There were good writers -- Irwin Shaw in the old days, and Norman Mailer and John Updike I mentioned again, and Joyce Carol Oates -- but you take those girls and you banish them to Siberia and Mr. Hefner and Playboy with him goes into receivership. He, he's out of business. He's back in Chicago without a swimming pool, without a Jacuzzi, with nothing. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: So-- if you have -- happen to have a copy of Playboy-- will you walk down the street with it in your hand or will you shove it into your briefcase?
GAY TALESE: Let me tell you where I stand with Playboy. I don't read it; I never read it. I never have published a piece in it. I've never submitted an article to be published in Playboy. Okay? My defense of Playboy is because Playboy has made my life and the life of every writer easier.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Gay Talese, thank you very much.
GAY TALESE: Well thank you, Mr. Garfield.
BOB GARFIELD: Gay Talese is the author of Unto Thy Sons, The Kingdom and the Power, and Thy Neighbor's Wife.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a few words from Hef, and the impact of porn on communications technology.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR. (sponsor announcements)