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How Hugh Hefner Became Hef: From Sexually Repressed Childhood To Playboy

Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles after spending most of his life there in a silk robe, grew up in the 1920s on a quiet Chicago street lit with gas lamps. Horse-drawn wagons delivered milk and ice. Trains whistled in the distance.

“One of the loveliest sounds in the world,” Hefner said decades later.

The address was 1922 N. New England.

It was there, during the Great Depression, that Hefner’s extraordinary life took shape – not so much because of what happened there, but what didn’t: Affection. Emotion. Love. And certainly not sex, though his parents did manage to have two children.

The rules of the home were strict – no swearing, no drinking, no playing cards, no radio on Sundays – and reflected the Puritan upbringing of Hefner’s parents, who grew up on Nebraska farms. His father Glenn was an accountant at an aluminum company. His mother Grace was a school teacher.

Grace was sexually demure to a degree notable even for that time, Gay Talese wrote in “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” his bestselling book about sex in America, which chronicled Hefner’s rise. As for Glenn, he was “a remote, repressed man who seldom revealed his feelings to his family and spent most of his time working quietly. . . six days a week, sometimes seven.”

Hefner was “unattractive and shy,” Talese wrote, and he often slipped away from the present even though he was right there:

“If the boys became restless indoors, they were permitted to sit at the workbench in the backyard where they could draw pictures or sculpt with the colored clay that she provided. Hugh Hefner, who was facile in drawing and sculpturing, was more than diverted by these activities-he often seemed entranced by the clay figures of his creation, relating to them with a special intimacy, and if at such times his mother called to him from the back door, he would not hear her.”

Though Hefner was bright he did not excel in school, often sitting at his desk and drawing cartoons for hours. Hefner seemed so totally disengaged that teachers wondered if he could hear them. Not knowing what to do, Grace had him examined by child psychologists at the Illinois Institute for Juvenile Research.

Talese writes:

“Following a series of tests they concluded that his problems were rather special. Hugh Hefner was a genius. His I.Q. was 152. But, the doctors added, he was emotionally deficient, was socially immature for his age, and they suggested that it might help if Mrs. Hefner displayed more warmth around the house, more love and sympathetic understanding.”

That’s how the pinups came along, Talese wrote.

“The pinups were the highly stylized drawings by Alberto Vargas and George Petty that appeared in Esquire, which in the 1940s was published in Chicago and was the most risque men’s magazine in America. Hugh Hefner had first seen Esquire while visiting the home of an elementary school classmate whose father, a commercial artist, subscribed to the magazine. Everything in Esquire excited young Hefner-the romantic and adventurous stories by such writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the photographs of classic cars, the sophisticated cartoons, the travel articles about glamorous places, the fashion layouts, and the foldout that each month offered an exquisite color drawing of a beautiful woman. Hefner was able to decorate his room with such voluptuaries, with his mother’s acquiescence if not approval, because his schoolwork had suddenly improved and he also now seemed determined to pursue certain vaguely artistic goals that his mother was reluctant to discourage.”

Hefner was still shy, but now, with a bit of artistic and emotional freedom, he began drawing for his school newspaper and then, a few years later in high school, Hefner emerged even further from his cocoon – acting in school plays, running for school president, even learning to dance. The quiet, shy Hugh had become the outgoing, even daring, Hef.

In the coming years, Hef entered the Army, then college, still drawing, with his pictures becoming more pornographic. He took a series of low-level magazine jobs and then, in 1953, published the first issue of Playboy.

Talese writes: “He virtually lived within the glossy pages, slept in a small bedroom behind his office, and worked all hours of the day and night on Playboy’s color and design, the cartoons and captions, the fact and fiction.”

Around the country, men looked over their shoulder walking into newsstands, buying Playboy and then folding it up under their arms. “Prior to Playboy, few men in America had ever seen a color photograph of a nude woman, and they were overwhelmed and embarrassed,” Talese wrote. Eventually, the embarrassment would lessen and Hef’s magazine became a publishing and sexual empire.

In 1992, to help promote a documentary about his life, Hefner returned to 1922 N. New England Ave. with his brother and some friends to look around. Roger Ebert tagged along.

“That was my bedroom window, right up there,” Hefner said, standing in the front yard.

They walked around the house.

“They’ve enclosed the back porch,” Hefner said. “That’s where we used to play pirates. I was the kid in the neighborhood who always created the games.”

After standing there a while, Hefner went back to his old high school to meet with students. They had a lot of questions, Ebert wrote:

How did you get the idea for your “franchise”? Do you feel your magazine degrades women? How do you choose the Playmates? What do they get paid? Were you popular as a student? What did your parents think about Playboy?

That last question evoked a remarkable answer.

“My mother was once asked if she was proud of me,” Hefner said. “She said she was proud, yes – but she would have been just as happy if I’d been a missionary.”

Everyone laughed.

What did Hefner tell her?

“Mom,” he said. “I was.”

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)