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Review: Steven Watts' 'Mr. Playboy' nails its subject

Admit it, guys: Every red-blooded American man wishes he was Hugh Hefner. Not because he's the publisher of Playboy magazine or because he's surrounded by beautiful women 24/7. We admire Hefner because he gets to go to work in his pajamas.

We know a lot about him. His magazine, founded on a card table in his apartment 55 years ago, was an extension of his personality. So a half-century's worth of readers learned all about his Pepsi addiction, his rotating round bed, his sleepwear-at-work regimen.

We think we know Hefner, but reading Steven Watts' Mr. Playboy is like immersing yourself in a warm bath of Hefner lore. This is a huge book, but so absorbing you could easily gulp down the 500-plus pages in an evening.

Watts excels in telling stories of American icons; his previous books were about Henry Ford and Walt Disney. Like those men, Hefner is a pure product of America, as central to our pop culture as peanut butter and jelly. But there's a lot of mystery that Watts unfurls in this highly entertaining book.

For those who think Hefner is a mindless libertine, Watts has some surprises. In many ways, Hefner is remarkably old-fashioned and nearly prudish. Committed to civil liberties and liberal causes, he was also conservative on occasion.

Playboy always reflected Hefner's status as America's No. 1 hedonist. He built his empire in Chicago, then remade a Southern California estate into the Playboy mansion. After touring it, actor Peter O'Toole said, "This is the way God would have done it if he had the money."

Watts had tremendous access to Hefner and his hundreds of volumes of scrapbooks. (Hefner's compulsive behavior has led him to try to preserve every moment of his life.) Watts' book is so well crafted and even-handed that whether you regard Hefner as a sexist pig or a role model, you will consider the book a fair treatment.

William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.

Mr. Playboy

By Steven Watts

John Wiley and Sons, 529 pages, $29.95

Review: Steven Watts' 'Mr. Playboy' nails its subject 12/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 11:50am]
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