Update: Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died of natural causes at the age of 91 on September 27, 2017. He founded Playboy in 1953 and turned the company into a global empire. Today, it is run by his son, Cooper Hefner.
This story was originally published on April 10, 2017
Amazon's fascinating new docu-series American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story is a binge-worthy exploration of the iconic magazine's history, and the man behind it. I'll admit I didn't know a thing about Playboy's cultural significance back in the day.
But while its role in the sexual revolution isn't surprising, there are other areas the brand touched that are totally unexpected. American Playboy's detours into civil rights, Hollywood, and even the Vietnamese War. While I recommend you watch all ten episodes to get the full picture, here are a few of the most interesting details I picked out while watching the full docu-series this weekend. (And none of them have to do with naked women.)
1) Martin Luther King's Playboy interview was the longest one he ever granted. Shortly after the civil rights hero received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965, Playboy published an extensive Q&A with King, diving deep into both political and the personal. (Read it here.)
2) Playboy produced the first Monty Python movie. Their production company bankrolled the British comedy troop's 1971 film, And Now for Something Completely Different.
3) Hugh Hefner saved the Hollywood sign. In 1978 Hefner led a public campaign and held a fundraiser at the mansion to replace the decrepit landmark. He personally donated the money needed for the "Y," which totals to about £200,000 today.
4) And then he saved it again. In 2010, a conservation group trying to preserve the property behind the iconic sign (so it wouldn't be sold and turned into luxury mansions) was £700,000 short to purchase the land. Hefner donated the remaining money.
5) Playboy used its plane to transport Vietnamese orphans to new homes in the US. In 1975, Hefner used The Big Bunny — the company's luxurious private jet — to help out with Operation Babylift, as it was nicknamed. They airlifted Vietnamese babies in the final days of the war to new adoptive homes in the U.S. Here's a photo of a Playmate volunteering.
6) Playboy was the first men's magazine to publish an issue in Braille. In 1970, the the Library of Congress started printing issues Playboy in Braille. When Congress halted it in the '80s, a group of blind readers sued — and won. It was ruled that it was a violation of their First Amendment rights to prevent them from reading it.
7) Playboy covered the AIDs epidemic early on. The magazine published fact-based articles on the public health crisis when most of the media was still ignoring it — or, worse, writing hysteria-causing, ill-researched pieces. Playboy wanted to inform its readers about the disease and promote healthy, safe sex, rather than contributing to the panic.
8) The Playboy Club's London casino was at one time the most profitable in the world. In the mid-'70s to the early-'80s, the cash flow from the wildly successful London casino was bankrolling the company operations stateside.