- Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America
Against the odds, this is a remarkably fertile period for considerations of Hugh Hefner's legacy. Though the octogenarian's relevance to the twenty-first century has largely been limited to his bit part as the doddering grandpa and lover in television's The Girls Next Door, Hefner remains a compelling and pivotal figure. Following Steven Watts's excellent biography of Hefner, Loyola University historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo brings us Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, which deftly positions the man and his magazine within debates during and about the postwar period. Reviews in the popular press suggest that Playboy is an unlikely subject for scholarly consideration, but, for those of us who study popular culture in periodicals, Fraterrigo's book-length treatment is long overdue. The fact that Playboy made an indelible mark on American culture may or may not be fortunate, but it is certainly a fact.
The title of the book does not entirely do justice to its contents: because she remarks on Americans' heightened sense of self-awareness in the postwar period, Fraterrigo's thesis is, in fact, far bolder. To her, Playboy's impact is felt well beyond any simple notion of "the good life"; the magazine played a crucial role in establishing many Americans' relative self-perceptions, of which access to or interest in "the good life" is but a single part. Nevertheless, the book is strong when considering how these issues—sexuality, gender, and consumption, of course, but others, too—quickly became bound up with notions of "the good life" at different points in the magazine's history, much thanks to Playboy itself.
Fraterrigo is also strongest when examining early Playboy, perhaps because this is the moment at which the magazine was truly revolutionary. Like many scholars, she is fleetingly drawn to a particular origin-story in which Playboy allows Hefner to respond to his wife's infidelity. Thankfully, Fraterrigo does not allow this personal angle to [End Page 91] foreclose on a cultural reading: after all, Hefner's discovery was not uncommon for men and women who experience extended separation. This detail is one mere component of the dynamic and anxious postwar environment that Fraterrigo illustrates, in which Hefner managed to be both representative and visionary.
As such, Fraterrigo's choice to follow Hefner himself is a strength, not a weakness, of the book. Though magazines are necessarily collaborative, Playboy—like many pioneering periodicals—has often been read as a single-author product, at least in its early years. Like Larry Flynt, Gloria Steinem, Helen Gurley Brown, and many other magazine icons, Hefner was a culture-maker; Playboy was not strictly a response to the times, but it was actively engaged in shaping them. Though it has since hardened into a pajama-clad cliché, Hefner's larger-than-life persona was surprisingly adaptable in the first thirty years of Playboy, and its changes are apparent not only in the magazine but in its attendant cultural products. While Fraterrigo is chiefly interested in the magazine, she devotes substantial analysis to the most well-known extension of Playboy: the Playboy clubs.
Some scholars with an exclusive interest in periodicals may be disappointed that Fraterrigo only sparingly treats questions of medium, largely favoring the collision between cultural anxieties and Playboy's content. One of the difficulties of studying Playboy is the unavoidable assumption that a single element of the magazine requires scrutiny. It would be irresponsible to avoid treating the nude pictorials, but these loom so large that they often command outsized attention. Fraterrigo studiously avoids this common pitfall of Playboy scholarship and, in affording readers context, is able to make a coherent argument about the role of those very images.
Scholars of periodicals will be delighted with Fraterrigo's treatment of the magazine's creation, including her discussion of Hefner's pre-Playboy magazine venture. She also traces Playboy's evolving position vis-à-vis the rest of the magazine market. As...