In 1954, sex icon Marilyn Monroe was a rising star, having just starred in the classics Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Monroe was poised to take Hollywood by storm, and people - men especially - were in love with her sexy, yet sweetly innocent persona. She was the next big thing to take America by storm.
Then came the first issue of Playboy magazine and the photo scandal that almost sent her rising career spiraling downward.
Playboy was, in large part, responsible for the sexual revolution.
The brainchild of ex-Esquire cartoonist, Hugh Hefner, Playboy was meant to be a lifestyle magazine with a twist – it had nude centerfolds. A direct successor to the pinups of the ’40s, Playboy was built on the idea that the ‘girl next door’ could have sex appeal too.
Hefner started Playboy with only $8,000 and a dream.
When he was denied a measly $5 raise at Esquire, he decided to strike out and create his own magazine. He raised $8,000 from 50 investors – his mom chipped in $1,000 – and started the magazine in his Chicago kitchen.
But he needed a hook. So he created the ‘Sweetheart of the Month,’ the idea that would later become the Playboy playmate.
The Playboy "playmate" was a very specific type of girl.
She was the sexually liberated girl next door. She was young, willing, and financially savvy. She had ownership of her own body and wasn’t tied down by society’s expectations.
In a 2007 interview with NPR, Hefner noted, “The playmate of the month, the centerfold, came directly out of the influences of pinup photography and art from World War II and before. But what set them apart was what I described at the time as the girl next door: It all comes from that notion of being a fresh, wholesome, all-American person, and — in the context of the playmate — a sexual icon. The recognition … that nice girls like sex, too. Very revolutionary in the 1950s.”
The first issue of Playboy sold out instantly.
Hefner and his friend, the aptly-named Eldon Sellers, sold 53,991 copies of Playboy’s first issue. It was a monster hit, instantly cementing Hefner as one of the thought-leaders of the day. People “read it for the articles,” but really, what they came for was the playmates.
Hefner's success was based on the fact that he had used the most sexually desirable woman of the time as the first playmate - Marilyn Monroe. But there was a catch.
Making her the ‘Sweetheart of the Month,’ Hefner put Marilyn Monroe on the cover of the magazine and made her the centerfold. She wore a slinky black dress and a gigantic smile. Inside, however, he used full frontal nude photos of her reclining on a red background. There was just one big problem.
Monroe had never actually agreed to be in the magazine.