One might think it surprising to find Jean Shepherd’s childhood stories and Army stories in Playboy, but such an apparent dichotomy has its rationale. Publisher Hugh Hefner commented to me that Playboy is steeped in nostalgia and he considered Shepherd to be a “part of Americana.” Playboy tagged Shepherd’s first kid stories in the magazine as “nostalgia,” and “memoir.”
(Yes, black-and-white illustration.)
Shepherd and Hefner had known each other for some time before Playboy published its first story by Shepherd in the June 1964 issue. In fact, three years before that, a three-page typed and hand-signed letter from Hef to Shep dated June 8, 1961, complains that Jean on his program had issued a “verbal blast at Playboy,” in which he’d said that the magazine was “nonresponsible.” Indicating a relationship that preceded that 1961 letter, Hefner writes, “I always believed that you rather identified with Playboy, and its editorial view of the world, as well as its editors.”
[I’d have loved to buy this letter from ebay, but its price exceeded my means.]
This letter seems a noteworthy foreshadowing of the extensive series of essays Hefner would soon write and publish under the title “The Playboy Philosophy.”
Surely in part as a defense against widespread criticism, but also couched in the most forthright, positive attitude toward life as he saw it. Hefner admits in the letter to Shepherd that the magazine’s editorial matter and attitude toward women is indeed “relatively light and frothy stuff,” but he contends that this “exists only in the cartoons and jokes,” and that the magazine has published some of the best serious articles and short fiction by some of the country’s best writers, and that Shepherd is certainly aware of this.
Hefner also comments that “there is a real crying need for an antidote to the female-dominated, castrated society in which we live.” (Even though Hef wrote this in a private letter, the politically incorrect statement makes one cringe to read it.) He says that many publications try to divest women of all womanly charm and make them almost indistinguishable from men. He points out that Playboy believes in a society in which the roles of men and women aren’t the same, but complement each other. In the early-to-mid 1960s, Shepherd on his show would sometimes complain of what he saw as a trend in our society toward what he referred to as “role reversal,” especially of what he saw as women trying to act like men.
Hefner writes to Jean of some of the philosophy of the magazine, including “the inherent importance of the individual,…” and “…the wonderful opportunities that exist in this country if a person is willing to work to achieve something.…” He says, in a way similar to what Shepherd has said on his program, that “…the world is a wonderful place; enjoy it, live it to the hilt, work hard and play hard, and you will make this a better world for yourself and for those around you.” Hefner concludes that Playboy “is a thought-provoking, excellently edited, intelligent, liberal, highly readable and entertaining publication. I expect superficial reactions like this from those who do not understand, but I didn’t expect it from you.” Indeed, maybe the philosophy of Shepherd and the philosophy of Playboy were similar in more ways than Shepherd suggested in his occasional anti-Playboy comments over the years.
Considering this strongly worded letter, one wishes that we had counter-responses from ol’ Shep that would distinguish what he felt were similarities and differences between himself and Hefner. Yes, Shepherd had some strong, politically incorrect attitudes toward women, but never in public did he surround his more seriously considered content with the kind of “relatively light and frothy stuff” one finds in Playboy’s lascivious displays of flesh and humor. In addition, Shepherd would likely have insisted that rather than a Playboy lifestyle focused on stylish and extravagant material possessions, emphasis on his program had always been concerned with issues regarding human foibles and interactions as well as with more intellectual and literary matters. What we do know, however, is that despite the hard feelings, Hefner admired Shepherd’s work and they remained on good enough terms for him to publish in the next two decades, twenty-three of Shepherd’s short stories, a humor piece, and the Playboy interview with The Beatles. Also of note regarding the differences in outlook and style, is that the aggregate effect of Shepherd’s radio work in the late 1950s and early 1960s gained for him an increasingly large audience of younger males who could listen to him at conveniently earlier hours than previously; and Playboy, fostered by whatever intellectual content and other diverse enticements, garnered an even much larger audience of men of more widely diverse ages.
Cover of issue with first
Shep story in Playboy, June, 1964
Stay tuned for Fit 2