The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary

This is how I will remember him: Articulate, witty, with a probing intellect, He was a strong First Amendment liberal, a lover of music, magazines and books. And there was the pipe, of course. He'd look over the top of his glasses, puffing on the pipe, while he was thinking.

I'm talking about Theodore Peterson, of course, the legendary journalism professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign whose class on modern magazines was a rite of passage for thousands of young writers and editors.

Take Hugh Hefner, for example.

If you took Peterson's class (as I did in graduate school), you learned quite a bit about the back-story on Hefner and the class-project dream that years later turned into a magazine celebrating sex and grown-up toys, linking consumerism with moral libertarianism.

Peterson had a theory about modern magazines, which was that -- while providing niche content for readers and advertisers -- they needed to make some kind of statement about the personality and beliefs of the founder. They needed to sell a worldview. Hefner was the perfect example and the key was the Playboy-in-chief's desire to shed his past and escape.

Escape what? That is where morality and religion -- the old Methodism -- is an essential part of the Hefner story and, thus, any obituary that attempts to sum up his life. I'm not joking: Editors may want to consider allowing religion-beat reporters to take part in the coverage of Hef and his legacy. After all, the Sexual Revolution was a new take on a very ancient religion.

As you would expect, the Hefner obituaries are packed with colorful symbolic details. There's speculation on the number of women he bedded. What about the implications of his emotional immaturity, when linked to a 152 IQ? Do the math and you end up with the 2,500-plus volumes of his personal scrapbook, which probably featured images from the $40,000 video-camera system above his 7-foot round bed.

News consumers can expect, in the follow-up coverage, lots of debate about Hefner as feminist or anti-feminist. Was he a figure of liberation, oppression or addiction? Was his fierce support of abortion rights rather self-serving? Someone should ask fake-bunny Gloria Steinem, or perhaps Holly Madison, author of "Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny."

In most of the obituaries, there is some kind of reference to Hefner's parents and their religious convictions. The Associated Press feature, as one would expect, had less room with which to work, but did manage this telling passage:

Hefner was born in Chicago on April 9, 1926, to devout Methodist parents who he said never showed "love in a physical or emotional way."
"At a very early age, I began questioning a lot of that religious foolishness about man's spirit and body being in conflict, with God primarily with the spirit of man and the Devil dwelling in the flesh," Hefner said in a Playboy interview in 1974.

Many obituaries also worked in this detail: That Hefner paid $75,000 in 1992 to obtain the burial vault next to Marilyn Monroe, the first Playboy centerfold.

In its lengthy obit for the Midwestern man who escaped to the California sun, The Los Angeles Times linked that fact to a rather sobering (in hindsight) Hefner quotation: "As he told The Times in 2009, 'Spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up.' " This obit also contained one of the most significant discussions of Hefner's flight from Christianity and how that shaped his life and work.

As Hefner often told the story, most of the credit -- or blame -- belonged to his parents, Grace and Glenn Hefner.
Grace, a former schoolteacher, and Glenn, an accountant whose job kept him away from home for long hours, were devout Methodists, morally strict and emotionally reserved. Such restraint was in the bloodline, their son would later point out. For Glenn Hefner was a direct descendant of William Bradford, one of the English Puritan Separatists who sailed to America on the Mayflower in the early 1600s. The irony was not lost on Hugh Hefner, who would routinely cite this lineage when explaining his rebellion.
“Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced. Or hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family,” Hefner told the Chicago Sun Times in 2004.
“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way she was raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn't have done it any better. And because of the things you weren't able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.”

This Times obituary made room for another telling detail, one linking a pivotal event in Hefner's life with his convictions about religious faith. This is haunting information.

In 1949 he married Mildred Williams, a college sweetheart with an appealing wholesomeness, but the union was hobbled from the start. During their engagement she had an affair with another man that devastated Hefner, but he refused to call off the marriage. It lasted 10 years, until their divorce in 1959.
Years later he said the experience set him up for a lifetime of promiscuity because “if you don't commit,” he told The Times in 1994, “you don't get hurt.” He said it also showed him what was wrong with traditional attitudes towards sex: “Thinking sex is sacred is the first step toward really turning it into something very ugly,” he said on another occasion.

Something tells me that this detail may find its way into more than a few pulpits this coming weekend.

If reporters are interested in getting a jump on serious debates about the state of Hefner's soul, I would suggest that they start with Father Dwight Longenecker and a blog piece entitled "Is Hugh Hefner in Hell?" (Quick answer: We can't know. That was Hugh Hefner's decision.) It included this interesting observation:

I once read an interview with Hugh Hefner in which his sophisticated facade dropped for a moment and he revealed that he was a lonely child with a distant, unaffectionate mother. If I remember the interview correctly he had a stuffed bunny to keep him company. So go figure. Analyze that one.

Needless to say, the other Hefner feature that is must reading today is at The New York Times, where the high standards of the obit desk are once again on display. Check out this passage (and note that I did edit out some material for the sake of brevity):

The first issue of Playboy was published in 1953, when Mr. Hefner was 27 years old, a new father married to, by his account, the first woman he had slept with. He had only recently moved out of his parents’ house and left his job at Children’s Activities magazine. But in an editorial in Playboy’s inaugural issue, the young publisher purveyed another life:
“We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” ...
Playboy was born more in fun than in anger. Mr. Hefner’s first publisher’s message, written at his kitchen table in Chicago, announced, “We don’t expect to solve any world problems or prove any great moral truths.”
Still, Mr. Hefner wielded fierce resentment against his era’s sexual strictures, which he said had choked off his own youth. A virgin until he was 22, he married his longtime girlfriend. Her confession to an earlier affair, Mr. Hefner told an interviewer almost 50 years later, was “the single most devastating experience of my life.”

I would also note that, in the reading I have done so far, The New York Times was the only publication to include, in its evaluation of Hefner's legacy, the written views of a famous theologian or church historian -- in this case one of the major voices of urbane Protestantism in the '60s.

Many ... questioned whether Playboy’s outlook could be described as adult. Harvey G. Cox Jr., the Harvard theologian, called it “basically antisexual.” In 1961, in the journal Christianity and Crisis, Dr. Cox wrote: “Playboy and its less successful imitators are not ‘sex magazines’ at all. They dilute and dissipate authentic sexuality by reducing it to an accessory, by keeping it at a safe distance.”

In conclusion: I am serious when I say that religion-beat professionals should tell editors -- looking forward to weekend editions -- that they want in on the Hefner action.

At the very least, there is the ironic fact that while Hefner and his Playboy philosophy began as a rejection of old-school Methodist morality, many of his beliefs -- on abortion, sex outside of marriage, etc. -- have triumphed in many liberal pews, pulpits and even seminaries.

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