Hugh Hefner lived on his own terms

Love him or hate him, Hugh Hefner had a deep impact on the social direction of the United States in the second half of the 20th century.

Though Playboy magazine has lost roughly 5 million in circulation since its peak in the 1970s, it was a pioneer at placing sex as a conversation topic in the U.S.

Hefner founded what became the Playboy empire in 1953 with a single issue of what became his iconic magazine with the naked lady centerfolds. He didn’t put a date on the issue because he wasn’t sure he’d publish another. He was a copywriter at Esquire when he took a chance on publishing his own magazine.

While the magazine became the stuff of the fantasies of high school boys and young adult males, it featured great writing — everyone from Ray Bradbury to Alex Haley to Hunter S. Thompson all were published in Playboy. So were Jack Kerouac, Ian Fleming, Arthur C. Clarke and Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut.

There were interviews with jazz great Miles Davis, director Stanley Kubrick, Bette Davis, Frank Sinatra, Robert DeNiro, Joe Namath and just about anyone who was making headlines in their day.

Gloria Steinem, perhaps the most mainstream and best-known feminist of the 1970s and 1980s, rose to fame writing about her early 1960s experience as a Playboy bunny, raising the issue of the treatment of women from the workplace to the bedroom as equals. Thus, Playboy was criticized for its objectification of women but also kind of opened the door to the feminist movement catching on.

Hefner built an empire rooted in that first issue, which featured photos of rising starlet Marilyn Monroe. At its peak, Playboy had clubs across the nation with its iconic bunny waitresses, a TV show, international editions, cable and radio channels and clothing (and not just lingerie). As the Internet rose and access to seemingly endless – and far worse – depictions of sex piped into a computer at home, as well as feminism becoming less a movement and more a topic of everyday life, Playboy fell in stature.

But Hefner remains an American story, that of a guy who decided one day he didn’t want to live someone else’s dream and chose a course that set the tone for his life for more than 65 years. That he fulfilled fantasies and conversations for much of that time is why he is remembered at his death by those who revered his rich-boy lifestyle and those who saw it as excessive and damaging to the relationships of men and women.