Thursday, 16 October 2008

Venus Revealed: The Pubic Wars 1 1953-1969

Norma Jean by Tom Kelley. The first "Sweetheart of the Month"

The very first girly magazine we ever saw was, as we have noted previously, a copy of Bob Guccione’s Penthouse. This strong initial impression led to a loyalty to the publication over the years as it followed its rollercoaster ride from boom until bust (appropriately).

The definitive girly magazine was of course, however, Playboy, set up by University of Illinois psychology graduate Hugh Hefner. These two magazines; one established, one the rebel pretender would become engaged in a battle dubbed the Pubic Wars (Agent Triple P appreciates the classical allusion) by the more erudite Hefner in the late sixties and early seventies. In detailing this struggle we will be able to present a collection of Venuses from decades past in all (eventually) their glory.

Hefner had been working for Esquire magazine in Chicago until they moved their editorial offices to New York. Denied a pay increase to relocate Hefner decided to stay in Chicago and set up his own magazine using Esquire as a template.

Acquiring some photographs of a naked Marilyn Monroe, shot by Tom Kelley in 1949, for $500 Hugh Hefner borrowed just over $8,000 from family and friends (including $1,000 from his mother!) to set up the magazine he wanted to call Stag Party. An objection from a hunting magazine called Stag resulted in a last minute change to Playboy; suggested by co-founder Eldon Sellers whose mother had worked for the Playboy Motor Company. Hefner published his first (undated-he didn’t have that much confidence in the venture and he didn’t put his name on it either) edition in December 1953. After the Marilyn edition sold nearly twice the 30,000 copies he had hoped for his second edition featured another girl sourced from the same John Baumgarth calendar firm that produced the Marilyn pictures.

Margie Harrison. First real Playmate January 1954

Margie Harrison, Miss January 1954, became the first girl known officially as the Playmate of the Month (Marilyn was known as Sweetheart of the Month) and also the first centrefold (Marilyn’s pictures weren’t in the centrefold).

"Er mum..can I have a word with you.."

In fact, Playboy wouldn’t do its own original photography for another year and instead bought in photographs from picture agencies. This led to the odd situation where Dolores del Monte (March 1954) became a Playmate of the Month without knowing it. It wasn't until 1979 that Del Monte realized that she had been a Playmate when her son saw his mother's centerfold while leafing through the 25th anniversary issue of Playboy! Finding out that your mother had been a Playboy Playmate must have been a bit of a shocker!

Typical hip and groovy Playboy pad from the mid sixties


Mens magazines in America had been focussed almost exclusively on rugged outdoor activity such as hunting and fishing. Hefner’s vision was much more urban and metropolitan. Over the next decade and a half Hefner carefully developed an image of sports cars, jazz, cocktails, trendy interior design, smart writing and endless supplies of willing (and naked) women for a generation just starting to break away from the mores of their parents and grandparents for the first time. It was almost more about embracing the new consumer society rather than women.

Elsa Sorensen, Miss September 1956. Not just your first naked girl in colour but your first foreign naked girl: she was the first foreign Playmate

Up until Playboy girly magazines in the US only featured black and white pictures. Hefner proudly claimed that for many Americans their first sight of a naked woman in anything other than black and white came from Playboy. The key to widening the magazine's appeal were the endless how to do it sections. From how to make a Martini, tie a bow tie, buy lingerie for your girlfriend to advice on the coolest music, the best films, the newest cars Hefner genuinely created a magazine unlike any that had gone before. Up until then girly magazines just had girls (in black and white), or, perhaps, like the venerable British Men Only, risque jokes and stories.

Hefner welcomes Ella Fitzgerald to the Playboy Penthouse

The image of the magazine had really coalesced by 1960 when Hefner fronted a TV talk and variety show called Playboy’s Penthouse from 1959 to 1960. This was a show purported to have been filmed in a penthouse on top of the Playboy offices in Chicago. It was designed to boost the magazine and whilst it did have a lot of nice young (dressed) ladies in it it also had an eclectic mix of guests and was noticeably racially integrated in a way that the rest of America wasn't at the time.

The Playboy Playmates themselves were portrayed as attainable girls next door rather than unattainable film stars. If you look at the The Playmate Book - Six Decades of Centerfolds (Taschen), where 50 years worth of Playmates are handily contained in one volume, you realise that not very much has changed regarding the look of the Playboy Playmate from the beginning until now. Broadly they were blonde, big busted (sadly, now largely artificially enhanced) with lots of white teeth: prototypical California girls we suppose. Or Barbies.

A decade of Playmates combined into one image.

A few years ago an artist did composites of Playboy centrefolds superimposing them on each other to produce a wonderful Bonnard-like abstraction. The overall impression is of a curvy blonde.

Penthouse's Toni Tyme from February 1969. Dark and obvious

The Girls of Penthouse, as they called them in their mercifully article-free pictorial compilations, were a much more varied group. In fact, reflecting the fact that Guccione and Penthouse were a dark counterpart of Hefner’s Playboy, many of the women, (especially in the magazine’s glory years from the mid seventies to the mid eighties) were dark haired; not surprisingly really as Guccione was a Sicilian-American. But there were also brunettes, blondes and even the occasional ravishing redhead. Penthouse, however, very rarely featured ethnic girls; something that opened it to accusations of racism whereas, in contrast, Playboy regularly featured at least one (and usually only one) ethnic girl a year from 1964 when the first Chinese American Playmate was featured.

Playboy's China Lee from August 1964

Penthouse may seem as all-American as Playboy but although Guccione was an American the magazine had its roots in the London of the swinging sixties. Unlike Hefner, Guccione did not go to university but as an aspiring artist he travelled to Paris, Rome and Morocco to paint before marrying an English girl and moving to London in the early sixties. He had a variety of jobs, including managing a chain of dry cleaning shops but eventually ended up working as a cartoonist (his cartoons often featured in the early Penthouse magazines) for The London American weekly. His wife had a small business sending out rather mild pin-ups and he started to appreciate the commercial possibilities of the sexual revolution. Future Fleet Street editor Derek Jameson and eventual novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford worked on the magazine at the time and were constantly having to head off Guccione’s ideas of putting naked women on the cover of The London American. Eventually he became managing editor of the failing magazine where he was not excatly popular: reputedly the entire staff resigned en masse when he took over. Thanks to cash from his father Guccione became involved in distributing American magazines in the UK; including Playboy, which had only just arrived in Britain but was selling well. He thought that there was room for two magazines in the market. In particular he felt that Playboy’s big city, all-American, upscale image would alienate his UK readers and he wanted to produce something more blue collar, confrontational and raunchy. He tried to get finance in 1962 but couldn't.

The original Penthouse flyer from 1965

He produced a four page sample of his idea for a magazine, using the best pin ups from his mail order business and distributed a million copies of it in 1965 using an old mailing list. Needless to say this indiscriminate distribution did not go down very well at the time. At one point he was barricaded in his home by police and it led to questions in Parliament as to the suitability of the magazine for British newsagents and the corrupting effect it would have on the men who bought it and the women who posed for it. He was eventually fined £110 (quite a lot of money in 1965) for contravening the Post Office Act in sending out pornography in the mail. Guccione was delighted with the publicity, of course, as he had a £700 overdraft at the time of launch having spent all his money on putting the first edition together. He called his new magazine Penthouse, perhaps recalling Hefner's Playboy's Penthouse TV show. All 120,000 copies sold in the first week and Guccione thought, even then, that he wanted to take the magazine to the US.

Penthouse's first issue, from Agent Triple P's collection. Now worth rather more than five shillings!

The first edition appeared in March 1965 and featured nineteen year old Denise Johns as Penthouse’s answer to the Playmate, the even more engagingly sexist "Pet of the Month". Perhaps in order to head off criticism, much is made on the cover of the (genuinely impressive) list of writers contributing. This was not a one off and, like Playboy, Guccione included far more literary than pictorial content. However the pictorial content was strong.

At this time a typical Playboy pictorial included a colour centrefold, one other colour picture and a couple of pages of small black and white pictures of an often fully clothed Playmate. The black and white page featuring Playboy’s March 1966 Playmate Priscilla Wright is typical. Here she is shown with her mother and 13 year old sister; something that you can’t imagine Guccione going for. Indeed when he did show a mother and daughter together in 1985 he had them both naked!

Australian mother and daughter Sue (35) and Louise (19) Elvin from Penthouse March 1985. Now that's a nice ambitious target!

Guccione's eight or nine page Pet features out-gunned Playboy's girlie content. Penthouse also featured other models also sometimes confusingly known as "Pets" (but not "Pets of the Month").  The original idea being that Pets of the Month could not have appeared nude in any other magazine. 

One of the key differences between Guccione's approach and Hefners was in the issue of where the models were looking. Playboy Playmates, almost exclusively, gaze at the camera in their centrefolds and, therefore, the viewer. Guccione wanted his Pets to be "observed" in a voyeuristic way. His first centrefold looks off to one side not seeing the viewer.

Amber Dean Smith from the October 1965 Penthouse

Whilst supposedly aiming down market there is little that is down market about the early UK magazines. Perhaps the magazine was a little more Bohemian than Playboy but it wasn't that different with its headline writers and social comment. Even the girls were posh, being trawled from Chelsea and Kensington and some having double-barrelled names. Amber Dean Smith, an early Pet who became the first ever Penthouse Pet of the Year, appeared in several films and her cut glass accent is apparent.

Denise Johns, the first ever Penthouse Pet.

Yet even Guccione dare not risk challenging the pubic barrier, although this photograph from his December 1966 edition was pretty close. 

Soapy bush from 1966

If challenged, he would probably have thought that he could get away from it as it was an illustration from a piece about an art photographer and therefore the old "it's black and white so it's art" justification.

Susie Scott

Even Playboy had the odd teasing photo in the mid sixties, such as this photograph of Miss February 1960 which appeared in a Playmate review feature in the August 1964 issue.  The top of her bush is clearly visible through her transparent clothing.  This was, however, very much the exception.

Oddly, it was permissible to show the girl's bare groin: it was he hair itself which was deemed to be obscene.  As a result most professional nude models of the time would shave their bush off completely as this  offered a much cheaper option to the photographer than having to employ an expensive re-toucher.  This smooth-mounded lovely is from a pictorial on beds through the ages in Playboy's November 1959 issue.

In 1969 Guccione found out that Penthouse was outselling Playboy amongst American troops in Vietnam and so he decided to launch the magazine in the US in September 1969. He was also outselling Playboy by 3 to 1 in Europe. He was not short of material and many of the early Penthouse Pets for the US edition had also been previously Pets in the UK. Thus many of the first Pets in the US were actually British or from other parts of Europe whereas Playboy Playmates have always been overwhelmingly American by nationality. Most of the photographs in the sixties were shot in the UK or, occasionally, Europe and even North Africa (where Guccione had met his second wife in 1956) and for most of the period in the seventies and early eighties the UK and US editions had the same Pet pictorials.

Evelyn Treacher on the cover of the first US edition, September 1969. A much more daring cover than most Playboy efforts of the time as well.

Another difference between Penthouse and Playboy at this time was that Guccione refused to airbrush his models: he wanted them to appear as they were. In contrast to the touched-up, impossible perfection of their Playboy rivals and, indeed, the Photoshopped digital enhancement of today, as Time magazine put it, the Penthouse girls “glory in showing off their buxom bodies, moles and all. Playboy’s Playmates seem unreal, plasticised and antiseptic.”

Penthouse girls of the sixties and seventies were real women whose humanising flaws were sometimes all too apparent. Rather than relying on the retoucher's brush he preferred to use moody, natural lighting that distracted from any imperfections and, at its best, conjured an atmosphere of sultry eroticism sadly lacking in today’s photography (and indeed, one might argue, from Playboy's at the time). At one point in the mid seventies Guccione did get so obsessed with soft focus that the images of the girls literally dissolved into pale washes, like a watercolour in the rain.

Brandy Lee for October 1967. A Playboy shaped Penthouse girl! People actually wrote to Penthouse complaining that she was too busty and even "deformed"!

Initially, when busts and bottoms were all that could be shown, the girls in Penthouse were, on the whole, very curvy, in the Playboy mould, but Penthouse women tended to come from a wider range of body types. Once the pubic barrier had been broken and the girls had more to show than just tits and ass then the Penthouse girls rapidly got skinnier and less like their Playboy cousins physically.

Janet Dunphy a skinny Penthouse Pet for October 1972

Playboy never really went for skinny in a big way; breast was best for Hefner (and, indeed, Americans generally, who seem quite bust obsessed). There were even a few Pets who you might politely call rather on the voluptuous side but they were photographed so well that it didn’t matter and, in reality, Agent Triple P thinks that women like this often look better naked than their emaciated fashion model cousins. Indeed, there are largely two sorts of attractive women: those who look better dressed (Jean Shrimpton) and those who look better undressed (Raquel Welch). There are very few who can manage both: the curves that make a body look engagingly ripe naked often struggle to handle clothes designed for the sort of boyish figures most fashion designers seem to aim at.

We're going Rabbit Hunting: Penthouse targets Playboy in the New York Times advertisement

So it is 1969 and Playboy is under attack from this brash upstart newly arrived from Europe. Guccione himself took out an advert in the New York Times showing the Playboy logo in the crosshairs of a gun sight andannouncing that he was going “rabbit hunting” when he opened for business in the US. The struggle between them caused the Pubic Wars over the next few years. In our next entry we will look at the effects of this on both magazines.

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