'I Only Read It For The Interviews'

Playboy has always relied on a balance between the erotic and the literary, and its long interviews are the most consistent asset for the latter. But what's that identity worth in 2015?

April 9, 2015

Will Sloan is a writer from Toronto. He has a degree in journalism from Columbia, and has written for NPR and The Believer, among other places. Chris...

In a 2014 interview with Playboy magazine, Gary Oldman offered a few thoughts on the scandals that destroyed Mel Gibson’s career. “I just think political correctness is crap,” said Oldman. “That’s what I think about it. I think it’s like, take a fucking joke. Get over it.”

Oldman continued, “He got drunk and said a few things, but we’ve all said those things. We’re all fucking hypocrites. That’s what I think about it. The policeman who arrested him has never used the word nigger or that fucking Jew? I’m being brutally honest here. It’s the hypocrisy of it that drives me crazy. Or maybe I should strike that and say ‘the N word’ and ‘the F word,’ though there are two F words now.”

Sticking with this theme, Oldman weighed in on Alec Baldwin’s run-ins with paparazzi: “Alec calling someone an F-A-G in the street while he’s pissed off coming out of his building because they won’t leave him alone. I don’t blame him.” Returning to Gibson, he speculated, “Mel Gibson is in a town that’s run by Jews and he said the wrong thing because he’s actually bitten the hand that I guess has fed him—and doesn’t need to feed him anymore because he’s got enough dough.”

After a vigorous dismissal of Pope Francis (“Oh, fuck the Pope!”), Oldman—who was ostensibly promoting Dawn of the Planet of the Apes—admitted, “I’m defending all the wrong people,” and said, laughing, “So this interview has gone very badly. You have to edit and cut half of what I’ve said, because it’s going to make me sound like a bigot.” Sure enough, he was quickly on the apology circuit, saying in a statement that he was “deeply remorseful” for comments that “were offensive to many Jewish people.”

Since 1962, the Playboy Interview has been a monthly forum for, as deputy editor Stephen Randall puts it, “important people from various walks of life to engage in a lengthy, intelligent and unpredictable conversation about a variety of topics.” In a time when celebrity PR is carefully, almost antiseptically managed—when 15 hacks would be lucky to pitch one question apiece at Jennifer Lawrence during a conference call—it remains unique. While there are venues to hear a celebrity in a substantial conversation (such as Marc Maron’s WTF or Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcasts), Playboy remains a major traditional media publication where major public figures willingly submit to a long, difficult, journalistically rigorous, and potentially disastrous interview. There’s something about the Playboy Interview—maybe the length, or the interviewer’s skill, or the magazine’s “boys-will-be-boys” tone—that inspires public figures to lose their sense of prudence.

Most of us discover Playboy when we’re kids—acutely aware that, at the top of the convenience store magazine rack, there’s a forbidden Shangri-La of naked flesh. Whenever people say they “read Playboy for the articles,” it’s usually with a wink. But to separate itself from the mere pornography it shares shelf space with, Playboy has always depended on a delicate balance of its erotic pictorials and intellectual pretensions, and the Interview is the most consistent asset for the latter. Even as decades have passed and the magazine’s influence has fluctuated, quality control of the Interview has remained high, and its subjects—from Miles Davis in 1962 to Dan Savage in 2015—have remained giants in their fields. I don’t particularly care about the fate of the magazine, but I am a little happy that a for-better-or-for-worse momentous Playboy Interview can still dominate a news cycle.


“Prejudiced white people,” Miles Davis said in the September 1962 issue of Playboy, “can’t see any of the other races as just individual people. If a white man robs a bank, it’s just a man robbed a bank. But if a Negro or a Puerto Rican does it, it’s them awful Negroes or Puerto Ricans.” He went on: “It used to be said that all Negroes were shiftless and happy-go-lucky and lazy. But that’s been proved a lie so much that now the label is that what Negroes want integration for is so they can sleep in the bed with white people. It’s another damn lie.” Davis then described how he faced daily prejudice even as one of the most famous black entertainers in the world, and concluded, “I ain’t going to play nowhere in the South that Negroes can’t come. But I ain’t going to play nowhere in the North that Negroes don’t come.” This, the first Playboy Interview, established the feature not simply as a celebrity profile, but also a self-conscious record of the times.

By 1962, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was already “Hef,” of the Mansion and the bathrobe and the grotto. This was the life he dreamed of in 1953, when he was a struggling writer, cartoonist, and office drone with a wife and daughter. Envisioning a men’s lifestyle magazine that would be a raunchier version of Esquire (where he briefly worked), he mortgaged his furniture and raised $8,000 in investments for the first issue of Stag Party. Renamed Playboy after a legal threat from Stag magazine, it was an immediate success, selling over 50,000 copies (not coincidentally, it included rare nude photos of a pre-fame Marilyn Monroe). In his first editorial, Hefner explained his vision:

“If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you. If you like your entertainment served up with humor, sophistication and spice, Playboy will become a very special favorite. We want to make clear from the very start, we aren’t a ‘family magazine.’ If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies’ Home Companion.”

From the beginning, the magazine combined nude or semi-nude pictorials with consumer reports, essays, fiction (notably Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, serialized in 1954), bawdy cartoons, and off-colour, vaguely sexist “Party Jokes” that might get you kicked out of a party.11From the October 2014 issue: “How does a man keep his youth? By buying her money, furs and jewelry.” In self-conscious opposition to the suburban nuclear family unit, the magazine envisioned a man who was “a little more interested in urban living—in nice things about an apartment—hi-fi, wine, women and song.” The Playmates, meanwhile, personified the magazine’s laissez-faire attitude towards extra-marital sex: “All of these consumptive delights were meant to be enjoyed with a lovely, single, sexually available girl who had no intention of charting a course to the altar,” wrote Elizabeth Fraterrigo in Playboy and the Magazine of the Good Life in Modern America.

These sorts of unguarded, uninhibited conversations inspire paradoxical emotions: we read them hoping to see the human being behind the carefully crafted public persona, but the moment the wall comes down, we always seem to be ready to use the subject’s human flaws against them.

The more risqué elements made the magazine an immediate target of social conservatives, but Hefner positioned himself as a literate, socially conscious hedonist. From 1959 to 1961, he hosted Playboy’s Penthouse, a syndicated variety show where he held court with the likes of Tony Bennett, Lenny Bruce, Buddy Rich, and Sammy Davis Jr. in a swingin’ party setting. In 1960, the magazine introduced “The Playboy Panel,” which brought together public intellectuals to discuss the pressing issues of the day (e.g. “Sex and Censorship in Literature and the Arts,” according to Norman Mailer, Ralph Ginzburg, Barney Rosset, Judge Thurman Arnold, and Otto Preminger). In 1962, Hefner began a series of editorials in which he articulated “The Playboy Philosophy,” and beginning in 1963, printed reader reactions in “The Playboy Forum.” The magazine also steadily boosted its literary credentials, with stories by Philip Roth, Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, and John Updike.

Accordingly, the Playboy Interview immediately sought out the most important cultural figures of the era. In 1963, it would feature Frank Sinatra, Bertrand Russell, Helen Gurley Brown, Richard Burton, Jimmy Hoffa, Jawaharial Nehru, and Albert Schweitzer. In 1964, subjects included Vladimir Nabokov, Ayn Rand, Jean Genet, Ingmar Bergman, Salvador Dali, Henry Miller, and George Wallace. “They all took that interview seriously—nobody brushed it off as if it were nothing,” says Lawrence Grobel, who conducted over 50 Playboy Interviews from 1977 to 2005. “Barbra Streisand said she knew the Playboy Interview was the Bible: if you’re going to do one interview, that would be the one you did.”


One of the most famous interviews, and my personal favourite, is Grobel’s 1979 conversation with Marlon Brando. By the 1970s, the World’s Greatest Actor rarely gave interviews or made public appearances, and famously sent an Aboriginal American activist to decline his Oscar for The Godfather. Though he flatly refused to discuss acting, Brando did owe a favour to Hugh Hefner, who once posted bail for Native activist Russell Means at Brando’s request. In return, Brando promised to write an article about Native rights for Playboy, but years passed with no progress. The possibility of an interview was floated instead.

After much negotiation, Brando invited Grobel to his private Tahitian island, on the condition that he could focus strictly on Native issues. “We walked around the island,” says Grobel. “We had lunch, breakfast, dinner. I was the only person there other than his secretary and some of the workers. I would end up telling him most of my stories: for three days, I told him the story of everything I did in my life.”22“A lot of [subjects], they do come in and have their shtick, they have their stump speech, and it is the job of the interviewer to get them away from that stump speech,” says Stephen Randall. “I don’t have any proof of this, but I would guess that the first hour of any given Playboy Interview, the actual conversation itself between the writer and the interview subject, is probably sort of worthless.” Finally, during one of their talks, Grobel turned on the recorder and Brando didn’t stop him.

Early in the interview, Brando issues his terms: “I’m not going to lay myself at the feet of the American public and invite them into my soul. My soul is a private place. And I have some resentment of the fact that I live in a system where you have to do that.” He refuses to accept that he is an artist, or that any real artists existed in his lifetime (“When you look at Rembrandt or Baudelaire or listen to the Discourses of Epictetus, you know the quality of men is not the same”). He swats away any praise, and the article is as much about the difficulty of interviewing Brando as anything Brando actually says:

Playboy: All right, let us ask you about Superman, which is opening the same month this interview appears.

Brando: I don’t want to talk about it.

Playboy: Is there anything at all you can say about it?

Brando: I don’t want to talk about Superman. That’s not relevant.

Playboy: For a man who likes to talk, it’s a pity that you brake yourself.

Brando: I’m fascinated with everything. I’ll talk for seven hours about splinters. What kind of splinters, how you get them out, what’s the best technique, why you can get an infection. I’m interested in any fucking thing.

Playboy: But will you talk for seven hours about your career?

Brando: Of course not. Not two seconds about it.

To prepare, Grobel had read dozens of books and articles on Native issues, interviewed activists, screened Hollywood westerns, and essentially became so well versed in the subject that Brando might open up about other topics out of sheer exhaustion. “The whole point of an interview is to get people to forget they’re doing an interview,” says Grobel. “The Brando interview is interesting, because every once in a while I got him to forget about it for a minute, and he’d start talking about acting. Then he’d remember and go, ‘Oh! You got me! You got me talking about acting!’ and he’d back away. I’d say, ‘Why? Why do you back away from it? Everybody knows what you’re great at; there’s nothing wrong to talk about it.’” And, every once in a while, almost by accident, Brando allows a comment on his work, his collaborators, and contemporaries.

On a basic level, this interview tells a good story, with the rhetorical chess game between Brando and Grobel as a narrative through-line. It makes the act of interviewing one of its main subjects, and in doing so, makes the reader conscious of a good interviewer’s artistry. It reveals Brando’s wit and personality, which his Great Actor/Abrasive Activist personae often obscured. It has plenty of dishy, quotable one-liners (Charlie Chaplin, for example, was “a remarkable talent but a monster of a man”). And in its final pages, it gives the reader a point of entry to understanding and empathizing with Brando’s politics—which, at the time, had been overshadowed by his Oscar stunt:

“I’d like to bore people with the subject of Indians … since I’m beginning to think it’s true, that everybody is bored by those issues. Nobody wants to think about social issues, social justice. And those are the main issues that confront us. That’s one of the dilemmas of my life. People don’t give a damn. Ask most kids about details about Auschwitz or about how the American Indians were assassinated as a people and they don’t know anything about it. They don’t want to know anything. Most people just want their beer or their soap opera or their lullaby.”


“With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to the point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

- John Wayne, May 1971

The most memorable Playboy Interviews, however, tend to be the ones the subjects regret. Many involve celebrities saying politically incorrect things, or losing their temper. Jesse Ventura was roundly condemned when, early in his term as Governor of Minnesota, he told the magazine that “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.” Robert De Niro, not a man prone to public introspection, walked out of his interview several times. Bobby Knight ended his interview with Lawrence Grobel by physically attacking the interviewer. And John Mayer suffered a Gary Oldman-style news cycle for some ill-considered remarks about his ex-girlfriends (Jessica Simpsons “was like napalm, sexual napalm”), and relationships in general (“My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock”).

Others involve genuinely terrible people saying predictably terrible things. In 1966, the African-American journalist and historian Alex Haley (who conducted the inaugural Interview with Miles Davis, as well as subsequent ones with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) had an explosive encounter with George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, who was startled to discover that Haley was black. “It’s nothing personal,” said Rockwell, “but I want you to understand that I don’t mix with your kind, and we call your race ‘niggers.’” Haley replied, “I’ve been called ‘nigger’ many times, Commander, but this is the first time I’m being paid for it.”

If Hefner’s been skillful at anything, it’s flattering his male readers while also keeping them at arm’s length. He urges the Playboy audience to strive to be as intellectual, urbane, and sexually active as he is, but has also established himself as an impossible standard to meet.

And then there was one who was simply a victim of context. Then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter concluded his interview in the November 1976 issue with a long monologue in which he admitted that, despite his Christianity, he had “committed adultery in my heart many times.” Carter delivered the scandalous admission at the very end of the session, while he was literally on his way out the door, and was trying to show how his faith could make him less – not more – judgmental. But on the eve of the election, this interview is alleged to have eroded his support among women and conservative Christians. Carter himself would claim it cost him 15 points in the polls (he ended up beating Gerald Ford by just two points), and decades later, it still turns up on listicles like “The Top 10 Unfortunate Political One-Liners.” To date, Carter is the only U.S. president to participate in a Playboy Interview.

“I think that the Jimmy Carter thing has been a mixed blessing,” says Randall. “It has shown the power that the Interview can have—that was viral before we even came close to using the word ‘viral.’ … But did it make other politicians shy away from doing it because they were afraid that if they talked that long, they might say something that would come back to haunt them? It’s possible.”

Whatever the fallout, re-reading this notorious interview only increased my admiration for Carter. Coming after a long interview focused in large part on his Christian faith, I am struck by the beauty of Carter’s words:

“I try not to commit a deliberate sin. I recognize that I’m going to do it anyhow, because I’m human and I’m tempted. And Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. Christ said, ‘I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust in his heart already committed adultery.’

“I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do—and I have done it—and God forgives me for it. But that doesn’t mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust, but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock.

“Christ says, Don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife. The guy who’s loyal to his wife ought not to be condescending or proud because of the relative degree of sinfulness.”

If you read the whole interview, Randall says, “you’ve just had a long dinner with the subject. However it is you would feel after that long dinner is how you should feel after reading the interview. If it’s someone you would like, you should like that person, and if it’s someone you wouldn’t like…” These sorts of unguarded, uninhibited conversations inspire paradoxical emotions: we read them hoping to see the human being behind the carefully crafted public persona, but the moment the wall comes down, we always seem to be ready to use the subject’s human flaws against them.


“Without you, I’d be the publisher of a literary magazine.”

- Hugh Hefner at a Playmate Reunion at Playboy Mansion West, 1970

On its website, Playboy sells T-shirts with that old joke, “I Read It For The Articles,” and it’s true that all those distinguished figures in the Interview have gone a long way towards making the magazine semi-respectable. But how do you maintain this fragile respectability if there aren’t any public intellectuals to talk to? In the ’80s, Grobel recalls, there was new resistance to interviews with authors, and he struggled to sell the magazine on Saul Bellow. “It took me two and a half years to get him. When Saul Bellow finally agreed, they said, ‘Ehh, we don’t want to do him.’ I was shocked. I said, ‘You don’t want to do Saul Bellow? He’s America’s greatest writer.’ Then I said to Arthur Kretchman, who was the editorial director, ‘I don’t feel comfortable telling Saul Bellow that Playboy doesn’t want to interview him after all this effort. I think that should come from you.’ He didn’t want to say that either, and he said, ‘Go ahead and do it.’”

I ask Randall if the highbrow Interview subjects from the 1960s would be a tough sell today: “It’s not so much that we wouldn’t do Jean-Paul Sartre or Ayn Rand—it’s that in 2015, they don’t exist. If you look at the early days of The Tonight Show, they would have public intellectuals on regularly. You see that very, very rarely now.” In recent years, the magazine has found subjects to fill the role, though not in the traditional style: Sean Hannity, Dan Savage, Tony Robbins, Ai Weiwei, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Colbert, James Franco, Deepak Chopra, and Chris Wallace. And despite the ghost of Jimmy Carter, it occasionally features politicians, including Barney Frank, Raymond Kelly, Brian Schweitzer, and, in April 2015, Dick Cheney.

But what about the Playboy brand? Does anyone resist being part of what was once a divisive force in the culture war? “Generally speaking, nobody had ever said, ‘I don’t want to be in Playboy’—people are much too polite,” says Randall. “There are many people I would like to have do the Playboy Interview who have not done it, and it’s possible that the Playboy brand might have played a part in that. I think it may be, for instance, why you haven’t seen a Playboy Interview with Bill Clinton.”

Playboy’s circulation has declined over the years (from a record 7,161,561 in November 1972 to a little over 1,500,000 on average in 2011), but the brand has remained potent: you still see the famous bunny on T-shirts, cosmetics, bumper stickers, backpacks, shot glasses, and nostalgic Taschen books. What, in 2015, are these products celebrating? More than ever, the brand is inseparable from Hefner, and to think of Playboy is to think of the man in the bathrobe with the lineup of Playmate girlfriends; the man who rarely left his Mansion for the entire 1960s; the man who starred in The Girls Next Door on the E! channel; the man who has always encouraged the perception that the Playmates have also been his bedmates.

In the documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, and Rebel, Gene Simmons offers the challenge: “Show me any guy, of any age, anywhere in the world at any time in history that wouldn’t give his left nut to be Hugh Hefner.” Even those of us who roll our eyes at that have probably felt a little bit seduced by the Playboy brand: after all, who wouldn’t want to be intelligent, sophisticated, and sexually desirable? If Hefner’s been skillful at anything, it’s flattering his male readers while also keeping them at arm’s length. He urges the Playboy audience to strive to be as intellectual, urbane, and sexually active as he is, but has also established himself as an impossible standard to meet.

As Hefner remains the embodiment of the Playboy fantasy, though, the fantasy has become only more transparent as he’s grown older. Unless all of Hef’s latter-day girlfriends really are full-blown gerontophiles, the fantasy is no longer one of sexual liberation per se, but of a powerful man who uses his fame and fortune to bed his employees. It’s a fantasy that’s consistent with Playboy’s special February 2015 issue, shot entirely by Terry Richardson—a photographer at least as well known for his allegedly predatory behaviour towards young models as his technical talents. When a magazine built on the claim that it recognizes and rewards the complexities of the male mind comfortably emblazons a “Terry Richardson Special” banner on its cover in 2015, what is it really communicating about what it thinks about its readers?

I ask Randall if he draws a distinction between the magazine’s literary and erotic sides. “To us, it’s a total package. If you did only pictures of nude women, the magazine would never be anywhere near as successful as it’s been, and if you did only Playboy Interviews and fiction by T.C. Boyle, it would never be anywhere near as successful. It’s the totality of the package that works amazingly well, and really speaks to men, and really reflects what men really are.”

Will Sloan is a writer from Toronto. He has a degree in journalism from Columbia, and has written for NPR and The Believer, among other places. Chris Tucker once tweeted him a birthday greeting, but only after he asked.