You must hand it to Taschen for being the best and most interesting book publisher nowadays. They started off by giving the general public affordable art books of famous artists both living and dead, books that were once aimed at only an elite of connoisseurs and selling at costly prices. By beautifully reproducing the artists' work in softcover, now everyone could have an art book on Picasso, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, etc., in their households, without having to pay an arm and a leg for it, not to mention their availability in different languages for readers all over the world to own. But Taschen has also published hefty, ginormous, really expensive limited edition books, just for the sake of it (and at really costly prices). However, many of these books become available at more affordable prices (and at smaller sizes) once the original limited editions are sold out, or a couple of years later. Such is the case with this six-volume collection telling the story of Hugh Hefner and the magazine that made him famous.
Funnily enough, in the previous reviews made of the more expensive, limited edition, a customer wonders what's so interesting about Hugh Hefner's life. Well, Hef, whose life parallels that of another visionary, Walt Disney, created with barely anything and almost by himself, the most successful magazine of all time! Hef, like Disney, wanted to be cartoonist, but just as Disney, was a rather mediocre artist, but as Disney had something most artists and cartoonists lack: a savvy to sell and commercialize a product and build an empire out of it. Starting with practically no money (and married and expecting a child), he single-handedly created a magazine unlike any other before it. He managed to presell 70,000 copies, without even having the magazine. By the end of the first year he was already selling half a million copies of Playboy each month! Actually, reading Hef's version of the story, you get the impression that it was rather easy. As he says, much of it was chance; he was the right man at the right time. But bear in mind that Playboy came out at a time when nudity of any sort was akin to selling pornography (apparently such is the case nowadays as well), and that the post service didn't want to accord him the right to distribute his magazine by mail. So against all these puritanical odds Hef had to fight for his rights to publish the sort of magazine he always dreamt of seeing (or reading) one day. He even published the first issues without advertisements, for fear of having the smut ads that polluted most pulp magazines of the era (the macho-oriented "sweat" mags of the day), and instead opted for the higher class ads you found in the slick mags. But getting any of these high-level ads in a magazine that contained (female) nudity wouldn't be an easy task. So Hef developed this notion of the Playboy reader. According to him, the person who read Playboy was a single, young college-educated urbanite man who dressed sharply, lived in a plush apartment with the newest hi-fi system, a round, rotating king-size bed, a well-stocked liquor cabinet, and rode around town in a fast sports car, and hit all the classy jazz joints around town during the nights. In other words, the sort of man all those people working in those Manhattan ad agencies wish they were.
Once Playboy hit the big time, it became the most imitated magazine of the era (oddly enough, the most copied skin magazine of all time would be Hustler, that began as a Playboy imitation but more inclined in showing their models' pudenda at close range, than writing about the newest hi-fi system). But Playboy has always stood above their imitators, mainly because of the quality brought by the people that worked there. I've been an avid follower of Playboy for more than three decades, preferring the articles to the actual pictures (though lately I dropped my subscription, seeing how the magazine is just a light reflection of what it was, and mainly because they don't have the talent they carried before anymore). Actually, what I've always liked about Playboy are the cartoons, the Vargas Pin-Ups, the short fiction (by some of the best writers of the day), and the comics (to this day I believe Kurtzman and Elder's "Little Annie Fanny" to be the best American comic strip ever). Oddly enough, I was never a big fan of the photographs the magazine carried, all being a little too clichéd, featuring the same sort of girl Hef seems to favor (y'know, the girl with the big cantilevered, torpedo-like breasts), all posing in the typical pin-up fashion (Playboy doesn't take any risk at offending anyone; though the feeble-minded puritanical minority would take exception). Also, I never cared for the style and fashion articles (to this day it makes me laugh at the sort of clothing Hef would think his readers should wear; if you don't believe me, take a look at any recent Playboy issue, and tell me whether you'd be caught even dead wearing any of those horrendous outfits), and really didn't care about how to prepare a cocktail (most of the time you couldn't get half of the ingredients in my neck in the woods, and apparently was aimed at only the people living in either Chicago or New York). Hell, for that matter, I don't even resemble the "sort of man who reads Playboy". But Playboy carried what I like best: good literary fiction and excellent cartoons (the naked girls is just an added bonus), so it's been with me for many years.
Now let's get to this book collection published by Taschen. It contains the same books (although printed at a smaller size) of the limited edition, though it doesn't include a piece of clothing from Hef's silk pajamas (is anyone actually interested in that?) and the facsimile edition of Playboy's first issue (the one with the Marilyn Monroe nude). That said, the whole thing comes inside a hefty and sturdy cardboard box especially created for this edition, and instead of the acrylic box that held the previous six books, we get a cardboard one (but a sturdy cardboard box, not a flimsy thing). As to the content of the books, each volume is divided by years, from the fifties on until the end of the seventies, when Playboy was outselling every other magazine in the country and publishing monthly issues of 300+ pages. After that the sales of Playboy would start to decline, and nowadays Playboy is published as a thin, square-bound magazine, with such flimsy paper, that you must blow into each page section to unstick them from the other pages. That said, each book contains a back story by Hef himself (though no credit is given to anyone for the text), and various pages are reproduced from different issues throughout the years. Also included are all the covers per month and year (but reproduced at stamp size).
All in all, a fascinating read and a caring glimpse at Playboy through the years (unfortunately most of the short fiction isn't complete, aside of some of the ribald classics and a story by Kurt Vonnegut which is printed in its entirety; also included are the complete interviews of Hef and Jimmy Carter). But you get loads of pictures, cartoons, and yes, the centerfolds that fold out as well, and behind the scenes look at Playboy and Hef's mostly interesting life (we must thank Hef for keeping all his work at hand and well archived, even going so far as to illustrate his life as a comic book since he was a kid, which we can also see in these books). The fact that now in his eighties he still has prettier and sexier girls than any of us will ever have, is reason enough to envy the man.
Highly recommended, and another high point on Taschen's fascinating publishing enterprise.