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Eye Candy... Playboy takes a stroll down memory lane

Glen Young - March 30th, 2009
Eye
Candy
Playboy takes
a stroll down
memory lane

By Glen Young

Okay, so no one is going to buy Playboy’s pictorial for the reading. Nonetheless, astute readers, as well as critics of the culture, will find as many insights into evolving mores in the essays as in the stylized and recognizable photographs.
Oh yes, the photographs. In living color spread across more than 637 pages are “The Complete Centerfolds,” those iconic images from Playboy, starting with Marilyn Monroe in December 1953, concluding with Sasckya Porto, Miss December 2007, and including every lovely lady in between.
First published by Chronicle Books in late 2007, the hefty 720-page book came complete with carrying case, priced at an equally hefty $500. Just before the New Year, however, due to its better than expected popularity, Chronicle issued a more affordable version, sans case, and priced at a mere $50.
Assuredly, “Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds” is not a coffee table book for every family room. With essays from Paul Theroux, Robert Stone, Dave Hickey, Jay McInerney, Maureen Gibbon and others; however, the book is more than a sum of the photographs.
In his foreword, publisher Hugh Hefner asserts that the women in the centerfolds “became standard-bearers for a social revolution that began more than fifty years ago and continues—albeit in fits and starts—to the present day.” While its importance to journalism, and adult publishing has certainly waned over time, Hefner also asserts, “Playboy continues to reflect the dreams of American men.” His conclusion might be a bit overblown, though “The Complete Centerfolds” does colorfully document the changing shape of those dreams over the last half century.

‘FEARFUL, OPPRESSIVE TIME’
Robert Coover writes of the attitudes of the early 1950s, “for the most part, it is a fearful, oppressive, religious, patriotic, domestic, buttoned-down time.” Into this staid stew come Hefner and his notion of a new men’s magazine. In December 1953, Hefner published what would become perhaps the single most important centerfold in sultry actress Monroe. Her later notoriety only heightened the fledgling magazine’s reputation for daring. She is, Coover claims, “the decade’s perfect icon of flesh.” Through the intervening 56 years, Playboy has included the feature in every monthly issue.
In addition to Monroe, the magazine’s center pages have included others who have found more modest, B-level status, from Jenny McCarthy to Pamela Anderson, and Shannon Tweed to Shanna Moaklar.
Writing about the explosive 1960s, novelist Theroux conjures imagery from the Beatles to Vietnam, and Woodstock to The Pill to explain how the centerfolds became the “epitome of American loveliness, our very own asperas, with their creamy skins and bright smiles, the almost awkward willingness in their postures, not hookers but prom queens and biker babes.”
Theroux also explains how changing social attitudes evident outside the magazine’s pages are seen in the re-contoured geography of the centerfolds, which adopted a more informal tone, marked by less coyness and more ease.

LONGER & LEANER
Ultimately, while the women became longer, leaner, and more precisely groomed, the basic look has remained; a sultry invitation to fantasy that has long marked the magazine’s stylized pages.
This is the conclusion of novelist Gibbon, who writes of the more contemporary transformations, “In a time that favors stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops in kitchens, women have been streamlined and made to gleam, too.”
Gibbons’ conclusion, however, notes how through the many changes expressed in the poses or the grooming, the image of the centerfold is timeless, harkening back to early 20th century risqué French postcards, or E.J. Bellocq’s 1912 erotic photos of New Orleans’ women, or even Sappho.
Playboy may have lost some of its cultural collateral over the years, giving way to magazines and then internet versions of itself, many of which leave less to the imagination. “The Complete Centerfolds” however, highlights how Hefner’s vision has endured.
In 1981, J. Geils Band front man Peter Wolf asked, “Does she walk? / does she talk? /does she come complete?” in the band’s number one single “Centerfold.” Chronicle Books “Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds” doesn’t respond directly to the question, but it provides some compelling evidence for those still wondering.

 
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