COLUMBIA — At 2:45 on a Wednesday afternoon, with students drifting to and from class below his office window, MU history professor Steven Watts chatted on the phone with Hugh Hefner.
What: Book signing for "Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream" by MU history professor Steven Watts
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 6
Where: Barnes and Noble, Columbia Mall
"Hey, how are you doing, Hef?"
"Hef," the man behind Playboy Enterprises, was calling to ask for more copies of Watts' book, "Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream."
Hefner's eagerness to receive more copies of Watts' biography gives a small glimpse of his penchant for the "good life," where there is more of everything — whether it's his movie collection, which houses tens of thousands of movies, or the Playboy Mansion, which houses multiple girlfriends. Since fall 2003, Watts has explored this aspect of Hefner's personality and nearly every other facet of his colorful life. The product of his research, "Mr. Playboy," was released Oct. 1.
The biography is Watts' fifth book, and in Hefner's words in an interview with the New York Post, "the most authoritative book ever written" about his life.
Watts said the unprecedented access to Hefner's expansive archival stores and Hefner himself all came about rather "serendipitously."
Watts has written biographies on American cultural icons Walt Disney and Henry Ford, but he decided to take a more modern route with his next subject. Watts' interest in consumer culture and the emerging culture of self-fulfillment in post-World War II America eventually led him to Hugh Hefner, a man with a profound impact on both. He sent a letter outlining his intentions for the biography to Dick Rosenzweig, executive vice president of Playboy Enterprises, expecting to hear back in a few weeks, if he was lucky. He received a call from Rosenzweig three days later. The next weekend, he was sitting in Hefner's dining room at the Playboy Mansion.
Watts said that Hefner, now 82, had begun to think about his historical legacy, and was waiting for an opportunity to share his story.
"I think I was just in the right place at the right time," Watts said.
Watts described that first visit to the mansion in Los Angeles akin to "parachuting into another planet."
"I was sitting in the dining room with him, just chatting and a young blonde walks in and kisses Hefner on the cheek — and they just kept coming," Watts said, shaking his head at the memory. Before long, Watts was seated at the table with Hefner and seven platinum blondes, all Hefner's girlfriends at the time, discussing editorial control.
"I just told him it would have to be my book," Watts said. Hefner agreed, and Watts began flying three to four times a year from Missouri to California to sift through Hefner's vast archival stores. At his disposal were business records, company memos, interview transcripts and 1,800 volumes of scrapbooks chronicling Hefner's life since adolescence. Although the amount of research material was "a historian's gold mine," Watts said sorting through three to four file cabinet complexes was a challenge. Another challenge was the personal interactions with Hefner.
"Hefner is a very smart guy with a very definite view of his life," Watts said, acknowledging it was easy to get swept up in Hefner's narratives. However, Watts said he made it a point to retain an objective view of Hefner's life and write something that was more substantial than a "puff piece." Hefner's story begins with what he described as his "puritan upbringing," and chronicles his rise to fame after constructing the first issue of Playboy Magazine on his kitchen table in his Chicago apartment.
Catherine Rymph, associate professor of history at MU, read portions of Watts' biography throughout the writing and researching process. Rymph said it was interesting for her to read about the early influence of Playboy in the 1950s.
"When I was growing up in the '70s (Hefner) was already a cliché figure," Rymph said.
Watts said he pursued two tracks with the biography, one being a historical analysis of Hefner's impact on consumer culture and sexual revolution. The other aim was to tell a good story, which Watts said "wasn't that hard" thanks to Hefner's unusual life.
In addition to several book signings in Los Angeles, Watts will do book signings at Barnes & Noble next month and at the University Bookstore on a date to be determined. Watts said appearances on the "Today Show," "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Late Show with David Letterman," among others, are a possibility.
While the media attention might be as foreign as that first visit to the Playboy Mansion, Watts said he got past the initial strangeness of being immersed in Hugh Hefner's world.
"It's when you're used to it there and you come back home — then it's weird."