Patty Farmer – Playboy Swings
(Beaufort Books £20.99 400pp. Book review by Chris Parker)
‘Hef’s global brand will continue to evolve as long as there are pretty girls and men who love them’; ‘in 1960, being a Bunny seemed to many the most liberating job that a young girl could get’; ‘the ladies, it seems, were less interested in music as an abstract form than as an accoutrement of the social scene’ – if any of these statements raise your hackles, this book is probably not for you.
‘How Hugh Hefner and Playboy changed the face of music’ is the subtitle of this account of the empire (magazine, clubs, jazz festivals) built, from 1953 onwards, by Hefner and Victor Lownes. It began in Chicago with a 44-page first issue of Playboy (original provisional title Stag Party), then expanded rapidly to embrace clubs all over America and – a consequence of Hefner’s genuine and deep love of jazz – jazz festivals, culminating in the annual Hollywood Bowl concerts (MC for the first 30 years Bill Cosby). Will Friedwald is credited with having made ‘contributions.’ These are not specified, but the jazz history elements of the book, while limited in scope, are accurate and mercifully free of the kind of errors that increasingly creep in to books like this.
There is undoubtedly an interesting book to be written about this phenomenon, and for the first 30-odd pages, Farmer seems to be writing it, lacing her account of the magazine’s early days with thought-provoking asides about the sexual revolution, the manner in which Hefner identified a market consisting of aspirational males eager to emulate fictional role models such as James Bond and genuine ones such as Frank Sinatra, and the reasonableness of the common extenuating plea of readers: ‘I only get it for the articles’ (early contributors included Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury and Margaret Atwood). Unfortunately, however, after this relatively promising beginning, the book swiftly degenerates into a series of anodyne interviews with entertainers (musicians, comics), Bunnies, club managers etc., all of whom praise Hefner’s organisation to the skies for its generosity, integrity and adventurousness, particularly in the area of race relations.
While there is a good case to be made for Playboy having been among the first mainstream organisations to take jazz seriously – and for Hefner’s admirable stance on segregation and Civil Rights – the determinedly non-controversial nature of the interviews (Al Jarreau’s ‘It was a wonderful time, filled with good music and good friends’ is typical of the fulsome praise lavished on the organisation by each interviewee) never succeeds in convincing readers to accept it.