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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Playboy Magazine

In our living room on Harvard Avenue in Montreal in the 1950s there was a dark rectangular veneered coffee table. On it sat a brass bell and a brass turtle. The brass turtle had a hinged shell. It was actually an ash tray. Also on the coffee table were a number of magazines. They seemed to vary over the years. They were never thrown away. Once they became dated they were stored away until there were a number of bundles of them. My father would then take the stacks over to the war vets hospital on Queen Mary Road not far from our house.
Here are some of the magazines I recall sitting on the coffee table.
I was too young to realize that the New Yorker had some great writers. I pretty well only looked through it to see the cartoons. One cartoon that I particularly remember was one of two wealthy parents standing in a drawing room and addressing their son who was almost an adult. The caption read “20 years ago you were left on our front doorstep and that is why we always referred to you as….. hey you.”

The Saturday Evening Post had the great front covers by Norman Rockwell, a kid getting a haircut or some dogs running off with some links of wieners. Americana I guess.

Life Magazine always had amazing photographers. You didn’t have to read if you didn’t care to. You could just turn the pages and let the camera lens tell the story.

Look Magazine was a lot like Life Magazine with a more up tempo kind of presentation.

There was another magazine around at the time called Liberty and the only reason I remember it was because when I was about 10 years old I tried to sell subscriptions to it in the nearby Snowden area. It disappeared from circulation shortly after my door to door attempts.
Once in a while Newsweek and Time Magazine would make an appearance on the coffee table. Far too much reading for a kid like me.

Perhaps the strangest magazine was something called Scottish Field. It was my father’s connection to where he grew up I guess. There were lots of men in kilts and short tweed jackets. All the photos were in black and white and the sky always looked grey. It all seemed quite foreign to me.
In the mid 1950s I was reading (if that’s what you call it) Harvey Comics like Baby Huey and Sad Sack. I can’t remember exactly when I saw my first Mad Magazine. It had a big impact. My guess is that Mad Magazine was where a lot of kids in my age group first discovered sarcasm. Cracked was another magazine with the same sense of humour. Mad Magazine embedded forever in my mind Alfred E. Newman and “What me worry?” At the bottom of some pages they had tiny little cartoons called Spy Verses Spy. In some issues you could fold the back page to give you a funny alternative to what the page looked like before being folded. Mad Magazine readers were almost like some kind of inner circle. If you didn’t find this stuff funny then there wasn’t much hope.

Some kids had The National Geographic sent to their homes once a month. Always a good source for a naked breast even if some impoverished child was using it. At the age of 12 there weren’t many resources as far as seeing naked women.


Playboy Magazine

"I only read it for the articles."

I think the first time I ever got my hands on a Playboy Magazine was when I was about 15. I wasn’t the first in the neighbourhood. What 15 year old didn’t want to see naked women?
The first thing I would do is leaf through the magazine for all the nude gals. I would of course unfold the playmate of the month. Then I would search out the cartoons. The last thing I did was read the articles. Playboy left a big impression on me. In my later teens I wanted in on some of the action. There is no doubt that I could be easily influenced.
When I first moved out of my home and found my own place I would scotch tape the centerfold pictures on the wall. It never really dawned on me that if I was lucky enough to get some girl to come up to my room or apartment that she might be a tad intimidated by the pictures on the wall.
I was probably about 18 when I started reading Playboy from cover to cover. The magazine had really good cartoonists like Jules Feiffer, Erich Sokol, and the macabre Gahan Wilson. I remember one cartoon that had a dog at a typewriter…..”and the moon shone down on her 8 taught breasts.”
As far as I am concerned Leroy Neiman was a genius as an artist with his quick vivid brush strokes. Alberto Vargas was the master of the air brush. As far as graphics go, the whole magazine was tight.
Playboy had the best writers at the time contributing. Joseph Heller (Catch 22), Jack Kerouac, James Dickey (Deliverence), John Updike (Rabbit Redux), Roald Dahl (James And The Giant Peach), Ian Fleming, Norman Mailer, Vladamir Nobokov, Ray Bradbury, J.P. Donleavy, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Jimmy Breslin, were just a few of the best.
If I was to choose one writer for Playboy who left the biggest impression on me it would be Jean Shepherd. He is the same guy who wrote the movie A Christmas Story with Darren McGavin and the leg lamp and the Chinese restaurant employees singing “Fa ra ra ra ra” on Christmas day. More than once did I burst out laughing at Jean Shepherd’s stories in Playboy. He added a much needed sense of humour to the anguishes many of us experienced as kids. Priceless!

Jean Shepherd
One of the most informative pieces in Playboy was the interview. You got to decide what you thought about some famous person as they expressed themselves in their own words. These were not puff pieces. You could clearly see how really crazy people like George Lincoln Rockwell (the head of the American Nazi Party) or Robert Shelton (the head of the KKK) were. You got the inside view from Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers and comedian Dick Gregory. Madalyn Murray O’Hair expressed her atheistic opinions. She later disappeared and her body has never been found.
Some of the other famous people at the time who were interviewed were Bob Dylan, Cassius Clay before he became Mohammad Ali, Jean-Paul Sartre, Orson Welles, Ralph Ginsberg, Fidel Castro, Arnold Toynbee, Ralph Nader, Stanley Kubric, Art Buchwald, Martin Luther King, Timothy Leary, Henry Miller, and John Kenneth Galbraith. It doesn’t get much better than that.
There was hardly anything that was taboo. Pretty well anything could be written about. Politics, wars, race relations, religion, you name it. Human sexuality was often discussed which was a far cry from the conservative 1950s. Playboy did a multi-part series on sex and the cinema.
This isn’t to say there wasn’t anything artificial about Playboy. Wearing English Leather cologne didn’t mean that you were going to get laid. You might have to add a bit of chit-chat.
My guess is that Hugh Hefner wasn’t the poster boy for a lot of us young guys. We never smoked a pipe (actually I did for about a month when it was a brief fad) or wore a shiny bath robe and an ascot (actually I did wear an ascot a few times) or lounged around in silk pajamas.
If you ever saw Hef dance back in the day (the head bobber) and you danced that way, I wouldn’t own up to it. He always seemed to appear that he thought he was a lot cooler than his actual appearance was. As the years went on he started to look like the perv uncle who had been cast out of the family.
Never the less Hef did have some good taste in choosing people for his magazine. It was one slick monthly.
I learned a lot about jazz from the magazine. Each year they would have a cartoon like drawing of the best jazz performers for the year. I never found much to argue with in their choices. Miles Davis, Ray Brown, Sinatra, Ella, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton, Bud Shank, J.J. Johnson, Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz ,and so on.
Each year Playboy would pick out the best college drafts in college football. Whoever did this bit was right on the money a lot of the time. I checked back on old issues a few times and quite often those picks had impressive pro careers.
As far as humour goes, one of the comedians that often contributed to Playboy (and hung around the mansion) was a Montreal born guy named Mort Sahl. He had a very sharp intellectual slant on politics and morality while being exceptionally funny at the same time. He was a really interesting guy to listen to.

Mort Sahl
Over the years I continued to buy Playboy until sometime in the early 90s. I think one of the reasons I gave up on the magazine was because 7-11 stopped selling it. Maybe I had finally grown out of it too?
There is a shed behind our house. In it there are about 10 file boxes stuffed with old Playboy magazines. Those boxes have moved around over the years. Some of the issues go as far back as the late 60s. I thought at some point in my retirement, that I might want to reread some of those stories that had an impact on me many years ago. Right now it is about #30 on my things to do list.
Unless someone is prepared to offer some decent bucks for them I think I will just hang on to them. Whose that really old guy at the home and why does he have all those boxes stuffed under his bed?


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