I worked with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died Wednesday at 91, on my hardcover book Playboy's Greatest Covers and featured him in my previous book, Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider & Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture.
He's best known as a savvy businessperson, bootstrapping his publication at 27 to a multimillion dollar empire, and as a controversial character in the female narrative: Gloria Steinem infamously took him down in her landmark article, A Bunny's Tale.
What is most surprising, though, is his early role as a media diversity and inclusion leader. Here are some strong examples.
One of the first African-American newsstand covers: Playboy was at its peak, with about 10 million subscribers, when Hefner put Darine Stern on the October 1971 cover. Nude in a strategically placed Playboy bunny chair, Stern represented the beauty of African-American women at a time when she (and her large afro) were fighting for respect in mainstream culture. The American Society of Magazine Editors called it one of the 40 most important magazine covers of the previous 40 years.
Birthed one of the first female media moguls: In 1988, he turned the Playboy empire over to his daughter, Christine - the first time he wasn't in power since the 1953 launch. She became one of the first female media moguls (and certainly of any sex-driven publication). She brought decisions that would keep Playboy alive in the Internet-fueled future, including launching Playboy.com and expanding the Playboy brand licensing. She ran it until retirement in 2008.
Highlighting diverse opinions: In Playboy, Christian President Jimmy Carter confessed he had "committed adultery in his heart several times", then-radical Malcolm X outlayed his vision to Alex Haley and Martin Luther King, Jr., was given a direct voice when mainstream publications were weary. Under Hefner, Playboy Magazine was not afraid of bringing unpopular or controversial opinions of the time when, after becoming a millionaire a year into publication, Hefner could have easily ridden the safe elevator to success.
The consummate entrepreneur did not take the safe route, which is why we're still talking about him now.