From Marilyn Monroe to Jean Paul Sartre: 'Playboy' hits 50 with auction of memorabilia

When a man was caught reading Playboy magazine, he could always maintain he had bought it for the serious articles and interviews, rather than to ogle the naked female centrefold. And Hugh Hefner's creation was a credible vehicle for often classy writing and intelligent interviews.

That, and the equally classy nudes, were largely the reason why the publication has managed to survive the twin assaults of the more hardcore internet and fashionable lads' magazines to reach its 50th anniversary issue this month.

The occasion is being marked by a sale at Christie's in New York this month of more than 300 items from Playboy's archives, including original manuscripts, cartoons and, of course, photographs, although not all featuring half-naked women in glorious colour.

First appearing in December 1953 as a product of Hefner's kitchen table, Playboy's circulation, although lower than at its 1970s peak, when its clubs were all the rage from London to the US west coast, is now holding steady at 3.2 million and it remains the biggest seller of its kind. Its archives of those years constitute a remarkable chronicle of half a century of American culture, albeit filtered through Hefner's air-brushed vision of the Playboy lifestyle, complete with pipe, silk pyjamas and can of Coke.

The sale includes many original corrected typescripts by well-known authors, including James Baldwin, Nelson Algren Ray Bradbury and Allen Ginsberg. One, a signed and corrected manuscript of Jack Kerouac's novelette Before The Road, which describes the early days of Dean Moriarty, a key figure in Kerouac's beat classic On the Road, is estimated to fetch up to $30,000 (£17,000).

Ian Fleming and James Bond were perhaps the archetypal Playboy author and fictional hero. Proofs of parts of Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, first published in Playboy in May and June 1963, with corrections and insertions by the author are expected to go for up to $24,000.

Interviews with major players of the era have also been part of Playboy's appeal and the sale includes a large number of galley sheets of meetings with such figures as Salvador Dali, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre and Bob Dylan. They are often heavily revised and signed by the interviewees, suggesting pre-publication copy approval by celebrities is not a recent development.

But it is, of course, glamour photography for which Playboy is most famous. There were pictures of Marilyn Monroe in its first edition but the stapled centrefold did not appear until the second edition. But Playboy always worked to be more tasteful and discreet than its downmarket competitors, such as the now ailing Penthouse, and used serious photographers such as Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts. Their work was, says Christie's "erotically charged, but tasteful and revolutionary".

Many of the images they and others captured, from Brigitte Bardot and Madonna to the supermodels Elle MacPherson and Cindy Crawford, feature in the sale. Alongside are other curiosities such as Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and shots of famous jazz musicians of the 1950s.

Just to make sure the whole thing does not get too sensible, there is also an original Playboy Bunny costume, expected to fetch at least $4,000, and one of Hef's former stretched limousines, going for $30,000.

The 50th anniversary issue of the magazine attempts to continue its traditions, with writing by Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer and David Mamet and an interview with Jack Nicholson, described as "the exemplary Playboy man". For those who need to know, Colleen Shannon, a 25-year old Californian blonde, is the 50th anniversary Playmate.

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