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Michigan author averts eyes and writes about new Playboy book

I’m pretty sure Michigan author Tom Bissell is going to hell for reading about Playboy. When I was a kid, looking at a Playboy was a sure way to get a one way ticket. And there were no exclusions for “just reading” the articles even though that was a common excuse when someone was caught with one. 

Bissell got a dream job recently when he was asked to review the new book “Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America” for “The New Republic”. In an article titled: “The Bunny Revolution”, Bissell underlines and reinforces the author’s historical look at the influence of Playboy on American Culture blanketing, or should I say exposing, everything from ending censorship to helping create the “single girl”. 

The author, historian Elizabeth Fronterrigo, writes what is, according to Bissell, so “dry” that the “effort will spontaneously combust from the heat of a reading lamp”. I can only say that there must not be enough illustrations. 

However, I get the impression from Bissell’s review that this is not Doris Kearns Goodwin writing about Lincoln. It’s got a little more flash. 

I can’t really comment on the cultural impact of Playboy, but I am somewhat an expert on the magazine’s impact on a young teenager who got his first look at a Playboy in the airbrush era of the 50s. Holy shitt! A naked lady. The father of a neighbor kid I hung around with was an early subscriber and we knew where he kept his stash. (I once held the Marilyn Monroe copy in my hand). 

At first, there was a disconnect between women in real life and those in Playboy, but as we grew older were able to overcome this little inconsistency. 

Bissell is one funny writer and combines humor with some wonderful straight lines and uncanny insight into the world of Playboy. When he writes of the launch of the Playboy Clubs across America he points out the business model was doomed to failure because unlike a local single’s bar there was no chance to pickup a top shelf Playboy waitress at one of Hef’s clubs. He also points out that Heffner pulled the plug on Southern Playboy Clubs for their failure to allow blacks inside. 

It was 40 years ago, almost to the day, when I entered my first-ever and last-ever Playboy Club with Fred, an ex Navy submariner, our dates and a couple extra women. Now granted, we were in Detroit, just down the street from a Tiki bar, but it was still the Playboy Club and we were fresh from a Bill Blass fashion show so everyone was dressed way past the nines. We sat at tall tables with tall stools and the girl’s mini dresses just didn’t quite cut it. It’s easy to remember the bunny costumes cut up to there and down to…but what I remember most is the slick and sleek all black cocktail glasses with a white swizzle stick replete with little bunny ears. It was a souvenir and mine still sets on a shelf in my office. 

Once you got by the “top shelf” the bunny waitresses were just young, college girls trying to make a living in the most uncomfortable and unflattering outfit imaginable. Not to mention it was winter and it was cold. Seriously, our bunny was named “Candy”, or so she told us, and all I could picture was Alice in Wonderland played out in faux bunny costumes. I’m sure she had no idea of a book by the same name –“Candy” that is. 

Bissell highly recommends the new book, but also wishes that someone would write a narrative history of Playboy. I couldn’t agree more. The next time Bissell’s in town, he’s an MSU grad, I’ll loan him my book on Playboy. It’s the “Playboy Interviews” and it’s edited by –believe it or not- Alex Haley. Haley did the first Playboy interview in 1962 of Miles Davis. He went on to interview some incredible and varied newsmakers including Martin Luther King, but my most memorable interview was the one he did with Malcolm X in 1965, not long before Malcolm X’s assassination. At a layover in D.C. in the 80′s, I once spent a couple hours talking with Haley and was I thankful for Playboy.  

All in all –these are my words not Tom’s- Playboy was a step up from National Geographic and when we were leaving the Detroit Playboy Club, Fred leaned into me and said, “We should come back without the girls”. We never did. 

Bissell is the author of “The Father of All Things” which was named a Michigan Notable Book. He has a new book due out soon titled “Video Games Matter” which is a perfect title for the author, who is an inveterate gamer. Read the complete review in The New Republic by clicking here 

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  1. Maureen Michel Jordan says:

    What a wonderful trip back into young adult youth! Your writing brought back memories that somehow got buried in all the adult “stuff” that has transpired since then.

    I have to say that my brother and I got into my parent’s National Geographic for our first naked people pictures. Then one night my brother got caught with “Playboy” while my Mom was cleaing. He got them from the kid down the street. They must have been best friends, my goodness to LOAN them OUT! Well, I don’t remember what happened except that my Dad did have sort of a funny smile on his face and it was clear that it was my mom who was the one packaging them in the brown bag to take back where they belonged!

    Did we all not go to the Playboy Club in Chicago, too? It was the lighted dance floor that I remember, shifting lights. . .maybe it was an “enhanced” experience. I do rembember the bunny costumes too. They all had better bodies than I did. Of course, we women looked at them differnetly than you guys did :-)

    Thanks for this trip down memory lane, you are sucn a talented writer. Did Fred see this? Tell him HI.

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