Today on 40, Love: Jon Paul ponders the consequences of early exposure to his father’s complete Playboy collection.
It’s probably a good thing that my father didn’t live to see this day, since all of his hard work has been undone by a technological flip of a button. I’m not talking about the WikiLeaks or his well-publicized judicial decisions for the underdogs—advancing gay rights, guaranteeing equitable elections. No, this is much more personal: his blood, sweat and tears building a complete collection of Playboy magazines. What took my father nearly a decade to acquire is now available in a snazzy electronic version. As reported in today’s New York Times, Bondi Digital—the same company that electronically packaged 80 years of my father’s other favorite publication, the New Yorker—has downloaded every issue of Playboy onto a hard drive costing just $300. Judge Jerry Buchmeyer wouldn’t be pleased.
From 1969 through 1984, in his efforts to build the collection, my father maintained a spirited and private correspondence with a man he never met named Murray Zuckerman, a rare book dealer from Southern California. Reading the carbon copy of the letters now, I realize that my father’s emotional relationship with Murray was the deepest and longest of his life. The letters read like a ‘70s-mod 84 Charing Cross Road.
The resulting Playboy collection was an odd fixture in our family. It held a very mysterious place—physically, it was off-limits, kept behind closed doors in our father’s study, high up on out-of-reach shelves with labels for the various years. Each treasure was protected by a plastic sleeve. The day a new one arrived in the mail via subscription hidden by brown paper wrapping, my father would disappear for hours, and when finished, put it into the protective shield and place out of our reach.
When asked, my mother rather defensively told people that my father read Playboy for the articles. And I believed her. I imagined the magazines articles held secrets, that if revealed, might be too much for my pre-adolescent brain. When you’re a kid, you generally take whatever is in your house as the norm. Since I was pretty isolated from other families, I didn’t have much to go on. It wasn’t until I was nine, when other boys came over to the house, and I told them about the Playboy magazines, that I began to suspect something else was up. My friends acted shocked and amazed, and so of course we would sneak a peek. My play date card began filling up rather quickly.
Funny though, I was more curious than aroused looking at the pictures of the nubile young women. They didn’t look like my sisters or mother. For one thing, there was no hair down there. I don’t think I even knew what to call it. But I had seen my mother after showers, and my sisters, and knew there was something odd about how these women had almost no hair below their waist. And the boobs! Bigger than the teased hair on top!
As I snuck more peeks, I began critiquing the art direction. I preferred outdoor locations to interior shots—studio pictures seemed too easy. But spreading out on a rock formation with those enormous boobs—now that was some kind of talent. I think now that my introduction to Playboy lead to my life long appreciation of the female bosom—for a gay guy, I comment on them a lot.
Occasionally, I’d glance through the rest of the publication. There did seem to be some articles about vaguely familiar current events topics that didn’t interest me. And there was a sex advice column and some fantasy fiction that I read and tried hard to understand, but lacked any of the basic vocabulary of sex.
For years, I just took it as a badge of honor that my father had a complete collection of Playboys. He was cool and interesting. The first time my father ever gave any hint of shame was when the FBI came knocking. They were conducting a background investigation for his nomination to the federal judiciary. Before their arrival, my father persuaded a friend to house the collection, no questions asked. At least not at his Senate hearing.
Later, as an out gay teenager, I lost interest in perusing pictures of women. I needed to see men. So sweating nervously at Dallas’ gay bookstore Crossroads Market, I placed The Advocate newsmagazine on top of an Advocate Men porn publication—as if that was going to fool the cashier. I handed them over to the cute guy behind the counter and blushed.
“I read them for the articles,” I stammered.
He smiled at me and winked.
“Don’t we all, honey?”
When I rushed home and got my first glance of the male gaze, I was comforted. Not so different from Playboy, really. Same come hither look. Pecs as big as boobs. And little hair down there.