Playboy of the Eastern World

In a time as vanished as the Roaring 20s, Chicago was smaller and Playboy was bigger and the Playboy beacon circled the city. What schoolboys at land grant colleges knew of Chicago was that it was where Hefner–he of the briar and the philosophy and the circular bed–occupied a mansion in which beautiful ladies without a stitch on gamboled with the literati in a grotto at the bottom of a shiny pole. Playboy then was also a tower and a hotel and a club and a mansion and a black bunny jet–it was an oasis of cool (Second City was another) in Richard J. Daley’s Chicago.

Last week Playboy Enterprises liquidated 70 positions, some of them already vacant, and laid off 54 employees, including Jonathan Black, managing editor of Playboy. There’s more to the company than the magazine, but nothing the company has ever managed to make anyone care much about. Other divisions will stay here, but Playboy’s editorial operations are on their way to New York. Last month Playboy hired a new editorial director, James Kaminsky, a product of Maxim, one of the new men’s magazines that have made Playboy seem old. Kaminsky is in New York, intends to stay there, and intends to fill editorial positions there.

Because of the hoariness of the joke about people who say they buy Playboy for the interviews, or the fiction, or the art, it’s easy to forget that there were interviews, fiction, and art worth buying it for. “They had a pretty distinguished bunch of writers,” recalls Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick, remembering Harry Crews, Dan Jenkins, Joyce Carol Oates. “It’s hard to believe they’ll toss it all over for frat-boy bullshit.”

Actually it’s easy to believe. Playboy grew fat and rich by whispering in the ear of frat boys. Whatever language frat boys speak now Playboy had better learn. “Playboy’s trying very hard in a Dorian Gray-like effort to stay young,” Fitzpatrick muses. By Playboy he means Hugh Hefner, who’s in his 70s and lives in LA but has never let go of the magazine. “Part of it goes to Hefner’s insanity about appearing young and vital. The insanity, I think, is him appearing with 25-year-old girls.”

I was talking to Fitzpatrick because he’s contributed to Playboy as both a writer and illustrator and has a feel for its history. “They only hired the best,” he says, mentioning Ed Paschke and Chuck Walker as other local artists Playboy put in the spotlight. “They were very serious about the art that went into the magazine. When you got the phone call from them early in your career it meant you were going somewhere. I’ll tell you what, it got noticed. Of all the little accolades I got in my career, including a museum show, I probably got more phone calls from people seeing my stuff in Playboy. I don’t think I ever worked for a better artistic editor in my life than Kerig Pope.”

Pope, a prominent Chicago artist before joining Playboy, was forced into retirement early last year. “When I heard he was gone I never wanted to work for Playboy again,” Fitzpatrick says. “I guess maybe it’s not the young and hip thing it used to be. Maybe it hasn’t been since the 50s and 60s, when Lenny Bruce was alive and Playboy After Dark was on TV.”

There was an interesting essay on Maxim–to assume for the moment that Maxim’s the direction Playboy will be going–by Michael Solita early last year in the Web zine ShinyGun. Solita marveled at Maxim’s circulation, which had jumped 50 percent in a year to 2.4 million. “That represents a lot of money being made by a publication with no particularly notable writers, no particularly reputable photographers, no particularly clever design, and not a single nude photograph to move copies off the shelf into guys’ eager, moist hands. I actually feel bad for editors at Playboy and Penthouse, who must be racking their noggins.”

Why the success? Solita quoted Susan Faludi: “The culture they live in has left men with little other territory on which to prove themselves besides vanity.” And Maxim has persuaded a lot of men it holds the keys to what Solita called “fake-ass vanity.”

Those are keys Playboy used to hold, in an era when young men believed the road to vanity passed through something called sophistication.

With Playboy pulling up stakes, this might be a time to lament Chicago’s dwindling community of hip, urbane writers and artists. Except that it isn’t dwindling. And I’m not sure it’s a community that Playboy, aside from cutting a nice paycheck now and then, ever had much to do with. The city’s brimming with culture at a time when Playboy’s become something in a plastic bag in the magazine rack of the local minimart.

If Playboy can track down the elusive life force in New York, God bless. Bob Greene, in an earlier lifetime, moved into the Playboy mansion for a few days back in the 70s and wrote about the boyish thrill of it all for the Sun-Times. He was catching something already on the way out, and he knew it.

Book in the New York Groove

Not that Playboy is the first publishing institution to leave Chicago for New York. Last year Book magazine took off.

“I was kind of the last man standing in Chicago,” says editor Jerome Kramer. “On February 17, 2001, I packed up the Volvo and drove east. The short of it was we’d been doing the business office in New Jersey and the creative out of Chicago. We were a house divided. It was a matter of putting everything together in one place.”

Kramer’s partner is publisher Mark Gleason, whom Kramer met at Georgetown University back in the 80s. They launched Book in 1998, Gleason living in New Jersey while Kramer worked out of an office on Rockwell at the Brown Line tracks. Book is now located in Manhattan’s garment district–“It was going to be the dot-com district several years ago, but that didn’t work out,” says Kramer. He and his wife now live on the upper west side. “Very pleasant,” he says.

Was the move necessary? Maybe, Kramer concedes. “The publishing and advertising community is much stronger in New York,” he says. “We tripled our ad revenue from the year before and plan to do it again, and that’s done much more easily in New York. And we’ve benefited from the dire situation that editorial talent finds itself in in New York. A number of our recent hires are people who were at great magazines that didn’t survive. Like Lingua Franca. There’s a guy from Brill’s here now, a number of people from Civilization.

“Not that we don’t miss Chicago,” Kramer continues, though perhaps out of a sense of obligation. “Chicago’s a great town. All the things people say about Chicago are essentially true. It’s quieter and calmer. Sometimes at three in the morning that’s not as good a thing, but often it’s a better thing.”

About four months ago Kramer was approached by a headhunter looking for a New Yorker to fill the Playboy job Kaminsky wound up with. “They must have sent out a mandate that said, ‘We’re really looking for a different way of doing this,'” says Kramer, who wasn’t interested. “To go with Maxim hardly seems like that.” Actually it does. Maxim is of the wildly successful British “lad magazine” school, which in Kramer’s words is grounded in “lots of babes,” if not naked babes, and an assumption that “nobody’s got an attention span worth talking about.”

Just like RedEye, Kramer reflected, citing a tabloid he’s never seen but whose notoriety seems to be universal. The classic Playboy didn’t make that assumption. “The joke was, ‘I read it for the articles,'” says Kramer, “but there really were good articles. Great work was being done in that magazine.”

Kramer thinks Playboy “lost its ability to present naked women in just the right way. As times have shifted it’s become harder to present your pornography without your tongue in cheek–tongue in somewhere. And that’s the great thing the lad magazines came up with–‘We’re deconstructing looking at pretty girls.'”

He expects to see a Playboy that’s “quicker, punchier, and flashier, and untroubled by long investigative journalism” and that handles its babes with some wit. Maybe that Playboy is better off in New York. “New York is such a complete public-relations package in and of itself,” he says. “Somebody says they’re from New York or have a New York style or have a New York thing going on–that seems to communicate an awful lot, some good, some bad. I guess [being there] is a good shorthand way of getting that across.

“When we moved to New York it was despite that. We always felt the ethos of the magazine should be more midwestern, more centrist, so I don’t know. I don’t think anyone’s got a perception that Chicago is uncool or unsexy or anything.”

About the time Kramer moved east, Book signed a marketing partnership with Barnes & Noble: anyone who joined the chain’s “readers’ advantage” program would get a year’s subscription. The deal’s been a godsend for Book, a bimonthly that now claims a circulation base of 675,000 and has actually delivered as many as a million and a half copies of an issue. The problem, says Kramer, is that after a year readers think of Book as a freebie and don’t feel like paying to keep getting it. So the deal might have to be tweaked.

Kramer and Gleason launched Book because they believed there was a market for what Kramer calls “a smart, entertaining magazine that would address popular culture through books and literature for people who wanted to think of reading as an interest they were passionate about. I was probably on record at some point saying I wasn’t here to do a Tom Clancy cover.” He still hasn’t, though he says it’s been touch and go.

He’s not the man to ask about the technological future of reading, but though he can’t imagine “that some nerdo out on the west coast or in Seattle isn’t hammering away on some recombinant sim book,” he believes the current bound-paper-between-covers model has a long future. Unlike the traditional newspaper, he notes. “I think the key difference has to do with information acquisition versus entertainment. My colleagues here are several years younger than me, and people in their late 20s are very tuned in to pulling something off the New York Times on-line edition. It’s how my wife reads the paper in the morning. I prefer to look at the paper edition, but given our schedules in the morning, that delightful fantasy of getting up, taking the dogs out, having coffee, reading the papers, and setting off for work doesn’t work.”

But a book is a perfect wedding of form and function. Kramer thinks bookstores will continue to function because people who read books like to be around them. “I continue to maintain that people’s affection for books is largely because of the tactile part of the experience.”

It Worked for Poetry

To: all associate editors

From: the editor

The publisher has expressed his desire for an immediate review of the protocols that govern the disposition of manuscripts deemed unworthy of publication. I heartily share his concern. This initiative could have the highest impact on our journal’s future, and I expect all hands to get behind it.

Rest assured that no one here sees any reason to modify our traditional stance toward the writers whose manuscripts we are preparing for publication. Hauteur, condescension, contempt, impatience, and disdain have long served us well, and they continue to be the order of the day. No harm is done when a member of our “stable” senses that an editor wishes he’d drop dead–the air is cleared and progress is made once writers understand that their mewling and importuning merely retard the effort to rescue promising manuscripts from their authors. But this conduct should no longer be regarded as the benchmark by which our somewhat more brusque attitude to submissions we choose not to suffer in the first place shall be calibrated.

In short, a scribbled “Godalmighty” on the return envelope provided with the offending manuscript (from which the stamps have been steamed for personal use, ensuring that the letter will arrive with postage due, if at all)–or a straightforward “It used to be in a pile on the floor so I guess the rats got to it” in response to the occasional telephone inquiry on the first anniversary of submission–will no longer do. And despite the flair for illustration so many of you share, the popular drawing of thumb to nose and wiggling fingers scrawled across the cover sheet with a liner pen is now unacceptable.

Let’s keep in mind that while a publishable writer can safely and repeatedly be knocked down to size, wannabe contributors incapable of supporting themselves with pen and ink must be paying the rent in some other fashion. And it’s the nature of these “day jobs” that their financial (if not aesthetic or spiritual) rewards are likely to be more bountiful than our own. The publisher is particularly insistent that elderly women poets be treated pleasantly. A handwritten “Too exquisite for the likes of us” or the occasional “Lovely touch” next to an especially earnest turn of phrase that we’ve circled in red ink costs nothing and could pay remarkable dividends. So recent headlines have taught us.

Editors unfamiliar with what pleasantness entails and how to go about facsimilating it are urged to attend a seminar on same in the lunchroom next Tuesday at 3 PM. It will immediately follow the presentation “Your 401(k)–why panic is premature,” previously announced.

News Bite

8 Steve Anderson, the sports editor of the Lerner papers from 1986 until his health sidelined him in 2001, died last week at 48. Anderson held down a job as difficult as it was unheralded: he saw to it that 13 Lerner papers around Chicago and the suburbs paid attention to their local athletes–most of them on high school teams but some in grade school. “He worked so hard to get kids’ accomplishments in the paper,” says Ed Bannon, Lerner’s general manager. “You hear a lot about celebrity sports journalism. I think Steve felt that it was important that all the kids get covered. In that respect I consider him an unsung hero of journalism.”