By the 1960s, Playboy and its founder had become household names. But while Hugh Hefner was out making his brand synonymous with the good life, a team of Jewish editors made his magazine one of the liveliest, sexiest, and most progressive reads around.
Feb 24, 2010 7:00 AM ||
Hugh Hefner on a visit to London, 1969.
Central Press/Getty Images
In his tennis whites on the courts of a retirement community in Sarasota, Florida, Nat Lehrman doesn’t fit the image of an aging sexual revolutionary: he’s no jowly Hugh Hefner in a red silk robe, nor Al Goldstein, homeless and pathetic. But then Lehrman, the editor responsible for transforming Playboy in the 1960s from just another spicy Esquire knockoff into a path-breaking national forum for the discussion of sexuality, has always been less a sex fiend than an old-school Brooklyn journalist.
If a magazine’s history can be divided into eras, the 1960s should be remembered as Playboy’s Jewish decade. Those were the years in which a cadre of young Jewish editors, including Lehrman, reinvigorated the publication, embracing and fomenting the sexual revolution. Yet Playboy has often been thought of as an essentially WASP phenomenon, because Hefner, the magazine’s founder, served back then, and always, as Playboy’s public face—and also because, thanks to neurotic icons like Alexander Portnoy and Alvy Singer, it has been difficult to imagine nice Jewish boys convincing a different perky co-ed to strip her clothes off every month.
Hefner, who turns 84 in April, still represents Playboy, to the amusement of celebrity bloggers and to the chagrin of at least one stockholder, who chided Hef in a lawsuit earlier this month for hurting the company in his refusal to “give up the parade of busty blonds, the fancy mansion and the reality TV show.” Lehrman, the long-retired engineer of the magazine’s sexual progressivism, meanwhile seeks comparatively simple pleasures at Sarasota’s delis and jazz clubs, his physical activities extending to nothing racier these days than an occasional set of mixed doubles.
Playboy recently made 53 of its back issues available, for free, online, and the magazine’s complete archives can be purchased in DVD box sets by mail order. Readers who look back at issues from the 1960s with an eye for anything other than nude snapshots of women who are by now well into their 70s may be surprised by what they find. In that decade, the magazine was at its richest and most complex: not simply a purveyor of airbrushed nudes and hi-fi reviews, but a vital, progressive, and surprisingly Jewish voice in American culture during the most turbulent decade of the last century. Much of the magazine’s achievement in changing the way Americans talk abut sex resulted from Lehrman’s activities, and from his willingness to buck convention while never indulging in Hefnerian hedonism or rebellion for its own sake.
As a kid, Lehrman didn’t cause much trouble. Born a few months before Black Tuesday, in 1929, he remembers the Brooklyn he grew up in as “a slum,” though it had “a Jewish deli on nearly every corner—almost as many as there were candy stores,” as he once wrote in a letter to the New York Times. He protected his younger brother, Marvin, from local toughs and developed an enduring taste for latkes in his mother’s kitchen. While, like many Yiddish-speaking children of Russian Jewish immigrants, Lehrman’s parents had no fondness for synagogue attendance, they sent their sons to Hebrew school nonetheless. “And then I found out,” Lehrman recalls, “after spending six years to get bar mitzvahed, that my father never got bar mitzvahed himself. I wanted to kill somebody.”
He decided early on that his father wasn’t much of a career role model, either. Louis Lehrman eked out a living in factories, manufacturing clothes, and the family had little enough income to qualify for an apartment in the Williamsburg Houses, one of the first public housing projects in New York City. Louis saved and borrowed to open a shop of his own after World War II, and he occasionally asked his teenaged son to lend a hand. “He was so proud to have his own business, so proud his son was working there,” Lehrman remembers, with a laugh, “that he would point to all this crap and say, ‘Someday, son, this will all be yours.’” The teenager had grander ambitions, envisioning himself as a future shipping tycoon or Madison Avenue copywriter.
Nat Lehrman and Kazuko Miyajima in 1957
The Gent, June 1961
Even in Lehrman’s college years, nothing augured a career editing America’s foremost pornographic magazine, his dating record included. He lapped up socialist thought—in Reaching for Paradise, an excellent study of Playboy published in 1978, Thomas Weyr refers to Lehrman as “a liberal intellectual out of Brooklyn College at the bare-ass tail-end of the old left”—but free love had never been on the curriculum. “Brooklyn College was very leftist about politics,” Lehrman recalls, “but not about sex; they were very conservative, as any college was.” Not that he wasn’t intrigued by the subject: “I would’ve liked to have lived a less conservative experience, but it didn’t come my way.”
Lerhman’s rebelliousness didn’t surface until later, when he was drafted after receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1953. He served 18 peaceful months in Nara, Japan, and while there, courted a Japanese interpreter named Kazuko Miyajima, to whom he proposed in a letter; he brought her to New York in 1957 and married her.This was an astonishingly unconventional move. At that time, the Japanese had not yet shed their image as the murderous kamikazes who bombed Pearl Harbor; the film classic Bridge on the River Kwai, featuring Japanese officers as either ruthless or bumbling taskmasters, took home seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in the year of Lehrman’s wedding. Considering how many Brooklynites just a few years older than him had fought and died in the Pacific, Lehrman’s marriage demonstrated a remarkable disdain for the prevailing prejudices, not to mention his own parents’. “That was really an explosion in the family,” Lehrman’s brother Marvin says of Nat’s choice of a spouse.
“My mother had threatened to kill herself when she learned of our nuptial plans,” Lehrman remembers. “The idea of a mixed marriage in the Lehrman family—especially a racially mixed marriage—was more than she could bear.” But Lehrman didn’t spurn his parents, or elope; he and Kazuko managed to bring them around. The first time she met her son’s fiancée, Lehrman says his mother “came to the front door looking grim.” Undaunted, Kazuko “threw her arms around her and said with a big smile, ‘Hi, Mom,’” and Lehrman’s mother instinctively reciprocated. As Marvin recalls, it soon turned out in the neighborhood that “nobody really cared that he was married to a Japanese woman.” It must have helped that Kazuko eagerly learned her mother-in-law’s recipes for matzah ball soup and latkes, and that Lehrman never wavered in his identification as a Jew. “I love everything Jewish, except the religion,” he says.
Compared to his choice of a spouse, Lehrman’s career decisions were uncontroversial. Upon his return to New York after his military service, he worked as a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal until an employment agency scored him editing gigs at the Automobile Association of America, and then at a short-lived travel magazine. When that folded, Lehrman found himself transferred to two magazines owned by the same distributor. By chance, he landed at Dude and Gent, Playboy imitators that cropped up in the wake of Hefner’s early successes. That his employers published nude photos didn’t bother Lehrman, or his wife. “She married me when we were both broke,” he says. “She, like my mother, was very happy that I was making a living.” The only problem, really, was that Lehrman had plenty of intellectual energy—he attended NYU after work, picking up a master’s in English in 1960 with a long essay on George Eliot’s Middlemarch—and his bosses didn’t regard their magazines as anything but commercial shlock. “They were all kind of crummy and never got better than that,” Lehrman says.
Playboy, by contrast, was steadily improving. Having sold out 70,000 copies of his first issue in December 1953, and having himself written the text accompanying the infamous nude photos of Marilyn Monroe, Hefner built his circulation up to a million by 1959. His staff grew apace. By 1956, a couple of Jewish editors had joined the magazine in key positions, a natural enough development given Hefner’s anti-discriminatory bent and respect for Jewish intellectuals. According to Steven Watts’ recent biography, Mr. Playboy , Hefner had been dismayed by the anti-Semitism he witnessed in the army and abjured Esquire’s restrictive hiring practices when he was employed there; his favorite college professor had been Samson Raphaelson, author of “The Day of Atonement,” the story upon which Al Jolson’s classic film The Jazz Singer was based. Still, even with Hefner’s support, and with Jews rising to prominence throughout American culture in the 1950s, Playboy’s first Jewish editors did not flaunt their ethnicity.
One of them, Jack Kessie, contributed columns on men’s fashion under the ethnically whitewashed pseudonym “Blake Rutherford.” Another, Hefner’s second-in-command, was a debonair New York litterateur named Auguste Comte Spectorsky. Though Spectorsky’s father was a professional Jewish educator, Spectorsky took pains to paper over his Jewish background. As Lehrman puts it, “It would never come out that [Spectorsky] was Jewish unless you put your hand on his throat and said, ‘Are you Jewish?’”
In the 1960s, as the magazine prospered, Spectorsky’s hires included a couple more Jewish editors, Sheldon Wax and Arthur Kretchmer, who quickly rose to prominent positions on the masthead. Hefner didn’t object; many of his closest associates and personal assistants, including Bobbie Arnstein and Dick Rosenzweig, were Jews. Indeed, in the “Playboy Philosophy,” the ponderous series of articles that he published beginning in late 1962 to air his beliefs about sexual morality and sundry topics, Hefner professed a frank admiration for American Jews, who, he wrote—“while not nearly as sexually permissive as the Hebrews of the Old Testament—are more liberal than either American Catholics or the mainstream of American Protestantism.”
Masthead and table of contents, January 1966
Hefner wasn’t unique in viewing Jews as extraordinarily sexual—around 110 CE, the Roman historian Tacitus characterized the Jews a “nation … prone to lust,” and leading anti-Semites regularly railed against alleged Jewish lechery and pornography in the late 19th century—but Playboy’s staff demonstrates that the prominence of Jews among free-speech advocates and erotica publishers can be ascribed neither to some innate hypersexuality in Jewish nature (as anti-Semites, to this day, continue to claim), nor to the Talmud’s comfort with sexuality or any other essential aspect of Jewish culture, as some contemporary Jewish boosters propose. Spectorsky and Lehrman, to take two examples, had very little in common, and they chose to work for Hefner for different reasons that may have had something to do with their feelings as Jews—but, even if so, they weren’t the same feelings. Some Jews entered the pornography industry because of their belief that the representation of sex constitutes a necessary component of art, which seems to have been Spectorsky’s attitude; others got involved because, as anarchists, they believed in absolute freedom of speech. Many Jewish lawyers and judges defended obscenity because of their Freudianism or their commitments to minority rights. A few Jews just got off on publishing porn, of course, while others, from Irving Kristol to Andrea Dworkin, have understood the proliferation of obscenity as a threat to traditional values. There is no single, or essential, Jewish attitude towards sex.
Lehrman himself cannot precisely explain the connection between his Jewish identity and his line of work. “Being Jewish, you understand that it drives you in a certain way,” he says, vaguely. “Not because you’re Jewish, but because you grew up in an environment that makes you liberal in certain areas and conservative in certain areas.” In his case, liberalism came through in his political bent and his sympathy for sexual radicals, while his conservatism manifested itself in his loyalty to his family.
Spectorsky hired Lehrman early in 1963, pleased to have found an intellectual with a master’s in English who boasted years of editorial experience in “the skin field.” At first, Lehrman pitched in wherever he was needed, writing captions for pictorials and editing “Party Jokes,” but soon he gravitated to the magazine’s features on human sexuality. He provided research assistance for Hefner’s “Philosophy,” and when Hefner lazily quoted long passages without attribution, Lehrman mollified the aggrieved authors. Morris Ploscowe, an eminent jurist whose 1951 study Sex and the Law Hefner had plagiarized, called Lehrman up with an offer: “He was cute,” Lehrman recalls. “He said, ‘Well, you’re using all my material anyhow, so why don’t you pay me for it?’ So I hired him.” Hefner loved the outlines Ploscowe delivered, and Lehrman earned the boss’s gratitude.
Whether dismayed by his critics, or acknowledging that he performed better as an impresario than as a philosopher, Hefner wrapped up the “Philosophy” not long after Lehrman’s arrival, but he kept assigning Lehrman to similar projects. “People get to know what your specialties are,” Lehrman explains; his became sexual politics and social activism. He edited the “Playboy Forum,” the letters section inaugurated in 1963, which offered experts and laypeople a platform to weigh in on the issues of the day, ranging from homosexual rights and free speech to sex education and birth control. Hefner’s nonprofit Playboy Foundation, which Lehrman managed, meanwhile supported sexologists, abortion activists, and defendants charged under arcane American sex laws—“civil rights, civil liberties, all that good stuff,” as Lehrman says.
Lehrman’s babies, the “Forum” and “The Playboy Advisor,” both treated sex not as the glossy fantasy of the magazine’s centerfold, but in all its gritty details. “I was the sex editor,” Lehrman boasts, “the world’s greatest authority on sex, in journalism.” His success in this position wasn’t the result of any particular knowledge or training—“I didn’t have any more sex interest or education than anybody else,” he admits—but a function of his work ethic. “When they told me to learn something, I learned it.”
He cultivated a group of professional experts, forming close relationships with William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the researchers from Washington University in St. Louis who went Kinsey one better by filming prostitutes, married couples, and strangers having sex in their lab so as to analyze the physiology of human sexual interactions. After interviewing them for the May 1968 issue, Lehrman wrote and edited a 1970 guide to their research for non-medical readers, titled Masters and Johnson Explained. “To have refused the privilege of editing an authorized popularization of the work of these two pioneering geniuses,” Lehrman noted, “would have been tantamount, in my opinion, to turning down a like opportunity to collaborate with Freud or Kinsey.” The respect was mutual: Masters characterized Playboy, with Lehrman’s “Forum” at its front, as “the best available medium for sex education in America today.”
Indeed, with a circulation reaching as high as 7 million copies a month—more than the current numbers for The New Yorker, Time, and Entertainment Weekly combined—Playboy delivered debates about abortion, civil rights, and homosexuality into more American hands than any other single source. Lehrman edited much of this revolutionary material. He personally interviewed Mary Calderone, a leading proponent of sex education, and produced the magazine’s first major feature on feminism.
As second-wave feminism boomed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lehrman’s attempts to engage its leaders in discussion had been repeatedly rebuffed. One of his protégés, Barbara Nellis, contacted Betty Friedan, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and spokeswomen for the Redstockings and National Organization for Women, but no one would speak to Playboy. When Germaine Greer finally agreed to an interview, Lehrman himself spent a week in Tuscany with her. Having scripted faux-Marx Brothers routines with his brother back in their Brooklyn boyhoods, Lehrman was prepared to play Greer’s, ahem, straight man:
Greer: I think every man should be fucked up the arse as a prelude to fucking women, so that he’ll know what it’s like to be the receiver. Otherwise, he’ll forever go about thinking that he’s doling out joy unlimited to every woman he fucks.
Lehrman: Thank you for the suggestion. Let’s change subjects.
Greer devoted most of the conversation to attacks on Playboy’s exploitation of women, but Lehrman held his ground. She did finally acknowledge that Playboy’s “editorial matter is more liberal than that of other large-circulation magazines.” Surveying this period in a recent doctoral dissertation on Playboy’s politics, historian Carrie Pitzulo affirms Greer’s impression and refutes the absurd but familiar claim, made most recently by an ill-informed n+1 reviewer, that “politics, judgments, or restrictions … the things involved in a public discourse about sex … have always been excluded from Playboy.” On the contrary, Pitzulo characterizes the magazine as having “served as a regular, progressive, and mainstream forum for discussions of women’s expanding roles in society.”
By the mid-1960s, Playboy’s young editors were charting the magazine’s course. “The whole staff, practically, was Jewish,” Lehrman recalls. “We were the dominant, probably the brighter ones.” Under Spectorsky, Lehrman, Wax, and Kretchmer, and always with Hefner’s approval, Playboy at the same time began to feature Jewish writers, artists, and themes more prominently than ever before.
Literary critics Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler contributed essays early in the decade, while the stable of fiction writers grew to include a virtual Jewish all-star team, including Bruce Jay Friedman, Herbert Gold, Leonard Michaels, Irwin Shaw, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and, eventually, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Shel Silverstein, a close friend of Hefner’s, published cartoons regularly in the magazine, as did Jules Feiffer, to whom Hefner paid a retainer in exchange for exclusive first-look privileges. In 1964 and 1965, the magazine serialized Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, and Mel Brooks kibitzed his way through a Playboy interview in the May 1966 issue, unabashedly characterizing himself as “spectacularly Jewish,” and explaining the prominence of Jews in American comedy as a result of their people’s history: “When the tall, blond Teutons have been nipping at your heels for thousands of years, you find it enervating to keep wailing. So you make jokes.” Perhaps only Commentary could be considered a more central platform for American Jewish cultural achievement in the 1960s, and of course Commentary at its zenith could never boast even a tenth of Playboy’s circulation.
Barbi Benton, March 1970
The magazine included Jewish women prominently in its photographs. In 1968, Hefner met Barbara Klein, a self-described Jewish American Princess from Sacramento. Renaming herself Barbi Benton at Hefner’s suggestion, she inspired his purchase of a Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles and graced the magazine’s cover in 1969, 1970, and 1972. Lehrman remembers Benton’s first visit to frigid Chicago, when Hefner bought her “two expensive fur coats”: “a mink and a chinchilla, or something like that. … I looked at my wife, and I said, ‘See, now he knows what it’s like to marry Jewish girls.’”
It gets better: in April 1970, the magazine presented a piece of unabashedly Zionist sexual propaganda, “The Girls of Israel,” a pictorial accompanied by an essay unselfconsciously echoing Portnoy’s Complaint with its encomiums to sabras: “A Jewish girl who is a natural blonde, looking as if she lives in Copenhagen? Yes, it’s true.”
Lehrman insists that he never set out to deal with Jewishness in Playboy. He doesn’t remember “The Girls of Israel,” and says that in any case, he and his fellow editors would never have introduced material of Jewish interest into the magazine with any sort of ethnic chauvinism in mind: “Nobody thinks ‘I’m going to publish this guy who’s Jewish because I’m Jewish.’ In a million years you would never hear that at Playboy.” Some Jews involved in the sexual revolution were accused of the ancient canard of Jewish sexual deviance: Ralph Ginzburg, the Eros publisher convicted by the Supreme Court of pandering in March 1966, remarked in his Playboy interview that while anti-Semitic prejudice against him was “impossible to document on official levels,” he often received “hate mail saying, ‘Good for you, you kike Ginzburg!’” As far as Lehrman remembers, he never encountered such bigotry. “I can’t think of anti-Semitism hurting us in any way.”
While he covered sexual radicalism in all its diversity in the magazine, Lehrman maintained his own traditional family. He dedicated Masters and Johnson Explained to his wife, son, and daughter, “whose love, patience and support made it possible to produce this book during evenings and weekends that rightfully belonged to them.” Lehrman enrolled his kids at Francis W. Parker, a progressive Lincoln Park prep school boasting alumni including Barney Rosset and David Mamet. His daughter Cynthia Hochswender remembers that compared to her classmates’ parents, hers were “super-strict” and “very anti-drug,” even if “they always had the magazine around the house” and invited sex researchers and unionized prostitutes over for dinner.
Analyzing Playboy in an influential essay in her 1983 collection The Hearts of Men, Barbara Ehrenreich implied that Hefner’s lifestyle choices served as office policy: “I don’t want my editors marrying anyone,” she quotes Hefner as saying, “and getting a lot of foolish notions in their heads about ‘togetherness,’ home, family, and all that jazz.” But Lehrman, who arrived at Playboy happily married, and remained that way for more than half a century until his wife’s death in March 2008, reveals this as no more than Hefnerian bluster. “Surely you don’t believe,” Lehrman once remarked, “that any mature man confuses his wife or girlfriend with a Playmate … or that his fantasies about any of these beautiful women impinge on his actual sex life.”
Lehrman with his children, around 1965
In fact, most of Hefner’s top editors in the 1960s were also married and, in Lehrman’s phrase, “pretty square.” Hochswender, who grew up around her father’s colleagues, calls them “the tweediest bunch of guys you ever met. It wasn’t like they would come over and they’d all be smoking pot or whatever. They’d come over and they used to sing bluegrass music at our house.” A few of them may have developed a bit of a swagger around the office—Barbara Nellis remembers a bunch of “awkward, gawky Jewish boys … just agog at how important they got, very quickly, with the power of this magazine behind them”—and the editors did attend the infamous festivities at the Mansion. Yet editorial staffers, like longtime copyeditor Arlene Bourras, recall a strict divide between themselves and Hefner’s social coterie. “Up to a certain point, everyone was welcome, everyone was equal,” Bourras says. Still, “there was a certain point when we,” the editors, “went home, and the others took off their clothes and went into the swimming pool.” As for Lehrman, he doesn’t remember joining any of Hef’s orgies: “I just drank the wine; maybe I danced with a Bunny once in a while, but that was it,” he says. “Hefner took care of the fantasies all by himself.… We made the magazine, he made the life.”
According to his brother, daughter, and colleagues, Lehrman’s work at Playboy never troubled his family. Whenever someone asked his wife how she could abide her husband working with all those pretty girls, she replied, Lehrman says, that she felt less cause for concern “with the Playmates, than if he was a teacher and all those adoring students would come after him.” Marvin Lehrman believes that the family, and especially his parents, learned a major lesson when Nat and Kazuko married back in the 1950s; once they understood that Nat’s choice of a spouse wasn’t a rejection of them or their values, they could see Playboy the same way. Lehrman’s mother would shep nakhes, “tongue in cheek,” and her classic line for a laugh was, “My son, the pornographer.” “The biggest issue with the family,” Marvin says, “was people calling up wanting free subscriptions.”
Lehrman’s household maintained traditions from his own Brooklyn childhood and his wife’s Japanese one, while consistently eschewing religion. “I’m a secular Jew, and that covers it,” Lehrman says, and, when asked during a telephone interview for an example of the Jewish folk music he loves, he launched into a few bars of the classic Zionist work song “Zum gali gali.” Hochswender fondly describes her father’s and her uncle’s unrelenting Borsht Belt humor, replete with Yiddish slang: “It was like living with Shecky Green.” Kazuko’s recipes, meanwhile, shared at a memorial service for her in 2008, exhibit the family’s embrace of both Jewish and Japanese traditions. She would alternate between serving miso and matzah ball soups, and fry latkes on an electric pan at the center of the dining room table as if they were okonomiyaki. Hochswender tells the tale of how her mother once faxed a recipe for potato latkes to her office; even without an addressee, Hochswender’s officemates knew “who it was meant for: a Jewish recipe that included the instruction, ‘Use chopsticks to turn the pancake over.’”
By the early 1970s, shifts in the zeitgeist and the editors’ lives presented challenges to Playboy’s dominance of the men’s magazine field. Spectorsky died suddenly in 1972, and Hefner tapped Kretchmer to replace him, disappointing some of his colleagues. Circulation dropped as Bob Guiccione’s Penthouse captured market share with pictorials considered raunchier than Playboy’s. Fighting back, Hefner purchased American rights to a French Playboy imitation, and Lehrman headed up the new magazine, Oui, which is now remembered, if at all, for David Mamet’s having gotten his start writing captions for the nudes there. After bringing Oui into the black, Lehrman accepted a promotion to associate publisher of Playboy in 1976, but he has “always had mixed feelings about that.” “I’m removed, at least at one level, from the substance of the magazines, the fun part,” he noted at the time, but he also recognized that the moment was right for a change. Sure, he had had to give up his title as Playboy’s sex editor, but, he admitted, “advancing age helps me not regret it too much.”
Lehrman with his granddaughter Kate in Florida, around 1998
As Lehrman, Wax, and Kretchmer shuffled up the corporate ladder, Playboy’s Jewish decade came to an end, at least in one sense. Jews have remained prominent on the magazine’s masthead; even when Kretchmer stepped down in 2002 as the magazine’s top editor, his replacement turned out to be James Kaminsky, a veteran of Maxim and cousin of Mel Brooks. But since the early 1970s, when the kind of sexual journalism that Lehrman favored could be found in any mainstream magazine, Playboy has no longer led the charge for sexual progressivism with the revolutionary spirit Lehrman espoused.
Lehrman himself stepped down in 1985, informing reporters that the move was not “a result of any corporate infighting”—but also admitting, in an atmosphere of gloom about the future of the men’s magazines, that Hefner “is 60 and obviously out of touch.” Naturally enough, given his wife’s joke about teachers being tempted by their students more than a Playboy editor would be by the Playmates, Lehrman pursued a second career as a professor of journalism, and department chair, at Columbia College in Chicago, where he could establish once more his respectability.
While Hefner continues to play America’s Casanova into his dotage and beyond, Lehrman smoothly transitioned into academia and from there to his senior’s community in Sarasota. He remains enthusiastic about tennis and classical guitar, but has been more than content to cede the trenches of sexual warfare to younger battlers. Hefner’s influence on American culture cannot be overstated, of course, and he surely deserves the notoriety—the tell-all biographies, the reality shows, the gossip—that accrues around him. But Lehrman presents another side to the story of Playboy, having been a different sort of partisan of the sexual revolution. He was a rebel who didn’t need to embrace hedonism or exploit young women for his personal gratification, or even to alienate his parents, to expand the boundaries of sexual discourse in America.
Suggesting how far he has come from his days at Playboy, and how far he has always been from Hefner’s love of the spotlight, Lehrman’s most recent publication, in October 2007, was an appreciation of his retirement community’s “modest but lovely tennis club” in the community’s monthly newsletter, the sort of heymish article that could have been written by any of his neighbors. Only one line of the story hints that Lehrman, now just another Jewish grandfather in Florida, was once among the most influential editors in the country. Praising the courts’ clay surface, “similar to the red clay used in the French Open,” Lehrman notes that he once asked a tennis pro why hard clay courts are preferable to grass or asphalt. The pro’s answer, which Lehrman approvingly quotes, is a reminder of how he balanced defiance and moderation throughout his life, and of his un-Hefnerian comfort in having left the spotlight behind: the great thing about clay courts, he says, is that “they wear your knees out quicker and enable you to retire earlier.”
Josh Lambert, a Tablet contributing editor, is Dorot Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. The author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide, he is currently revising his dissertation, “Unclean Lips: Obscenity and Jews in American Literature,” for publication.