American Pie 11.09.03

Playboy is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary and founder Hugh Hefner has been revealing some of the secrets of its earliest days. For example, he started the magazine with just $8,000 (equivalent of around £3,000 in those days), a lot of it borrowed from his mother. He was so unsure of its success he didn’t even put a date on the first issue. But it did sell 52,000 copies – largely because of the famous nude calendar picture of Marilyn Monroe, for which he paid the huge sum (for those days) of $500.

Originally, he told Fortune magazine, he planned to call the magazine Stag Party- until he got a “cease and desist” letter from the publisher of a magazine called Stag. It was his wife, he admits, who thought Playboy would be a better name. Even without Monroe, the second issue sold better than the first. Soon Playboy was outselling Esquire, then the leader in the men’s magazine field, and was headed towards sales of a million. Then into the multiple millions. “I knew we had arrived,” says the now 77-year-old publisher, “when we received a letter with just a bunny on the envelope – and the post office delivered it.”

Also responding to the new competition from the lads’ mags, GQ is getting a facelift. Although not quite as old as Playboy, GQ has been around for 46 years and was at one time considered the American man’s fashion bible. It was the mag for suave men who had good jobs and wore expensive suits. It was sexy without being salacious. The sort of magazine Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack used to read. Now it’s getting rid of its business suits and setting its eyes on a much younger audience. It’s going to run shorter features, hippier fashion spreads. More about music, especially rock bands. It’s the work of new editor Jim Nelson, who took over from the legendary Art Cooper. Just turned 40, Nelson has not himself given up wearing a business suit – but underneath instead of a shirt wears a baseball jersey.

Although GQ still sells a healthy 765,000, the target is to get it back over the million mark – and closer to the lads’ mags which between them sell around five million.

Twenty-one years ago, the Virginian-Pilot, the local paper in Norfolk, Virginia, broke the story of America’s first test-tube baby. “She’s a cutie” the paper proclaimed over a front-page picture of Elizabeth Jordan Carr just after she was born. Now, all these years later, the news-making baby has joined the VirginianPilot – as a reporter.

The big blackout focused attention, at least here, on the old-fashioned manual typewriter. Many newsmen hastily dug their old machines out of a closet and went to work by candlelight. I even discovered I still have two old portables, one an Olivetti, still covered with a lot of tattered hotel labels, that I carried several times around the world. There are, of course, still some newsmen who disdain computers.

Surprisingly, there are still four companies, Smith-Corona, Brother International, Nakajima and Royal/Olivetti still manufacturing typewriters here in the US. Their sales? A comparatively modest 550,000 a year – compared to nearly 50 million computers.

Al Neuharth of USA Today tells how, lugging his relatively new Smith-Corona manual portable through security at Dulles Airport recently, a guard looked quizzically at the strange machine and requested: “Turn it on.”

By Jeffrey Blyth

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