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Friday Flashback: Hef's Obscenity Battle

By Karl Klockars in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 10, 2009 5:20PM

june63mansfieldplayboycover041009.jpg Yesterday we wished a happy birthday (and many happy returns of the day) to the Godfather of Modern Sexuality himself, Mr. Hugh Hefner. Today we take a look back to the heady days of the Chicago Playboy Empire, when Hef was but a wee 37 years old.

In the era of legal smut-wrangling like Roth v. United States (the case that defined obscenity) but just before the famous quote from Justice Potter Stewart - “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced...[b]ut I know it when I see it...“ - Hef got busted for "publishing and distributing an obscene magazine" on June 4th, 1963. The Playboy in question featured nude and near-nude shots of Jayne Mansfield.

From the Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1963:

The arrest was made on a warrant issued by Judge Norman N. Eiger in Municipal court on complaint of the corporation counsel’s office…

After examining the magazine, Judge Eiger said he was satisfied that probable cause existed for the issuance of the warrant. He made it plain that that is the only issue he ruled on. The matter of whether Miss Mansfield’s pictures are art or obscenity must await judicial determination.

When the case went to trial a few months later, Hefner took the stand in his defense. From the Trib, December 5, 1963:

Hefner said that each person should be his own judge of what is acceptable. He said also that Miss Mansfield was not paid for the photographs, and that she posed to get publicity for a movie…

Dr. Ner Littner, a child psychologist and member of the Chicago police censor board appeals committee, told the jury that he did not believe the June issue was obscene and in his opinion it didn’t appeal to “prurient interests for the average person.”

In the end, the jury deadlocked 7 to 5, and Judge Nicholas J. Matkovic declared the case a mistrial.

Hefner stuck around Chicago until about 1975, when he officially packed up his tent and headed for the Playboy Mansion West, among a grand jury investigation into drug activities at his Chicago home as well as the drug-related death of a secretary and a Playboy club bunny.

It's hard to look at the current Hef, wandering around aimlessly in the television show Girls Next Door and think of him as a soldier for sexual freedom and a free-speech pioneer, and yet, he's one and the same. If you haven't seen it, the GND episode where Hef comes back to Chicago is surprisingly poignant, due in part to the fact that the blondes he surrounded himself with are about a third as old as the magazine he started back in 1953. Think any of them could name what the Playboy building used to be called? Still, anything that keeps a Chicago business like Playboy alive for another generation can't be all bad.

Playboy cover from Jayne Mansfield's wiki.