This article original appeared in October 2015
The one and only time I bought a Playboy magazine I was 43. It was December, 1998, and the gold-medal-winning figure skater, Katarina Witt, graced the cover of the magazine's Christmas issue.
This was during my sports-writing days and Ms. Witt was coming to town on a promotional tour. In the interest of research, I thought I should pick up a copy to peruse the pictures causing such a worldwide stir.
Of course I had seen plenty of Playboys before then, my first being in the backyard shed of a school chum in Sarnia, Ont. I was 12. I couldn't tell you who was on the cover but I can still recall, albeit vaguely, the prurient thrill that moment gave both of us. Now here I was, 31 years later, in a Mac's convenience store, fumbling around like a teenager, trying to summon the nerve to ask for something that was being kept behind the counter.
The young clerk began to ring in a number of smaller items I had placed before her – batteries, chewing gum, potato chips, all completely unnecessary but there to provide cover. As she got to the last one I blurted out, without making eye contact: "Oh, and a copy of the December Playboy, too, please." I considered telling the young lady it was for a story, but couldn't bear the thought of the nervous giggle it might produce.
I was reminded of that morning upon hearing that, beginning next year, the magazine will no longer be including photos of nude women. I have to say this little news flash caused a moment of shock and puzzlement; it was akin to being told McDonald's was no longer selling hamburgers. Then it made me feel old and wistful.
Let me say I understand the decision. The Internet long ago made the magazine's naked pictures redundant. Teenagers looking for that prurient thrill that Hugh Hefner's publication gave me and others 50 years ago now crawl under the covers with their iPhone to get the same thing. The rite of passage that Playboy once represented for young men is no longer. The contentious spot it once occupied in the landscape of American culture has faded in memory. Its subscription base, once as high as 7.2 million in 1972, is now 800,000 and dropping.
For me, Playboy was never about the pictures, at least not when I was a young adult. I know, everyone says that. But it's true. What I lament about its demise is what Playboy once represented to me as a reader, because there was a time it could hold its own against any of the great literary publications around: The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire. You name it.
In the 1970s, Playboy was an outlet for the New Journalism revolution that would have such an impact on the non-fiction genre. Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, John Updike, Marshall McLuhan, Joseph Heller, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer – they all wrote for Playboy. So did many female writers including Margaret Atwood, who had several stories published in the magazine. The famous Playboy interview often made news. It was in one of them that presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted that he had "lust in his heart" for women other than his wife. The magazine persuaded a sitting Supreme Court justice, William O. Douglas, to pen a piece.
Those were the days when magazines didn't need to break up 10,000-word articles into fact boxes and sidebars to maintain someone's interest. But eventually they did, and their lustre faded, especially Playboy's. The advent of Internet porn made the images in it redundant, passé, almost quaint. The magazine's cover too often became a vehicle for washed-up entertainers trying to revive their careers. Playboy long ago lost any appeal for me.
How long the new version of the magazine will survive, I do not know. I wish it well. I have the cover of the only issue I ever purchased framed in my office. It was sent to me long ago by Ms. Witt, who was amused by my story about nervously purchasing it. "Gary," she wrote on it. "Isn't life all about research? Love, Katarina."