Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has died aged 91

The magazine publisher, controversial sexual liberator and civil rights activist passed away peacefully at the Playboy Mansion

Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, ‘cultural pioneer’ and American icon has passed away aged 91. He died in his home, the Playboy Mansion in LA, according to the magazine.

“My father lived an exceptional and impactful life as a media and cultural pioneer and a leading voice behind some of the most significant social and cultural movements of our time in advocating free speech, civil rights and sexual freedom,” Cooper Hefner, Hef’s son and chief creative officer of Playboy Enterprises said in a public statement. “He defined a lifestyle and ethos that lie at the heart of the Playboy brand, one of the most recognisable and enduring in history.”

Models, actors and tastemakers across the decades have offered their condolences for the loss of Hefner: Kim Kardashian and Larry King are among those.

Playboy was launched from Hef’s kitchen in 1953 with a small amount of investment, selling more than 50,000 copies in its first issue. Marilyn Monroe was the mag’s first naked centrefold, taken years before. The magazine has been fronted by everyone from Pamela Anderson to Anna Nicole Smith, Madonna, Drew Barrymore and Kate Moss. Playboy was also a place that broke some of the era’s most prolific writers, like Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood. Major interviews throughout the years include Martin Luther King jr, Fidel Castro, Malcolm X and John Lennon. The publication never shied away from political and social issues, coming out in favour of abortion in 1965.

The mag announced it was turning away from nudity, calling it ‘passé’ in the internet years, but went back on this earlier in 2017. Hefner had also previously denounced a past cover story featuring Donald Trump, stating he was "embarrassed" by his inclusion of the now American president.

Hefner, born in Chicago in 1926, had previously served in the army during WWII and worked as a copywriter for Esquire.

“I remember when I first met him. He walked into the room and stole the show. It was beyond rock-star!” Anderson previously told Dazed in her past cover story. “Hef has always been a pioneer, setting the stage for all of us. When I saw him not too long ago it was hard to see him in a walker. He’s always been this strong person – and I know that he’s still strong, but to see his body fall apart is hard.”

“Hef changed by life,” former Playmate Kendra Wilkinson Baskett told E! News. “He made me the person I am today. I couldn’t be more thankful for our friendship and our time together. I will miss him so much but he will be in my heart forever.”

The mogul fast gained notoriety as a proprietor of smut, as well as for his infamous parties at the mansion, which he attended in silk pyjamas, flanked by Playboy bunnies.

“I am a kid in a candy store,” Hefner once said, reports the BBC. “I dreamed impossible dreams, and the dreams turned out beyond anything I could possibly imagine. I'm the luckiest cat on the planet.”

Hef was charged with obscenity in the 50s when he published nude photos of Jayne Mansfield, though they were later dropped. How he ran his Playboy mansion, where women – ‘bunnies’ – lived while they worked for him, or as ‘girlfriends’, was criticised passionately over the years, critics citing that he encouraged controlling vulnerable people and treating women like sex objects. Former Playmate Hollie Madison, who lived with Hef for a number of years as a girlfriend, told of her experiences in a tell-all memoir. Feminist activist Gloria Steinem famously went undercover in the New York Playboy Club in 1963 to expose the working conditions.

As much of a purveyor of sexual freedom, Hef was a force for civil rights activism. As Quartz reports, he gave Dick Gregory funds to find the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers in 1964. When he launched and franchised Playboy entertainment clubs, black and white performers were invited to perform. However, when he discovered some of the clubs were barring black people, he bought the franchise rights back.

Hefner founded a nonprofit that supported the Kinsey Institute, an organisation that researches sexual health, helped to establish rape crisis centres, and supported the American Civil Liberties Union.

Hefner was married three times and is survived by Crystal, a former Playmate. He also leaves behind four adult children. According to reports, he will be buried next to Marilyn Monroe.