Hoo roo Hef, thanks for all the great 'articles'

When I heard the news that Hugh Hefner, the original Playboy, had died at the ripe old age of 91 (no doubt clad in his trademark silk pyjamas) I drifted into the sort of reverie that I imagine typifies a midlife crisis, time-travelling through 15 years to the day I bought my first copy of Playboy.

Seeking refuge from the loud music and giant cartoon dongs of Sexpo, I found a stall tucked up the back of the convention hall that was selling vintage smut. For a blissful half hour or so, I sat under a trestle table and flipped through boxes of late-'60s and early-'70s Playboy magazines, eventually leaving with three, which I own to this day.

This was shortly after my gender studies lecturer had informed the class that Playboy was the only periodical she'd accept as a reference in essays (an anecdote I've told so many times it's wearing as thin as a hot pink G-string), but I've always had a soft spot for Playboy magazine.

I specify Playboy magazine because when it comes to Hef himself, well, it's complicated: he was a dedicated civil rights champion who also indulged in the worst excesses of the playboy lifestyle he invented.

The broader empire he helped create, from reality TV series like The Girls Next Door (Holly Madison's account of her time at the Mansion is bloodcurdling) to Bunny-shaped air fresheners, is not known for its nuanced gender dialogues, and his Playboy Mansion parties always seemed to court the lowest form of frat party sexual politics.

No, I was never interested in the brand in the "hot pink bunny ears" Millennial Playboy Mansion ladette manner, as egregious an example of what Ariel Levy dubbed "female chauvinist pigs" as there ever was (if also an extraordinarily successful marketing move).

Rather, I cherished the magazine itself as a font of knowledge that, in its own small but significant way, helped nurture my writerly inclinations.

Along with stacks of old Esquire and Rolling Stone issues, it was Playboy where I first discovered great magazine writing, interviews and fiction (and, yes, great nudes; I confess I never read it solely for the articles). A small sample of those to cross its pages includes Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Luther King Jr, Roald Dahl, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Masters & Johnson, Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami.

From Charles Beaumont's 1955 essay "The Crooked Man" to interviews with civil rights activists and noted feminists, Hefner's imprint attempted to inject cocktail party conversation with something a little more elevated than American Psycho-esque small talk.

Caroline "Tula" Cossey praised Playboy for giving her a sense of agency at a time when the British gutter press had only hounded her with transphobic exposes, including outing her as trans: "It gave people the chance to get to know me, to feel the situation and hopefully gain empathy and understanding [...] I still get stacks of letters from people who say, 'You made my transition easier.' That's always going to be in my bones."

Even into its "safe for work" no-nudes era post-2015, and now, in its "Instagram sexy" soft-nude incarnation, Playboy's commitment to quality journalism continues. (Its series of Pride essays this year was a treat.)

If the magazine's lasting legacy (and by extension, one of Hefner's) is essentially a libertarian one, it was at least a small-L libertarian vision that also embraced intellectualism, not to mention political dialogues that often landed, at the time of their printings, at various places on a scale of "lightly progressive" to "revolutionary".

What of the nude ladies and Bunnies and Playmates? Aside from what the storied philosopher Nigel Tufnel might offer ("What's wrong with being sexy?"), it's the ultimate modern quandary, really: the groundbreaking magazine that pushed for abortion law reform and helped fund the Kinsey Institute and ACLU, gave platforms to civil rights leaders, feminists and queer activists, founded and watched over by the man who scheduled regular group sex with his harem of much younger "girlfriends" and in 1970 commissioned "a devastating piece that takes the militant feminists apart", and which gave birth to a mind-bogglingly reductive global empire of "sexy" marketing tools.

Hefner's son Cooper, the magazine's current chief creative officer, has made a point of hiring more women and queer writers, and replaced the classic tagline "Entertainment for Men" with "Entertainment for All".

Maybe, in his father's absence, the magazine can finally break free from the Playboy ethos and we can really "read it for the articles".

Clem Bastow is a Fairfax Media columnist.

This story Hoo roo Hef, thanks for all the great 'articles' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.