David Lauderdale

‘Yes, there were nude women.’ How a Bluffton man helped Hugh Hefner build Playboy

Hugh Hefner won’t get the credit he deserves.

That’s the fear of Tom Staebler of Bluffton, and he should know. He was Hefner’s art director at Playboy magazine for 28 years.

He worked with Hefner for 39 years, helping give the magazine its avant-garde look and slick feel as it soared to a circulation of 7 million — and a place in American history.

“I’m afraid he won’t get credit for the good stuff,” Staebler said Thursday, relaxing on his cool back porch in Berkeley Hall, the day after Hefner died at age 91.

“He’ll be remembered for having a 20-year-old wife when he was 80. Or for bringing the pajama industry up to speed.

“But I hope he’ll be remembered as the elder statesman of the sexual revolution. I think he opened people’s eyes in the ’50s that they didn’t have to be so stuffy about stuff. He was an advocate for the freedom of it. He was always pushing for freedom.”

Hefner was a lightning rod for evangelicals and women’s rights advocates who objected to the magazine’s main attraction of nude Playmates.

But Staebler said Hefner was a moral man.

“He didn’t lie. He didn’t cheat. In many cases in business, it was to his detriment. He was honest, and he expected everyone else to be honest.”

Hefner was criticized on the topic of multiple relationships, but Staebler said his response is that what’s immoral is lying and cheating.

“They say he exploited women,” Staebler said. “I would say he empowered them. He let them know they could be their own person. He was always an advocate for the female, and he never got credit for that.”

Women were Playboy corporate officers before that was a norm, Staebler said. And he insisted that the “bunnies” working at Playboy Clubs did not report to males.

“He hired black artists and comedians before his time,” Staebler said. “He gave Dick Gregory work when no one else would.”

Staebler’s job was the design of the whole magazine — working on every detail of the cover, including the hidden bunny, and all the pictorials and artwork.

“We had the finest artwork, writers, editorial that money could buy,” he said.

He once asked Andy Warhol to do a rendering of the Playboy bunny for cover art. Warhol was glad to do it, but his agent wasn’t happy with a low payment of $10,000. So they made a deal. Warhol did the piece in several colors, Playboy owned one and Warhol could do as he pleased with the others. When Staebler retired in 2007, that piece in the Playboy collection was insured for $800,000.

Staebler said Hefner was a perfectionist who said the difference between a good magazine and a great magazine is attention to detail. Once he ordered a printing of 7 million magazines to be thrown out because he didn’t like the yellow plate on the cover art.

Staebler met with Hefner at 3 p.m. on the nose every day. That’s when Hefner started his day.

He said Hefner had an IQ of 152, but his genius showed early when he bought four $500 photographs of Marilyn Monroe taken before she became famous. They made the cover and inside pictorials for the first edition of Playboy in 1953, and the rest is history.

“Yes, there were the nude women,” Staebler said, “but it was the girl next door. ‘Hef’ always talked about the girl next door who had many other attributes.”

Staebler, a fine arts graduate of Kansas University, devoted his skills to the CH2 magazine on Hilton Head for a number of years after his retirement.

He recently remarried his ex-wife, Chris, and they are traveling a lot. They met many years ago at Playboy, where she worked in human resources.

On Thursday, both their phones were blowing up with texts and emails about Hefner.

On the air, pundits were talking about Playboy’s place in Americana.

But Staebler said, “We were just kids. We never thought about it.”

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale