Monday, April 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #99: The Playmate Book by Gretchen Edgren

Some books entomb an entire era. It's even better when they were published at exactly the right moment, so a later reader can see how something was just before it changed entirely. I have one such book today.

The Playmate Book, which was written, compiled, and/or edited by longtime Playboy Senior Editor Gretchen Edgren, was published in late 1996, compiling the faces and figures and details of all of the five-hundred-plus attractive young women who had appeared as the centerfolds of that magazine up through the end of '96.

And, yes, 1995-1996 was when the modern Internet -- which we called the World Wide Web back then, to differentiate it from gopher and email and other kinds of protocols -- exploded onto the scene and started to change and destroy both all existing content businesses and the way Americans learned about sex.

(Also see my review of Erotic Photography for a history lesson of How We Used To Find Porn.)

Now, Playboy's first issue was in December of 1953, so this book missed the fortieth anniversary by about three years and was shy of the forty-fifth by another two. (It looks like there was a revised edition a decade or so later, possibly connected to the fiftieth anniversary. But all editions of this seem to be out of print now...well, or maybe just hidden by Amazon for "adult content.") It's hard to say why the forty-third anniversary was the one that got the commemorative book, but I like to think that somewhere deep in the back of someone's mind was the unformed suspicion that this Internet thing was going to destroy Playboy's ability to make boatloads of money from taking pictures of attractive naked young women, so they might as well milk it while they could.

This is a big, coffee-table style book, with a white cover that shows all scratches, dings, and scuffs. (My copy is in pretty good shape, but I did have it for twenty random years before finally looking at it.) Inside are nearly four hundred pages, with at least one picture of each of those five-hundred-and-fourteen women, often but not always their centerfolds. Particularly notable women -- the Playmates of the Year, media stars like Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson, and so on -- get more space, up to two full spreads for Dorothy Stratten and a few others.

As usual with official Playboy publications, everyone is happy and friendly and got along perfectly well, even if a huge proportion of them ended up sleeping with Hugh Hefner. (And there's not a hint that doing so might have been an unspoken prerequisite for getting into the centerfold.) But, honestly, there's only room for one fairly short paragraph for most of these women, so it's no surprise that each blurb just hits the high points: what was she doing before Playboy, notable professional modeling/acting credits, one weird fact, and what was she doing in 1996. Some of the women managed to get lost between their initial appearance and 1996; I bet the Internet would make compiling a similar book easier these days, since everyone is findable now.

The women with bigger careers or more notable events have more words as well as more pictures, of course. And there are sidebars scattered throughout, by Hefner, photographers like Pompeo Posar and Ken Marcus, and Playboy editors like Marilyn Grabowski -- roughly a sidebar for every third or fourth woman, probably in cases where someone had an anecdote to share or an interesting memory of that woman.

(I am assiduously using the word "woman" here, since I am a Vassar grad. The book itself prefers "girl" throughout.)

This is an attractively designed and produced book full of well-photographed very attractive women (across the span of the back half of the twentieth century) not wearing much at all, and seemingly happy to show off all their charms. But pictures of every single one of these women -- in great profusion, in various sizes and from various eras of their careers -- are now as close to you as the search box at the top of your browser. This is still a nice artifact, and a fun way to waste some time, but the world has moved on: books and magazines are no longer the way we look at pictures of attractive naked people.

I don't know if that was a sad thing or a happy thing: we all got more naked people than we knew what to do with, while an industry fell apart and an army of former smut-merchants were forced to find other work. I do know than in the vaguely creepy capitalist category, I much prefer Hefner to Zuckerberg, for whatever that's worth.

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