How I came to be the last contributing columnist standing at Playboy
By Brian J. Karem
I clearly and vividly remember the first time I picked up a Playboy Magazine.
It was the Christmas, 1967 edition. The front cover featured artwork that reminded me of the Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s album - which is why I picked up the magazine in the first place. Inside there was an interview with Johnny Carson.
It featured this passage:
Carson: I couldn’t care less what anybody says about me. I live my life, especially my personal life, strictly for myself. I feel that is my right, and anybody who disagrees with that, that’s his business. Whatever you do, you’re going to be criticized. I feel the one sensible thing you can do is try to live in a way that pleases you. If you don’t hurt anybody else, what you do is your own business.
What Carson said has become a mantra for my own life. I cannot remember much else about that issue - though I do remember there were several pictures of topless young women.
I was at a friend’s house that day and I found myself going through the magazines in a brass magazine stand. There was “Look” and “LIFE”, two of the staples of the Karem household - and I also spied a “Playboy.”
“Girls are neat,” I said to myself as I looked through what today would seem fairly tame photos of scantily clad women. I remember looking over to see my friend's mom looking at me with a bemused smile on her face. But she never scolded me. She didn’t tell me to put it down. I don’t think she even told my parents - or if she did there were no consequences for my action. I confess I lingered on the pages of the young ladies for a while - I was just seven-years-old. But it says something that the thing that stuck with me was the Playboy Interview. I became a Johnny Carson fan because of it - though I was rarely allowed to stay up to watch him when I was younger.
I, like most people alive then, have very strong memories of the 60s. Many of them were bad. Multiple assassinations of charismatic politicians and civil rights leaders along with the Vietnam War, and domestic riots were among the worst of it. But there were the Green Bay Packers, Muhammad Ali, the Miracle Mets and the Beatles - fun stuff. And of course I read about all of it in Playboy. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
After my introduction, I discovered some of the greatest writers of the 20th century in the pages of Playboy. I romanticized how cool they all were - and found myself admiring the prose that was so very different from what I read in my school books and in the local newspaper - The Courier Journal - which at that time was my single greatest source for news.
The fiction was fascinating and electrifying. I wanted to be James Bond. I loved the cartoons like "Little Annie Fanny" - which I found deliciously scandalous - more so because my stiff-upper lip grandmother found the magazine subversive and dangerous - and told me so in blunt terms when she asked me what I read outside of school books and I told her with pride that I read Playboy.
I read about John Wayne - and found out how big of a racist he was by reading the Playboy interview.
WAYNE: But we can't all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.
His narrow-mindedness went further:
PLAYBOY: What kind of films do you consider perverted?
WAYNE: Oh, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy—that kind of thing. Wouldn't you say that the wonderful love of those two men in Midnight Cowboy, a story about two fags, qualifies?
I still enjoy some of Wayne's movies, but I sure wouldn't have invited him over to the house for a barbecue. As the son of an immigrant I'm not sure he'd accept an invitation either. I looked at him and the world quite differently after I began reading Playboy.
Soon I was searching through past issues of the magazine to see what I’d missed and discovered the cultural revolution and the civil rights movement. I read this passage with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just weeks before he was shot - though the interview conducted by Alex Haley (who wrote "Roots") was three years old at the time:
KING: I mean to say that a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist. If I am to merit the trust invested in me by some of my race, I must be both of these things. This is why nonviolence is a powerful as well as a just weapon. If you confront a man who has long been cruelly misusing you, and say, “Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong,” then you wield a powerful and a just weapon. This man, your oppressor, is automatically morally defeated, and if he has any conscience, he is ashamed. Wherever this weapon is used in a manner that stirs a community’s, or a nation’s, anguished conscience, then the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause.
At the time I had no idea who Malcolm X was. When I first heard the name, I thought he might be a professional wrestler. Then I read the Playboy Interview also conducted by Alex Haley (I think he also interviewed Johnny Carson!). I found the May 1963 copy of the magazine in a cedar chest in my parents bedroom. At first I couldn’t decide which was more surprising - that Malcolm X wasn’t a pro wrestler, or that my dad read Playboy - and since he had copies in the cedar chest in which my mom kept the bankbooks, passports and baby books, my mom knew about it too!
PLAYBOY: Is there anything then, in your opinion, that could be done–by either whites or blacks–to expedite the social and economic progress of the Negro in America?
MALCOLM X: First of all, the white man must finally realize that he’s the one who has committed the crimes that have produced the miserable condition that our people are in. He can’t hide this guilt by reviling us today because we answer his criminal acts–past and present–with extreme and uncompromising resentment. He cannot hide his guilt by accusing us, his victims, of being racists, extremists and black supremacists. The white man must realize that the sins of the fathers are about to be visited upon the heads of the children who have continued those sins, only in more sophisticated ways.
I began to question authority due, in no small part, to the articles, fiction, cartoons and reporting in Playboy Magazine. Long after the pictures of “The girl next door” became mundane to me - somewhere during my teen years - I continued to read the articles. There was a great sex appeal in the magazine - I’m not downplaying it. And I know there were some who thought the pictures were misogynistic and exploitive. Most of the women I later interviewed who posed for the magazine told me a different story. They thought Playboy was a celebration of freedom. Free Thought. Free Expression - and an attempt to thumb their nose at existing, uptight puritan attitudes. Playboy opened up their world and my world too.
Then there was Hunter S. Thompson. I found out about Hunter S. Thompson through the Playboy interview. Later I'd read "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," by Thompson in Scanlan's Monthly - the world's first example of "Gonzo" journalism - and felt even more drawn to his reportage when I found out my dad knew him and my great Uncle Joe had at one time represented him as his lawyer when Hunter was a callow Louisville youth. Thompson had a reputation for being an asshole, but he was also a very astute political observer. What he said about Richard Nixon could have also been said about Donald Trump:
PLAYBOY: You traveled to San Clemente with the White House press corps on the last trip Nixon made as President, and rumor had it that you showed up for one of the press conferences in pretty rocky shape.
THOMPSON: Rocky? Well, I suppose that’s the best interpretation you could put on it. I’d been up all night and I was wearing a wet Mexican shirt, swimming trunks, these basketball shoes, dark glasses. I had a bottle of beer in my hand, my head was painfully constricted by something somebody had put in my wine the night before up in L.A. and when Rabbi Korff began his demented rap about Nixon’s being the most persecuted and maligned President in American history, I heard myself shouting, “Why is that, Rabbi? . . . Why? . . . Tell us why . . . ” And he said something like, “I’m only a smalltime rabbi,” and I said, “That’s all right, nobody’s bigoted here. You can talk.” It got pretty ugly—but then, ugliness was a sort of common denominator in the last days of the Nixon regime. It was like a sinking ship with no ratlines.
By the time I knew I wanted to be a writer, I also knew I not only wanted to see the world, but I also wanted to be good enough at asking questions to expose little known truths and humanize my interview subjects. While some wanted to ask “gotcha” questions, I learned through the Playboy Interview and the television show Columbo, that questions could serve a different purpose: finding truth. These were my templates.
Playboy introduced me to jazz and taught me a finer appreciation of culture, music and sports. Hell, the magazine made chess seem cool - and since I loved playing chess it made me feel I was part of a secret society of cool smart people that most others couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t understand. “The Day Bobby Blew it” by Brad Darrach in July 1973 is still one of my favorite pieces. I loved the description of Bobby Fischer looking as awkward in a suit as a python wearing a necktie.
But it wasn’t just the subject matter. It was the Playboy authors: Roald Dahl, Jack Keruoac, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Ian Fleming, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Norman Mailer all published works in Playboy.
To me, there was no greater compliment to the ability of a writer than to be published in the pages of Playboy Magazine - and many acclaimed reporters and authors thought the same thing - for they happily submitted work to Hugh Hefner.
In the early 90s, I got my chance. Over the next two decades I conducted the Playboy Interview with James Carville, did 20 questions with G. Gordon Liddy and Mary Matalin, covered a story on Anna Nicole Smith when she appeared in the Supreme Court. I did an investigative piece on the FAA, covered the D.C. sniper and contributed to a half a dozen other stories for the publication over the years. The last Playboy Interview I conducted was with Anthony Scaramucci for the online version of the Magazine. That was April, 2018.
There was never a dull moment working for Hugh Hefner’s magazine. I flew on Larry Flynt’s private jet from Memphis to Portland, Oregon in order to complete my interview with James Carville. It took nearly a week. We began on the set of “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” a movie in which Carville had a small part. We drank and partied - one night with Milos Forman, Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love and Larry Flynt - all of them involved in the movie. We finished back stage in Portland with Mary Matalin as Carville and his wife were preparing to go on stage for a speaking engagement. The next day we went to a party where I met Phil Knight, who commented on the Reeboks I was wearing - instead of Nike’s.
Carville, as it turns out was as politically astute as Thompson - and they both reminded me a bit of each other. Carville was, according to some a "Gonzo" political operative. This part about "spinning" the news also reminds me of the Trump era:
PLAYBOY: But we’re spinning off the topic again. Do we, as Americans, lose something important if we can’t count on people like you to tell us the plain truth?
CARVILLE: No, because people know. If somebody reading this magazine is too stupid to understand that I have the president’s interests at heart, then he’s probably too stupid to get this far in the interview. I mean, if you’re looking to me for objectivity, then put the magazine down, okay?
I am not an objective guy. I am a guy with a point of view. I represent the interests of those I work for. People understand that. I don’t pretend to be an impartial observer. I’m not. There’s an adage in politics: If your guy is in trouble, throw water. If the other guy is in trouble, throw kerosene.
After the interview with Carville was published I flew to New York for a party celebrating the interview. I met Arthur Kretchmer, the glue that held Playboy together for years. It was Hugh Hefner’s magazine, but Arthur was the editorial heavyweight who made it happen from the 70s onward. Kretchmer credited Hefner for a monumental shift in American culture from the buttoned-down white bread 50s to the 60s where we all let the freak flag fly.
After the D.C. sniper story I stayed in touch, but the magazine was going through some turmoil - already in a slow spiral to death. The last of 23 Playboy Clubs worldwide closed in 1988 in Lansing, Mich. Playboy moved from the Playboy Building on Walton st. in Chicago to somebody else's building on Lake Shore Drive. That same year, Christie Hefner, Hugh’s daughter from his first wife, became Playboy’s chairman and CEO. At one point the circulation of the magazine was around 7 million. By the time I began writing for it, the circulation was beginning to fall precipitously.
Hef, semi-retired in California still had “The Mansion,” but the Playboy mystique was fading. Online pornography made Playboy quaint and its nudity irrelevant. For a while the magazine ceased publishing nudes at all - trying to reinvent itself as Maxim. It didn’t work and the nudes came back. Through it all, Playboy still produced quality editorial content.
While its profile diminished, the Playboy brand remained strong. The logo represented a lifestyle and retained a certain amount of “chic” and coolness that was and still is recognized around the world. Without ever reading a page from the magazine, people thought they knew what it was all about. Christians vilified it and everyone else - even secretly many uptight bible thumpers - were enamored of the image.
Then along came Donald Trump. Trump, according to many who know him always wanted to be Hugh Hefner. Trump appeared in the magazine on more than one occasion, and while Hefner didn’t find himself all that friendly with Trump, Trump always loved a good Playboy party.
Naturally when he became president, I approached my friends at Playboy about a weekly column on the Trump White House. They agreed. At the time I was already visiting the White House infrequently as I covered Barack Obama - much as I’d occasionally visited the White House for every president since Reagan.
Trump was different, and Playboy was different. I was given a free hand to write whatever I wanted, ask anything I wanted and to push the boundaries as much as possible. It was vintage Playboy. It fit me just fine. I don't give a shit and Playboy didn't either.
But it was coming to an end. Hefner had already downsized and moved the operation from offices in New York and Chicago to a single office in Beverly Hills. Kretchmer was long gone. Most of the editors I’d worked with during the magazine’s heyday were also long gone. The new crew was eager, but not nearly as experienced. I was suddenly “an old hand.”
When the staff morale dipped I was sent to the L.A. offices to let the staff know that what they did mattered - and to reinforce the legacy of the editorial department. Then Hefner died and a corporation with a board of directors took over. During the next four years the magazine went from a monthly, to a quarterly to not publishing a magazine at all. The website went through a couple of redesigns, and the end was in sight.
Part of me couldn’t come to grips with the demise of Playboy. But the story is hardly unique. Thousands of publications have ceased to exist since Satan's fluffer, Ronald Reagan, began destroying journalism in the 1980s with help from the minor imp Roger Ailes. Playboy was just the latest hard luck story of an independent publisher, killed by the Internet, and/or poor corporate ownership and mismanagement.
But I can say honestly that Playboy saved my life. On the day of the Insurrection, January 6, 2021, I watched as rioters approached the Capitol building. A few of them recognized me as a reporter. It wasn’t hard. I had on a mask that said “Press” and I was dressed in a suit - a dead giveaway. I had witnessed some of the more agitated rioters tormenting other reporters, and a few of them came rushing my way with a wide variety of vague and specific threats about my parentage and what implements of destruction someone wished to insert into various orifices.
“Wait guys,” I said. “I’m with Playboy.”
Two of the closest rioters, large, with farmers tans, MAGA hats and QAnon t-shirts stopped.
“Really?” One asked.
“Yes.” I showed them my White House press pass. I had sued Donald Trump and won three times in court to keep that damn thing and was never happier I had than on that day.
“Can you get me into a Playboy Party?” One of the rioters asked.
“What about the Mansion?” The other asked.
I nodded in the affirmative. They chuckled and I handed them a business card. “Cool.” One of them said as they walked off. I hadn’t the heart to tell them the Mansion had been sold, and I myself hadn’t been to a Playboy party in a few years.
With the magazine dead and online editorial content discontinued, the last thing I did for Playboy was take over the twitter feed for a few hours this Summer and gave the Playboy twitter followers a tour of the White House.
The truth is as much as people made fun of Playboy, or derided it, and as often as the so-called Christians ridiculed it, I never carried a press pass that had more gravitas than Playboy. The mystique was real.
During the first year of the Trump administration Playboy sponsored an “After Party” following the annual White House correspondent’s Association Dinner. It turned out to be the hot ticket. While the Trump staffers poo-pooed it, many of them asked me for tickets to attend.
“Will there be strippers and pole dancing?” I was asked.
“No. That’s an orgy,” I said solemnly. “That’s after the after party.” I smiled.
People lined up outside the venue around the block to enter the party. I laughed as I heard people say, “Hey, I’m a friend of Brian Karem, can I get in?”
“Honey, tonight everyone is a friend of Brian Karem. Get in line,” one of the people working the door said. Trust me, it wasn't about me. I was merely a name attached to Playboy. Playboy wasn't buttoned down. Playboy wasn't uptight. Everyone wanted to be associated with Playboy - even those who claimed they hated it.
I didn’t know it then, but it was the last great hurrah for the bunny. I have never been to a bad Playboy party, and this was no exception. We had top music talent. We had two rooms of music, caricature artists, performance artists and the ubiquitous bunnies serving your favorite libations.
Now? This Spring Playboy ceased publishing original content to concentrate on marketing the brand. There is no more editorial content. No more of the mystique. Playboy, like many other publications simply doesn’t exist. Today it’s all legacy copy and marketing. The Playboy I once knew is dead and I was one of the last to write original content for it.
I wish it well. It served this country well - waking us up to racism, sexism and showed us how marginalized and hurt some of us were - but at the same time taking pleasure in and enjoying everything about life that is worth living.
No publication did sports, music, culture, news and definitely sex with the joie de vivre that Playboy did.
We lost something with its passing.
And I mourn its passing. As perhaps the last writer left standing when it ceased publishing original content, I stand here today thankful. I’m a better man for the broadening of horizons that was my gift from Playboy. I only hope I was able to give back what it gave me.
People often joked they bought Playboy for the articles. But it was often very true.
I’m just happy I got to be a contributor to the excuse of why people bought the magazine.