Sex and This City

The Chicago History Museum Reveals More Than Just Big Shoulders

by Alison Weiss – April 17, 2009

Let’s play some quick word association with the collective unconscious. Iconic Chicago bad boy: Al Capone. The Playboy Mansion: Los Angeles. Yawn! We who live and play in this town know better. So on Tuesday evening, a crowd gathered at the Chicago History Museum to hear Jim Petersen, the former Playboy Advisor himself, deliver the real scoop on Hugh Hefner, Chicago and the sexual revolution.

It was all part of the Museum’s lecture series called “Sex and the City”, which culminates next week with a discussion aptly titled “Let’s Talk About Sex.” If you’re in search of an after-work activity that’s more educational than cocktails, more alive than the History Channel and about the price of a movie ticket, these museum lectures are your bag.

As a history buff who happens to work for Playboy, I ate up Petersen’s presentation, which drew largely from his Hef-commissioned book, The Century of Sex: Playboy’s History of the Sexual Revolution, 1990-1999. Petersen looked at how the “era of paper” shaped a young Hefner, who kept meticulous scrapbooks and covered his Chicago bedroom walls with pin-ups. He described Hefners’s post-war sexual awakening and the impact of the Kinsey Report, which finally spoke openly about sexuality. It was in a Northwestern thesis paper that Hefner asked, “Why does tolerance turn to intolerance . . . when the subject matter turns to sex?”

While TV families lured men to the suburbs and McCarthyism loomed, Hef declared himself an “urban male” devoted to the “life of reason.” He launched Playboy in 1953 as a “literary magazine devoted to jazz.” One of Petersen’s many photos showed Hef, camera in hand, in his hip, Hyde Park apartment with the famous red Eames chair and black walls. Then, of course, came the original Playboy mansion at 1340 North State St. (above) purchased in 1959 with the end of Hefner’s first marriage. In a time when unmarried men were deemed neurotic outcasts, Hef pioneered the “bachelor pad” right here in Chicago, and everyone from local intellectuals to the Rolling Stones flocked here to join the party.

Because Petersen wrote for Playboy for two decades, he could offer a glimpse of Hefner’s less-publicized side as a devoted editor. “He created a playground for creative people,” said Petersen, whom Hef sent around the world to do research for his role as the Advisor. “It was an amazing environment.” In Chicago, Petersen explained, one could work creatively “at an arm’s length from the trends and twitches of both coasts.”

I could go on and on, but that’s exactly the point of these things: You get excited about your town’s role in history. So make it a Chicago History night. Gather your friends, attend a lecture and then head on over to Corcoran’s or the Old Town Ale House to discuss. You can even catch the 10 pm free improv set at The Second City, which launched its risky brand of satire the same year Hef bought the mansion. You’re in a city of rebels – don’t forget it.

Sex and the City

Wednesday, April 22, 7 p.m.

Chicago History Museum

1601 N. Clark St.



$10; $8 for members

Information on this event and future lectures can be found here.

About the Author: Alison Weiss

Ever inquisitive, Ali conducts the "Nosy" interviews that bring you closer to the cheeky side of Chicago's creative types. She also contributes to the ‘Drama’ section and cannot resist writing up the occasional band or bar. She loves nothing more than telling stories, whether in writing, on stage or in video. A New York City native, Ali came to Chicago in 2003 to study a little improv and decided to stay. She has performed in theaters around town and is a published playwright with work produced all over the country. Most recently, Ali has delved into video editing and she currently works on content for the newly re-launched She keeps her work and updates here.