What do Groucho Marx, Lech Walesa, Oriana Fallaci, Johnny Carson, Ted Patrick, G. Gordon Liddy, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henry Fonda, his daughter Jane and son-in-law Tom Hayden, Ed Koch, Roman Polanski, Robert Redford, Salvador Dali, William Shockley, Robert Garwood, Ayn Rand, Ian Fleming, Roane Arledge, Robert Shelton, Alex Haley, Henry Miller, Arnold Toynbee, and William F. Buckley, Jr. all have in common? At some point between 1964 and1982, they all appeared in the pages of Playboy, not in the centerfold but rather in the interview section. We’ve all heard the old joke about the guy caught with a Playboy magazine who says: “I bought it to read the interview, not to look at the pictures.” Now such excuses won’t be necessary because the interviews have been deemed important enough to constitute a separate volume: The Playboy Interview, Volume II.
This book contains interviews that had to be omitted from the first volume, which included tete-a-tetes with Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter, Albert Schweitzer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In editor Golson’sown words: “In this volume we can take the time to know historian Arnold Toynbee, racist Robert Shelton, religious deprogrammer Ted Patrick, Vietnam turncoat Robert Garwood; their names may be less familiar, but their ideas and experiences, as drawn from them by their interrogators, affected our lives and times.” It seems somewhat peculiar to group Toynbee, one of the most important historians of the 20th century, with the likes of Shelton, the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Or Patrick, a 10th-grade dropout, who kidnaps and “deprograms” the victims of religious cultists. Garwood left a juvenile detention center at the age of 17 to join the Marines, was sent toVietnam, and ended up spending 14 years with the North Vietnamese, some say as a ”white Vietcong” who fought against American soldiers. But perhaps Golson’s grouping isn’t so strange after all when one considers that Toynbee’s name may be just as familiar–or unfamiliar–to Playboy’s readers as Shelton’s or Garwood’s or Patrick’s.
Another name the public may be unfamiliar with is that of William Shockley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for his work in creating the transistor, but he spent most of the 1960’s and 1970’s laboring in a different field–genetics–concerning himself with genetics as they bear on the intellectual competence of the populace. Although Shockley, unlike Klan leader Shelton, was able to make points which serve racist views in a way not easily refutable by laymen, he sounded no less stupid. Commenting on his own children vis-a-vis his genetic theories, Dr. Shockley says:
In terms of my own capacities, my children represent a very significant regression. My first wife–their mother–had not as high an academic achievement standing as I had. Two of my three children have graduated from college–my daughter from Radcliffe and my younger son from Stanford. He graduated not with the highest order of academic distinction but in the second order as a physics major, and has obtained a Ph.D. in physics. In some ways, I think the choice of physics may have been unfortunate for him because he has a name that he will probably be unlikely to live up to. The elder son is a college dropout.
When I read this passage of the Shockley interview, I remembered having read it before. Shortly thereafter, I recalled the source. Each January, Esquire publishes its annual “Dubious Achievement Awards” issue, in which the editors attach sarcastic “honors” to various quotations and photographs gleaned from their competitors over the preceding year. The issue is meant to be all good fun, although the humor tends to be sophomoric. For his comment on his children, Shockley was awarded Esquire’s “1980 Father of the Year Award.”
But much of what emerges from Playboy interviews is taken seriously, at least by the American presscorps, which passes it on to the American public. One still recalls the brouhaha surrounding Jimmy Carter’s “I commit adultery in my heart” comment, published in an interview during the 1976 Presidential campaign. And some blame Mayor Ed Koch’s defeat for the New York governorship on the following comment, published in the April 1982 issue: “Have you ever lived in the suburbs?…It’s sterile… it’s wasting your life.” A barrage of press coverage followed, and the voters of the highly rural and suburban state elected Lieutenant Governor Mario Cuomo to the statehouse. That Koch also lost in New York City, which he had defended in the interview, would suggest that his remarks in Playboy were not wholly responsible for his defeat. On the other hand, they certainly didn’t help him.
Such pearls of wisdom from Playboy interviews seem to turn up quite frequently in newspapers and magazines, lending credence to the plaudit cited from Library Journal “[The Playboy interview] is a treasury of primary source material on American political and popular culture.” Unfortunately, this “treasure” merely reflects our culture’s muddled values and cloudy thought processes. Recalling the editor’s introductory quotation, we may conclude that ours is a culture whose constituents can idolize a Toynbee or a Shelton with equal ease. And, as Golson says, it is true that people such as Shockley and Shelton have “affected our lives and times”–and will continue to do so as long as they are given such wide exposure. This is unfortunate.
Most of the people whose interviews appear in the book don’t have anything particularly interesting to say, but their utterances are sometimes startling. G.Gordon Llddy, whose name is probably more familiar than that of Shelton or Shockley, reveals during his interview that he once volunteered to kill columnist Jack Anderson as retribution for Anderson’s disclosing names of CIA agents. And it seems that Liddy, like Dr. Shockley, also is fascinated by genetics.
Unlike Shockley, he hasn’t mounted a nationwide campaign to advance his theories; rather, his application has been to his personal life:
It had taken me a long time to build myself up from a puny, sickly child, so I wanted my own children to have a running start. That’s why I determined that my smartest course was to marry a tall girl of Celtic-Teutonic ancestry who also had a terrific mind. And, as a result, I have five strong, athletic, and bright children.
We also learn that Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden fell in love and married because of their involvement in anti-Vietnam activities, that William F. Buckley favors the legalization of private homosexual acts, that Oriana Fallaci despises homosexuals, that Ayn Rand’s favorite novelist is Mickey Spillane, and that Roman Polanski doesn’t like women who compete with him–in short, much more than we ever wanted to know abou tany of them.
The accomplishment of the Playboy interview is that it elicits a response similar to the one evoked by the center fold: sometimes it titillates, sometimes it shocks, sometimes it merely entertains, but finally–and mostly–it simply bores.