The Elephant and Donkey compete with a far lovelier character for the focus of my November 1968 Playboy's cover.

My purpose for breaking up these Playboy reviews into two parts is so that I can write about the (usually) fewer Cover Stories early in the month so I have time write the longer Part II covering the other parts of the issue later. That work may end up reversed this month, but sometimes one must soldier on…

Cover Stories:

INSTANT ELECTORATE by Robert Sherrill

I thought my biggest draw from this article would be the quote from Time magazine predicting that within a generation everyone would have “…a small electronic box with yes or no buttons.” I mean, right there is the general prediction of smart phones and the Facebook “Like” button. But there was much more to the article for a 21st Century point of view.

What Time was actually talking about, and the whole point of Mr. Sherrill’s article, is whether or not those electronic boxes would – or should – be used by the voting populous to eliminate supposed “do nothing” Congressional representatives and put the people’s power to govern themselves literally in their own hands. Instead of letting the House and Senate fight and argue and pork-belly the citizens would be able to directly decide if they want to raise taxes, pass bills, fund departments, leaving Congress to figure out how to execute the people’s wishes. It sounds really appealing, and for a while I was nodding my head along with this political idealism.

Of course, as Mr. Sherrill goes on to illuminate as the article progresses, not only would this sort of direct-rule system never happen, it probably shouldn’t. First off, no Congressman is going to vote to eliminate his position of power. That sounds completely self-serving, un-American, and contrary to the fundamentals our government was created under, but there truly are some very good reasons why we shouldn’t let a population of app-happy citizens take over control of 1/3 of the government.

These reasons range from knowing very few people would actually read the sometime 100+ pages of legal jargon that goes into creating bills which may seem as simple as “fund this thing” (when was the last time you actually read just four paragraphs of a user agreement?) to the fact that the repercussions of voting Yea or Nae on one thing may be impossible to truly express outside the hallowed halls of Congress. Excited to vote Yea on that Rainforest Protection Act? Wondering why suddenly  the Low-Income Family Funding Bill isn’t going to come up for vote? Well, you and 51% of America just used the money that would have been needed to feed people to buy some trees because you spent your lunch Liking friend’s vacation photos instead of reading 400 pages of proposed funding allotment. Enjoy having that rest on your shoulders.

Mr. Sherrill outlines a few other reasons why the electorate should elect and not decide, almost all of which are as applicable to our fellow Americans today as they were in 1968. As usual the details of the article’s middle third is very much tied to the time it was written. People with a general interest in political history will find it entertaining, but the casual reader may just want to read the first and last thirds of the text.

Madison Avenue in an Undress Parade

Now here’s a pictorial Don Draper and the males of MAD MEN could really get behind. The article, actually titled Mad Ave Unclad, features popular advertisements of the time redone with nudes replacing key figures. What really impressed me the most was the incredible attention to detail – these aren’t just some actors dressed and placed to resemble the general layouts of the ads with some T&A thrown in to satisfy Playboy‘s readers – these are meticulously recreated. From lighting, to drapes of hair, to incidental vehicles in the backgrounds of the original ad it’s all been duplicated as closely as possible. I’m astonished by the attention to detail.

My favorites are the Ronrico and Kayser recreations, but I could have done without the ones the recreate characters that were originally babies…and I think the nude model in the Fruit of the Loom picture is a dude.

Yeah, that’s right…I said think.

A Wild Interview With Don Rickles

This interview is why I bought this issue, and it will be the reason why I ultimately recommend that you buy it as well. Some of us in my generation or younger may not be quite as aware of the terrifying Godzilla-like horror Mr. Rickles’ scathing tongue could once imbue on an audience – especially one filled with celebrities – but if you want a good example you’ll find it here.

Unfortunately, some of Mr. Rickles’ barbs are dated, and a few references went so far over my head I couldn’t tell if his comment was an insult or actual compliment (when in doubt lean towards insult I say), but what really amazes me is what he said about Hugh Hefner. I’m not amazed the prickle-tongued comedian said the things he said about Playboy‘s editor-in-chief (no one gets special treatment), I’m legitimately impressed that the words were printed. I mean, I know I would think twice about printing in my own magazine someone’s claim that “he lets his porridge drip down his leg when he eats” (that’s one of the nicer items in Mr. Rickles’ long list of Hefner-descriptions) and my respect for Hugh Hefner and Playboy‘s editorial practices have ratcheted up a level after reading everything that went into print here (and undoubtedly is still available in this digital age). It was a real blast to read.

“Astropolis: The First Space Resort”

Something I find both endearing and frustrating about speculative science from the 1950s and ’60s is the total lack of a concept of “budget.” Yes, I know it was a “better time” and space was all the rage, but Krafft A. Ehricke’s article assumes that humanity will have figured out how to use space as a “natural resource” that will have “amounted to over 250 billion dollars” in additional income by 1999. I think that number should have been considered a bit of a stretch even in 1968. I also coughed at the idea that Astropolis, a Drax-esque space station where humanity can have all the amenities of Earth without all that pesky gravity, would be built for only “$100,000,000 in private capital.”

It sounds lovely, but of course now in 2011 it is simply a quaint piece of science faction and a reminder that our own thoughts on the future of space are no longer so lofty.

The Theater’s Nude Revolution

Howard Junker’s article Theater of the Nude is an interesting piece on the growth of theatrical boundaries across Broadway and the theater world (mostly off-Broadway). Mr. Junker takes us through the productions of Hair, Futz!, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Tom Paine with director interviews as some try to explain why their use of nudity is art in comparison to some shows that just use it to get people in the seats (and one discusses how they blocked a scene with the option of revealing more nudity in the future as audience attendance waned over time). It’s an insightful read, and includes some pictures illustrating the artful directions taken by the four mentioned performances – some from angles the theater audiences were not privy to.

Personality Control by Ernest Havemann

Remember what I said about the 1960s being way overconfident about our ability to progress by 1999? It’s not just about space; Mr. Havemann’s article Psychochemistry: Personality by Prescription shows how the medical field was also effected. And just like we do have the International Space Station today – a far cry from the floating resort of Astropolis – we do have today some pills that will calm fears, perk up penises, and help with the happy – but not quite the miracle drugs foreseen in 1968.

I do believe that some of the pills and chemicals Mr. Havemann’s article predicts – such as a pill to facilitate synaptic responses and improve thinking – could happen. But my enjoyment of the article breaks down at times when I remember things like RNA were still fairly new toys. The article discusses how some scientists felt that if DNA encoded our physical being, RNA might have encoded our mental being – i.e. memories, experience, and knowledge. Experiments where one group of rats were taught something, killed, and their RNA injected into other rats to see if they absorbed the teachings (completely disproved, by the way) make me sad as I recall all the things in scifi pop culture that such theories have infected.

So, it’s an interesting article in a “aw, how cute 1968” kind of way, but does shed light on the true improvements that things like tranquilizers and other realized drugs have brought about.

A FAIR FESTIVITY by J. P. Donleavy

“Ah you’ve uttered the one thing one thing that provokes me Rebecca and calls for, of course, rape. I must rape you. Don’t try to struggle it will be useless.” – Beefy

Yeah…we’ll get back to that quote in a bit…

Few things have made me think harder about my opinion of a story than J. P. Donleavy’s entry in this Playboy. It reads like the description of a living painting by Picasso; bursts of information that, because the sentences themselves are incomplete, leave you feeling like something in the scene is also missing or wrong;

Brass knobbed heavy mahogany door ajar. Polished and glistening faintly red. Held open by the raven haired maid. Tints of blues and whites in this sprawling dining room.

Only when characters talk, such as the main character of Balthazar B or the previously quoted Beefy, do we get complete sentences. And then, even when a character is clearly asking a question, never once is a question mark used. Just flat statements that have to be figured out. Since no “unobserved” information or opinions are provided to the reader it feels like one is standing right in the room with Balthazar, trying to figure out everything from the little physical context there is as our protagonist does so as well. It’s an interesting experience but not always a pleasant one.

The story follows Balthazar as he has dinner with the family of his ladyfriend, then later goes walking, almost gets killed, and runs into his friend Beefy. I don’t even know what to say about Beefy – the character is in studies to be some sort of priest or other religious authority and has decided that only by reveling in the most sinful activities can one appreciate the most pure. The reasoning behind this feels false and simply an excuse to screw the elderly and homeless and we spend the rest of the story following Balthazar as Beefy drags him along on a hunt to bugger, well, anything that doesn’t get out of the way.

Beefy eventually decides to sneak two women he’s familiar with back into his school housing – neither of which Balthazar wants anything to do with. Although the aforementioned “rape” of Rebecca plays out more like a role play each character has partaken in before (Rebecca keeps laughing even after she’s been tied up on the bed) the general treatment of the two females and Balthazar by Beefy is hard to stomach.

I can’t deny how unique this story was to read. There’s the old trite saying, “I don’t know art but I know what I like.” Well, in this case I know this story is art…but that doesn’t mean I liked it. It’s like one of those college experience where you decide “it was worth it so I can tell this tale sometime in the future, but I have no desire to do that again…”

THE REAL SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA by Robert Crichton

As a writer myself few articles have made me as frustrated as reading Mr. Crichton’s description of how he wrote his New York Times best seller, The Secret of Santa Vittoria. That’s not to say I don’t completely understand the tribulations Mr. Crichton went through when trying to start his novel – such as staring at a blank page for hours on end uncertain of how to take the first step into that great journey of fiction authorship – I just get antsy experiencing the trepidation vicariously through his words.

Even if you’ve never written anything, never heard of his book (I haven’t), and don’t know anything about him (I didn’t) Mr. Crichton’s article – about how he wrote a novel about a town who hid wine from the Nazis – is still very interesting. The adventures he had trying to get information to write his book could be made into a book. It was only when I ran across the elaborations on his writing troubles (many of which I’ve shared, a few of which I’ve bested) that I started getting knots in my stomach.

One piece of advice I found very insightful. Mr. Crichton explained how after a day of writing, when one has finished an amazing page with an amazing paragraph with an amazing sentence, it is often difficult to start back up the next morning – a problem I understand and still wrestle with myself. His recommendation was to not end the day on that perfect complete thought. Leave the last paragraph unfinished, and that last sentence without a period. It drove him to sit down, start writing, and get back into the groove each morning.

It’s an interesting idea and one I intend to try myself, although I fear I may end up waking up in the middle of the night, sweat dripping from my brow as I worry that I may forget to finish my

Check back later this month for Part II.