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Treasure Troves from the Past

A visit with Steven Watts, Professor, History

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: Playboy Hugh Hefner Henry Ford Walt Disney biography
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“That’s where it all started,” begins Steven Watts, pointing to the bust on his bookshelf. “I was born and grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln.” Inspired at such a young age, the MU professor of history pursued his interest in American history. Concerned with the emergence of capitalist culture, Watts’ early research explored ideas about profit, success, and “the shaping of Victorian culture in the 19th century.” His first books, for example, addressed aspects of the American republic in the late 18th and early 19th century (The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-182 [1987] and The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture [1994]).

About 15 years ago, however, Watts became more interested in modern American history and eventually completed a series of biographies on issues related to consumer capitalism in a culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, entertainment, and leisure. He published one biography on Walt Disney’s entertainment empire, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life [1997]), another on Henry Ford and “the development of the automobile as a crucial factor shaping modern culture” (The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century [2005]) and most recently, one on Hugh Hefner, as Playboy magazine emerged “on the cutting edge of a modern culture of self-fulfillment that was connected to material influence and the sexual revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s” (Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream [2008]). Commenting on the themes running throughout these three works, Watts says he has been trying to understand American cultural and intellectual history. “I’ve been trying to uncover the mainstream values of our culture probably back to the age of Jefferson up to the present day or pretty close to it,” he says.

For Watts, selecting research projects requires a combination of careful assessment and serendipity. The notion for his book on Walt Disney, for example, sprang to life when he and his wife visited Disney World in 1991. “We were sitting by the castle and looking at the thousands of people, and they all looked pretty happy. I just started thinking, ‘Boy, this is really interesting,’ and wondered why all these people were here and why they all looked so happy…. It was just a little germ of an idea,” Watts recalls. A few weeks later, when “the idea was still rattling about” in his head, Watts began “nosing around” to see what had been written about the famous man.

“As you survey the literature, you begin to get a sense of where the holes are,” he says. “You see what has been explained and what hasn’t. And I think you start to gravitate to what hasn’t been explained.” Finding a hole in the scholarship on Disney, therefore, Watts determined that there was room to do a larger study of Disney’s life and cultural significance.

“Most people look at Disney as merely a kind of entertainer, as the creator of children’s entertainment,” explains Watts. “What I found really interesting about Disney is that his creations were connected to some very serious historical issues and the American experience.” In 1934, Disney created The Big Bad Wolf, a short film that gained him popularity and acclaim. The title song, “Who Was Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which “was tremendously popular” at the time, served as a allegory for life during the Great Depression, depicting poor and working-class people struggling to survive.

The Disney theme parks themselves are often viewed as merely entertainment, yet Watts found that the park franchise “connects to broader issues and developments as well.” For example, it reflects the consumer economy of the 1950s, when Disney collaborated with big companies to place their stores on “Main Street, USA.” “In this very creative way, Disney spun this picture of happiness that was connected to the American way of life and material plenty,” he observes.

For this historian, gathering data is sometimes like hunting for treasure. Watts has had a string of good luck, as it turns out, because Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Hugh Hefner all had archives through which he was allowed to dig. In the case of Disney’s archive, for example, “Walt had been something of a packrat and had saved stuff from the very beginning of his career in the 1920s up to the present.” With this “treasure trove,” Watts was able to quickly gather such primary source material as cartoons, rough drafts of stories, and an enormous scrapbook dating from the 1930s that contained every imaginable newspaper and magazine article on Disney. “Dust would fly out,” he recalls, “because they hadn’t been opened in a very long time.”

In the case of his most recent research project, conceived in the fall of 2003, Watts recalls that the idea of researching Hugh Hefner just inexplicably came to him. “I think it is a combination of intellectual knowledge and serendipity,” he explains; that is, “certain [research] topics just seem to rise to the top of your head for reasons you don’t know.” He discovered that there had been no serious book published on Hefner beyond journalistic pieces that seemed to focus almost exclusively “on the controversies that the founding editor of Playboy created over the years.” With this gaping hole in the literature, the trajectory of Watts’ next research project was set in motion.

Contacting “Hefner’s people,” Watts found that Hefner was interested in cooperating, and Watts flew to Los Angeles in September of 2003 to meet the infamous man. “We had a couple of very long talks," he remembers, "and he agreed to open up all of his records and archive material (which was enormous), and sit through a lot of interviews.” Having heard that his subject was “notorious for being something of a control freak,” Watts was surprised that Hefner granted him full editorial control of the project. “That was music to my ears,” he says of this pivotal moment.

Going to Los Angeles for the actual interviews, Watts soon learned that Hefner “is a packrat with capital letters. He saved everything in his entire life going back to his teenage years.” In addition to four file-cabinets of material, he also had an enormous scrapbook. “I expected four or five volumes,” he recounts, but the scrapbook turned out to be no fewer than 1,805 volumes in length! Hefner employs three staff-members “who do nothing but compile the scrapbook of his life.” Once again, Watts had stumbled upon a treasure trove that five years later grew into the book, Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (2008).

“Hefner has been a very significant historical figure in American popular culture,” explains Watts. At the front edge of the sexual revolution in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Hefner signified liberation—sexual and otherwise. “In that sense,” he explains, “in the 1980s and ‘90s, Hefner became a kind of foil for the Reagan administration. The Meese Commission on pornography went after him very strongly. He became the bogeyman in the age of Reagan.”

More seriously, Watts notes several important connections between the figure of Hugh Hefner and the American Dream: “Hefner and the playboy lifestyle that he exemplified represented in post-war America a new version of what the good life meant," he observes. "He began the magazine back in 1953, and by the 1960s he was a national celebrity. What was really interesting to me was the way in which the lifestyle he articulated was on the cutting edge of what people thought the good life in America should be all about.”

When Watts delved deeper, he observed that Playboy magazine, particularly in the early years, functioned as a sort of “guide book for young affluent men…in this new society of consumerism.” That is, the magazine provided advice on how to make “sophisticated choices” about such things as wine, food, and sports cars. Holding Hefner’s career up to a mirror, says Watts, images American history: “It is a fascinating reflection of the development of consumer values after the war.”