It’s the kind of startling revelation that seems a little too good to be true: that at some point prior to the mid-1970s, my grandmother—wife, mother, and pillar of her midwestern community—was featured in Playboy magazine.
Not as a centerfold, but as a writer.
I first learned of this a quarter century after my grandmother’s death, while visiting my parents’ home in Fort Wayne, Ind.
One minute I’m sorting through boxes of my grandmother’s writings—lamenting her lack of success, despite her lifetime of effort—and the next, my mother’s remarking, “Well, she did publish in Playboy.”
I lift my head from the sheaths of typed pages.
“Playboy,” my mother repeats. “At least I think so. You should really ask your aunt and uncle.”
I do ask my aunt and uncle. The former has no recollection, while the latter retains only the foggiest memory. As my uncle tells it, he was home from college in the early 1970s when his mother mentioned her publication in passing. He can’t recall the context, only the gist: that his mom published in the most popular magazine in his dormitory.
Which is to say nothing of its popularity nationwide.
In 1972, Playboy’s circulation topped 7 million. Compared to today’s numbers, that’s Time and Sports Illustrated subscribers combined. In those days, Playboy readers were middle-class, middle-aged, well-coiffed professionals who drove new cars, dreamed of travel, and knew how to sip a good scotch. That is, if the magazine’s 1960s era “What kind of man reads Playboy?” ad campaign is to be believed.
While the majority of these readers enjoyed the magazine for its articles…seriously, readers ought to enjoy the magazine for its articles! In 2017, following the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, Pete Vernon of the Columbia Journalism Review remarked that Hefner had printed “more serious journalism and fiction than just about any other magazine publisher.” Even a cursory glance of the magazine’s table of contents confirms it. Over the years, it showcased many of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Bernard Malamud, Joyce Carol Oates, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, among others.
But had it showcased Corrine Hutner Wittenberg, too?
In April of 1948, The Folio—Indiana University’s campus literary magazine—published a poem titled “Anniversary” by a poet known simply as “C.H.” At the time of the poem’s publication, C.H.—a thinly-veiled pseudonym for Corrine Hutner—was a 19-year-old English major at IU. Though written eight months prior to her mother’s death, my grandmother wrote with astonishing prescience of the grief soon to come. The poem explores the complexities associated with the anniversary of a death.
My neighbor woman comes to call / And says she happened to be close / And only stopped to rest awhile— / How strange she calls upon a ghost:”
Reading it, I can’t help but note the echoes of Robert Frost in its phrasing. Or the rhythmical hints of Shakespeare in its lines. Yet what strikes me most is the narrator’s reference to herself as a “ghost,” a vanishing act seemingly replicated by my 19-year-old future grandmother’s refusal to use her full name for her first publication.
Days after learning of my grandma’s alleged publication, I take my search to the search engines, stringing together one set of keywords after another in the hopes of confirming or denying the claim. I receive no such closure. Though I find nothing to prove that Corrine Hutner, or Corrine Hutner Wittenberg, or “C.H.” ever published within Playboy’s glossy pages, I also find nothing to the contrary. For me, the absence of proof merely means I’m not looking in the right places.
Next, I call the magazine’s corporate office. Despite my long and earnest message, I receive no reply. I mull, I speculate, I theorize. And eventually I arrive at this: if my grandmother published under a pseudonym in her earliest work, might she also have employed a pseudonym later? Particularly for a publication like Playboy, whose reputation would’ve spelled trouble for a female, high school English teacher, such as herself. What would her midwestern colleagues have thought? Or the members of her synagogue? Or her bridge partner? Or my grandfather? Or my mom?
In a 1966 issue of American Judaism my grandmother published a story titled “In the Talmudic Tradition.” She published it under the name by which we all knew her: Corrine Wittenberg. Her bio makes no mention of Playboy or any other publication, stating simply that she “teaches English in a Fort Wayne, Ind., high school.”
Her story, which runs all of three and a half pages, is about a group of Jewish women who, over afternoon coffee, question a rabbi on issues pertaining to good and evil in the world. Though the rabbi hardly gets a word in, the women leave satisfied with the answers that they themselves have supplied. Especially Rose Frankel, a widow of 11 years, who, while on her drive home, at last comes to terms with her own long held grief.
I read my grandmother’s words carefully:
“There is more to man than just his intellect, Rose Frankel, concluded; there’s a continuation of things, a pattern.”
Every time I reread the story, I see more glimpses of Corrine Wittenberg in Rose Frankel.
I wonder: What if Rose Frankel published in Playboy?
Since I’m only a paywall away from the learning the truth, I invest eight bucks in a one-month pass into Playboy’s digital archive. The archive stretches back to the magazine’s beginnings in 1953, so I limit my search from 1966 to 1971, the period that—based off of my uncle’s foggy memory—seems likeliest for my grandma’s publication.
Beginning with January 1966 (which features an interview with Princess Grace and a story by Roald Dahl), I scan the pages for any and all female-sounding pseudonyms; Rose Frankel, most of all. Making my job easier is the inconvenient truth regarding Playboy’s gendered publishing history of that era. While women are, indeed, a focal point of the magazine, their role is mainly confined to pictures rather than print. In fact, throughout these years, I’m hard pressed to find a woman’s name in any byline. And certainly no Rose Frankels.
Changing tack, I leave the pseudonyms behind and turn to content. What subjects might my grandmother have written about?
Since much of what I know of my grandma’s creative work revolves around her American Judaism story, I search the contents for the most Jewish-themed pieces I can find. But I can only find works by well-known writers who were not my grandmother: Sol Weinstein’s “On the Secret Service of His Majesty the Queen” (August 1966), Harry Golden’s “God Bless the Gentile” (December 1966), and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Riddle” (January 1967).
Bleary-eyed, I close my laptop. I’m 50 issues deep, and so far, Corrine Wittenberg and her alter egos are nowhere. Had I known my grandma better, I might’ve had some insight into this mystery. But the truth is, I barely knew her. We shared 10 years on this earth, and she lived just miles away, but that time and distance did little to bring us close.
I think we enjoyed our time together, though admittedly, much of what I remember of her is confined to a single rainy afternoon. I was nine or so, and we’d just come across a recipe for chocolate-dipped bananas. We immediately got to work, melting the chocolate in the pot, sliding the bananas onto popsicle sticks, and then placing them on a cookie sheet in the freezer.
Though we’d both dedicate our lives to writing, she died before we could ever discuss our shared passion. What might our relationship have been like if we had another 10 years? Or at least a few more rainy afternoons?
Maybe, over chocolate-dipped bananas, the older me would’ve said, “So Grandma, tell me about the time you published in Playboy.”
“Ah,” she’d have smiled. “Now that’s a story, indeed…”
After reading my grandmother’s boxes of creative work, I turn to her less-creative work: her journal, her query letters, her high school lecture notes. The more I read, the more a single word emerges: “evidently.”
Evidently, evidently, evidently.
The word pops from the pages as if aglow in neon light.
This is my Hail Mary. My shot in the dark. My once more unto the breach.
Leaping to my laptop, I return to Playboy’s archive, then use the “search” feature to determine when and where (and in what frequency) the word “evidently” ever graced the magazine’s glossy pages.
I count four instances in the January 1967 issue (featuring an interview with Fidel Castro), and five in the October 1970 issue (which includes an excerpt from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song). The other issues make occasional use of the word, but not so much as the ones noted above.
I trace every “evidently” back to the byline, but eventually the “evidentlys” run out.
My throat tightens at the inevitable truth.
Evidently, my grandma was never here.
A few weeks back, I donated a box of magazines to a thrift store.
Not Playboy’s, but literary magazines.
Not just any old literary magazines, but the ones that had been kind enough—or foolhardy enough—to publish my early work. Most of these publications occurred throughout my graduate school years, and I’d been gobsmacked and grateful every time.
I’d like to tell you I read those magazines cover to cover. (I’m sure Playboy readers would like to say the same of that publication.) But the truth is, I barely flipped through them. Back then I fetishized the publication credit far more than the piece itself. In my defense, I was a broke grad student in search of a job. Every line on a CV, I liked to think, brought me one step closer to being employed. It would’ve been nice to dedicate an afternoon to pleasurably paging through a literary magazine, but it seemed an indulgence I could hardly afford. If I wanted a job, I’d have to write my way into one.
I dumped those magazines and never looked back.
I wonder if my grandma might’ve held on to hers a bit tighter.
Weeks after failing to find a Playboy publication that likely never existed, I stumble upon a startling photograph of my grandmother in a 1967 high school yearbook. In it, my 40-year-old grandma is the epitome of style, complete in skirt, matching jacket, and what appear to be pearls. Her right hand holds a textbook as her eyes point toward a student just out of frame. A soft smile graces her lips, while the front row students reflect it back, their pencils at the ready. If the photo’s caption is to be believed, the class is engaged in an “interesting discussion about medieval English literature.”
Suddenly I see my grandmother in a way I never have before: attentive, engaged, and seemingly satisfied. She appears fully in control of her classroom, and dare I say it, hopeful.
And why shouldn’t she have been?
The photo was taken the year after her publication in American Judaism and 27-years before her death. In the time between she’d write thousands of pages that no one would ever read, but how could she have known that then?
For all she knew, maybe a publication in Playboy awaited her.
I like to think that my grandma’s truest legacy can’t be found in the pages of Playboy, but on her death certificate, instead.
Typed beneath “Occupation” are the words “English Teacher.”
But did her commitment to her students make up for the lack of success she received in her literary life? Did she find sufficient satisfaction in a stack of Chaucer papers? Or in a sentence properly diagrammed?
Had she lived long enough, I would’ve asked her these questions, along with the most important question of all.
“So Grandma, tell me about the time you didn’t publish in Playboy.”
“Ah,” she’d say. “Now that’s a story, indeed…”