LAST January, when Victor S. Navasky, chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, was looking to hire a publisher for his magazine, which serves as an arbiter of journalism ethics, he called Christie Hefner.
Ms. Hefner was retiring as chief executive of Playboy Enterprises after 20 years. And while it’s rare to see Playboy and Columbia Journalism Review in the same sentence, it made sense to Mr. Navasky. He had first met Ms. Hefner in 1979. She was heading up promotions for her father’s magazine and recruited Mr. Navasky to serve as a judge — along with Jules Feiffer and Tom Wicker — for Playboy’s new Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards.
Over the years, he has been impressed with her balancing act at Playboy. “She’s certainly a liberal feminist and a liberal Democrat,” said Mr. Navasky, former editor of the liberal Nation. “People would say, ‘so what’s she doing putting out a magazine and running clubs catering to horny men?’ But she found a way to make it work consistent with her values, to serve Playboy and her father and give them an opportunity to do socially useful things.”
Ms. Hefner, 56, and her father, 83, formed a true Boomer/Greatest Generation partnership. While Dad helped usher in the sexual revolution, it fell to her to keep his piece of the revolution afloat. While Hef poses with Playmates a quarter his age, Ms. Hefner is a legendary networker who called Warren E. Buffett when she recapitalized the company. While Dad says, “Picasso had his pink period and blue period, I’m in my blonde period,” Ms. Hefner says, “This is what it looks like from 30,000 feet up,” and, “I don’t want it to look like we’re seeking sizzle and not steak.”
Hugh Hefner created the most successful men’s magazine of all time, but by the 1980s, if his daughter hadn’t stepped in, it’s clear from Steven Watts’s 2008 biography, “Mr. Playboy,” the bunny empire might have collapsed.
A pivotal moment: On Jan. 11, 1982, Mr. Hefner testified before a New Jersey commission considering whether to grant the lucrative Playboy Casino in Atlantic City a permanent license. Accompanied by a Playmate, Hef performed so miserably — he couldn’t remember basic details about his company and later acknowledged he hadn’t read the state report on his casino — that Playboy’s application was rejected. The casino had to be sold.
That’s when, at 29, Ms. Hefner asked her father to name her Playboy president. He was relieved, she said. “Hef said, ‘I felt like I had this incredible birthday party and you had to come in and clean up the day after.’ ”
As a child, she hardly knew him. Her parents divorced when she was 6, and she lived with her mother. She and her brother saw their father a few times a year, at the Playboy mansion. “He’d send a limo for us,” she said.
Perhaps it was the divorce, but Ms. Hefner grew up fast, learning to parent her parents. At 18, when her mother divorced a second time, Ms. Hefner visited her father. “I said: ‘She’s never asked you for anything, but you have to help Mom. You have to buy her a place to live.’ Dad bought her a town house.”
After graduating summa cum laude from Brandeis, she planned to go to law school, when her father suggested she first get some work experience at Playboy.
She stayed 33 years, building a profitable Internet operation and creating a $1 billion brand licensing division that is the company’s biggest profit maker. While Hef bragged about not crossing the line into hard porn, she did, buying Spice TV and Club Jenna and defending the move as business.
Under her direction, Playboy was profitable in good times and has survived in these bad times for print media. As her role grew, he cut back, becoming chief creative officer. “He once said to me, ‘I want you to know I sleep better at night because you’re in this position.’ At the time I wasn’t sleeping because I was worried about all the people whose jobs were threatened if I made the wrong decisions. At least one of us was sleeping.”
Her father lent his support to causes like birth control and abortion rights, but activism was at her core. She campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment and gay rights and was chairwoman of a drive that raised $30 million for an AIDS treatment and research clinic in Chicago. Gloria Steinem, who made sport of attacking Hef (“a woman reading Playboy,” she once said, “feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual”) brought Ms. Hefner onto the board of Voters for Choice.
Ms. Hefner lives in Chicago and is heavily involved in politics. She has donated $201,000 to Democrats and liberal causes over the last 30 years, according to federal data collected by the NewsMeat Web site. “It’s not unusual for someone running for Senate in Illinois to come see me,” she said.
For 25 years she was on the board of the Magazine Publishers of America, and in 2005 arranged for one networking friend, Barack Obama, to speak at its annual conference.
She was always prompt for interviews for this column. Arriving at 4:30 for one, she apologized. “I promised you an hour and a half, but I’m going to have to leave at 5 of 6 — I have an appointment at the Four Seasons.”
In 2006, Forbes named Ms. Hefner 80th on its list of the world’s 100 most powerful women. By 2008, she earned $1.5 million a year in compensation.
Last fall, she decided she had been responsible for Playboy long enough. She had guided the company through several downturns and wasn’t looking forward to another. “Retrenching and cutting and not growing — to say it’s not much fun is an understatement.”
On election night last November, she said, she received a call from Playboy’s head of human resources saying they wanted to put together a celebration to observe her 20th year as chief executive. Instead, she flew to the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles to tell Dad it was time for her to go.
She turned down the publisher’s position at Columbia, but is helping Mr. Navasky create a for-profit arm for the Columbia Journalism Review modeled on the Harvard Business Review, which raises money by selling case studies and sponsoring conferences. She is networking with several executives including Cathy Cranston, the business review’s former publisher. The two first networked when Ms. Hefner was on the magazine association board and Ms. Cranston was with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
To keep her name before the public, she has been appearing as an unpaid economic talking head on CNN, Fox and CNBC cable programs. Though she received $2 million in severance from Playboy, she says she needs to work. Her Playboy stock, at a high of $36 a share a decade ago, now sells for $3.
She recently signed a deal with the Canyon Ranch resorts to build a brand-licensing business for health products modeled on her efforts with the Playboy brand. Asked if it would be a full-time job, Hef’s daughter said, “I expect it will take up approximately 40 percent of my time.”