Nat Lehrman, former Playboy editor, 1929-2014

February 18, 2014 | Alumni

Editor brought sophistication to magazine

By Bob Goldsborough

February 16, 2014

Nat Lehrman was an influential editor at Playboy magazine from the 1960s through the 1980s, working closely with magazine founder Hugh Hefner and specializing in articles on human sexuality and social activism.

Mr. Lehrman, 84, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at the Glenridge retirement community in Sarasota, Fla., said his daughter, Cynthia Hochswender. He was a resident of Sarasota.

During 22 years at Playboy, Mr. Lehrman handled a range of duties: writing captions for the magazine’s pictorials; editing the Playboy Forum letters section; interviewing figures in the sexual revolution like William Masters and Virginia Johnson; and even answering reader questions in the “Playboy Advisor” feature.

Mr. Lehrman put an enlightened, progressive stamp on Playboy’s content, often referring to himself as the magazine’s “sex editor.”

“He was one of our earliest and best editors, and he had a lot to do with the heart and soul of the magazine,” said Hefner, Playboy Enterprises founder and chief creative officer.

“He also was a wordsmith. He added a great deal to the magazine in terms of its editorial sophistication.”

Mr. Lehrman rose up the corporate ladder at Playboy, becoming the magazine’s associate publisher and overseeing the publishing division.

“Nat had a journalist’s sensibility with a businessman’s sense and was multifaceted in every way,” said retired Tribune writer and editor Jeff Lyon, who worked with Mr. Lehrman at Playboy and later at Columbia College Chicago. “He lived life to its fullest.

He was an avid tennis player, a classical guitarist of some distinction (and) an auto freak.”

After retiring from Playboy in 1985, Mr. Lehrman joined Columbia College, where he spent more than a decade teaching journalism and serving as a department chairman.

Born and raised in Brooklyn to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Mr. Lehrman received a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College in 1953. He was drafted into the Army and served for 18 months in Nara, Japan, where he met his future wife, a Japanese interpreter named Kazuko Miyajima.

They were married in 1957, and she died in 2008.

Following his discharge, Mr. Lehrman returned to New York and worked first raising money for the United Jewish Appeal and later as an editor for the Automobile Association of America. He worked for a short-lived travel magazine called Relax. After it folded, he was transferred by the parent company to work for two men’s magazines, Dude and Gent.

Mr. Lehrman also attended school in the evenings, receiving a master’s from New York University in 1960.

In early 1963, Playboy hired Mr. Lehrman as an editor and he and his young family moved to Chicago. Mr. Lehrman edited light features like Playboy’s “Party Jokes” but also oversaw the magazine’s coverage of social issues.

“If I could best describe Nat, I’d say he was the real-life Hawkeye Pierce character from ‘MASH,’” said Columbia College Chicago director of external partnerships Norman Alexandroff. “He had the rapier wit, and could just come up with a line faster than anybody could. You would sit there with your jaw open — how quickly he thought of these things was amazing.”

Mr. Lehrman edited Playboy’s “Forum,” which was the letters section and a place for discussion of sexuality and pressing social issues.

“Nat really never talked about Playboy in terms of what you would expect him to talk about, naked girls and stuff like that,” said John Tarini, the retired chairman of Columbia’s marketing communication department. “He was kind of a left-wing radical, but he had a great sense of humor. He was a very funny guy who could make fun of almost anything.”

In the early 1970s, Mr. Lehrman was tapped to oversee Oui, a new, more explicit men’s magazine that Playboy launched in response to upstart competitor Penthouse. Mr. Lehrman helped make Oui, which had its origins in France as a Playboy knockoff, profitable, leading to his promotion to associate publisher of Playboy.

“Nat did a marvelous job of reconciling all the different factions in a publication, like the editors and the ad guys,” said Mike Murphy of Chicago, Playboy’s circulation and promotion manager from 1970 until 1983. “He made it look easy and it wasn’t.”

In 1985, Mr. Lehrman took on an advisory and consulting role at Playboy. At the time, he told the Tribune that the move was motivated by a desire to get out of “the pressure cooker of running a large division,” and take on a role where he could spend more time in public service and teaching.

Shortly after leaving Playboy, Mr. Lehrman stepped in to oversee the journalism department at Columbia College.

“Nat’s whole interest in radio and television gave him a really unique insight into what could be done with the journalism department so it really developed a much more interdisciplinary program,” Alexandroff said. “He was really instrumental in building the journalism department and in putting Columbia College on the map.”

Lyon recalled Mr. Lehrman’s efforts at expanding the department’s offerings.

“We have a wonderful science journalism program at Columbia that I could not have started without Nat’s blessing,” Lyon said.

Mr. Lehrman retired from Columbia in 1998.

After years of wintering in Florida, Mr. Lehrman and his wife moved to Sarasota from their longtime home in Chicago’s Buena Park neighborhood in 2002.

Mr. Lehrman also is survived by a son, Jerome; a brother, Marvin; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service in Chicago is being planned.

Originally published by the Chicago Tribune