There are a number of ways to historically frame Playboy’s final fully nude U.S. issue, on newsstands now. One is simple arithmetic.
Miss February 2016 Kristy Garett, the 25-year-old Russian-born model with the Middle America sounding name, is Playmate #749. Number one (after “Sweetheart of the Month” Marilyn Monroe) was Margie Harrison in the January 1954 issue, while the first Playmate to come with a three-page fold-out centerfold was Marian Stafford, Miss March 1956.
Another way to honor and appreciate the span of Hugh Hefner’s groundbreaking magazine is to look back at the photographer who shot that Stafford spread: Ruth Sondak. A New York native, Sondak was born in 1916 and joined the U.S. Army Corps during World War II. While in service, she wandered into the Army photography area and got the shutter bug, training as a picture taker.
Her first job after the war was with the Army Signal Corps in Long Island in 1946, followed by a seven-year stint working in New York for British news syndicate Keystone. From a March 1976 piece in Santa Monica College newspaper The Corsair, where by that time Sondak was taking courses and her work was being exhibited:
“There was only one other woman photographer in New York at that period covering news assignments,” says Sondak. “In fact, there really were not many photographers at all – even though there were a lot of newspapers. There was a corps of newsmen and photographers, and I was accepted as one of the group.”
“I remember an editor saying that I was the only photographer who always came back with pictures instead of excuses.”
Sondak began freelancing in the mid-1950s and eventually moved to Venice, Calif. in the early 1970s, where she lived until her death in 1983. That March 1956 Playboy cover above (complete with bunny ears doubling as a TV antenna) is a nod to Stafford’s own notable media background. From the pictorial notes:
Stafford’s most unique television experience is as a human test pattern for Max Leibman spectaculars, where she spends hours before NBC color cameras during rehearsals and is never seen by the audience.