INTERVIEW / King rabbit in retirement: After 40 years of bunny-love, Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy Organisation, has folded up his silk pyjamas to devote himself to his family. Yet he remains proud of his noble calling

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'WHOO]' says Bill, Hugh Hefner's publicity man, slapping his palms together. 'Whooh] We're having some fun here, aren't we?' Bill and I are racing across the grounds of the Playboy Mansion. (Bill wants to show me the famous landmarks on the estate, but he doesn't want us to be late for Hefner.) Starting off on the front lawn, where journalists attending a press conference about the upcoming Playboy Jazz Festival are milling about under a white marquee, we have been past the Jacuzzi grotto, the tennis court, the bunny hutches, the bouquet of giant satellite dishes. We have toured the squawky aviary and the steamy zoo. (Hef-workers shovelling exotic mammal shit: Bill barrelling about dispensing nuts to boot-faced monkeys.) Now we are tramping through Hef's private pine and redwood forestlet.

Shafts of sunlight fall across Bill's big shiny head as we hurry along through the woody mulch. 'Whooh]' he says again, casting me a meaningful, sideways glance. In the short time I have known Bill, I have come to understand that his expressions of enthusiasm even those that sound purely rhetorical require responses. If you remain mute in the face of his aggressive gaiety, he grows itchy and anxious starts repeating himself unhappily,. Eventually, unable to stand his expression of jowly reproach any longer, you give in and throw him the bone of a muttered 'Yes indeedy' or even a shame-faced 'Whoo'.

We come now to the games parlour Hefner's garden clubhouse, decked out in his favourite oak panels and accoutred with every species of boy's toy. Once, Hefner and his cohorts regularly gathered here for apres-orgy pool games and backgammon tournaments. But now the place is a little ghostly. Everything remains in a state of immaculate readiness: the pool cues are chalked, the bar is replete with Pepsi (Hef's beverage of choice). Some nights, according to Bill, Hef still wanders out here alone to pick out old tunes on the jukebox and press himself feverishly against the juddering, flashing pin-ball machines. But the rollicking group jaunts are no more.

Five years ago, at a ceremony on the mansion lawn attended by, among others, Lou Ferrigno (the man who played the Incredible Hulk in the TV series) and Jessica Hahn (the woman who had sex with Jimmy Swaggart in a motel), Hef got spliced to Kimberley Conrad, Playboy Playmate of 1989. Kimberley has since borne Hefner two children. For years, the old Chicago mansion had a sign over its door that warned 'If you don't swing, don't ring'. Today, on the driveway up to the Los Angeles mansion, a big yellow sign announces CHILDREN AT PLAY. The Playboy bunnies have scattered; the King Rabbit is at rest. We wend our way back now, across the lawns, through the marquee of journalists, to the vast, tTudor-cum-Disney confection of the mansion. It is time to meet Hef. We wait for him in the 'library', another oak-panelled fancy, equipped with a handsome supply of Pepsi. Here, amid framed family photographs (including one large pic of a bare-chested Mrs Hefner II), several framed Playboy magazine covers and a hammy Renaissance-style oil painting of himself, Hef at last appears.

In deference to the press conference at which he is scheduled to make an appearance, Hefner is out of his silk pyjamas and into a fawn slacks and shirt ensemble. He is a craggy, shaggy-looking figure and his strange lopsided hairdo seems to have been elaborately contrived to resemble a toupee. Still, time has been pretty kind to Hef. His odd Punchinello face and his tough little body are in good shape. He moves about the room with an elaborately virile stride. ('Sexually speaking,' he later confides, 'I am not aware of any 'diminished capacity.'). He has come from working on his memoirs, a crucial part of the daily schedule which he now outlines for me.

'The first part of my day,' he says, speaking rapidly in a slightly slurred Sh'kago mutter, 'is related to current business the production of the magazine, editorial decisions. I'm only involved in the creative end of things now. Following that, I usually work on my biography or my scrapbook. The scrapbook of my life now fills a room with many many hundreds of volumes. It is the research for the biography which will probably run to 700 or 800 pages. Later, I usually watch a movie. On Fridays and Sundays, sometimes Saturdays too, we have a larger group of friends in. Fridays are classic films from the Thirties and Forties. Sunday is a contemporary film. A typical evening throughout the week, I spend with Kimberley and the children. Wednesday night, we have friends in for a card game.'

He pauses here and as he often does when he is concentrating hard, puffs up his cheeks and makes his eyes bulge, in the manner of a horrified chipmunk. 'Sometimes, because I work at home, I am able to interact with the children in the middle of the day, too.' Sunlight filters through the leaded window behind him. Hefner smiles contentedly. These autumn years, he says, are proving to be 'the most romantic period' of his life to date.

This is not the ending, let's face it, that the Hef heyday hey-dayportended. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, when he was flitting between his Chicago and LA mansions in a black DC-9 nicknamed ' The Big Bunny ' when he never got out of his silk pyjamas unless it was to disport himself in Dexedrine-fuelled sex marathons aloft his whirling, elliptical bed a grim denouement looked certain. The lineaments of the famous 'Playboy lifestyle', so ominously reminiscent of Elivs Elvis in his late Las Vegas period, seemed to spell doom. The weeks and months spent in the hermetically sealed mansions oblivious to the time of day, or even the season outside; the vast, cheerlessly 'wild' parties, arranged by Hef's social secretaries and attended by armies of unknown liggers; the neurotically consistent Hef-diet of Wonderloaf sandwiches and fried chicken wolfed at crazy hours of the night. It should have ended in disaster.

The Big Bunny should have crashed. Hef should have become obese and paranoid. Or fallen prey to some variety of psychotic hygiene obsession. Or OD'd. od'd. If he was going to survive, he should have undergone some species of conversion - foresworn fornication, discovered the Bible or Buddha, become a militant ecology campaigner. But he did none of these things. He didn't go crazy, he didn't die, he didn't recant. Nor, despite endless predictions of doom for Playboy Enterprises, did his empire go bust. And 40 years after the first edition of Playboy, here he still is, fit and sanguine, denying us the Balazacian moral we had smugly anticipated.

Somehow, he has always judged the incoming tide just right pulling up his trouser legs in the nick of time and never getting soaked. When his Dexies intake looked as if it might be getting out of hand, he simply gave them up. When he had a stroke 10 years ago, he stopped smoking and started using an exercise bike. When Playboy, having lost its casino licensces and closed down all its failing clubs, looked to be on the skids, he brought in his daughter, the steely Christie Hefner, to take over the helm and restore order.

There have been scandals over the years, but he has weathered them all: the conviction of his private secretary, Bobbie Arnstein, on drugs charges in the Seventies; her subsequent suicide; the murder of 1980's Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten; the ensuing anti-Playboy backlash led by Stratten's lover and Hefner's old friend, Peter Bogdanovich; the dollars 35 million palimony suit filed against him by his ex-girlfriend Carrie Leigh in the mid-Eighties. Each one of these might have been his nemesis, but he has managed to skip away from them all.

Hefner's survival may show scant regard for the precedents set by other late 20th-century celebrities, but he refuses to be surprised by his own happy ending. He is positively insulted by the suggestion that he narrowly missed an Elvisian fate. 'My life hasn't really been like that,' he says. 'You have to remember Elvis was a product. Elvis was created by other people, like a lot of celebrities. Movie stars are created by other people they're a product. I created myself I invented myself. I not only invented myself, I re-invented myself. I literally was given a life and a world that was traditional. I tried it, it didn't work. So I created a world for myself.'

The world that Hefner inherited was the world of 1950s American suburbia - the mean,hire-purchase-and-radio-jingles world exhaustively documented by John Updike in his early Rabbit novels. Brought up in a strictly Methodist home in the Chicago of the Depression years, Hefner married his college sweetheart straight out of the army and had fathered two children by the time he was in his mid-twenties. In 1953 the year that Playboy was born he seemed destined for a life of shabby middle-American gentility working as a magazine copy-editor, keeping up the car payments, visiting the extended family on weekends, quietly

struggling towards retirement and membership of the local Rotary Club.

The world that he invented for himself and retailed in the pages of Playboy, was a potent period blend of consumerist and sexual fantasy predicated on a slightly nave vision of urban, bachelor 'cool'. Hefner associated sex with money and class: the secret of plentiful, obligation-free sex was somehow bound up, he sensed, with knowing about modern art and fine wines with being able to tie your own bow tie and mix a flawless Martini. If you had to identify one reason for Playboy's immense and immediate success, it might well be the way in which it played upon this nexus of sexual desire and social aspiration in its readership.

The magazine's first issue, financed with borrowed money and hocked furniture, contained a smoothly chummy editorial, adumbrating the characteristics of the representative playboy: 'We like our apartment,' Hef wrote. 'We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d'oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, Nietzche, jazz, sex.'

Playboy was the first girly magazine to purvey a complete and fully furnished 'lifestyle' to suggest a non-shameful, non-furtive context in which it might be consumed. It brought proletarian American dispatches from a world of modernity and sophistication, a world of cool jazz, hi-fis, Naugahyde sofa-suites, remote controls, walnut-finish drinks cabinets, penthouse suites.

Studying the pages of Playboy today, it is hard to imagine the dash it once cut. Harder core publications have long since taken its place on the front line of sexual daring. Its painstaking suaveness has succumbed to an innocuous tackiness and despite its rather desperate efforts to keep up with the times, the magazine has a strong smell of the 1950s about it. Still, in order to understand what Hefner once represented, you have to make the imaginative leap to a time when the Playboy ethos was regarded as something classy, bold, even hip. And from the start, Hefner set himself us as the living embodiment of Playboy values. When Playmates were posed in 'impending seduction' scenarios for the centre-folds, Hefner would order the inclusion of certain props his pipe smouldering in an ashtray, his shaving brush on a sink in order to suggest that it would be him doing the seducing.

Later, after he had left his wife and children, he was free to promote himself as ?Ur-Playboy with even greater gusto. The real Playboy icon was not the cute little bunny-head, but the magazine's shiny-eyed, wet-lipped editor, pictured always at the centre of a vast bunny-girl throng. (For the Playboy of the Fifties and Sixties, it was always the idea of many girls great job-lots of girls - that was especially alluring.)

Hefner says the desire to remodel himself began back in high school: 'There was a moment when I lost a girl,' he says, 'she was the girl I learned to jitterbug with. When I lost her to another guy, I decided to reinvent myself. I changed my wardrobe started wearing cord pants and saddle shoes. I wrote for the school paper and from that point on, I started signing myself 'Hef'. I did a record review for the paper called 'Platter patter' and I signed that 'Hep Hef'.' He pauses a moment and looks at me doubtfully. 'Because, you know, before there was 'hip', there was 'hep'.'

What happened when he set up Playboy, he goes on to explain, was just a more dramatic version of that first adolescent episode. 'I created a persona. It all happened within the space of a very few months. I came out from behind the desk, started hostling a TV show called Playboy's Penthouse which was like, a party at my pad. I bought the mansion in Chicago, opened the first Playboy Club and started living out the life. It was indeed reinventing myself, including the props you know, the pipe, the Mercedes Benz . . .'

Watching tapes of the old Playboy's Penthouse shows, there is something touching and compellingly ludicrous about the sight of Hef a slightly gawky, big-eared guy from the Chicago suburbs trying to pass himself off as a super-sophisticate, shimmying about in a tux, dancing with some lovely lady-friends, taking a turn at the mike to show off his jazz chops ('Gee iz great after staying out late, walking ma bebby back home . . .'). But Hefner was and is unembarrassable about such posturing.

'Quite frankly,' he says, making a frank face, 'if you know what you're doing and you're doing it quite consciously, that is being true to yourself. In other words, it's turning yourself into something that you invented instead of something that was handed to you by your predecessors and parents. From the very beginning of my life and this is the reason I majored in psychology when I went to college I really wanted to understand myself. The things that I've done have always been to a remarkable degree at a conscious level. Most of us walk through life in kind of an accidental way, with only a vague idea of what it's all about. In that sense I think I am a one-eyed man in a blind world. I think I really see what my life is all about and have made it what I wanted it to be with a great deal of zest and adventure.'

In truth, there is much to be admired in Hefner's ruthless sculpting of his life. The American tendency to a rather brutal taxonomy of 'winners' and 'losers', 'cool guys' and 'nerds' has always been redeemed by exactly this belief in the possibility of self-transformation. You may start out a nerd, but as an American nerd, it is perfectly feasible to become, or rather, to make yourself over as, a cool guy. British resignation to the dictates of class and breeding, seems, by contrast, rather cowardly and stifling.

None the less, there is something too complacent, too utterly void of irony about Hefner's account of himself to allow one to feel entirely congratulatory. He insists that 'the humour has always been there' in his invented personae, but the way he earnestly dramatises his schoolboy metamorphosis into 'Hep Hef' somehow makes you doubt it. Over the years he has often likened himself to Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby. By this he has not intended to indicate a pathetic aspect to his self-inventions. On the contrary, he seems to have read Fitzgerald's tragic protagonist as a heroic representative of gutsy American can-do. He sees himself and Gatsby as cheery standard-bearers of the American Dream.

Before coming to meet Hefner, I dutifully sat down to watch Hugh Hefner: Once Upon A Time, the authorised video-story of Hef's life, sent over by Bill the publicity man to assist me in my research. This baroque piece of hagiography, co-produced by David Lynch, begins with a soft-focus shot of Mrs Hefner Number Two whirling about in a white garter-belt. 'Kimberley Conrad,' the gravelly voice of James Coburn announces, with delicious, vowel-stretching gravitas, '. . . for some a fantasy. For Hugh Hefner, a reality'. Hefner, it becomes rapidly apparent, has no truck with the modern celebrity's coy claims to down-home averageness. His life is not like yours and mine. It is more glamorous and blissful than we are capable of supposing.

At various points throughout the video, the narrative anxiously returns to the fantasy-reality theme. Hefner has, we are told, ''a cassul for a home, a dream for a life'. His days are now spent 'in reflection and remembrance enjoying a life that only few could imagine'. The adolescent dreams .. very American dreams.'

At no point does it ever seem to have occurred to Hefner that remaining true to one's adodlescent fantasies might be a rather limiting exercise for an adult. Or that a lifetime pursuing sex with Playboy Playmates might be just as emotionally barren rather more so, in fact, as than the Methodist repression it supposedly repudiates rather more so, in fact. Hef is shocked when these thoughts are ventured. 'On the contrary] Quite the opposite]' he says. 'Playboy was never about flagrant hedonism it is, and I at the absolute heart of me am, a romantic. I think that's what sets Playboy apart. It's not simply the pictures, the sexual thing. It's that other mystical, magical, nostalgic thing - the heart. That's why I wrote the 'Playboy Philosophy'. Once I started being accused of this 'if it feels good, do it' attitude, I felt it absolutely essential to express the things that I felt really made life worthwhile and were important.'

Hefner's 26-part, 250,000 word Playboy Philosophy which ran in the magazine between 1962 and 1963, was an attempt to provide a definitive account of the Hef-Weltanschauung. Written in the prose style of a Chinese fortune cookie ('A man should not see his life as a vale of tears, but as a happpy time. He must take joy in his work without regarding it as the end of all living'), the Philosophy is the document on which Hefner stakes his claim to righteousness the form in which he reinvents himself yet again, now as a pioneering campaigner for progressive values. Through the 'activist arm of the Playboy Philosophy' the Playboy Foundation Fountain Hefner has donated millions of dollars over the years to a variety of liberal causes, from the Kinsey Institute to battered women's shelters. This does not represent the guilty afterthought of a conscience-stricken businessman, he says, but merely another way of furthering his original adolescent dream. Because although that dream was ostensibly about getting laid a lot, it was also, when you really consider it, a dream of freedom, of triumph over the forces of superstition and repression.

Looked at in this light, Playboy ceases to be just another market-driven porno-mag and becomes a humanist handbook. Take, for example, Playboy's decision in 1971 to 'go pubic'. A desperate attempt to keep up with the ever-more gynaecological competition and to hell with magic and romance? Not at all. 'It was a major decision,' Hefner says gravely. 'Probably the most important one. Throughout the Sixties, we had been liberating the language basically the classic seven words in Ulysses. The liberation of the body, which for all practical purposes meant pubic hair, was actually a more difficult decision because there was a classic tradition in Western art which avoided pubic hair. But by the latter Sixties, society had reached a point where frontal nudity was beginning to appear on the Broadway stage. I was anxious to get on with it and I felt that the moment was right.'

Hefner's devout mother once told an interviewer that she would have been very happy if her son had been a missionary. When Hefner heard about this, he called her up. 'But Mom,' he said, 'that's just what I am.'

Naturally this faith in the purity of his own moral purpose has been an invaluable help to Hefner when dealing with his critics over the years. A man less firmly convinced of the nobility of his calling might have been prey to disctracting doubt. As it is, Hefner has been able to characterise all gainsayers and enemies the American Post Office, which who refused to give him a second-class Mailing permit when he was first starting up Playboy, the 1986 Meese Commission on pornography that posited a causal link between pornography and violence, the Eevangelists, the feminists as life-denying puritans.

'One of the things that has made the conflicts and setbacks easier to deal with over the years,' he says, 'is that I understand and see the common connection. It has to do with two opposed views of the world and I know have always known that I am on the side of the angels. I know it. It's a good fight, in which I take a lot of pride.'

Valiant old Hef. In vain, you struggle to pierce the rhino-hide of his self-regard. 'I believe my life has been a dream,' he says at one point. 'And so do you.'

What?

He cocks his thumb and forefinger at me. 'I just know you do.'

Sorry?

'You see a lot of things in me, but I also see a lot of things in you . You understand. I think so. You know that other level, the way I do. There's the world as we pretend it is and there's the world that a few of us know is real, is true. You and I we can see behind the pretence and the facade.'

There is something flummoxing about a person who can get things this wrong. One is half-inclined to believe that this is a Hef-

stratagem for flooring bolshy interlocutors. But no, Hef is being straight. It is not wiliness willingness that has protected him all these years, but unassailable obtuseness.

Towards the end of our meeting, we discuss a point in the Once Upon A Time video where Hefner seems, albeit fleetingly, to express regret for the egotism that has ruled his life. There is a suggestion that the children by his first marriage marraige may have suffered as a result of his absence, that a few bunny-hearts may have got bruised in his ceaseless pursuit of 'romantic adventure'.

'Weeell,' Hef says, 'there was an obsessive side to my life - when I was throwing off all the baggage I had from the way I was raised .. I think when you are running fast, when you are trying to prove something, there is a natural tendency to look straight ahead and not pay attention to whether, in your professional or your you personal life, somebody else may be hurt by it.'

A thrilling moment] Hef is talking about himself in almost critical terms] It cannot last. It doesn't. There must, I venture, be some women from his past who still resent him. Hef takes a lusty swig from his Pepsi and gazes at me glassily while he thinks. He thinks and thinks and finally gives up. 'I'd like to be able to give you an example of one,' he says, laughing happily. 'But I can't think of anybody. I think they all think I'm pretty swell.'

(Photograph omitted)

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