Hefner book opens Playboy Mansion door

December 28, 2008|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,kevin cowherd@baltsun.com

The phone rings, and when I pick up, a secretary's voice says something you don't hear every day: "May I put Mr. Hefner on?"

This would be Hugh Hefner, legendary founder of Playboy magazine, High Priest of Hedonism, reality TV star, and what am I supposed to say?

No, I'm too busy?

No, all he talks about is that boring sex, sex, sex stuff?

So, of course, I say yes, and seconds later, Hef himself - he likes to be called Hef, even by the jackals in the media - is on the horn from his California mansion.

At 82, he still sounds vibrant and smart and pleased with himself, and maybe that's what happens when you're a cultural legend, are fabulously wealthy and date hot-looking babes young enough to be your great-granddaughter. (More on that later.)

Right now he's helping flack a new book, a 529-page doorstop titled Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream and written by Steven Watts, a professor of history at the University of Missouri.

Hef says it's the best book ever written about him, and there have been a couple others.

"It's the first time that I've actually opened up my personal files and scrapbooks and memorabilia," he says. He also sat for more than 40 hours of taped interviews and allowed Watts to hang out with him at nightclubs and Playboy Mansion parties, where Hef was invariably accompanied by the requisite posse of blond bombshells.

("I didn't actually go with him into the bedroom," Watts says modestly, when I reach him the next day. He also notes in the book that when he told his wife he'd be "doing research" at the mansion, she offered "the admonishment usually given to children at a toy store: 'You can look, but don't touch.' ")

If you were a young man coming of age in the '50s, '60s and '70s, you would have gladly sacrificed a major organ to hang out with Hugh Hefner.

He started Playboy in 1953, frustrated with his repressive upbringing and what he thought of as the sexually uptight postwar era.

By the early '70s, the magazine's circulation reached 7 million and Hefner's name conjured images of beautiful, voluptuous young women, wild mansion parties, hot-tub grottoes, rotating beds and uninhibited sex.

The gospel according to Playboy was this: Sex was fun. Sex was healthy. Sex was for human pleasure.

In the decades before AIDS, Playboy's many disciples embraced the message with near-religious fervor.

In time, as Watts writes: "Newsday would describe the magazine as 'the unofficial publication of the sexual revolution.' The Times Magazine in London placed it among a trio of influences - along with the contraceptive pill and rock 'n' roll - that most shaped the changing sexual standards of post-war America.

So it's no surprise that, when you ask Hefner what he's most proud of in his long and influential life, he answers: "I think it's the part I've played in changing the social-sexual values of our time."

By the '80s and '90s, though, Hefner's image began to take a beating.

Feminists and conservatives attacked him mercilessly. Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten was murdered by her husband, and Hefner was accused of having exploited her. The Playboy empire, no longer seen as the epitome of hip, was suffering significant business setbacks in its clubs and casinos.

Many now viewed Hefner as an anachronism: a creepy old guy padding around the mansion in slippers, pajamas and smoking jacket, pathetically cavorting with the same young bimbos and living the dissolute life of an aging Lothario, the sexualized Peter Pan who refused to grow up.

Watts deftly chronicles it all, including the event that shocked everyone: Hefner's 1989 marriage - it was his second; he'd been married back in the '50s - to Playmate of the Year Kimberly Conrad.

What followed was a remarkable period of relative domesticity for Hef, including fatherhood to two sons (he had two children from his previous marriage), but it didn't last.

"My marriage ended in 1998," Hefner says on the phone now. "It was a 10-year marriage, and I was faithful to it the entire time. I was beat up by it."

In the book, Watts quotes Hefner as telling people: "She put me through hell."

Depressed and out-of-sorts for a while, Hefner gradually rebounded in typical Hef fashion, with buxom blondes, wild parties and the discovery, on his 72nd birthday, of a little pill he likened to the fountain of youth: Viagra.

That night, Watts writes, "after celebrating in the grotto Jacuzzi with four young women, he never looked back."

By 2003, Hefner was also the star of a hit reality show on the E! channel, The Girls Next Door, a cleavage-fest that chronicled life at the Playboy Mansion through the eyes of three new knockout, live-in girlfriends.

The series is now in its fifth season, although the three hot-looking babes, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson, moved out of the mansion in October.

"I was roadkill," Hef says of their departure, "because I thought I'd be spending the rest of my life with Holly."

Holly, it seems, was his primary girlfriend. But how long can you stay roadkill when you're Hugh Hefner?

Now he's dating 19-year-old twins Karissa and Kristina Shannon and a young woman named Crystal Harris - that one-girlfriend-at-a-time stuff doesn't seem to work for Hef - and says of his life now: "It's a time of transition."

And not a terribly tough transition, apparently.

"Hey, I'm taking the girls to Disney World this afternoon!" Hef says just before our conversation ends. "It should be fun!"

As if the guy hasn't had enough of that already.

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