My Time on Bunny Duty

In light of a lengthy new profile of Hugh Hefner, a former editor muses on Hef's passage from icon to ghost.

Having worked as an editor at playboy.com during its late '90s heyday when dot-com IPOs were popping up like erections in a sophomore Spanish class, I read Charles McGrath's profile of Hugh Hefner with particular relish. I'd experienced firsthand how Hef and his daughter Christie managed their employees, his magazine and its Playmates, and seen the difference between the Playboy of the Collective Imagination (quaaludes, all-night sex parties, balling in the break room) and the Playboy of my W-2s (meetings, political skulduggery, meetings).

McGrath's is a sort of Hugh Hefner puff piece that's been spontaneously regenerating itself for decades, a Playboy-branded Mad Libs that goes something like this:

  • Start with a historic/creepy anecdote about Hefner's tenuous relationship with Marilyn Monroe and, by extension, a lost era of Hollywood royalty: "Hugh Hefner already has his final resting place picked out and paid for: a crypt next to Marilyn Monroe's in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles."
  • Fail to note that the already established Monroe's pin-up photos elevated 1953's debut issue of Playboy from a pack of similarly themed swank spank competitors; Playboy did not "make" Marilyn.
  • Remark on the curiosity of an octogenarian who lives "the life of an invalid, or even of a cosseted mental patient: wearing pajamas all day; rarely venturing out of the house; taking most of his meals in his bedroom."
  • Quickly double back to proclaim that Hef is in "otherwise enviable shape...One former girlfriend has said that in the bedroom, with his clothes off, he practically glows in the dark."
  • Profile his Faustian market longevity by referencing the reality show The Girls Next Door (which never explained if the girls in question were his Playmate "girlfriends" Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson or their D-cup sweater puppies) and, of course, the continued existence of Playboy magazine itself.
  • Reframe the wincing absurdity of an 84 year-old getting engaged to a 24 year-old centerfold (again) by dubbing him a "benign and indulgent paterfamilias, a kind of fairy godfather."
  • Don't forget Hef's relevance to modernity! (Mention that he tweeted news of his engagement!)
  • Pull in the "newsy" hook: in this case, that Hef wants to buy back Playboy. (Previous incarnations have included "Hef's Beautiful/Intelligent Daughter Runs Playboy as Hef Settles Down," "Hef's Beautiful/Intelligent Daughter Still Running Playboy" and "Hef Not Dead Yet.")
  • Describe the magazine's lustrous history while documenting its decline in the face of competitors ranging from lad mags to bangbros.com.
  • Reiterate that Hef is "not a sleazebag" by comparing his mien to the primary attributes of his archetypal competitors: "Bob Guccione's oiliness" and "Larry Flynt's leering vulgarity."
  • Meld the Playboy brand and Hef into one megalithic entity that will, in the words of Hef himself, "be easier to perpetuate...when I'm not around, because then nobody will be pissed off that I'm still getting laid." (Because his Viagra-fueled orgies are what really gets Gloria Steinem's panties in a bunch.)

Like most articles about Hef, McGrath's piece makes no mention of Playboy's various associations with hard drug use, including the overdose of former Playboy Bunny Adrienne Pollack in 1973, the suicide of Hefner's long-term executive secretary after conviction on drug smuggling charges in 1975, and the 1985 testimony for Ronald Reagan's largely discredited Meese Commission on Pornography from Playmate Miki Garcia and former bunny Brenda MacKillop that drug use and venereal disease were rampant at Playboy Mansion parties. Hef is on record stating that he gobbled amphetamines, ostensibly to keep up with his magazine's production schedule, but more than one Playmate told me about the copious drugs that floated around the Mansion, often sotto voce during interviews for some corporate mission or another. One of the video editors I worked with missed a week of work because he was arrested at the Mexican border with Valium he'd picked up from a pharmacia. I was shocked he wasn't fired until I heard scuttlebutt that he was supplying editors at the magazine with pills.

But Hefner's patriarchal conservatism is perhaps the dirtiest non-secret in the Playboy mansion. He enforced 9PM curfews on his (invariably blond) girlfriends, gave them a $1000-a-week allowance (former Playboy model Jill Ann Spaulding says $2,000 in her tell-all potboiler, Upstairs) and refused to wear a condom, telling the Daily Beast last month that "one of the ways that you resolve that problem [of STD transmission] is to have sex with people who don't have sexually transmitted diseases." By all accounts, he is a gentleman, a genius and a shrewd businessman. But the ever-growing pile of anecdotal evidence suggests that the signature phrase stenciled in Latin over the front door of his old Chicago mansion, "Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare" (If you don't swing, don't ring), meant that the door swung only one way.

I was in charge of the nude part of the site, the so-called "Cyber Club," a label that evoked an after-school programming org for Commodore 64 enthusiasts more than a digital archive of Photoshopped jackoff material. (I proposed changing the name shortly after taking the post but was told that "Hef liked it," a telegraph that questioning the corny moniker would be professionally unwise.) Besides working with designers to devise the themes for online photo collections and writing the tempting copy ("You'll be thigh-high in this week's 'Legs' pictorial!"), my duties included the creation and maintenance of Playmate personal pages for every woman who had ever graced the magazine's centerfold. These were individualized mini-sites devoted to each Playmate, made to suit her personal taste. Like all women, some were easy and accommodating; others were fickle and notoriously difficult to please. Hef wanted the Playmates' online presence to exist solely under Playboy's digital umbrella. There was tacit agreement that a few renegade Playmates breaking from the fold might trigger a cyber stampede, with blondes and brunettes breaking for the digital West like a softcore Manifest Destiny.

(There was, of course, some consternation regarding the page of Dorothy Stratten, 1980's Playmate of the Year, who was murdered by her estranged husband and manager after she left him for director Peter Bogdanovich. Her current publicly available "Playmate Directory" handles the controversy by making no mention of it.)

Perhaps Hef really imagined that he could keep all those cats corralled with the Mansion's parrots and peacocks. Or maybe he anticipated the Internet's growing ease of use and knew that it was only a matter of time before his girls fled his gilded online coop, so it was imperative to make as much money off them in as short a time as possible. Either way, he took it seriously enough that his personal assistant called me (a first) demanding an update on the status of each of the Playmate's personal pages. Hef's assistant! On the phone! Right now! My throat went dry as I tried to calculate what had been done and what was left to do, telling him that I'd have to call him back with numbers. To put this task in perspective, there have been 12 Playmates every year since the start of 1954, which would have meant the creation of 528 Playmate mini-sites in 1998. Give and take some anomalies like double-hitters and the occasional two-Playmate issues and the number shrinks to a slightly more manageable 525.

Producing all these micro-sites for Playboy models (yes, I know some of them are deceased) would be like Snooki trying to clean the tops of all the cabinets in the Jersey Shore house. In other words, impossible. Assuming we could have finished one per week, it would've taken us 10 years to complete them all, no vacations. I imagined Hef himself going through similar mental calculations when dispensing his evening's Viagra. He managed his girlfriends like he managed his empire, and if reality didn't quite mesh with his vision of how things should be, then he'd adjust reality to his liking. Give the ladies what they want! (As long as it's what Hef wants.)

And why not? If there was a sexual revolution in America, hadn't Hef driven it? Or at the very least, hadn't he carved out a space for himself in it, a unique spot in the pantheon of larger-than-life self-made American personas that only he could occupy?

It's difficult to write about Hugh Hefner without resorting to cliché, and at this point it's probably difficult to be Hugh Hefner without doing the same, but clichés are born from the examples of trailblazers. From a few cash loans from family and friends, he built a magazine, an iconic brand and an empire that yet survives. But ultimately, the world changed in ways that he couldn't predict, and try as he might to keep up, his strong viewpoint moored him in time and place, an icon who stopped being relevant for precisely the same reasons that he achieved relevance to begin with. He attempted to marry sophistication with dalliance...and ended up an old man in new PJs. Perhaps his profile keeps rewriting itself because our generation's male icons lack the intensity and flair to inspire anything approximating either love or hate. Now, marrying his last blonde and preparing to be frozen in the carbonite of fame, Hef inspires another sensation: pity.