It is about 2 in the afternoon at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, and Hugh Hefner is still in his pajamas for the very good reason that Hugh Hefner is always still in his pajamas.
He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago at a time when the nearby suburbs were mostly prairie and he never abandoned the simple dreams of his adolescence: He would wake up late, he would wear his pj’s and his bathrobe all day, he would drink Pepsis whenever he wanted to, and he would sleep with a lot of very beautiful women.
Go sue him.
He is a down-home, likeable and, in a sense, very ordinary person. In a different era, “playboys” were international jet-setters. They dated screen stars, played polo, drove race cars, skied, sailed yachts, and were a regular features at the parties of the rich and famous.
Hef likes to stay home. He has always liked to stay home. True, once he became rich, he made sure his homes were magnificent.
The one in Los Angeles is a Gothic-Tudor castle on six acres. He donated the original Playboy Mansion on Chicago’s near north side to the Art Institute for a dormitory when he abandoned the Midwest for the West Coast. But once inside his home, wherever it is, he doesn’t really like to go out much.
The Chicago mansion was famous for the bar downstairs, which had portholes cut into one wall so you could see topless bunnies in the pool swim by. “This looks like a tacky Polynesian restaurant,” Hefner said.
In the era before VCRs and DVDs, he had a giant, professional movie projector set up in his Chicago mansion and when the movies were done playing in the Loop each night, a projectionist would come up to his house and play them for him and his friends.
He once showed me a room in the mansion filled with electronic equipment, TV monitors and huge tape decks. “I can tape things right off the television and then play them back whenever I want,” he said with the glee of a six-year-old who had gotten his first electric train set. Hefner’s taping set-up, which was way ahead of its time, cost him tens of thousands of dollars. In a few years, you could buy a VCR for a fraction of that. But Hefner didn’t like to wait for his pleasures.
He almost never dated anybody famous — though a few became at least semi-famous after they dated him — and he didn’t race cars or sail yachts or ski. He bought an enormous passenger jet and painted it black except for the famous white bunny logo on the tail, but he hardly ever flew it anywhere except between Chicago and Los Angeles, where he taped a TV show called “Playboy After Dark.”
“That’s the reason that I got the Big Bunny, the black DC-9, the coolest private jet ever,” Hefner once told a reporter. “Like a flying apartment.”
Like a flying apartment. So he would never have to leave home.
When I went to Los Angeles to do political stories, I would try to stop by the mansion and talk to Hefner. When I dropped by in 1988, he was watching an episode of “Murder, She Wrote” on his VCR, but he stopped the tape long enough for an interview.
I asked him when he began to really attract women and his answer was so frank, I had to laugh.
“I had a dramatic change with women as soon as I started the magazine and I started dating the Playmates,” he said. “By the ’60s, I was wealthy. Bunnies were living in the house. I was a celebrity. And I realized that what I was as a senior in high school was a dress rehearsal for my later life.”
He was a very big deal in high school. Student council. Good dancer. Popular. And then life seemed to go down hill. Because as a senior he was a boy in love.
“That summer I fell head over heels for a girl,” he said. “She was a jitterbugger, a bobby soxer. I learned to jitterbug with her. But she wanted me as a friend, not a boyfriend. The girl I really wanted wasn’t interested in me.”
The rest of his life became a search for that girl. Not a flashy screen siren. Not some famous rock star. Just the girl next door. Which is what his magazine was all about. (Assuming the girl next door was willing to take off her clothes in front of a photographer.)
Hefner hung out with the poorest kids on his block. He got into schoolyard fights defending Franklin Roosevelt. And he was ostracized in the Army during World War II for befriending Jewish soldiers.
After the University of Illinois, Hefner got married. It was the thing you did almost automatically back then. But it ended after 10 years. He did not marry again until 30 years later, after he began the magazine and had women running all over the mansion and was a celebrity.
His marriage to Kimberley Conrad, Miss January 1988, lasted 21 years, though there was an 11-year separation, Hef wanting to stay married for the sake of the couple’s two young children. (He also has two children from his first marriage.)
Hefner got divorced in March of 2010 and on Christmas Eve he got engaged to Crystal Harris, 23, Miss December 2009.
The media focused on the large age difference between the two – – he was 60 when she was born – – but few stopped to consider what to me was much more significant: Why does Hefner still bother with marriage? To many, especially celebrities, it has become a highly dispensable ceremony.
But not to Hef. Not to the boy who falls “head over heels.” He has found his girl next door once again, and like the boys of times gone by, he did the right thing by her when they married.
He sold the mansion in 2016 for $100 million under the condition he could continue to live and work there. He died there Wednesday at age 91.
He once tried to explain his life to me. “If you don’t commit, you don’t get hurt,” he said very sadly.
But you have committed. And you are committed now, I said.
“I am willing to risk it,” he said. “I am willing to be vulnerable. I can put the pompous part of my life, all the masks I used to wear, all the games I used to play, behind me.
“I am about to write a Third Act to my life no longer troubled by demons. And I am going to make this the most precious part of my life.”
I asked the man who had written the complex (and seemingly endless) Playboy Philosophy to sum up what it all meant.
“What this world needs is more hugging and less hurting,” Hugh Hefner said.
I don’t think he ever really was looking for sex. Sex was just a substitute. He was looking for love. He was not looking for a lot of women; he was looking for just one. One he could love and who would love him in return. He was looking to make all his dreams come true.
And how very corny, how very all-American, can you get?
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