Orgy and out
Hugh Hefner’s lust for life
‘Lingerie or Less.” If the “strict dress code” on Hugh Hefner’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Party invitation wasn’t enough to strike terror into any woman’s heart, the warning in small print beneath — “Filming crews will be present” — surely would have been. But this was one of LA’s biggest annual bashes, an infamous bacchanalian ritual held at the Playboy Mansion on the first Saturday of every August, I would get to meet the legendary Hef, and there was no way my boyfriend (now husband) Piers Morgan was about to pass up the opportunity to live out the ultimate male fantasy.
Indeed, when he told David Hasselhoff — his co-host on America’s Got Talent back in 2007 — that he was bringing me along, the
Knight Rider star sighed, shook his head and said: “Man, you don’t bring sand to the beach.”
Body paint and not much else
I could have been outraged, but Hasselhoff had a point. As we pulled up outside the Gothic Tudor-style mansion that was home to the Playboy founder for 46 years until his death this week, aged 91, it was sand as far as the eye could see. These women were nipped, tucked and plucked, in mesh, peephole and latex lingerie, and lining up to have their outfits inspected (no “overdressing” allowed) by a hatchet-faced woman at the door.
Inside we were greeted by a sight that would have made Caligula blush: naked women in iridescent body paint were handing out vodka jelly shots, an Agent Provocateur-clad Paris Hilton was helping herself to oysters from the seafood buffet, and wizened octogenarians — roaming about the place looking like they were about to fall into the sexual equivalent of a diabetic coma — were being held upright by the pneumatic breasts on either side of them.
Getting the distinct impression my other half would rather I were anywhere but by his side, I headed off in search of The Hef, eventually finding him in a Bedouin tent near the grotto in which he liked to frolic with as many as 16 girls at a time — always the last place you look. He was regal in purple velour, flanked by his favourite playmates, Kendra, Holly and Bridget, and smoking strawberry-scented tobacco from a hookah pipe.
We are not amused
“Could I possibly meet Mr Hefner?” I asked one of his gatekeepers, and a minute later I was in, chatting to the man himself about Brits and Britain, which he said he loved, as one frail arm wound itself around my waist. “If you could have one famous woman in the world as your next playmate,” I asked, thinking this would be my first and last chance to ask Hugh Hefner anything, “who would it be?” “Your Queen Elizabeth,” he flung back, quick as a flash. “Wouldn’t she look cute in bunny ears?”
Four years passed before I met Hefner again — four years the Chicago-born media magnate had spent trying to inject new life into the ailing brand he’d started in 1953, when his mother gave him $1 000 to launch Playboy magazine. Despite having expanded to include television, film, resorts, nightclubs, products and charities over the years, Playboy Enterprises could never recapture its ’70s heyday, when the magazine was selling seven million copies a month. At this point it was down to under a million and fading fast — unlike Hefner, who was in fine fettle and about to marry his third wife, the 24-year-old former playmate Crystal Harris.
The 60-year age gap wasn’t a problem, he assured me — looking, as always, like the tom-cat who just keeps getting the cream. “Surrounding myself by young people helps keep me younger,” he went on, “and plus, you do reach a point where you think ‘maybe it’s time to settle down’.”
When I asked whether he’d be having a stag night, however, Hefner snorted incredulously: “I’ve been having a stag night for the past 50 years.”
To have and to hold
He was mischievous and funny, a man-child who refused to accept that adulthood was a place where dreams go to die, and as with our first meeting I found it hard to muster any real sense of outrage. He was neither the Citizen Kane nor the Jay Gatsby he was so often compared to, although he was perhaps as nostalgic and romantic as Fitzgerald’s hero. And when he spoke of old screen stars like Marilyn Monroe, Gina Harlow and Dorothy Lamour, or the love songs he adored, his voice wavered with emotion.
“I’m totally capable of being a good husband,” he explained when I asked why a man who had based his life on rejecting monogamy was getting married at 85. “I can be devoted, sensitive . . .” Faithful? “Yes,” he exclaimed. “Absolutely. I do think that monogamy’s . . . possible. I just don’t think it’s the natural way of things. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The only immorality is in the lying: it’s in the hypocrisy.”
And I believe that it was this desire to fight hypocrisy and the repression he’d grown up around that powered Hefner. As the son of conservative, Midwestern, Methodist parents (his father, Glenn, was an accountant and his mother, Grace, a teacher), he told me that he accepted that he “fell a little far from the tree” but that he also “had a real problem with that repressive attitude towards sex”.
It surprised me how visibly irritated Hefner became at the mention of the feminists who have accused him of degrading, objectifying and abusing women. After all, between 1963, when Gloria Steinem published an eviscerating piece based on her experiences working undercover as a Playboy Bunny, and 2011, when the “EffOffHef” campaigners scattered rabbit droppings outside his new London club, there hadn’t been any great thawing.
Dream on, Hef
But Hefner was cross, he said, because they “got it wrong”. Got him wrong? Yes, he nodded. “And the reasons for that are understandable. But the sexual revolution was for both sexes. I’m a champion not just of women but of women’s rights,” he maintained. “Look: I’m celebrating life. I accept that it isn’t for everybody but my belief is that it doesn’t matter how many boyfriends or girlfriends you have if you treat them well. In the end, I want to be remembered as someone who has had some positive impact on changing social sexual values.”
If that was Hefner’s dying wish, I’m afraid it won’t come true. How much that matters when the man spent his life living out every dream he dreamt up and will now lie in a plot beside Marilyn Monroe for eternity, I’m not sure.
EMPIRE OF FLESH Hugh Hefner with bunnies Sheila Levell, left, and Holly Madison at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, California, in 2003. On the first Saturday of August every year, Hefner threw one of the biggest bashes in LA at the mansion.
VOLUPTUOUS TASTES Hefner in front of a wall collage of centrefolds from Playboy, which he launched in 1953.