Re­mem­ber­ing Hugh Hefner

Our re­porter re­flects on his visit to the Play­boy Man­sion

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Marco della Cava @mar­codel­la­cava USA TODAY

Hefner was al­ways gra­cious dur­ing these kaf­feeklatsches, some­times throw­ing out a loaded ques­tion, but mainly en­joy­ing the oc­ca­sion­ally heated spar­ring.

In 1992, I was sum­moned to Play­boy Man­sion in an im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful cor­ner of Los An­ge­les.

My fin­ger poked the buzzer on the gate in­ter­com and, af­ter I an­nounced my­self, it lazily swung open.

Two bun­nies crossed my path; the an­i­mals stopped, wrin­kled their noses, and hopped off. As the car made its way up a wind­ing path, a sign warned: “Chil­dren X-ing.” The party, it seemed, was over.

Hugh Hefner was 66 then, in hind­sight a spry se­nior cit­i­zen about to have his love life tur­bocharged in six years’ time by the advent of Vi­a­gra. My visit co­in­cided with the re­lease of a fa­vor­able doc­u­men­tary called Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time.

The plan was for me to watch the movie with The Man Called Hef in his fa­bled screen­ing room, home to many a Man­sion movie night but per­haps not much movie-watch­ing. Like clock­work, Hef ap­peared, prof­fer­ing a hand and a grin, flopped down on a sofa and said “Let’s roll it.”

I tried to play it cool, but it was all a bit much. Be­tween the slip­pers, pa­ja­mas and the fa­bled red silk bathrobe — it was early afternoon, peo­ple — and the odd phe­nom­e­non of watch­ing a movie about a man while sit­ting with that man while he’s as­sess­ing the movie about him­self, the ex­pe­ri­ence was this side of sur­real.

Af­ter the movie was over, we spoke for a bit about his life and times, which seemed largely to re­cap the movie I’d just seen. He of­fered me a soft drink. My visit was prov­ing far tamer than his­tory had ad­ver­tised.

What was clear was that this was not party-hound Hef. In 1989, he had shocked ev­ery­one by head­ing to the al­tar with Kim­ber­ley Con­rad, who was all of 30. The cou­ple soon had two sons, for whom the cau­tion­ary sign had been placed in the drive­way.

But what hap­pened some time af­ter I left the Man­sion — a visit that in­cluded a tour around the var­i­ous rooms and grot­tos that had been home to fa­bled de­bauch­ery but now seemed eerily quiet — was sur­pris­ing.

I had re­cently moved to USA TODAY’s L.A. bureau from its Vir­ginia head­quar­ters, and Hefner’s PR han­dler called and in­vited me back to the Man­sion for what can best be de­scribed as a sa­lon.

Why Hefner would want me there, I had no idea; why he wanted to hold a sa­lon made per­fect sense. While be­ing a for­mi­da­ble light­ning rod for ac­tivists who con­demned his mag­a­zine and life­style as in-

her­ently ex­ploita­tive, Hefner none­the­less wasn’t one to shy away from a good de­bate.

And it was in that spirit that he de­cided to hold oc­ca­sional gath­er­ings to dis­cuss the top­ics of the day.

So I at­tended a few of them, and I’d be ly­ing if I said I could tell you ex­actly what we dis­cussed. (One fo­cused on what Cal­i­for­nia Re­gents should do about the soar­ing cost of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.)

I would try and just keep up with the con­ver­sa­tion, but mostly I was star­ing at real guests, such as his pals Smokey Robin­son and Mo­town founder Berry Gordy, won­der­ing, “What am I do­ing here?”

Hefner was al­ways gra­cious dur­ing these celebrity-packed kaf­feeklatsches, some­times throw­ing out a loaded ques­tion, but mainly en­joy­ing the oc­ca­sion­ally heated spar­ring in his midst.

Even­tu­ally my in­vi­ta­tions stopped com­ing. I didn’t know if I’d of­fended the host with a com­ment. But I didn’t think that was the rea­son. The man had too thick a skin for that. Mostly, I fig­ured, he just wanted to see new faces light up his room.

Per­haps fam­ily life was get­ting to him af­ter all, I won­dered. Maybe be­ing holed up like a silk-robed Ra­pun­zel in that op­u­lent man­sion was get­ting lonely for a man who had come to epit­o­mize the wild nightlife.

Not long af­ter, I heard that Con­rad had moved out and into a nearby house. In 1998, the cou­ple sep­a­rated (and much later di­vorced). The “Chil­dren X-ing ” sign came down, and the Bun­nies re­turned to the lawn.

That was a Man­sion I never got to see. There was no in­vite ex­tended for Hef ’s sub­se­quent party years, which went on, stag­ger­ingly, for an­other two decades.

That’s OK. My mem­o­ries re­main that of a rather quiet man who was cu­ri­ous about oth­ers and the world around him. Maybe a man more akin to Hugh Marston Hefner, than to Hef.

JAE C. HONG, AP

2005 PHOTO BY DAN MACMEDAN, USA TODAY

GABRIEL BOUYS, AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Hugh Hefner, the silk-pa­ja­mas-wear­ing founder of Play­boy mag­a­zine who helped steer nu­dity into Amer­ica’s main­stream, died Wed­nes­day at 91. Above, the Play­boy Man­sion in Bev­erly Hills in 2007.

AP

Hugh Hefner and then-girl­friend Barbi Ben­ton are served by Play­boy Club model Ch­eryl upon their ar­rival at LaGuardia Air­port. Hefner owned a jet in the 1960s he called The Big Bunny.

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