Victor Lownes likes the Arabs in London.
And why shouldn't he? They like him.
But more importantly for Lownes, they like his clubs. They go there to gamble. And they leave a lot behind.
Victor Lownes is the president of Playboy Clubs International, senior vice president of Playboy Enterprises, the second largest stockholder of Playboy stocks and chairman and managing director of four British casions, including England's largest, the London Playboy Club. He is also an American.
"My division of Playboy Enterprises is the big moneymaker," he says, "and London is our biggest profit-making organization. The earnings from my division this year are $13 million, from which in excess of $10 million come from the English operation."
With a knowing look, he adds. "Let's put it this way. More than 100 per cent of the profits from the clubs comes from the London operation."
At this point, Lownes' English girl friend of five years, former Playboy bunny and Playmate of the year ("I did the first full frontal") Marilyn Cole, pipes up. "But Victor. That doesn't make sense. How could anything be more than 100 per cent?"
Victor Lownes grins.
Lownes and Cole are having dinner in the Playboy dining room, a room more reminiscent of a Middleburg, Va., country inn than a bunny hutch. It is tastefully decorated, quiet, understated.
"This room," he says, "celebrates my hobby. Foxhunting."
Cole, who is 28, tall and svelte, worked as a bunny in the London club for several years before she began living with Victor. Now she is a hostess at one of his other gambling clubs, the posh Clermont Club on Berkeley Square. She greets all the bunnies with a smile, calling them all by name as they come over to serve.
At 49, Lownes is casual, funny, with a kind of teddy bear appeal that seems at odds with his work and his impressive intelligence.
After dinner (much champagne and caviar, hovering waiters and tableside telephones at the ready). Lownes goes upstairs to the casino to make his nightly check. It is packed this Wednesday evening. There is no a single non-Arab gambler in the place. Many of the customers greet him fondly or just nod politely if they were engrossed in their betting.Most of the croupiers are women, the floor managers men. One of the floor managers explains to Lownes that one man at the roulette table has just lost $170,000 and is still losing. The man is smiling obviously enjoying himself.
Lownes says this is not unusual and that the Arabs, particularly the Saudis, have been known to lose a half million pounds ($850,000) in one night.
On the way out, Lownes pauses at the buffet table, set up so the players don't have to leave the room but can have a bite in the midst of their gaming. "What's the Arab specialty tonight?" he asks the chef. "We always have an Arab specialty each night." he says.
Because of the Arab's importance to his business, Victor Lownes has made a real attempt to get to know them personally, to understand and befriend them.
"These people have adjusted to Western ways with a remarkable enthusiasm." he says. "I think they're amazing. They really do try to assimilate. They have no interest in preserving their culture here. I think it's a disaster that the Americans are so preoccupied with their roots.
"People in the States are becoming more and more chauvinistic about their backgrounds, their origins. People were originally put into the melting pot. England, on the other hand, is a grand assimilation country. You never hear the English talking about someone being Celtic or Anglo. The English want them to merge with their culture. And the nice thing about the Arabs is that they make an effort to become westernized. In fact," he says. "I've never seen people adjust so well to an alien culture."
Some of the British do accuse the Arabs of bad behavior, says Lownes, and it makes him angry.
"They are generous to a fault. They leave lavish tips without expecting anything. You admire their car and they'll give it to you. We got a silver service from Nawaf.King Khaled's brother. And Hussein's brother wanted to give me a horse. I said no so he gave me a saddle and bridle instead. An Arab will come to my house to visit and almost always will bring a piece of jewelry for Marilyn."
"They are," adds Cole, "very shrewd though. They choose when they want to give their money."
"people are jealous of them," says Lownes. "England is in the throes of a kind of egalitarian malaise and a lot of people here can't stand to see anybody be rich and successful.
"Here." says Lownes, "if you drive a Rolls the attitude is to throw a stone at it. Whereas in America they'd say, "Gee, someday I'll have of one of those." That's what's wrong with England. And that," he says, "explains part of our success here. We welcome the Arabs. Other clubs froze them out."
"I have yet to see a drunken Arab at the Club," says Cole. "Or an Arab being sick or rude or see an Arab steal the way the so-called English aristocracy do. They're the ones who get sick and throw up all over the club. They steal newspapers and complain about their losses. The Arabs will walk in and lose 100,000 pounds and be pleased. I must admit I had to change my view of them. Before I used to think less of the girls who went out with them.
"You also," adds Cole, rolling her eyes, at Lownes, "get really obnoxious Americans."
"I wish." he agrees, "that I had the same problems with pilferage in America as I do from the Arabs. They just don't steal. Where they come from they get their hands chopped off for stealing. And they believe in Kismet. Fate. That plays such a large role in their lives. For them, gambling is testing the attitude of the gods."
"That's right," says Cole. "In terms of gambling here, Arabs are the name of the game."
Victor Lownes wasn't always in London.
After graduating from a military academy in New Mexico, he went to the University of Chicago, got married at 18, had two children, went to the business school at Chicago and joined his grandfather's Chicago branch of the Silent Watchman Corp., which made time locks.
"Bored to death" very quickly, he met Hugh Hefner at a party one night, and in 1955 he accepted his offer to join the newly started Playboy magazine as promotion director.
He began developing what had begun as "a dirty magazine into an advertising medium," directing the aids toward the younger, college market. Several years later, Playboy ran an article about The Gaslight Club in Chicago and got 3,000 letters from people asking how they could join. Because of that "I thought we ought to start a club ourselves so we started it in 1960. Then I dreamt up the idea of girls dressed as bunnies. Hefner was against the bunny idea at first. He thought it was a male symbol, that a bunny was a little man in a tuxedo. He wanted girls in shortie nightgowns." Lownes finally convinced Hefner of the idea and, as they say, the rest is history.
"Then," says Lownes. "I got bored with the whole idea that I was going to spend the rest of may life in Chicago. I went through an adult life crisis.
"I said I wanted to leave, that I wanted to live in Europe. Hefner suggested I go and start something there. It took me six months to find a location for this club. Hefner told his people in Chicago to get rid of me. He thought I wasn't doing anything. I flew back to America and persuaded Hefner that I was onto a good thing. We opened, there was another attempt by the palace guard to get rid of me. Now, they're gone," he says with a menacing smile. "And I'm still here."
Two and a half years ago, Hefner asked Lownes to take over the whole club and hotel operation in the United States. And in London he is the biggest thing in gambling. He sits on the executives council of the British Casino Assn., to which the Gaming Board looks to for advice. Under Lownes, Playboy is the only non-British company to operate there.
Five years ago he started the Clermont Club, one of the most beautiful clubs in London. He bought the building, which was originally the home of the Earl of Clermont built for his mistress Arabella Finch.
"I've had the Clermont Club as long as I've had Marilyn," he jokes. "She came with the deal."
A few years ago he bought "Stocks," an old girls school in the country about an hour's drive outside of London. He converted it into a replica of an old English country manor house and he and Cole spend weekends there, foxhunting, riding, swimming, entertaining - surrounded by servants. During the week, however, it's another thing. During the week "Stocks" becomes a bunny croupier school, with the third-floor servants quarters bunny dorms and the old chapel in the back of the house converted into a gaming room.
"I am very happy with "Stocks." says Lownes. "It's my dream come true."
Still, he says, dreams chance and "I think every six or seven years you make some big change in your life style.
He has something in mind.
Lownes will be there when Atlantic City tries to become the Las Vegas of the East. "Now we control the entire Playboy club and hotel operation from here as well as the gambling," he says. "But we see our future in gambling. The hotel complex in Atlantic City will contribute in the neighborhood of $70 million. I feel it's going to be tremendously profitable. And it will be establishing a new image in America, where the Playboy clubs have become passed and have an 'out' image as opposed to an 'in' image.
"The bunnies have become passe. The bunnies are all right here in London. They don't hurt the food and the customers love it. Here we have a good image. But in the States, Playboy has gotten a tattered image - gradually. And it's even harder to rebuild an image than to build one. But it can be redone.
"I'm going into the kind of gambling that is unique in America. In Atlantic City, the rooms will be the biggest, we'll have a French gourmet restaurant, paintings from Paris, a grand salon: . . . and of course, it will appeal to the Arabs. Just one of our Arab gamblers is worth 20 of our ordinary gamblers. . . ."
Lowens has already decided on the name of the nightclub in the Playboy casino in Atlantic City, "Scheherazade."
"The Atlantic City project," he says, "could be make or break."
He has only one problem. "I don't think I could stand to live in New York."
"But Jackie Onassis lives in New Jersey," says Cole. "And she foxhunts there."
"Foxhunting." muses Lownes, his face brightening. "Well, then, I think I might like to spend some time there."