Everybody who's here is looking for something. And why shouldn't they be? It's Saturday night at the Playboy Mansion, barely three months to the millennium.
There are the geriatric swingers--necks like rubber chickens, stomachs suctioned into pairs of black jeans, meager hair blow-dried to a pouf--still hoping to score. Here's the new generation of playboys in goatees and leather cruising the room, eyes glinting with expectation.
The old-time Hollywood crowd (James Caan, Elliott Gould, Dick Van Patten) is joined by a newer group of moviedom's restless stags--Jeff Goldblum, James Woods, Scott Speedman from "Felicity." Here's director Michael Bay. And Kato Kaelin. Quentin Tarantino shows up late in flapping jeans that hang to mid-calf. He finds four girls and hangs on tight.
The girls! Isn't that why we're all here? Playmates saunter around solo in plunging necklines and their good-girl/bad-girl smiles. The Dahm triplets--December '98 co-Playmates of the Month--wear matching black cowboy outfits and Stetsons.
There are Playmate wannabes, too many to count--an alarming percentage of whom look like Pamela Anderson Lee. And so many are dressed alike: stacked platform heels, halter tops and low-riding, skintight pants.
Then the cocktail crowd shifts and there he is, seated at a wrought-iron table in trademark burgundy pajama jacket, black silk pants and velvet house slippers. Hugh Hefner, 73, smiles as his girlfriends lounge within inches--Brandy Roderick, 25; Mandy Bentley, 21, one of a set of identical twins (Sandy is away at school)--and their best friend Jessica.
They're all wearing black leather tops and those navel-baring leather pants, with the same bleached-blond, teased-up hair. They look bored. Or rather, absent, with the diffident air of the flamingos that pick their way around the property's gardens, content but uninterested exotic pets. Occasionally he leans over and gently kisses one of them on the lips.
Hef--a single syllable that rings through our popular culture like Cher or Prince or Di--is back on a grand scale, done mourning the collapse of his nine-year marriage to former Playmate Kimberley Conrad, happily popping Viagra and parading his girlfriends around L.A.'s hot spots.
Miss the last big party of the century? Not a chance. The happy hedonist survived the 1970s sexual revolution and the conservative counterrevolution of the 1980s, only to venture out late in the '90s and discover he'd become a hero to a new generation of post-AIDS swingers, a magnet for a new crop of sexually ambitious, fin de millennium females.
"You know the best thing about this house?" muses one twenty-something, muscle-bound guest admiringly, a personal trainer who declines to give his name. "The guy had a dream, and this is it. Peacocks. Monkeys. The jacuzzi. Every man's dream is to create something, and he did it. . . . Hey, men are attracted to beauty. Women are attracted to power. It's the way it is."
College-age readership of Playboy is up 62 percent in the last four years. Hefner finds himself feted everywhere from Hollywood's Friars Club to the American Society of Magazine Editors, which recently inducted him into its Hall of Fame. Director Ron Howard is developing a feature film about him. In a glowing A&E "Biography" special on his life, feminist Camille Paglia pronounces him "one of the principal architects of the modern sexual revolution."
"This is the best time of my life," Hefner says in an interview a few days after the party. He is in his library, where an oil painting of him dressed as a Renaissance prince hangs above the fireplace. He's in Hefwear--that same burgundy silk pajama jacket over black silk pants--and, despite jowls, is still a handsome man.
"The golden years for me are the golden years," he exults. "Society has been taking stock. . . . I've been getting recognition. Celebration. As good as my life looks from the outside, on the inside it's better."
'Smoke and Mirrors'
But is that really possible? Can a man live through five decades of serial sexual encounters, ditched relationships, failed marriages and unadulterated fun without paying a price? He says you can.
Hefner's closet has some skeletons, and they've been talking to the press. Ex-girlfriends and Playmates, some involved in lawsuits against him or Playboy, suggest that the swinging lifestyle that Hefner has so publicly embraced anew masks a superficial and ultimately unfulfilling existence.
Carrie Leigh lived with Hefner for five years in the 1980s and has since filed three lawsuits against him. She filed, then dropped, a $35 million palimony suit, then sued him for publishing unauthorized pictures of her, a suit settled when he agreed not to do so in the future. Now she is suing him for breaching that agreement.
She says she left Hefner because she felt the Playboy life was debilitating, but acknowledges it was hard to tear herself away.
"It's almost like a cult," she says. "When you live in an environment like that that's so different from how other people live, you start forgetting who you are and what you believe is right. It's like the song 'Hotel California'--'Mirrors on the ceiling, pink champagne on ice. We're all just prisoners here.' You know? 'You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave'? It took me a few years after I did leave to wipe it out of my head."
Many Playmates have remained in Hefner's orbit, as have several of his former lovers. Even his estranged wife lives on an estate adjoining the Playboy mansion with their two young sons, Marston and Cooper. For the most part, they say good things about him.
But many other women have drifted away, are disillusioned and now burn with resentment. They ask: Has Hefner ultimately been a lover of women, or has he merely used them to feed a life of self-gratification? Was he a part of women's liberation, as he now claims, or were women simply convenient props for his empire?
In five decades of anointing Playmates, fewer than a handful have known any success beyond their glossy magazine spread, notably Pamela Anderson Lee and Jenny McCarthy. Playboy discourages former Playmates from pursuing their own ventures in adult entertainment and is doggedly suing a former Playmate who has her own adult Web site, citing copyright infringement. It has been noted by those in Hefner's inner circle that his own closest relationships are with men. Others say that the image of a warm Playboy "family" is merely an image for public consumption.
"They're not faithful and committed to their girls. It's so fake and phony, I won't have anything to do with it," says Doria Rhone, who for three years hosted--and performed on--the phone-in sex show "Nightcalls" when it was the top-rated program on cable television's Playboy Channel.
She left the show in 1998, she says, because its producer wanted her to move toward more hard-core porn. "It's unfortunate, because I had a great time working for them. They treated me like a star on a Christmas tree--bodyguards, everything. The minute I stopped working for them, they could care less if I was dead or alive."
"Inside the Playboy Mansion," a coffee-table book published by Playboy earlier this year, contains page after page of photographs displaying an endless string of parties with laughing Playmates, celebrities and Hef, of course, from the 1950s to the present. Many of the men recur over the years: singer Mel Torme, physician Mark Saginor, author Shel Silverstein; the women, however, are constantly replaced.
Terri Welles, Playmate of the Year in 1981 and now being sued by Playboy over her Web site, sees it as evidence of Hefner's shallow view of women. "I think he's a misogynist. But I feel sorry for him," she says. "I think it's a bunch of smoke and mirrors that he says he's so happy with his lifestyle. . . . He thinks, 'I have money. I have power. I have fame. I have all the aphrodisiacs one could need, and I'm still not happy.' Here's a man who had everything, who other men are envious of, yet nothing is ever enough."
Kimberley Conrad Hefner, whose marriage to Hef lasted from 1989 until their separation in 1998, sees her estranged husband frequently. But she avoids seeing him with his flock of girlfriends. "I'll hear once in a while how ridiculous it looks. They're all in love with each other supposedly. It's probably what they think. It sounds really stupid," she says.
Does she think he's happy? "Uuuuuuuh, I think he's sort of happy," she says after a long hesitation. "He's happy, but I know he misses the boys and I and our old life together." She adds, "I worry about him. I worry that he may be burning the candle at both ends."
Chronicling His Own Sexuality
To be sure, Hefner has lived no ordinary life. Still, the tales of his obsession with sexual prowess may still manage to surprise. Leigh and others from Hefner's past, some interviewed on condition of anonymity, say that Hefner has hidden video cameras in his bedroom, and maintained hundreds of videotapes of the orgies and other sexual liaisons from the 1970s and '80s.
Leigh says Hefner would play tapes of him with his old girlfriends on two large-screen TVs while he and Leigh made love. She told him it hurt her feelings. She said he responded that her feelings of jealousy were outdated. Eventually, Leigh says, she begged Hefner to destroy the tapes that included her. "By my last year with him, there were no other people having sex with us for a couple of years. I said, 'We might break up, I might go on and have children, and I can't have you having these tapes--someone else might get a hold of them.' "
Hefner says he destroyed all the tapes in the mid-'80s, after Leigh walked off with one, realizing they might get into the public arena and hurt people who were on them.
Perhaps even more unusual than keeping a video archive of orgies, Hefner maintained logs of his sexual activity on legal pads that he locked in a private cabinet in his bedroom. "There were stacks of them," Leigh says. "On the left, it would say the names of the people. Next to that, it would say the type of sex . . . and to the right of that, he would grade it. A-plus-plus-plus was the highest grade, down to C-minus," Leigh says.
Leigh showed the logs to Kelli Moore, a friend who lived with her at the mansion. "I thought it was just bizarre," says Moore, now the artistic director of a theater in New York. "That was just inexplicable to me. Weird."
Says Leigh, who met Hefner when she was 19: "In the beginning I didn't think about it, but by the time I was 22 or 23 I started thinking, 'Why does this man have to do this? Doesn't he believe he's Hugh Hefner?' It was like he never could really believe he was who he was, this made-up character."
Hefner acknowledged keeping the logs--which he referred to as "diaries"--as just part of chronicling everything in his life. "I'm a writer-editor. I've done that kind of thing since early childhood," he says. "Do you think it's unusual? As a writer, the first thing you do is keep observational notes."
When Hefner is pressed--could the logs be seen as a sign of obsession?--he loses patience with the questions. Why should sex be treated differently from anything else? "It's as if you think sex is separate and apart from human experience. I think the opposite."
Asked if he believes it is possible to be addicted to sex, Hefner pauses a while to think about it. "I don't think there is a sexual addiction like drug addiction," he says. "But there is compulsion. And there are those who use sex as an obsession, like gambling."
Does that apply to himself, he is asked. Again he pauses, and then responds, "No, because when you're obsessed, you allow it to [expletive] up your life. I'm just the opposite." And he laughs.
But if Hefner has avoided injury in his quest to demystify sex, Leigh was not so fortunate.
"For a couple of years after I left him, I didn't want to have sex. I cut my hair short. I didn't wear makeup," she says. "I got so sick of feeling like an object, a thing to be there to look great for him, that I just didn't want to be bothered with anyone."
Flirting With Homosexuality?
Leigh and other Hefner girlfriends from the 1980s say they were also disturbed by Hefner's propensity for sexual encounters with men. Leigh says she interrupted Hefner's liaisons with men a couple of times. The irony that this symbol of heterosexual male virility was involved homosexually was not lost on her.
But her real fear was that it indicated Hefner's only true interest in women was exploitive. "It bothered me. It totally flipped me out," she says. "I tried to accept it. He thought it was all okay."
Hefner acknowledged having bisexual liaisons in the past: "There was some bisexuality in the heterosexual, swinging part of my life," he said. But any notion that he preferred men was "projection" on the part of Leigh, who was "obsessed" with gay life, he said. (Leigh has also acknowledged having homosexual affairs during her years with Hefner; she is now married and has a child.)
Says Hefner: "I was testing the boundaries, just knocking down walls. . . . That period of sexual experimentation is long gone."
But before it ended, Leigh and others say, many in Hefner's orbit were drawn in by the license of wealth and celebrity. A former Playmate from the 1980s recalled feeling that hanging around the mansion implied a sexual obligation that left her feeling used.
"I wanted out of there so badly," she says. "I saw what happened to some of the girls who stayed. Every Friday, every Sunday, '[Some celebrity] wants you in Room 2.' You go to Room 2."
But, she adds, nobody held a gun to her head: "I hold myself accountable."
Far from all former Playmates are down on Hef, or life at the mansion. Many believe that Playboy boosted their careers and is supportive of women. "It's like a big sorority," says Carrie Stevens, Playmate June '97, who is very fond of Hefner. "He's very eccentric. Very kind," she says. "But there's not a bad bone in his body. He's very gentle. He's Peter Pan; he never grew up."
To peruse Playboy magazine today is to realize how far mainstream culture has moved in the permissive direction the magazine heralded 45 years ago. Despite rampant hard-core erotica elsewhere, Playboy is still filled with airbrushed photos of nubile, naked, curvaceous girls-next-door. It still has quality journalism and fiction. There are still no images of sexual acts, no genitalia. Esquire and the Victoria's Secret lingerie catalogue are almost more erotic than Playboy is today.
Years ago, however, Playboy was a radical departure from convention. Hefner was raised in a middle-class Methodist home on Chicago's Northwest Side. His parents came from Nebraska, his father an accountant and a descendant of Puritans, his mother a teacher.
The young Hefner grew up during the Depression in an atmosphere of physical and emotional deprivation, to which he has long attributed his adult need to overcompensate. "I found little outward display of affection or emotion of any kind in our home," he writes in the introduction to "Inside the Playboy Mansion."
He escaped into the movies. To this day he remains an obsessive movie buff, watching films with friends five nights a week and using his fortune to help fund classic-film preservation. He served in the Army, studied psychology at the University of Illinois and married his college sweetheart, Mildred Williams, by 1949. They had two kids, Christie and David.
A cartoonist by hobby, he made plans to publish a men's magazine in late 1953 out of his Chicago apartment. It was a rapid success. By 1959 his marriage was over and he had acquired a Near North Side townhouse that he converted into his original swinging Playboy Mansion.
What was revolutionary, Hefner says, was not just the male fantasy of a playboy life, which he embodied, but the idea that women could enjoy sex as much as men and not be branded "loose" as a result. That sex was healthy and normal, not dirty. Feminists in the 1970s branded Hefner a sexist for objectifying women, but a revisionist approach espoused by Paglia on the A&E biography praised him: "Feminism got totally off track," she says. "The real direction of the liberation of women of my generation was toward Playboy, not away from it."
In 1971 Hefner decided to move to Los Angeles, buying what became his second Playboy Mansion with girlfriend Barbi Benton and filling it with exotic animals. The sprawling castle became an adult Fantasyland for the Me Decade.
Not that there weren't casualties. Playmate Dorothy Stratton was murdered by her former husband, Paul Snider, who used to spend a lot of time at the mansion; Stratton's boyfriend, director Peter Bogdanovich, wrote a book, "The Killing of the Unicorn," in which he held Hefner responsible for creating an atmosphere that unmoored Stratton and set up a tragedy. Then Hefner's executive secretary Bobbie Arnstein was sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling drugs; she committed suicide.
By the 1980s, the whole scene went into decline. Hefner continued to go through girlfriends until he met Leigh, a Canadian model who moved into the mansion in 1983. Across the country, conservatism was the order of the day. Hefner found himself under attack by the Christian right, the subject of congressional inquiry into pornography by the Meese Commission in 1985. Then, at 59, he had a stroke. Leigh stayed long enough for Hefner to recover, but said eventually she wanted out.
"There was a point where I really looked up to him, like a father figure, until I realized I didn't want that anymore," she says. "I wanted to grow up, do something with my life, and he didn't like that."
Hefner says he still loves Leigh and doesn't understand her current resentment or her lawsuit, which is over pictures--published in the coffee-table book--that had been taken inside the bedroom.
After Leigh left, Hefner made an abrupt decision to settle down, meeting and marrying Playmate Kimberley Conrad, and handing the magazine over to his daughter, Christie. The new Mrs. Hefner put a stop to the partying and the orgies and kicked the hangers-on off the property. "There was a lot of anger among people who wanted to use the place for their own purposes," Conrad recalls.
Hefner says he was happily married for most of their union and adjusted easily to being the faithful husband and father. "I managed to reinvent the notion of romance," he says.
Even Conrad says it was her idea to separate, though she declines to explain exactly what went wrong. "He was extremely possessive and protective," she says. "Protective, I love. A little possessive, I like. And very controlling. He was very controlling." She draws a breath, as if unsure if she should continue. "Not controlling in a bad way. it was just a little bit much."
She continues, "He would expect you to be at home, say, at 5:30 or 6. Every single night. It was basically on his program. It was a little bit monotonous. Or, if I wanted to go to sleep at 11, he'd want me to stay up with him till 1 or 2 and watch things. I'd say I want to go to bed and get up at 6:30 and work out. He wouldn't be happy about it. He doesn't like to be alone."
Hefner says there came a point when he "really felt my wife didn't love me."
They separated amicably in January 1998. And Hefner lost no time plunging back into his old lifestyle.
It's after midnight on Saturday night and the cameras of the Playboy Channel are rolling as Brandy, Mandy and Jessica writhe to the disco beat. Soon Hefner joins them and they make a Hef sandwich for the cameraman. Their dance seems curiously unerotic, almost rehearsed; but just a few feet away stands a young man in his twenties, his mouth agape.
Mary O'Connor, Hefner's secretary of 28 years, looks on fondly from a doorway. "He's the dynamo of the whole operation," she says of her boss. "Not everyone dreams the way he dreams."
When asked if Playboy could survive the loss of Hefner, her eyes mist up briefly. "My initial response would be to say no," she says. "I mean, look. How do you make Playboy hot again? You promote it. You've got to. That's what Playboy is--it's a lifestyle." She gazes at the scene of milling flesh. "He's not forcing himself to do something. He parties. He shares. That is his lifestyle."
That lifestyle is precisely the problem, says Terri Welles, whose lawsuit will be scheduled for trial in December. "I knew innately that it wasn't healthy. I always thought it was bizarre, even when I partook of it."
She adds, "I think he's had so many people around him for so long that are yes-people, sycophants, that he's bought his own story."
Those closest to him now are the "Andys," as they are referred to inside the mansion. Hefner met Brandy Roderick at a Los Angeles disco, the Opium Den, and the Bentley twins (Sandy and Mandy) at a place called the Garden of Eden. They've all been jointly dating for more than a year.
"I'm the leader of a Girl Scout camp," he declares merrily, reporting that they all sleep together frequently. "I can't begin to describe the love and laughter and good times we have."
Says Roderick, an actress who works in television and commercials: "I don't know how to explain it except that it's a relationship, a family. We all love each other very much."
Equal exploitation for all? Why not, he responds. "I would expect rivalry. It is a miracle that it's just the opposite." As for the twins, he can tell the difference between them "most of the time."
Hefner's personal life has always been a principal marketing tool for his empire, and some say he took up dating and partying not just to prove his virility but to boost a sagging Playboy image. That idea also serves to justify the company's payment of the annual $800,000 upkeep on the mansion, which has sparked grumbling from shareholders.
He is too candid to deny any of the above. "It all may be true," he says. "Isn't dealing with mortality what all of this is about? Trying to prove to yourself and the world that age isn't necessarily meaningful?"
He continues. "The last two years have been wonderful on every kind of level. It's been like coming out of a tunnel for me," he says. "The mood among young people has changed. The attitude of the '80s and early '90s was very conservative. There's a lot of the '70s going on right now. There's a reason for that. The '80s--politically, socially and sexually--were a reaction to the freedom and excesses of the '60s and later '70s. Now there's a counterreaction. I'm the hero."
As for the people from his past who say Hefner is manipulative and selfish? Hefner says that, of course, he's made some enemies over the years, but "by and large the people who have been touched by my life have benefited tremendously. You'll find legions of people--friends, people who know me casually--who say I'm a giving, loving, supportive person.
"That is the true way of things: I am much loved. And that has some meaning for me. I pride myself that the way I have lived my life--unorthodox though it may be--is ethical and moral."