He'd cultivated an image as a notorious womanizer throughout his life, but he had become an elderly man, living amidst the clutter of his past.
I don’t remember the first time I read Playboy magazine. I don’t remember the cover, the photos, the playmates, the articles. I have a faint memory of the musky odor that wafted from its perfumed paper, but nothing else.
I do, however, recall the impact the magazine had on me and countless other teenage boys growing up outside London in the mid-1970s, where we were kept at a safe remove from anything too obviously female in the largely single-sex schools that were prevalent then, where No Sex Please, We’re British ruled the day.
England may well have invented the 1960s, but we were Victorians in our heart of hearts. We were experts in repression, walking encyclopedias of shame and guilt. We knew as much about the tyranny of sexual conservatism as Hugh Hefner, but unlike him, were clueless how to escape it.
So his magazine spoke to us. It spoke to all those local lads as puberty kicked in, when we went from being knock-kneed innocents to shivering, shaking wrecks of untrammeled desire. It spoke to each adolescent itching for more information about sex than he could ever hope to glean from his parents or from the older schoolboys who would wink with hints of secret knowledge, while secretly hiding their ignorance.
Playboy was our guide. That’s where we learned about sex. That’s where we found out about women, where we discovered who “they” were and what “they” wanted. It branded us as permanently as a molten iron does a young calf.
I’m grateful for the titillation, but four decades later I’m still trying to rid myself of Playboy’s mark. Despite decades of relationships with women, both personal and professional, I’m forever trying to break free from its insidious thinking.
Sugarcoat Hugh Hefner, if you will — in the wake of his Sept. 27 death, there have been constant reminders of his support for civil rights, his opposition to racism, his bold stand against puritan America — but the way he defined women was appalling. No matter how much one might like to romanticize him, his legacy is this: sexism, stereotyping and objectification.
And yet I liked the man so much.
It took me years before I got to know him. I’d met him once or twice, either at the few social events he attended or at the Playboy mansion’s parties (remarkably dull), but it wasn’t until September 2011 that I got to spend real time with him, when he agreed to be interviewed for a Hollywood Reporter cover story.
He was 85 years old, way past his peak as a pop-culture icon and eager to promote a new TV series, The Playboy Club, a short-lived venture that proved far less effective in spinning his image than E!’s long-running reality show The Girls Next Door. I was nervous of course — not about sitting down with him, because he was as open as he was gracious, but about finding anything new in this most famous of famous men. Luckily he made it easy, granting me two long interviews, and a separate visit on one of his “movie nights,” when he screened pictures for his closest friends.
There were many surprises during that week of talks, not least, how entirely sexless his temple of sex had become. I remember seeing the statue of a phallus, along with portraits of a naked former girlfriend, but those things aside the house was extraordinarily tame. My two horny Hollywood neighbors were getting laid more than anyone in this pagoda of perversity.
Then there was Hefner’s obsessive fear of death, which he resisted by documenting every part of his life in a 2,485-volume collection of scrapbooks. He claimed not to worry about his eventual demise — his mother had lived to be 101, he told me — but anyone with even the thinnest grasp of psychology could sense it. “Look,” one of his friends said as we gathered over a buffet supper before Hef introduced the 1964 comedy A Shot in the Dark, “there’s two ways to think about his hedonism: One is that Buddhist thing of living in the moment, and the other is a terrible fear of death.”
And finally, there was the surprise of Hefner’s aloneness. True, a dozen or so pals would regularly gather for these movie nights, a twice-weekly event as routine as everything else in Hef’s hyper-ordered life. But none of them seemed to have a truly intimate relationship with him, any more than the young women who slipped in and out of his home, using it as a temporary hostel only a wee bit more exciting than the YWCA. Hefner was adept at catering to other people’s needs, less so at finding someone who genuinely could cater to his.
He’d recently split from his longtime girlfriend, Crystal Harris, who had just made matters worse in a candid interview with Howard Stern, where she alleged they’d only had sex once: “I was drinking,” she said. “It was, ‘Whatever, why not try it out?’ He’s had so much sex, he’s kind of over it. [It lasted] two seconds. It was an out-of-body experience.”
Now he had two new “girlfriends,” blond moppets who sat at either side of him during the screening, but failed to accompany him to bed.
When he retired at the crazy-early hour of 9.30 p.m., he did so alone, leaving us waving to him as he ascended the stairs and vanished into the darkness. My heart went out to him, he seemed so sad. I wondered what was going on inside, who the real Hefner could possibly be.
And then I got a glimpse. I arrived at the mansion somewhat early on a mid-week afternoon and was led upstairs to Hefner’s bedroom, after waiting a bit while the room was “tidied up.”
The place was a shambles. It was piled high with yellowing publications, videos and sundry objects that must have moved in when Hefner did, but never moved out. “Old magazines and papers litter the floor all around his giant, king-size bed, with its kilim-style comforter,” I noted. It was hard to walk across the room, because flotsam was everywhere — piled on the bed, strewn over the furniture, tossed on the carpet. Not that I could see any of it very well: even in the early afternoon the curtains were drawn shut, banishing the light.
“If the 21,000-square-foot mansion itself is immaculate, with its manicured lawns and almost total absence of anything salacious — the home of an English country gentleman, one might suspect — this huge, wood-lined room, with a spiral staircase leading to a private office equally unkempt, couldn’t be more different,” I wrote. “Two couches are covered with hundreds of stuffed toys; there’s a mantelpiece highlighting Frankenstein heads and a framed replica of a toy gun [Hefner] had as a child; the whole place is crammed with relics from his past.”
It was this bedroom that revealed the man more than anything else, here amid a hoarder’s clutter and chaos. This was the private Hefner, so removed from the public image. Gone was the flamboyant womanizer, and in his place, a slightly shrunken elderly figure, wobbling a bit as he walked, burying himself among mounds of litter that meant nothing to anyone except him.
The man I found that afternoon was fragile, lonely and slightly sad, perhaps incapable of achieving real intimacy, even as he must have craved it. And yet it was his very fragility that made him so endearing.
I loved him in weakness, even as I’d reviled him in strength. I wanted to take care of him, even as he had failed to take care of generations of women. I wanted to forgive him for putting those terrible notions inside my head, even as I knew I never could.