LOS ANGELES — On the second floor of the Playboy Mansion, beyond the seemingly endless hallway lined with photos of the famous folks who have visited the legendary party playground, is a narrow staircase that leads to a small loft.
“LOCK DOOR,” signed “Hef,” reads a handmade note tacked to the loft’s tiny entrance.
“Excuse me if I sit?” asks Hugh Hefner, ever the gentleman as he leads a reporter into the cramped room that has only one chair. “I’ve got a bad hip.”
Here in this modest space is where Hefner keeps a detailed record of his life that spans more than 2,500 volumes and counting — a Guinness world record for a personal scrapbook collection.
Every Saturday, the 85-year-old founder of Playboy magazine spends a few hours scrapbooking — a hobby he began in 1943 with cartoons he drew of himself and his high-school classmates.
Those doodles were “probably just a way of creating a world of smy own to share with my friends,” Hefner says, seated amid the archives of his life in yes, his trademark silk pyjamas and bathrobe. “And in retrospect, in thinking about it, it’s not a whole lot different than creating the magazine.”
As the new year begins and Playboy approaches its 60th birthday, Hefner intends to continue working on the magazine, his scrapbooks and a Hollywood movie about his life. “That’s alive again,” he says of the biopic idea that’s been bandied about for decades.
Though 2011 wasn’t entirely kind to the man or the brand — Hefner’s 24-year-old fiancee called off their engagement days before their June wedding and NBC’s The Playboy Club was the first fall TV casualty, cancelled after just three episodes — Hefner is optimistic about what’s next, personally and professionally.
“Retirement is unthinkable to me,” he says. “The future is bright and very exciting and I’m looking forward to playing a part in it.”
Hef — his preferred nickname since his teens — has been a media force since he published the first issue of Playboy in 1953 and he remains the figurehead of the empire he created. Although Playboy Enterprises named Scott Flanders its chief executive in 2009, Hefner continues to serve as editor-in-chief of the magazine, choosing the cover models and centerfolds and editing the cartoons, letters and party jokes.
Even Hefner is at a loss to explain the enduring appeal of Playboy, which has spawned and outlasted so many imitators, but he speculates that it “has to do with the quality of the publication and the fact that we were saying things that were important then and now.”
The current issue, which features the much-touted nude pictorial of Lindsay Lohan, includes articles about Occupy Wall Street and Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, along with an excerpt from Elmore Leonard’s latest novel and, of course, those photo spreads.
It’s impossible to separate Hefner from the notion of busty young beauties and the whole clothing-optional, life’s-a-party, I-work-in-pajamas thing. But such an image belies a thoughtful man who deeply values his contributions to “the social-sexual changes of my time,” yet whose orderly persona seems tame compared to the celebrities of today’s tabloid scene.
A longtime supporter of the First Amendment, Hefner was an early advocate of civil rights and reproductive rights, and he’s championed personal liberties in print.
“It’s very clear that Playboy was instrumental in the sexual revolution,” he says. “We were making a case for the irrational sexual values that we had back then, and making a case for the sexual revolution back in the years immediately before it became a reality, and doing it in a forum that was very influential.”
In the 1960s, he says, everybody read Playboy. The magazine was at its peak, selling nearly seven million copies a month, and its cutting-edge content of new writers and nude photos — and Hefner’s own editorials against puritanical repression — appealed to a college-age audience hungry for change.
Hefner was opening the Playboy Club in London in 1966 when he realized the sexual revolution was well under way.
“The miniskirt had just arrived, sex was in the air and gaming, gambling had just become legal in the clubs,” he recalls. “I had been writing the Playboy Philosophy for a couple years, and I felt that week in London that I was looking at the future.”
That’s when Hefner took his practice of the Playboy lifestyle to a new level. He opened more and more Playboy clubs, launched a TV show in Los Angeles and bought a private jet, dubbed the Big Bunny, to shuttle him back and forth from Playboy’s headquarters in Chicago to the West Coast. He bought five and a half acres in the posh Holmby Hills neighbourhood next to Beverly Hills and, as he puts it, “jumped into the swimming pool.” He was slowed by a stroke in 1985 as well as the conservative values that dominated during the Reagan era. Hefner married his 1989 Playmate of the Year, Kimberly Conrad, in July of that year. Son Marston was born a year later and Cooper was born in 1991. Hefner and Conrad separated in 1998 but remained married until their sons turned 18. They divorced in 2010.
Cooper Hefner is now a 20-year-old junior studying film and history at Chapman University in suburban Orange, Calif., and he says he hopes to be part of an effort to restore Playboy’s appeal to young people.
“I definitely think there is some rebranding that needs to be done,” Cooper Hefner says on a tour of the “game house,” a little cottage a short walk from the mansion that’s home to a pool table and an array of arcade games. “I personally don’t think, with my generation and people of my age, the brand is as cool as it was in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Indeed, Playboy’s print circulation is now down to 1.5 million and its readership skews older than in its heyday. Although not a major moneymaker, Hugh Hefner insists the magazine remains “the heart and soul of the company.”
Still, the real future of Playboy — which Hefner took private in 2011 after 40 years of public ownership — is in brand licensing for merchandise and clubs, says CEO Flanders, noting that the one billion dollars-plus the licensing generates annually dwarfs the company’s media profits.
Cooper Hefner agrees updated Playboy Clubs can play a big part in wooing a more youthful following, but he believes cinema projects such as Playboy’s new short-film contest and his father’s big-screen biopic can also help lure a younger demographic.
The elder Hefner has always loved the movies, calling them “my other family.” Movies helped solidify his ideas about the painful result of sexual repression. “I saw the censorship in the movies when the production code came in in 1934 when I was still a kid, and saw the fact that in movies, even sophisticated couples, like in The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles slept in twin beds,” Hefner says. “In other words, married people in movies slept in twin beds, and I related that as a kid to the fact that I didn’t get a lot of hugs and kisses in my home.”
Hefner still screens movies at the mansion three times a week: Classics on Fridays and Saturdays and new films on Sundays. Every year on his April 9 birthday, he runs his favourite film, Casablanca, and guests dress in the fashions of the 1940s.
The original playboy isn’t bashful about wanting to see his own colourful life on the big screen. Previous attempts at screenplays of his story read “as if they were doing a piece on someone who’s already gone,” Hefner says, offering a rare acknowledgement of his own mortality. “But you’ve got the guy here. There isn’t a great mystery. I can point where the bodies are and how to do it.”
Besides working on a new script for the biopic, Hefner is working on new relationships with 25-year-old Playboy models Shera Bechard and Anna Berglund. He describes himself as “essentially a very romantic person.”
“I don’t know that I would be best served at married (life),” he says. “But I do know that I need an ongoing romantic relationship.”
He also needs to keep working on Playboy, conceding that perhaps the business he built has become the soul mate he’s sought throughout his life.
“It most certainly is the other half of who I am, without question, and it does fulfil me in ways that most work wouldn’t for other people,” he says.
It has provided him with the kind of larger-than-life existence reflected in the photos that fill the hallway near his scrapbooking room.
“It’s kind of like in Casablanca, Rick’s Cafe. Everybody comes to Rick’s. Well everybody comes to Hef’s,” he says, passing by the pictures. “You’ll find them from Mick Jagger to Doris Day to Groucho Marx, young and old.” Hefner says he was always a dreamer, but his life is beyond anything he ever imagined. “Most people’s lives, if they are successful, have a peak and then it’s a bell-shaped curve, or they have wonderful years and then a slow dissipation. The opposite has been the case here,” Hefner notes almost shyly. “I’m the luckiest guy, from my perspective, the luckiest guy on the planet.”