In 1949, Marilyn Monroe, then an obscure starlet, posed for a beer ad at Tom Kelley‘s commercial photography studio in Hollywood. According to some accounts, a Chicago-based calendar manufacturer, John Baumgarth, saw the ad while visiting Los Angeles and inquired about the model: would she pose nude for a calendar? In other accounts, Tom Kelley recruited Monroe for the calendar job on the day he shot the beer ad, knowing that Baumgarth was shopping for nudes. Either way, nude photos could wreck a Hollywood career at the time, as Monroe was keenly aware, so she only accepted the job after being persuaded that nobody would recognize her. To further protect her anonymity, she asked Kelley to schedule the session for night, with no assistants save for his female business partner. Kelley agreed, and Monroe arrived at the studio at seven p.m. and posed for two hours on a red velvet theater curtain that covered the floor and complemented the color of her hair, then a reddish blonde. Twenty-four shots were taken, and Baumgarth chose one of them for the calendar he marketed as Golden Dreams, a name suggested by Monroe’s blondness, though it also inadvertently referenced the nighttime shoot.
Four years after the shoot, Hugh Hefner, a twenty-seven-year-old native Chicagoan, learned from an article in Advertising Age magazine that Baumgarth owned the Golden Dreams photo, which seemed perfect for Stag Party, the magazine that Hefner was starting with an investment of $8,000, enough to publish the first issue but not enough to promote it. He was looking for a feature that would promote the magazine for him, and while Marilyn Monroe’s nude photos had been widely reported—her fortunes had since risen—few had actually seen them. Hefner drove impulsively to Baumgarth’s office in a Chicago suburb and, without an appointment, met with Baumgarth, who sold him Golden Dreams for $500. Then, in the living room of his South Side apartment, Hefner sat at a card table and wrote the copy for the Monroe feature. At the same table, Hefner wrote a sketch of his target reader, the sort of young urban bachelor who enjoyed “mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” This fantasy figure had been a stock character of Hollywood movies since the silent era: the aristocratic rake often found in drawing rooms, where he wore a smoking jacket, or exclusive nightspots, where he wore a tuxedo. His wealth and wit made him irresistible to naïve young women and shady at best to audiences enamored of the hardworking, plainspoken, outdoorsy type; but in Stag Party, Hefner, a movie fan since childhood, would rescue the rake from villainy as the male counterpart of the femme fatale and position him as a hero. A cartoonist drew an anthropomorphic stag to serve as the magazine’s mascot, and when Stag Party became Playboy, the stag became a rabbit still dressed in the stag’s smoking jacket and raising his fizzy drink in a firelit den. The rabbit would sport a tuxedo on many early Playboy covers and an implied tuxedo in the stylized silhouette designed by Art Paul, a graphic artist and the first addition to the magazine’s editorial staff. Otherwise, Hefner worked alone on Playboy in his apartment while his wife and infant daughter slept. He was a night person.
The premiere issue of Playboy, which hit newsstands in late 1953, was a virtual sellout, thanks to Marilyn Monroe, who was billed as Sweetheart of the Month, not Playmate of the Month or Miss December. That tradition started with the second issue, derived from a movie, Hefner recollected: “In MGM’s 1943 musical Du Barry Was a Lady, Red Skelton referred to the models in a calendar sequence as ‘Miss January, Miss February’ and so on.” The musical, upbeat and sentimental, was Hefner’s favorite Hollywood genre, and ideally, his Playmates would resemble the ingénues of musicals, though he had to settle initially for what he could afford, buying more nudes from Baumgarth and other calendar publishers and printing them in Playboy without naming the models. Hefner usually didn’t know their names, so that decades passed before he realized that Miss February 1954, Miss April 1954, and Miss April 1955 had all been the same girl. She was a seasoned model, like most early Playmates, including Bettie Page, Miss January 1955; but Hefner wanted novices, “real” girls who had never been photographed nude before he discovered them, à la Hollywood, and masterminded the images that presented them to the public. Terry Ryan, Miss December 1954, was a step in this direction. The first Playmate shot directly for the magazine, Ryan’s behind-the-scenes pictorial showed her entering a photo studio in a white dress and matching gloves, disrobing as assistants set up lights, and arranging herself against a monochromatic paper backdrop—a convention of glamour photos of the period—while Art Paul supervised. Playboy not only printed Ryan’s name, it provided a thumbnail bio—“She’s twenty-one years old, single, and plans on making modelling a career”—but the true Playmate prototype was the pseudonymous Miss July 1955, Janet Pilgrim, a Monroesque employee in the magazine’s circulation department.
Janet Pilgrim’s real name was Charlaine Karalus. She and Hefner were dating when he asked her to pose for the magazine—he and his wife were living apart—and she consented on being assured that she and her mother would both have photo approval. Playboy juxtaposed the two sides of Karalus, daytime and nighttime, public and private, in black-and-white “candid” shots of Karalus working at the office, suitably dressed, and the color, semi-nude centerfold of Karalus primping at her vanity for an evening out with a tuxedoed escort. The escort was Hefner, blurry in the background, but the presence of a man insinuated that, despite her wholesome looks, Karalus was sexually active. “I was trying to get across the message that good girls liked sex, too,” Hefner would say; and since Karalus was precisely the sort of good girl whose nude photos called for an alias, Hefner decided on “Janet Pilgrim” because he “liked the puritanical connotations.” America was stymied by its puritan past, he believed, and he wanted to help it to a healthy view of sex, so that just as he had reclaimed the aristocratic rake, he was now reclaiming the ingénue, the rake’s staple victim. But why did there have to be victims if the parties were consenting adults? Why couldn’t Americans have sex free of shame and a binding contract? He would eventually expound his ideas in the so-called Playboy Philosophy, but for now he let his pinups preach by example for him, beginning with Janet Pilgrim, who proved so popular that Hefner brought her back as Miss December 1955 and Miss October 1956, making her the only three-time Playmate of the Month other than the calendar model who established the record by stealth. Post-Pilgrim Playmates were customarily photographed in “natural” settings, often the photographer’s home or a staffer’s apartment, with the presence of a male signaled by props: a pipe, a necktie, an extra cup of coffee or glass of wine. In one of the funniest centerfold shots, Myrna Weber, Miss August 1958, was pictured roasting two weenies at the beach. Outdoor settings became common also, adding sunshine to the magazine’s wee-hours feel. For Hefner, the wee hours were the “whee hours,” the time when “romantic dreams were more likely to come true.”
But, indoors or outdoors, each centerfold was like a still from a movie costarring the viewer, who was invited to assume the role of the phantom male roasting weenies at the beach with Myrna Weber or relaxing after a foxhunt with Miss April 1959, Nancy Crawford, or rendezvousing with Sally Sarell, Miss March 1960, at her Greenwich Village art studio. The viewer was likewise invited to acquaint himself with the Playmate offscreen, as it were, through the candid photos that preceded the centerfold, but not until the seventies did the magazine permit mention of an exclusive offscreen boyfriend, though boyfriends and even husbands, identified as casual dates, sometimes made cameo appearances in Playmate stories. Gloria Waldron, a.k.a. Allison Parks, Playmate of the Year 1966, was seen giving swimming lessons to anonymous toddlers in her Playboy debut as Miss October 1965. The toddlers were hers. According to Art Paul, “In the early days of Playboy, the number of Playmates who were pregnant when they were shot was amazing.” June Cochran, Miss December 1962, was seven and a half months along in her encore pictorial as Playmate of the Year 1963, but the photographer managed to disguise it without resorting to a trick as retroactively transparent as the one used with Joan Staley, Miss November 1958, whose centerfold had her idling in a dressing room on a television set, hiding her belly with a script. No trick would suffice when Lorrie Menconi, Miss February 1969, showed up heavily pregnant at a Playboy party on the day her issue was published. Hefner was furious, and Lorrie Menconi, as might be surmised, did not become Playmate of the Year 1970. That was Miss November, Claudia Jennings, the nom de centerfold of Mimi Chesterton, who almost didn’t test for Playmate, thinking she wasn’t buxom enough. A few Playmates of the seventies and before had their breasts augmented, but perceived deficiencies at the time were ordinarily corrected with lighting and airbrushing. Hefner maintained that centerfolds received “relatively little retouching,” but even if that were true, he copied the old Hollywood star system in every other way, renaming his protégées and finessing their marriages and pregnancies and toddlers and anything else that didn’t fit the prescribed fantasy. For instance, recycling the legend of Lana Turner’s discovery by Hollywood at the soda-fountain counter of Schwab’s Pharmacy, Playboy claimed to have discovered Miss November 1955, Barbara Cameron, at a soda-fountain counter. In reality, Barbara Cameron was dating Victor Lownes III, the Playboy organization’s recently appointed head of promotions.
At sixteen, Hefner, the reticent child of prim Methodists, had retooled his own image, becoming “Hef,” the kind of “High School kid you’d see in a movie,” a “Sinatra-like guy with a love for loud flannel shirts” and “his own style of jiving and slang expressions.” He reinvented himself again after his wife filed for divorce and he resolved to personify the life he espoused in Playboy. His style mentor was Victor Lownes, a silver-spoon sophisticate and much better casting as the aristocratic rake than Hefner, whose penchant for Pepsi, fried chicken, and orange clothes betrayed his parochial roots. So did his lack of curiosity about subjects other than sex. “Visiting Paris just to see the sights would bore me,” he once said, as if tourism and travel are identical, though he would readily visit Paris “if a girl I was romantically involved with were there and couldn’t come to me.” He was wise, then, to defer to his second in command, A. C. Spectorsky, in literary matters. It was Spectorsky, an author and former staffer at The New Yorker, who fostered Playboy’s reputation for first-rate writing, and Lownes who proposed that the company should start a nightclub. Lownes further proposed the bunny costume worn by club waitresses. Hefner had imagined the waitresses in abbreviated nightgowns.
The first Playboy Club opened in 1960, four months after the premiere broadcast of Playboy’s Penthouse, a syndicated television variety show that introduced Hefner in his suave new persona as the host of a black-tie party in his high-rise bachelor pad. The show was taped on a set at Chicago’s ABC affiliate, and once the taping was complete, Hefner and his guests—musicians and comics and the requisite Playmates—would reconvene for a real party at Hefner’s real bachelor pad, a vast Gilded Age mansion two blocks from Lake Michigan. The mansion had carved wood paneling, marble fireplaces, and a ballroom the size of a regulation basketball court. Numerous Playboy pictorials were shot there, including “Playmate Holiday House Party,” which was published in 1961 and showed Hefner celebrating Christmas with a dozen centerfold models. He was “romantically involved” with all of them, he later euphemized, except Miss April 1960, Linda Gamble, though, in his generosity, he designated her Playmate of the Year “just the same.” Presumably, he had become “romantically involved” with Elizabeth Ann Roberts, another “House Party” Playmate, after she turned eighteen. She was sixteen when she appeared as Miss January 1958, arousing the ire of Chicago officials. The case never went to trial—Roberts had posed nude with her mother’s written permission—but Hefner would remain controversial in Chicago, a city dominated, from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies, by its autocratic mayor, “Boss” Richard J. Daley, and his Catholic constituency. Chicago Catholics had lobbied for film censorship during the Great Depression, resulting in the repressive Hays Code that all but spoiled movies for young Hefner.
But without repression, Playboy would have had no raison d’être, and if Chicago Catholics were Hefner’s unwitting boosters, his Protestant work ethic likewise served him well. He labored exhaustively during Playboy’s ascendant years, popping Dexedrine, washed down with Pepsi, to stay awake in the master bedroom of the Playboy Mansion and micromanage his editors with fastidious memos about every aspect of the magazine and the growing empire it ballasted. He ventured outside as seldom as possible, attending business meetings in the robe and pajamas that eventually became as much a part of his persona as the pipe he adopted to keep his nervous hands busy on Playboy’s Penthouse. Of course he played as hard as he worked. Bunnies from the nearby Playboy Club rented rooms at the mansion, and they brightened the Friday-night party and Sunday-night movie screening, weekly mansion events, as well as the parties on almost every other night, impromptu affairs that continued long after Hefner returned to his round, rotating bed to work again on the magazine or tryst with his “special lady” of the moment or a Playmate or Bunny or five. The special lady wasn’t always a Playmate or Bunny, but she was always held to a double standard, so that Hefner didn’t afford her the sexual license he granted himself, just as he didn’t encourage her ambitions beyond pleasing him, or as he once put it, “If I start going out with movie stars then I wouldn’t have someone who was more interested in me than in herself.” Jealousy was similarly a one-way street, though infractions predictably occurred. “When Cynthia got mad she threw things,” Hefner recalled of a special lady weary of being two-timed. Another special lady “lost it,” “screaming and yelling,” when she saw the hook coming from stage left, while a semi-special lady pushed a rival into the mansion’s indoor swimming pool: “Her mascara was all running down and her dress was shrinking, but her slip stayed the same size. It was the best thing I ever did.”
But these incidents, and others like them, weren’t recounted in Playboy, which sustained the sunny view of sex dreamed by Hefner in his world of perpetual night, made that way by the blackout curtains that covered his windows and excluded any hint of noir.
Mike Davis, in his esteemed book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz, refers to noir as the “great anti-myth” of L.A., a city mythologized in its original boom period, the late nineteenth century, as the capital of sunshine and robust health. Davis traces noir to the 1934 publication of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and “a succession of through-the-glass-darkly novels—all produced under contract to the studio system—[that] repainted the image of Los Angeles as a deracinated urban hell.” This was not Los Angeles as Hefner saw it. For him, it was the place “where most of my earliest dreams came from,” and he had been making trips there since the late fifties to canvass centerfold candidates. In 1962, he commissioned the Playboy Building on the Sunset Strip, with the penthouse apartment reserved for his visits, but he used it infrequently until CBS approached him in 1968 with an idea for a television show, Playboy After Dark, to be taped on a set in L.A. Playboy After Dark would follow the same format as Playboy’s Penthouse, long since canceled, and Hefner signed on as host “because I knew that would force me out of the house and into new areas of activity.” Film production was among these areas. Movie fans with money are almost always snared by the siren song of Hollywood, and Hefner was forty-two and having a midlife crisis, a novel concept at the time, so that he delegated more of his Playboy editorial duties to A. C. Spectorsky, who guided the magazine to new heights of prestige matched by its circulation, freeing Hefner to ponder his future and fly to L.A. every other weekend for Playboy After Dark.
Then, during the taping of the show’s third episode, he was gobsmacked by a pert brunette dancing in a blue minidress to a live performance of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Her name was Barbara Klein, and she was an eighteen-year-old premed student at UCLA and occasional model with designs on a singing career. A Hefner associate had hired her as an extra for the show, certain that Hefner would find her appealing, but no one could have guessed that Hefner would fall as hard as he fell for Barbara Klein, who soon adopted Barbi Benton as her stage name. Hefner coined the name. He forgot that he wasn’t in the market for an ambitious girlfriend, starting a Playboy record label, which naturally released the music of Barbi Benton, who naturally posed for Playboy, though not as a Playmate. She was too special to be a Playmate. She was the most special of Hefner’s special ladies to date. She loved travel, as he didn’t, but he bought a DC-9 jet and whisked her away for holidays in Europe and Africa. He also bought a house that she discovered one day as she was searching for a place to play tennis. The house was off Sunset Boulevard on a street called Charing Cross Road after a street in the heart of London. But that Charing Cross Road is famous for its bookstores; there were no bookstores within a reasonable walking distance of Hefner’s new house, which was in Holmby Hills, between Beverly Hills and Westwood, on six acres of redwood trees that evoked an English forest, while the house pretended to be an English castle built by Henry VIII or one of his Tudor relatives. In fact, it was built by a department-store scion with an evident taste for fantasy and, perhaps, the sort of class anxiety that would prompt a Californian to construct and inhabit an English castle in the midst of a fabricated English forest on a street that affected an English name. He would not have been alone. The hills of Los Angeles are full of castles, English and otherwise, that stand on fabricated grounds.
Barbi Benton was athletic, unlike Hefner, who preferred board games to sports. He did enjoy bowling, but Playboy Mansion West, as he called his new house, couldn’t accommodate a bowling alley like the one inside the Playboy Mansion in Chicago. He wanted Mansion West to be “interconnected to nature as the Chicago Mansion had never been,” stocking the grounds with exotic animals, including two dozen squirrel monkeys who gave the lie to his sentimental notion of nature when they sprang from the redwoods to ransack a buffet table set up in a neighbor’s yard for a wedding reception. Hefner added a swimming pool, a grotto, a koi pond, and the tennis court that Barbi Benton had failed to find on the day she discovered the house. His landscape architect rightly thought it “paradoxical” to witness Hefner “relate…to nature” at the California property, since “in more than ten years at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago [he] had probably seen the light of day five times.”
Playboy After Dark stopped airing eight months before Hefner threw his first party at Mansion West in April 1971, but he continued to commute between Chicago and L.A., where his production company was based. Barbi Benton moved into the California mansion, and while she knew that Hefner dallied with other women in Chicago, she was unaware of his deepening involvement with Karen Christy, a baby-faced platinum blonde with a figure that once led her to leave a White Sox game for all the commotion it caused. Karen Christy reminded Hefner of “the pre-Production Code beauties in Busby Berkeley musicals” when he met her at the Chicago mansion a month after the inaugural party at Mansion West, and because she was loath to live on his largess, he made her Miss December 1971, which paid well enough that she could quit her Bunny job and devote her evenings to him. It was supposed to be a fling, but she satisfied him sexually like nobody else in his prodigious experience, and she shared his enthusiasm for board games, so that she soon became his special lady in Chicago, though she accepted, at least for awhile, that Barbi Benton remained his priority. He was, after all, the founder of a media empire, and Barbi, the poised daughter of a prominent Sacramento physician, could hold her own in public as Karen, a diffident waif from small-town Texas, could not. She was his nighttime girlfriend, and Barbi was his daytime girlfriend, and since they lived in different cities, their paths didn’t cross, even when Hefner tempted fate by flying Karen to L.A. on his private jet, arranging with the security staff at Mansion West to alert him if Barbi arrived home earlier than expected.
Then Time magazine reported Hefner’s relationship with Karen, upsetting Barbi, who moved out of Mansion West. Hefner was in Chicago when he learned of her departure, and he flew to L.A. to coax her back, upsetting Karen, who had lately concluded that Hefner cared more for her than he did for Barbi. His mission to L.A. was successful, but things were never the same with either woman. Both slept with other men, the foremost sin in Hefner’s book, and Karen tormented Barbi, another sin, by leaving clues of her presence at Mansion West. Karen was herself tormented by the triangle, so that she lost weight and woke friends with late-night calls to complain of feeling trapped at the Chicago mansion, where the atmosphere was already fraught due to the drug charges faced by Hefner’s longtime secretary and confidante, Bobbie Arnstein. Chicago authorities orchestrated the charges, clearly hoping that Arnstein would implicate Hefner in a scheme to sell cocaine along with her boyfriend. Only the boyfriend was guilty of selling cocaine, but he finally received a lesser sentence than Arnstein, who withstood the pressure to reduce her sentence—fifteen years in federal prison—by incriminating Hefner. Instead, Bobbie Arnstein killed herself with sleeping pills.
This noir scenario played out against the parallel noir scenario of Hefner’s obsession with Karen Christy. Once, when she stole out of the Chicago mansion to see a friend, Hefner, terrified that she had left him utterly, turned up with security guards to retrieve her. She was shaken by his briefcase-throwing meltdown on another occasion. Ultimately, she hatched a prison-break plan for her exodus to Texas, packing her belongings and shipping them to needy relatives, or so she told spies at the mansion before she absconded while shopping one day, vanishing through the rear door of a boutique as her chauffeured limousine waited out front. Elsewhere, a couple of girlfriends were standing by with a car to drive her to Texas, and once Karen joined them, they all took turns at the wheel, staying alert with the help of Dexedrine, Hefner’s pet pick-me-up in the days when the magazine was his chief obsession. But those days were over, and so were his nights in Chicago. His mansion there was tainted by abandonment and suicide and conspiratorial authorities, and he fled it so quickly that, visiting four years later, he could pinpoint his departure by the dated newspapers in his “virtually untouched” quarters. Now he was committed to the restorative world of sunshine and nature at his faux English castle, but he was unable to commit to Barbi Benton, and after they parted amicably, his sex life became orgiastic on an unprecedented scale. Meanwhile, as he had done since he purchased what would eventually be the sole Playboy Mansion, he courted Hollywood with parties, though one Playboy executive observed that Hefner was “regarded by Hollywood as an interloper. They’ll come to his parties and play his games. But they won’t give him respect.” His production company had financed and overseen three films—Roman Polanski’s Macbeth; a half-animated adaptation of The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris’s bestselling sociobiology primer; and The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder, an antiwar dramedy about a Vietnam vet—and the latter two were yanked from theaters almost as soon as they opened. Macbeth likewise flopped commercially, but it was named the best film of 1971 by the National Board of Review, as Hefner would mention with justifiable pride. Critical acclaim means little in Hollywood, of course, unless it’s corroborated by accountants, but even if Hefner had produced blockbusters, he would have received grudging respect in Hollywood, which has always deeply frowned upon fortunes founded on sex. Covert whores and pimps are uneasy with the overt kind. But Hefner wasn’t subjected to inquisitions as he had been in Chicago, so he could manage an illusion of acceptance in L.A., and he was a genuine son of Hollywood in his appetite for illusion.
Playboy’s circulation peaked at 7.2 million in 1972, when Hefner was still commuting between L.A. and Chicago. By the end of 1976, some two years after he deserted Chicago, Playboy had lost around two million readers to bawdy Playboy imitators like Penthouse and Hustler. Hefner was wary of estranging corporate advertisers, so he launched Oui, a slightly racier magazine with the European accent suggested by its title. But Oui also stole Playboy readers, so Hefner began to imitate his imitators in Playboy, printing fewer everyday candid shots of Playmates and more nudes, bold nudes that stopped short of gynecological detail as Playmates were seen fondling themselves in splay-legged poses. A notorious cover featured a bare-breasted Playmate-to-be masturbating, hand on groin, as she watched a movie. Playboy never ran another cover as off-putting to advertisers as that one, but the changes in its pages remained, and they weren’t limited to photography. A. C. Spectorksy died of a stroke in 1972, and while his staff perpetuated most of his policies, he had taken with him some ineffable ingredient that made Playboy feel essential. Now it felt anachronistic. Playboy Clubs were increasingly desolate. Playboy Records was in the red. Playboy Productions couldn’t afford to greenlight films. The Playboy jet was too costly to fly. However, in England, there were lucrative casinos that momentarily kept Playboy Enterprises afloat. Victor Lownes had opened the casinos after moving to London in the sixties, and he continued to operate them, living out the role of the aristocratic rake, hunting foxes and mingling with the likes of Prince Charles. At Hefner’s request, he returned to the States to play bad cop to Hefner’s good cop as they restructured the company, and Hefner stepped down as the president of Playboy Enterprises, a post that would eventually pass to his daughter, Christie, who as an infant had slept while he pieced together the first issue of Playboy at his card table. Christie Hefner had the sober business sense her father lacked. When Playboy tried to open a casino in Atlantic City, Hefner was ill prepared for questions that required him to search his memory at a hearing to determine if the company should be granted a gambling license. “Ask me whom I was dating,” he responded at one point. The license was denied. Hubris on the part of Victor Lownes would lead to the loss of Playboy’s gambling operation in England.
According to “Death of a Playmate,” Teresa Carpenter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article published in the Village Voice in 1980, Hefner was preoccupied in this period with the screen careers of Playmates as he sought Hollywood approbation as a star maker, a function that in theory should have come naturally to him since, starting with Janet Pilgrim, he manufactured a calendar’s worth of starlets each year. “Yet,” writes Carpenter, “with all those beautiful women at his disposal, he [had] not one Marion Davies to call his own,” referring to the mistress of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who promoted Marion Davies to movie stardom in the silent era. But Davies’ stardom was always suspect in the eyes of Hollywood, just as Barbi Benton was always suspect as Hefner’s would-be Davies. Barbi Benton did some acting, mostly on television, a utilitarian medium for Hefner, whereas film was an exalted one. He saw Dorothy Stratten, Miss August 1979 and Playmate of the Year 1980, as a probable movie star, describing her to Carpenter as “a curious combination of sensual appeal and vulnerability.” It’s a familiar description often applied to Marilyn Monroe, and Dorothy Hoogstraten, as she was known before Playboy abridged her name, had a pearly luminosity and soft-spoken sweetness that amounted to a Monroe quality unmatched by any Playmate since the mid-sixties. She came to the attention of Playboy through test shots arranged by her manager-boyfriend, Paul Snider, a former pimp with nebulous dreams of Hollywood success, which he assigned to Dorothy after they met in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they both grew up poor. Playboy accepted Dorothy as a centerfold almost immediately, flying her to Los Angeles and introducing her to an agent with a number of Playmate clients, but Dorothy clicked with casting directors as they did not. She booked six acting jobs in a year, including the title role in Galaxina, a sci-fi spoof, and the lead in Autumn Born, a cut-rate Story of O. They were bad movies, to be sure, but useful training for an inexperienced nineteen-year-old; and shortly before she turned twenty, Dorothy was cast in They All Laughed, a romantic comedy starring a Hollywood grande dame, Audrey Hepburn, and directed by Peter Bogdanovich, a Hollywood bête noire following a string of box-office lemons, two of them showcasing his girlfriend, Cybill Shepherd, who, like Dorothy, was tall and blonde. Bogdanovich and Shepherd were equally haughty and equally unpopular in Hollywood, but their relationship was finished by the time Dorothy was picked to play John Ritter’s love interest in They All Laughed, which Bogdanovich obviously hoped would reverse the trend confirmed by his latest empty-seater, Saint Jack, a portrait of a pimp, funded partly by Hugh Hefner. Even as his empire was floundering, Hefner couldn’t resist risking money on a movie. Dorothy, meanwhile, had married Paul Snider, though the marriage was naturally hushed by Playboy and Snider’s influence on Dorothy’s life and career was already waning, so that the unfolding noir scenario seems inevitable in hindsight: Dorothy, an unspoiled Cybill Shepherd, became Bogdanovich’s new girlfriend, and Snider, confronted with her bid to divorce him, reacted in magnified pimp form, blasting her face off with a shotgun and turning the gun on himself. Dorothy’s remains were cremated and buried within sight of Marilyn Monroe’s crypt in Westwood Memorial Park. Hefner was nearly as devastated as Bogdanovich. He had lost his most promising protégée in a manner that would horrify anyone but especially horrified him, a bloody refutation of his make-believe world of breezy coupling. He was further dismayed by Teresa Carpenter’s article, which posited that Hefner, Bogdanovich, and Snider were variations on the same sexist male, but only “small-time” Snider had taken sexism to its logical extreme. Hefner had always been disconcerted by feminist critiques of Playboy. As far as he was concerned, he had done a great deal to liberate women from the scourge of puritanism, and those who disagreed, under any flag, were themselves puritans.
“Death of a Playmate” was the basis for Star 80, a movie directed by Bob Fosse, with Mariel Hemingway as Dorothy, Eric Roberts as Snider, and Cliff Robertson as Hefner. The Bogdanovich character was renamed and played by a Brit, Roger Rees, in a kind of Groucho-mask move to evade a possible lawsuit from Bogdanovich, who had been as bothered as Hefner by Carpenter’s Village Voice version of the case. Hefner revised her version in Playboy, while Bogdanovich wrote The Killing of the Unicorn, a book about Dorothy, in which he accused Hefner, a “hygienic super-pimp,” of forcing himself on her, contradicting Hefner’s credible claim that he and Dorothy had never had sex. Even Carpenter accepted that “fucking Hefner is a strictly voluntary thing. It never hurts a career, but Hefner, with so much sex at his disposal, would consider it unseemly to apply pressure.” Bogdanovich retracted his allegation after Hefner suffered a stroke that he attributed to the stress brought on by The Killing of the Unicorn and, to a lesser extent, his latest special lady, a young Canadian who flouted all his bylaws, sleeping around and demanding his fidelity and raging when her whims weren’t indulged. Friends urged Hefner to break with the girl, afraid she would thwart his recovery, but he allowed her to stay until she elected to leave, as if to punish himself for any overlooked part he might have played in the death of Dorothy Stratten.
There had been promising Playmates before Dorothy Stratten, beginning with Jayne Mansfield, who appeared anonymously as Miss February 1955 and soon became famous as “the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe,” signed and groomed by Monroe’s studio, 20th Century-Fox, as a replacement for its most troubled and troubling star. But Monroe was irreplaceable, as Fox came to realize, and Mansfield was finally more famous for being famous than she was for her movies, though one of them, The Girl Can’t Help It, a rock & roll musical, is still noted for its Technicolor performances by Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent. The director of that movie, Frank Tashlin, later worked with Stella Stevens, a cash-strapped single mother, recently dropped by Fox, when she posed as Miss January 1960, to her regret: “All of a sudden I got sidetracked into being a sexpot. Once I was a ‘pot,’ there was nothing…legitimate I could do.” Her words are pertinent to other Playmate actresses and even to Hugh Hefner, consigned as he was to the same Hollywood ghetto as his discoveries. Marilyn Monroe never entirely escaped it. She mined publicity gold when she acknowledged her nude calendar photos, but it was a Faustian bargain that sealed her image as a sex symbol and compromised her credibility as an actress. Stella Stevens, an earthier Monroe type, was directed in the course of a long career by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and John Cassavetes, but she never quite broke through as a major star. Still, until the nineties, she was the sole Playmate, aside from Mansfield and Monroe, to headline a “respectable” movie.
Claudia Jennings, who had thought herself too modestly proportioned to test for Playboy, and Victoria Vetri, who was called Angela Dorian as Miss September 1967 and Playmate of the Year 1968, were the two most successful Playmate stars of less-than-respectable movies in the pre-VHS era. Vetri reverted to her real name on the advice of Roman Polanski while shooting a small part in Rosemary’s Baby, his horror classic. Jennings had a small part in a science-fiction cult classic, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, but she was better known for drive-in fare like Truck Stop Women, Gator Bait, and Unholy Rollers, the last a knockoff of The Kansas City Bomber, which starred Raquel Welch, the premier sex symbol of the day, as a roller-derby queen. Vetri, in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, approximated Welch’s role as a cavewoman in One Million Years B.C., but after a final drive-in movie, Invasion of the Bee Girls, she all but disappeared from public view. Jennings persevered. Her audition as Kate Jackson’s replacement on Charlie’s Angels is said to have been a grand slam, but she was rejected by ABC executives because of her Playboy association.
Another drive-in-movie actress, Yvette Vickers, may similarly have been hindered by her Playboy association. A moon-faced blonde of conspicuous acting talent, Vickers had lead roles in Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman and Attack of the Giant Leeches—behemoths loved to attack her, it seemed—but after she appeared as Miss July 1959, she was reduced to bit parts, including one in Hud on the arm of Paul Newman. It’s a pity she never made a movie with Russ Meyer, who photographed her centerfold, just as he had photographed his wife, Eve, as Miss July four years earlier. Unlike many exploitation filmmakers, Meyer revered strong women, and he cast accordingly in movies that became wildly popular with hipster kids of the eighties and nineties, especially Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, with Sue Bernard, Miss December 1966, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, starring Dolly Read, Miss May 1966, and Cynthia Myers, Miss December 1968. Roger Ebert, the screenwriter of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, saw wasted potential in Cynthia Myers, a voluptuous pinup favorite of American troops in Vietnam. Playboy After Dark was the only television show that hired her, and despite her affection for horror movies, she never acted in one.
Horror, ostensibly the antithesis of Playboy, is nonetheless about mating, more often than not, so that it’s the genre most receptive to Playmates, the one that makes them pay for the futile lust they inflict on men and the absurd standard they impose on women. Hence, Ruthy Ross, Miss June 1973, who had the quirky charisma of a Warhol Superstar and a Mensa-level IQ, was stalked by a homicidal psycho in The Centerfold Girls; Ashlyn Martin, Miss April 1964, was sacrificed to a pagan goddess by another psycho in Blood Feast; and Jean Manson, Miss August 1974, was shackled and lashed with a whip by still another psycho in Nightmare Circus. Meanwhile, because beautiful women are inherently cruel, or so they’re perceived by ignored admirers, there are horror movies with Playmates as monsters rather than victims. Anulka Dziubinska, Miss May 1973, a radiant Brit of Polish extraction, was one of the titular Vampyres, while the creature of Frankenstein Created Woman was Susan Denberg, Miss August 1966, an Austrian based in England, where both movies were shot. Denberg and Hefner once double-dated with Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, who was also acquainted with Misses October 1970, Mary and Madeleine Collinson, the stars of Twins of Evil, a period vampire movie with a sister-act gimmick. Polanski remembered the Collinsons as the “spectacular Maltese twins” sent by Victor Lownes, whose London residence they shared, to console him after Sharon Tate died at the hands of the Manson Family.
When they weren’t killing people or being killed, Playmates typically served a decorative purpose in movies, per Jean Bell, Miss October 1969, dancing in pasties in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets; Azizi Johari, Miss June 1975, stripping at the nightclub owned by Ben Gazzara in John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; and Donna Michelle, Playmate of the Year 1964, cavorting wordlessly with Warren Beatty in Arthur Penn’s Mickey One. Donna Michelle was one of several Playmates to garnish the beach-party movies of the sixties. Another, Sue Williams, Miss April 1965, is the first officially confirmed to have had breast implants, though she got them after her centerfold was published, using the modeling fee to finance the surgery. Jo Collins, Playmate of the Year 1965, had forgettable parts in two beach-party movies, but when she traveled to Vietnam to personally deliver a lifetime Playboy subscription to a wounded soldier, she loosely inspired the indelible Playmate sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which had Linda Beatty, Miss August 1976, and Cyndi Wood, Playmate of the Year 1974, choppered to a burlesque stage in the jungle, where, vamping to a cover of “Susie Q,” they caused sex-starved GIs to riot. Linda Beatty and Cyndi Wood were both high-IQ Playmates, like Ruthy Ross, and Wood later counseled emotionally disturbed children while pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology. Jean Bell, after starring in a blaxploitation movie, T.N.T. Jackson, attracted international press attention as Richard Burton’s post-Elizabeth Taylor girlfriend. Jean Manson tweaked her first name to become Jeane Manson, a pop star in France. These are the kind of Hollywood endings that Playboy is pleased to recount, and there are surely many more entailing matrimony and motherhood and satisfying, if quotidian, jobs.
But Dorothy Stratten isn’t the only Playmate who figures in the Hollywood anti-myth of noir. Five years after Marilyn Monroe fatally overdosed in a noir scenario with long legs, Jayne Mansfield, her movie career in ruins, was killed in a gruesome car crash, along with her reputedly abusive boyfriend and their twenty-year-old driver, as she toured as a nightclub act in the South. Claudia Jennings, who had developed a taste for cocaine, an occupational hazard of her time, was also killed in a car crash, this one in Malibu. Ashlyn Martin led “a rather sad life,” according to her Blood Feast costar Connie Mason, Miss June 1963, and attempted suicide at least once before a mortal attempt in her forties. Susan Denberg likewise attempted suicide and spent much of her late twenties in and out of mental institutions while working as a topless dancer in Vienna. Victoria Vetri, paying the bills as a waitress in her sixties, “would walk up and down Hollywood Boulevard and go, ‘People recognize me,’” or so a witness was quoted after Vetri shot her husband, fifteen years her junior, as he walked away from an argument. He survived, and Vetri was sentenced to nine years in the California state penitentiary for a crime that reminded some of Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s iconic noir that concludes with a man being shot as he walks away from his older lover, a faded movie star with delusions of enduring celebrity. Yvette Vickers made her screen debut in Sunset Boulevard, but it was her drive-in movies that led to long-distance friendships with late-arriving fans, though she barely interacted with her neighbors in Benedict Canyon. One of them, noticing that Vickers’ mailbox was deluged and receiving no answer when she knocked at the door, broke into her cottage and found her dead amid countless empty liquor bottles and a trove of memorabilia later junked by Vickers’ philistine half-brother. Her corpse had been mummified by a space heater still running approximately eight months after she collapsed beside it and died of heart disease at age eighty-two. This case, too, has been compared to Sunset Boulevard. Yvette Vickers is visible in that film for less than thirty seconds. She has no lines.
Hefner regarded the eighties as a “dark decade” for Playboy, which continued to tank until it was gradually reconfigured by Christie Hefner as, in her words, a “global multimedia lifestyle brand” that drew “on the heritage of the magazine and the good life” for a “new generation of young women [who]…thought the rabbit head was cool.” This cool factor was due largely to the rise of hip-hop and its veneration of the pimp, a close relative of the aristocratic rake in his dandyism and sweet tooth for quality merchandise, animate and otherwise. Hefner spent much of the early hip-hop era married to Kimberly Conrad, Playmate of the Year 1989, after he tellingly forgot to bring the ring to the ceremony and joked to ex-girlfriends at the reception that the marriage was a mistake. If he was seeking sanctuary, he didn’t find it, and when he and his wife separated in 1998, he was startled by the excitement he stirred as he made the rounds of L.A. clubs with his “party posse” of three blondes, two of them twins who referred to each other, gangsta-style, as “nig.” The original party posse was replaced and expanded to seven, a blonde for each day of the week, and if one of them dropped out on reaching her centerfold goal or was discharged for cuckolding Hefner or for neglecting such duties as watching classic movies with him—some of the girls had never seen a black-and-white movie until they had no choice—there was always another blonde waiting to assume her spot and receive a weekly stipend, with bonus money provided for breast implants and other cosmetic procedures, including the professional application of chemicals that kept her blonde, and more money still for the gowns she wore to the Hollywood galas frequented by her benefactor, who, flanked by his chorus line of blonde replicants, would pose for paparazzi like the star of a musical with two distinct scores: the Irving Berlin or Cole Porter score of his dreams, and the hip-hop score heard by young people, especially young males, as they cheered for him in the same way they cheered for Ron Jeremy, the middle-aged, overweight porn star as preposterous and therefore heroic as Hugh Hefner. Young females, on the other hand, tended to see Hefner as a kind of pimp Santa Claus who could give them everything they wanted except sex, which would have to come from less geriatric sources. Sex occurred offscreen, mercifully, on The Girls Next Door, the “reality” television show that documented life at the Playboy Mansion, spotlighting the three blondes—Hefner was back to three: Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson—who were tenured there. None of them were Playmates, but the show made them almost as recognizable as three other blondes—Pamela Anderson, Miss February 1991; Anna Nicole Smith, Playmate of the Year 1993; and Jenny McCarthy, Playmate of the Year 1994—who had finally fulfilled Hefner’s bygone hope that mainstream stars would emerge from Playboy, even if they didn’t achieve stardom in movies. Two more blondes—Shannon Tweed, Playmate of the Year 1982, and Erika Eleniak, Miss July 1989—had some success in movies, and Eleniak starred in a few major-studio releases. All of these women, save for Bridget Marquardt, had their breasts augmented, in three cases after their initial Playboy appearances. So did the three blondes who became The Girls Next Door after the first three vacated the mansion. In a striking exchange on that show, Hefner told Barbi Benton, who had surfaced as a reminder of his pre-blonde past, that plastic surgery had improved to the point where it was hard to distinguish real breasts from synthetic ones, a remark less incisive about plastic surgery than it is about Hefner’s Californicated vision. As John Rechy wrote of Los Angeles in his novel City of Night, “You can rot here without feeling it.”
But Hefner has never really lived in Los Angeles; he’s lived in an English castle in a redwood forest near Beverly Hills, insulated from the L.A. where bottle blondes and breast implants are scarce compared to his side of town and, certainly, the six acres he owns of it. Yet after residing in that town since the early seventies, he’s still unable to navigate it as well as he can navigate Chicago, as demonstrated on another episode of The Girls Next Door, one that saw him return to Chicago for the first time since the nineties and play backseat driver while being chauffeured with his blonde phalanx on a promotion tour that stopped at the erstwhile Playboy Mansion, a stately building with no pretensions of being anywhere other than Chicago’s Gold Coast. Maybe it’s happenstance that the Playboy empire began its decline when Hefner turned his back on Chicago, but regardless, he should have left his trademark costumes behind. Pajamas aren’t suited to the California sunlight, and a tuxedo is best seen indoors at night, as any classic-movie fan should know. Meanwhile, a koi pond is to nature what silicone breasts are to real ones, and the most convincing personal use Hefner ever made of his tennis court was during the roller-disco era, when the court was converted into a rink skated by Hefner in a feathered “Indian” headdress borrowed from one of the Village People.
Now Playboy Enterprises has followed its founder from Chicago, where it closed its headquarters in 2012, to Beverly Hills, where it splits an office complex with a talent agency. The magazine, marginalized like so many others in the digital age, can only afford to publish ten issues a year, and its circulation of a million is falling. Christie Hefner resigned from the company in 2009, but her youngest half-brother, Cooper Hefner, an aspiring filmmaker, is poised to become its chief ambassador as his eighty-eight-year-old father, of necessity, slows down. This May, for the first time since he began to formally introduce the Playmate of the Year at an annual media luncheon held on the lawn of his castle, Hugh Hefner wasn’t at the event. His back was ailing him, so he stayed upstairs in the house with his third wife, the former Crystal Harris, Miss December 2009 and one of the replacement blondes on The Girls Next Door. Crystal Hefner is sixty years younger than her husband and seven years older than Cooper, who stood in for his father at the luncheon; and later, appearing sadly shrunken, Hefner came downstairs with Crystal and, together with Cooper and Kennedy Summers, Playmate of the Year 2014, they posed for photographers. Kennedy Summers wants to be a plastic surgeon. She looks something like Nicole Kidman, and a celebrity resemblance was always a boon for Hefner, who still selects every Playmate. Miss June 2014, Jessica Ashley, calls to mind Katie Holmes or, as Hefner might see her, Natalie Wood circa Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. She wants to be a writer, and on her Playmate Data Sheet, a feature added in 1977, she lists a single “turnoff”: “I can’t really get warmed up for a man who doesn’t stimulate my mind. We’ll read Henry Miller together or we won’t be together, baby. Sorry!”
The apology is gratuitous. Jessica Ashley may not know it, but by advocating Henry Miller in Playboy, she’s doing what the magazine did best in its heyday. Men and boys would buy it or steal it for the nudes, but later, leafing through it, they found themselves at a paper cocktail party where writers like Miller and Nabokov and Vidal were mentioned, and foreign films and destinations, and posh drinks and dishes, and Latin terms—fellatio, cunnilingus, coitus interruptus—for common sexual practices that seemed uncommon until Playboy confirmed their universality. Only in Hollywood movies had most Americans glimpsed the world they encountered in Playboy, but those movies omitted references to subversive writers and “lewd” acts, partly to placate moral guardians but also because Hollywood considered its audience too moronic to apprehend them. Hefner, by contrast, welcomed his audience to the cosmopolitan party he himself wanted to attend, supplying readers with some of the needed nomenclature, as well as paper dates who, in addition to playing the bait in a bait-and-switch operation that ended in edification, were fighting puritanism by being good girls who liked sex. Of course, if he had absorbed some of the very authors he published, he might have emphasized other factors as being more destructive to healthy sex, and health overall, than puritanism. How is puritanism at fault for the erratic mood swings of Miss February 1971, Willy Rey, who, like Marilyn Monroe and Anna Nicole Smith, was a prescription-drug casualty? Was it puritanism that caused an obsessed fan of Miss January 1991, Stacy Arthur, to drive from California to Ohio, where she lived, and gun down her husband in a murder-suicide? Is it the reason that Star Stowe, Miss February 1977, turned tricks on the street in a downward spiral that placed her in the path of a likely serial killer? Her strangulation murder remains unsolved.
But Hefner would sooner trade night for day than probe that kind of darkness or, for that matter, the kind that clouded his personal life, as if his controlling nature and Frankensteinish need for duplicates had nothing to do with the fits and indiscretions of his speedily replaced favorites. There’s no defeating the pathologies of noir as decisively as he believed he could defeat puritanism by challenging censorship laws—he challenged them with admirable success—and winning hearts and minds with his starlet factory. To date the factory has produced some 700 variations on the same basic type, discounting the calendar models of Playboy’s first year, though they too acted as bait in its bait-and-switch operation, which never worked as well on the Internet. Most visitors to Playboy.com take the bait and run, and the magazine in whatever form isn’t as edifying as it used to be, and even if it were, America is emotionally and economically a harder place than it was when Hefner was planning Stag Party, so that fewer people identify profit in learning “interesting” things for the sake of learning them. Will it get them a job? Will it make them popular? It might with Jessica Ashley, but she’s an exception. She’s Playboy’s Playmate of the Month, to be followed by another, and another, at least, surely, until Hefner departs conclusively for Westwood Memorial Park, where Dorothy Stratten’s ashes are buried near the bones of Marilyn Monroe, which will rest forever beside those of Hugh Hefner in the adjacent crypt. Hence, to cap a life packed with realized fantasy, he’ll realize a final fantasy as the mate of a stranger, though they once spoke briefly on the phone about a cover photo that would feature Monroe clasping a white fur stole given to her for Christmas by “Playboy,” the company or its rakish rabbit mascot. She died soon after that talk and Hefner proceeded with the cover, substituting Miss July 1961, Sheralee Conners, for the Golden Dreams girl whose Hollywood ending cut to black, while his own would slowly dissolve.