Hugh Hefner/AP photo
Hugh Hefner's death Wednesday night triggered fond memories of the couple times my journalism credentials got me into the Playboy Mansion. Most revealing was a 2000 sitdown that took place when Hefner's empire was experiencing a bit of a comeback. Here's the story as it ran in March of that year:
The bunny has bounced back.
Ten years ago, when Playboy was about as hip as disco, one could easily imagine Hugh Hefner snoozing in an easy chair, a glass of warm milk by his side, an endless stream of "Murder, She Wrote"
reruns flickering on the TV screen.
But these days, Hefner and his company are enjoying their second wind. Celebrities are flaunting the famous rabbit ears. Playboy magazine subscriptions on college campuses were up 62 percent in
1999 from the previous year. Vanity Fair, Details and Esquire all published glowing pieces last year on their rival, as if he had returned from the dead and brought a keg with him. After years away from the Sunset Strip, he's back, escorting his three twentysomething girlfriends - two of whom are twins - to the
hippest L.A. clubs.
"You couldn't write this as fiction," said Hefner, who turns 74 next month. "It's too sweet."
Hefner had just emerged from his disheveled bedroom and workplace upstairs in the Playboy Mansion, his headquarters and home. He sat down in a wood-paneled study, bookshelves lined with bound copies
of the magazine and numerous pictures of his family on the walls. He uses this room for interviews and to prepare the tutorials he conducts every weekend before screening classic films for friends.
In person, Hefner is shorter and cuddlier than most girlie-magazine publishers. He sports a pink glow that takes decades off his age. This isn't a stud; it's a puppy dog.
"He's in better health now than he was 20 years ago," said daughter Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterprises. "He's got a healthy diet and exercises. He's probably in better shape than when he was living on Pepsi Cola and taking amphetamines so he could work around the clock."
The Mansion, recently featured in a 14-page spread in Harper's Bazaar, has been revitalized. Los Angeles Magazine called the Tudor-style home the area's hot spot - but only if you're on the guest list. Otherwise, no visitors allowed.
"If anyone could come here, then what's the big deal?" said Jeff Baize, an L.A. charity organizer. "It'd be like Universal Tours."
The Mansion caters less to sex and more to other boyish fantasies. One cottage on the four-acre grounds is lined with pinball machines and classic arcade games. It also features a TV room with a foam-rubber floor. Gardeners tend to a jungle of rare flowers. Flamingos and cranes roam the grounds, past the grotto,
sculpted waterfall and tennis court. Not a Playmate in sight.
"People call on the phone and want to know what it's like," said Hefner's publicist, Bill Farley. "I usually say something like, `Right now, I'm sitting in a hot tub with the Playmate of the Month rubbing my back, waiting for the champagne to arrive,' and they want so hard to believe that."
Still, the mansion does live up to its reputation at night. Regulars at late-night parties include young celebrities like Leo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz mingling with Hall of Famers like James
Caan and Jack Nicholson.
If you squint, it's almost reminiscent of the wild L.A. parties of the '70s, before the rabbit ears started to flop.
Magazine sales, which peaked at 7 million in 1971, collapsed to half that number by the mid-'70s. The company lost $51.8 million in 1982. By 1986, all the Playboy clubs and casinos had been closed.
There were personal crises as well. Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten was murdered in 1980. Hefner suffered a stroke in 1985.
And then, perhaps the most serious blow to the image: Hef got hitched. When Hefner married centerfold Kimberley Conrad in 1989, he stopped playing host and started playing daddy. The sign near the entrance of the Mansion was changed from "Playmates at play" to "Children at play."
.Hef's single self
When the couple separated two years ago and Hefner returned to bachelorhood, he was ready to party again. So was the country.
In November, Hefner went to Miami to watch a horse named in his honor compete in the Breeders' Cup. Ocean Drive, a local fashion magazine, devoted eight pages to his visit.
"He was treated like a god at the clubs," recalls Tom Austin, Ocean Drive's feature editor. "He traveled like an Arab sheik. He came in on a private plane and took up an entire floor at the hotel. No one does that anymore."
"I think there's a sort of celebratory mood," Hefner said. "There was a more conservative attitude in the '80s and early '90s and a certain amount of political correctness. It was the time of the Moral Majority. Young people who came of age during that period may be responding to that with some backlash."
The fear of AIDS might be keeping young people from staging a full-out sexual revolution, but more and more of them wouldn't mind watching one. In addition to Playboy's resurgence, other men's magazines, including Maxim and Lotus, are profitable newcomers to the United States, forcing competitors such as Details and Esquire to cater even more to the beer-and-babes audience.
But it's not just young men embracing the Playboy image.
Jewel wore a Playboy T-shirt to post-Grammy parties. Annie Leibovitz recently shot a scantily clad Jennifer Aniston at the Playboy Mansion for a Vanity Fair pictorial. Sarah Jessica Parker's character on HBO's "Sex and the City" sports a Playboy necklace.
Feminist writer Susan Brownmiller is appalled. In 1970 she debated Hefner on "The Dick Cavett Show," arguing that women wouldn't truly be equal until Hefner came out with a cottontail attached to his rear end. She called him a "schmuck" then, and hasn't changed her mind. That other liberated women don't agree
with her is disappointing, she said.
"It seems to me that we've backslid tremendously about the exploitation of women," Brownmiller said from her home in New York. "This is a very non-militant time we're living in. People don't have a grasp anymore of what it means to work for political change. It's a silly time in America. When people buy this magazine, they think they're making some sort of statement."
Darren Star, who created "Sex and the City" as well as "Melrose Place," said the independent, sex-crazed women on his shows are no longer threatened by the bunny and, in fact, can embrace it.
"I think women who own their sexuality can embrace the fun that goes with that image without saying, `I'm a bimbo,' " he said. "They're not embarrassed by the fact that men are turned on by
That doesn't mean the centerfolds are now being recruited from Mensa. The Playmates haven't changed much over the years, and they won't as long as Hefner's in charge. His only official Playboy duty
these days is selecting the Playmate of the Month.
The rest of his time is spent enjoying the good life - the parties, the girlfriends, the late-night movies, the celebrity hobnobbing. The first time around, it was grand. The second time is
"If you were in the middle of the sexual revolution, it was kind of like a war," Hefner said. "This is rather like the ticker-tape parade."