Jessica Seigel
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Hugh Hefner

Hugh Hefner at the Mansion:
The original Playboy reflects on the pajama game of life

Chicago Tribune

(This interview lasted so long -- six hours -that I was ready for a nap in the grotto. At the time, I thought the lead rather risque. But Hef sent a nice note saying he loved it-and that he had thought of me while taking a pee at the Ritz Carlton forced to hold up a broken toilet seat with one hand.)

By Jessica Seigel
Tribune Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES-- The toilet seat is unmistakably vertical, standing straight above the shimmering water in the black marble toilet bowl in the bathroom of the Playboy Mansion's den.

Considering who has just emerged from there, the evidence is incontrovertible. Hugh Hefner leaves the seat up.

What gives?

Shocked silence. Hefner has never heard of the toilet seat debate. He begins to laugh. "My consciousness raising only goes so far," he says, now giggling. (Although he normally wears his black silk pajamas, today he is wearing purple, special for company.) "It never occurred to me that one would put down the seat because the next person might be female. That's a unique notion."

While we're on the subject - not that we'd want to stay on the subject - how have the years raised his consciousness?

"That's a tough one," Hefner says.

Indeed, it's one of the few points Hefner is unable to expound upon at length in his latest phase - reflective overdrive. A David ("Twin Peaks") Lynch/Mark Frost Productions documentary about him is scheduled to premiere Wednesday at the Chicago International Film Festival, in a sort of cinematic prelude to his 800-page autobiography in progress. With the book already seven years in the writing, he is actively fine-tuning the sweeping themes of his existence.

"My life is not just a simple story," he says. "It's a microcosm of the 20th Century experience."

After leading a "Capraesque" struggle against Puritan sexual repression, which is how he views his role in the 1960s and 1970s, the man who defined the word "playboy" is microcosming again. At 66, Hefner appears to have been tamed by three years of married bliss with Miss January of 1988 and their sons, ages 2 and 1.

Men of America, when you see how the Playboy Mansion has changed in the 1990s, take heart. Just remember that toilet seat.

Oversized "Children at Play" signs line the narrow driveway leading up to the 6-acre estate in the Holmby Hills neighborhood, next to Beverly Hills. Once inside the faux Tudor chateau, the echo of a screaming toddler ricochets in the monumental marble foyer.

To the right, a child's red wagon filled with toys sits under an oil portrait of Papa Hugh Hefner. A painting of Mama Kimberly Conrad, 30, holds the place of honor on the opposite wall. A small Dali hangs in an alcove. By late afternoon, a Daffy Duck inflatable punching bag has materialized in front of the main door.

A spotted doggy swim toy is now the main piece of paraphernalia in the swimming pool grotto, once the mansion hot spot where the nubiles (all gone) frolicked with the gallants. Now the weight room is the most popular wing of the mansion.

Wait, there's less

How heavy does this Zeitgeist get?

"I gave up the pipe and quit the (amphetamine) Dexedrine. I cut out salt. I cut out sugar. I cut out butter," Hefner says at lunch, speaking of the transformation that his stroke in 1985 began and marriage completed. He looks trim in his black plush non-smoking jacket. Soft gray hair brushes his ears, framing a lightly tanned face.

At first Hefner seems shy, unsure about simple small talk that's not part of the big themes of his life's trajectory. Though distant, he speaks gently, his talk sometimes reaching the mind-numbing, as he goes over the seminal causes of his life like a mantra. He slowly relaxes, though never too much. And why should he relax, the man who even now - particularly now - feels people don't understand what he has done to free America from its Puritan shackles?

As is his habit, Hefner chain-drinks decaffeinated diet Pepsi from the can, having eaten lunch earlier: toast and protein drink. Some days he drinks up to 30 Pepsis, leaving a trail of cans behind like cigarette butts. Ever the gracious host as king of his castle, Hefner sips happily while his guest eats seared sea scallops with angel hair pasta in pernod sauce.

"What passes for vices at the Playboy Mansion are on your plate," he says, glancing at the dessert. The guest looks down at the delicate mint sorbet glistening on the plate.

Imagine. Pink flamingos (as in not plastic) cavort on the lawn with peacocks. Monkeys swing in the trees. "I'm-Luis-your-waiter" serves. The guy seated to your right wears bright purple pajamas.

Imagine all that, yet the sorbet (sorbet!) makes you feel guilty.

Ah, the excruciating 1990s. Let's go back, back to the time when Hefner was the sheik who built his empire from a harem of willing Bunnies and Playmates, the subject of the new Lynch documentary, "Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time."

That project was launched after Hefner saw the half-hour program the Lynch/Frost production company made about him for the "American Chronicles" series on Fox television. A fan of Lynch's "Twin Peaks," Hefner so liked the segment that he approached the company about making a full-length feature on his life. Putting up $1 million to produce the film, according to director Robert Heath, Hefner opened his private archives and gave the filmmakers access to friends and family.

It's the same biographical ground Hefner had been walking in writing his autobiography. He and his writer, Patrick Anderson, have only reached 1976.

Laying out the layers

"The writing has been like a self-analysis," says Hefner, who majored in psychology at the University of Illinois but never had therapy himself. "I discovered in the process that the story had all kinds of other layers I didn't see before. I thought . . . this thing is so good, I've got to do it justice."

He wants to be understood, to be seen as he sees himself. With the new documentary, he has seen himself a number of times on the big screen of the oak-paneled projection room next to the den.

The projection room's overstuffed leather sofas have seats so deep, you can't lean back and put your feet on the floor at the same time. After fetching another diet Pepsi, bringing an Evian water for his guest, Hefner curls up against the left sofa arm, his legs stretched out on a footstool.

Sitting in the dark alone beside Hefner, you can't help but feel as if you're watching a home movie.

"That's the wishing well," Hefner says, pointing to the film's opening shot of the spot where he proposed to Kimberly.

Hometown premiere

The film goes back to Chicago, where Hefner grew up and built his Playboy empire and where he'll return for his first trip home in seven years to attend the documentary's premiere.

On his trip he'll visit his old haunts, including the site of the first Playboy Mansion, at 1340 N. State Pkwy., and Steinmetz High School, 3030 N. Mobile Ave., where he graduated in 1944. Returning to a favorite spot from his childhood, he'll take his 2-year-old son, Marston, to the Field Museum.

Faces of Hefner's parents flash on the screen. "My mother," he says. "Me as a baby."

The voice of narrator James Coburn booms from the speakers as the signature Lynch-style music plays eerily in the background. "Have the years brought him closer to finding happiness?" Coburn asks.

The narration goes over early influences in Hefner's life: movies (the dreams) and his mother (the repression).

A black-and-white image of a woman in a Teutonic brassiere hits the screen. "Flash Gordon," he says. "I was 10 and it had a big impact on me. In my early years, I was often attracted to women who reminded me of that."

The narrator explains that the "Puritan pull" of his strict Protestant upbringing was finally too strong, so Hefner married, for the first time, in 1949.

"That's Christie," Hefner says while snippets of his daughter on early home videos roll by. There's the tyke who would save the day when she took over her father's crumbling empire in the 1980s.

On to the seminal years. Hefner at his kitchen table in 1953 creating the first issue of Playboy. Exeunt first wife and two kids. On to the 1960s, with the Playboy Mansion, syndicated TV shows ("Playboy's Penthouse" and "Playboy After Dark") and the Playboy Clubs.

Time has not yet turned the images quaint. There's Hefner with Sammy Davis Jr. hosting a swinging televised party. Hefner kisses the nubiles. He talks to the camera while they jiggle.

"My dreams are the dreams of an adolescent boy. Everyone's dreams are adolescent," Hefner says later. "Mine are just better."

TV interviews with Hefner and news clips from the 1960s and 1970s show the controversy that followed him at every step. Mike Wallace asks if Playboy magazine isn't just a "high-class dirty book." Feminists object that women are human beings, not bunnies.

At the part about his pill-popping habit (the Dexedrine), Hefner gets up for another diet Pepsi. On the screen it's the mid-1970s and the road is getting rocky. His trusted personal assistant, Bobbie Arnstein, commits suicide after government prosecutors trying to get at Hefner have her sentenced to prison for cocaine possession. Playmate Dorothy Stratten is murdered.

Hefner stands up for another diet Pepsi. With each trip, the ever-solicitous host brings back an Evian for his guest.

A proper ending

For the 1980s, the music gets darker and darker. The casinos and the last of the Playboy Clubs close. AIDS and feminist anti-pornography movements dampen the fire of sexual liberation.

It is this sea change on the Left that most disturbs Hefner. "Liberal no longer means liberal. It means this other political agenda that is very hurtful," he says. "It's part of the feminist movement. It does bother me. Sure it bothers me."

As in every fairy tale, the film ends with a "happily ever after" as Hefner settles down to marriage with Kimberly Conrad. "As good as my life seems from the outside, it's even better," Hefner had said earlier.

Despite the romanticized treatment in the documentary, Hefner thinks the film came out "darker" than he would have made it. Director Heath says it is 95 percent of the company's original vision, only slightly modified by some changes Hefner suggested in the final cut.

"We would have liked to have a little more freedom, but I felt comfortable working with him," said Heath, whose directorial background includes work at TV's "Entertainment Tonight" and numerous TV specials. "I used to do commercials. We're not doing the same thing, but it's similar to it.

"He definitely has a fixation about his life and how he wants to be remembered," Heath said. "(Hefner) has been in control his entire life and is not about to let it go. There was not a relaxed side to him."

Could it be the influence of his family background, which Hefner sees as his life's prime mover? One of his favorite moments in the film is the interview in which his brother, Keith, describes how their parents never hugged or kissed them.

"It's real cause and effect," Hefner says. "It (the casual sex) had an obsessive side to it because I was searching for something. I didn't know it at the time, but I was searching for the love I didn't get as a child."

The biography with the film's press release prominently mentions his descent from two "distinguished Massachusetts Puritan Patriarchs." That John Winthrop thing, right?

"It's not Winthrop. It's John. It's the guy who. . . ," Hefner says, pausing to think about the genealogy his father researched in the 1970s.

"Maybe Winthrop is one, too. The guy I'm most familiar with is William Bradford," Hefner says. "He was the second governor of, what was that colony called? Anyway, my second son, his middle name is Bradford."

Naming his second son for a Puritan patriarch is part of Hefner's "full circle" return to family and heritage. "It's important to find some happy middle ground between the tensions," he says. "I couldn't have done it originally. Who would have imagined I would have wanted to get married and get such joy out of a family?"

Throughout the afternoon, the boys are heard, but not seen, so we head off to find them in the 26-room mansion. First Hefner gives a tour of his private living quarters, which are decorated in oaky English manor. His walk-in closet presents what he calls his toughest decision of the day: which of 35 to 40 identical silk pajamas in different colors to wear. A tailor makes the ensembles for him from silk bought by the bolt from France.

Going square

In the bedroom, Hefner apologizes for the piles of videotapes of vintage movies stacked along the walls. "Tidy is not one of the major things in my life."

Control panels put the room's ambiance at his fingertips with separate buttons for "Bed/Drapes. Sheer. Mirror. Slats. Back. Drapes . . ." His king-size bed, covered with a white comforter, is square, not like in the days when he conducted business from atop a giant round mattress. Reached by a spiral staircase from the bedroom, the cozy study under a triangular ceiling nestled under the mansion's eaves reminds Hefner of Capt. Nemo's ship in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

As we leave the private quarters, one of five cats, a white angora named Pugs, tries to make a run for it. "It's like breakout time," Hefner says, shutting the door quickly.

Then on to the children's room. Oops. The nanny, who has just taken a shower, comes to the door wrapped in a white towel. She holds smiling Cooper Bradford on her hip. Marston, with wavy golden locks down to his shoulder, stands by her leg.

"Papa," Cooper says, grabbing Hefner's glasses. "Daddy's room," Marston says, repeating what is now a new routine.

"Marston's at the point now where he will come to me, wants my keys, goes to a particular lock, takes me down to the refrigerator, gets a can of Pepsi out for me and a can of Orange Crush for him and goes into my office. It's exploring with Daddy."

They're pretty darn cute. "It's more than cute. It's wonderful," says Hefner, whose hopes for his sons are fairly basic. "I want them to be happy."

We leave the children with the nanny, one of several who watch them. Which one was she?

"I'm the worst on names," Hefner says. "I'll tell you in a second." The publicist runs to find out. That was Lori.

Babies, babies everywhere

Babies at the mansion seem to be multiplying, just like the furry black and white bunnies that turn up sprawled across footpaths.

Not even the game room is safe. Hefner wants to show his guest the antique Wurlitzer jukebox and the pinball machines. "Shhh," says one of the nannies. The baby of a friend of Kimberly's is sleeping in an adjacent guest room.

We tiptoe. We whisper. But when we approach a special Playboy anniversary pinball machine, it cries out in a sultry recorded voice: "Oooo. Playboy." Some of us want to play (no quarters needed).

But the baby starts to cry. The Playboy himself has to skedaddle.

October 8, 1992

END