'Playboy' Publisher Hugh Hefner: Blows Against the Empire - Rolling Stone
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Hugh Hefner: Blows Against the Empire

‘Playboy’ publisher created one of America’s most successful magazines out of his adolescent fantasies. Today, some people are saying his dream is all wet

Hugh HefnerHugh Hefner

Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion in 1985.

Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

Hugh Hefner gestures with a sweeping motion of his arm at the moonlit landscape of his five-acre backyard. “See if you can get a sense of this,” he says. Four baby ostriches scamper near dark pools where muscular Japanese koi teem below the surface. A tethered monkey crouches at the base of a tree. Silhouettes of hulking macaws on tall perches mark the horizon. A suit-clad security man carrying a walkie-talkie is barely visible in the shadows. Hefner’s velvet slippers and the cuffs of his black satin sleepwear soak up dew as he gazes at the glistening expanse. He inhales and exhales deeply. The 59-nine-year-old is high on property and wildlife.

Then he turns to his girlfriend, Carrie Leigh, who turned 22 the week before. She is talking to a journalist. The two are seated on lawn furniture and bathed in yellow light from a leaded window. Carrie is wearing a lavender dress of a spandexlike fabric with a deep V cut down to her navel; the garment is held together with a succession of black bows. Her long black hair is teased and curled and abundant around her face and shoulders. Hefner bends down, his face between his lover’s and the journalist’s, and buries his nose and lips in Carrie’s hairline. “I love you,” he says in a muffled stage whisper.

Hefner, who boasts he has lived his life in a state of perpetual adolescence, will be 60 next month. In the past year, which has shown him the greatest emotional extremes of his life, he has survived a major stroke, fought a $5 million slander suit brought by a 16-year-old girl and suffered some of the worst press of his career. It is Hefner-bashing season, and journalists are launching their cleverest stylistic barbs at this target who never moves from one spot: his six-bedroom English Tudor in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles. “[His] whole lifestyle, on paper, resembles nothing so much as a study in terminal depression,” wrote a young British writer recently, an observation that reflects the disillusionment with Playboyism that Hefner’s constituency of youthful males increasingly exhibits. Admiration and envy during Hefner’s ascendant, golden years — “the Chicago days,” as he calls them — have given way to general distaste.

The malaise has spread to the company. The empire Hefner built on what he calls his “adolescent dreams,” and what many would call the commercial exploitation of naked women, is teetering on the brink: revenues have dropped nearly 50 percent in the last three years, readership of his magazine has slackened from a high of more than 7 million a month in 1972 to 4 million today and his colonial outposts, the Playboy Clubs, are a disaster. It appears the emperor has no clothes, and hardly anyone is afraid to say so.

But Hefner is, on this night and in the days to come, in a celebratory mood. His good vibes are as maddeningly palpable as those of a recent life-enhancement-course graduate. He’s a walking juggernaut of human potential. He has triumphed in the most bitter battle of his life, a quarrel he admitted was “just so bad-taste Hollywood” that it sickened him, yet compelled him to fight on, even against the advice of his closest associates and his cherished daughter, Christie. “I’m not interested in hurting people,” he had thundered in the white heat of battle. “I’m interested in getting back my character, in getting back my good name. Such as it is. It’s rather important to me!” And tonight it is clear that in Hefner’s mind good name and character are quite recovered.

“There has never been a casting couch connected to Playboy,” says Hugh Hefner.

Two miles from Hefner’s property, a four-minute drive along Sunset Boulevard, lies the vanquished: Bel Air resident Peter Bogdanovich. The movie director who made films like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, whose career is considered to have sparkled and then lost its radiance, really didn’t stand a chance. Bogdanovich cast the first stone. But unlike David, he failed to slay his Goliath; he just made him mad. The claims and counterclaims of their feud cut deep, right to their masculine souls. Bogdanovich accused the most famous playboy of the Western world of having to rape a Playmate, the late Dorothy Stratten, to get sex. But Hefner would insist, “I am, publisher of Playboy or no, a very shy man. And I could no more force myself on a woman, psychologically or physically, than could the man on the moon.”

He, in turn, accused born-again feminist Bogdanovich of child molestation, à la Roman Polanski. The director, Hefner announced at a well-attended press conference last spring, seduced Stratten’s then-13-year-old sister as a “pathological replacement” for Stratten soon after her death.

The two men have not spoken for five years. One of their last conversations occurred when Hefner called the director to tell him Stratten, Playboy‘s Playmate of the Year, who was living with Bogdanovich, had been murdered by her husband, Paul Snider — who then turned the gun on himself. Their final words of condolence were exchanged at Stratten’s funeral at the Westwood Cemetery, where the 20-year-old Canadian was buried near Marilyn Monroe on August 22nd, 1980. Afterward, Hefner remembers, “Peter retreated into editing They All Laughed,” the movie Bogdanovich made with Stratten shortly before her death. “What that must have been like, looking at the Moviola, cutting those images. . . .It must have been absolutely overwhelming,” he adds in a moment of empathy.

Four years later, Bogdanovich emerged as a feminist with all the fervor of the newly saved in his book The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960-1980. He had embarked, in his own words, on “months and years of investigation,” during which he “found out more and more about Hefner’s role.” “If I had to confront my own responsibility,” the director wrote, “there could be no way to ignore his.” Unicorn was a passionate account of Stratten’s rise at Playboy, Bogdanovich’s love affair with her, and her murder. Mostly it was an indictment of what its author felt was the exploitative nature of Stratten’s relationship with Playboy and especially with Hefner, who, Bogdanovich wrote, forced himself on Stratten in his notorious Jacuzzi “grotto” the first night she spent in his house. The director believed that Stratten had married the man who would kill her to protect herself from the “wolves” at the mansion.

Bogdanovich’s fury is especially comprehensible once you grasp his feminist sensibilities. He buys the continuum between centerfolds and ax murders: the notion that when women are presented as passive receptacles of male sexual pleasure, anything can and will happen, that what trivializes women can kill them too. If the pornography mentality killed his girlfriend, then isn’t the granddaddy of the genre, Hugh Marston Hefner, culpable too?

Masters of imagery, manipulators of fantasy, Hefner and Bogdanovich drew on their strengths. Theirs was an escalating battle of words and images fought on the airwaves and newsstands. Ultimately, it was a war of public relations, except that Hefner’s PR machine was so much richer and more practiced than his adversary’s. Even their truce was public-relations choreography. Both sides toyed with the idea that a public show of amicability should take place on the fifth anniversary of Stratten’s death. “That would be an ideal hook — where these two great men could come together — basically kiss and make up,” postulated Hefner’s executive assistant, Richard Rosenzweig. “Maybe we could hold a joint press conference at Dorothy’s grave site,” Hefner had remarked in a moment of sarcasm.

In the end, official settlement came with the issuing of press releases from each side. Few appeared to care. “The fireworks are over? Too bad,” seemed to be the reaction of the Hollywood press. The fight had been so much more fascinating than its resolution. What was ignored was that hardly anything had been resolved: whether anyone was raped or seduced, for instance. Stratten’s still-grieving family was left bereft of justice or compensation, as it was after her death. And Bogdanovich was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Hefner is, by now, an icon. his satin pajamas and 10-ounce Pepsi bottles are American kitsch, like Elvis’ ducktail. Myths take shape around him, a few of which he willingly fosters, such as the number of stars on the cover of his magazine symbolizing the number of times he has slept with the Playmate inside. In fact, in recent years Hefner has become less involved in the selection of Playmates; a middle-aged woman, photo editor Marilyn Grabowski, selects the candidates. Hefner okays them, sometimes six at a time, at infrequent editorial sessions. On the eve of his 60 birthday, the eternal adolescent finds himself struggling with conflicting imperatives: the need to ensure his “good name” and the need to live up to his reputation. He wants it both ways, and he’s frustrated by a “repressive, hurtful society” that refuses him that privilege. “There has never been a casting couch connected to Playboy,” he will say in a moment of annoyance, “although it would be one of the greatest temptations of our time. The people who write about me are notorious for that kind of phenomenon. Which is not to say I have not been romantically involved with a number of Playmates over the years. I have been. But I would say that the ‘father’ kind of relationship is the rule rather than the exception, and has been the rule for the last thirty years.”

The exceptions have been rather dramatic. Last year, a former Bunny told the Justice Department’s newly formed Meese Commission on Pornography — which Hefner characterizes as a “dog-and-pony show” promoting “sexual McCarthy-ism” — that her group-sex experiences with Hefner and his cronies in Hefner’s bedroom ultimately caused her severe emotional distress and turned her into a lesbian. Now she is a born-again Christian. When Hefner is asked if the events she described in his bedroom occurred, he replies that he certainly recalls orgy episodes, but that he cannot remember the woman. “If she was there, it was because she wanted to be,” he says, adding with tempered but unmistakable pride, “Believe me, there were a lot of people who wanted to be there.”

Bogdanovich’s attack had myth-shattering connotations for Hefner. In Hefner’s universe, he is to sex what Martin Luther King was to race. Months before his triumphant stroll through his private Eden, he is sunk into the threadbare couch in his library, his shaggy head framed by a shiny bust of Barbi Benton from her crown to her large pink nipples on the windowsill behind him. “I have lived a rather full and wonderful life,” he says. “It has certainly involved a great deal of sexual adventure, and it played a very real part in what came to be called the sexual revolution. But I do not exploit human beings.” As sunlight dapples the room’s interior, he seems almost to equate the sexual revolution, which he believes he spawned, with the founding fathers’ deeds. “To say the sexual revolution didn’t work is like saying democracy didn’t work,” he says, as if the freedom to sleep around is as integral to the nation’s functioning as the Voting Rights Act. Bogdanovich’s book, far from giving Hefner his due, cast him as a Walt Disney of “homogenized pornography” and as a depraved Machiavelli in his relationship with Dorothy Stratten. “Playboy,” the director said, “turns every girl next door into a hooker.”

Bogdanovich’s charges and insinuations cut so deeply, when those of others have not, Hefner implies, because they impugned his heartland-bred integrity. “I’m a Midwestern boy,” he says, “a very all-American kid who was raised by farm people in Nebraska, by Puritan-Protestant parents. I’ve been very capable of dealing with the controversy of Playboy over the years, and even reveled in it. But once it turns into something very personal, something that questions my character, it is potentially devastating to me.”

Unicorn, Hefner believes, would have gone wanting for a publisher and an audience in another era, particularly the Sixties. “This has never been a pissing contest for me,” he says, his voice loud with emotion in the still room. “This has been a matter of my trying to protect myself from the wildest kind of character assassination that happens to fit into the public prejudices of our time.” Purveyors of those prejudices are the “anti-porn, antisex feminists,” — and the former Playboy minions, a Bunny and a Playmate, who have taken up testifying before the Meese commission. In Hefner’s embattled state of mind, Bogdanovich’s book became indistinguishable from criticism leveled by his more orthodox tormentors, just as, for Bogdansovich, Hefner’s sexual theme park was merely another element of a deranged, woman-hating culture that included snuff films and gang rape. Ultimately, for Hefner, refuting Bogdanovich was a Superman-style blow for truth, justice and the American way, as well as the salvation of his impeccable self-image.

“I’m a caring guy,” Hefner says, leaning forward in his satin night clothes, his eyes narrowing, his brow furrowing in his need to be believed. “I say it with great honesty — I think I am truly a much nicer person than I was 20 years ago. For me, not being seduced by success and power is important.”

When the cynic hears all this, a decade’s worth of static beaver shots or the new $9.95 Playmate videos come to mind. Yet, Hefner’s perplexity over the assault on pornography, and his magazine in particular, seems genuine. His faith that he is a force for good in the world is unwavering. “All I’m really looking for,” he says, staring intently into the eyes of his visitor, “is for someone to communicate what I’m really like.”

This concern dominated a series of conversations in his darkened library over the summer. (Just once, he decided to meet outside, at a table near his pool where the portly publisher of Screw magazine, Al Goldstein, was sunning himself in bathing trunks and smoking a cigar.) Hefner seemed obsessed with setting the record straight. “This is not Rashomon,” he would insist, as the afternoon light waned and his staff — butlers, security guards, secretaries, cooks — toiled quietly in the air-conditioned daytime hum of his house. “There are people who know what went on.”

When the manuscript first fell into my hands,” Hefner recalled one day in late summer, “I was absolutely stunned. I thought it was science fiction. This book said I had sexually harassed or raped Dorothy Stratten on the first night I met her at the mansion. I thought, There isn’t a possibility this is ever going to be published. I mean, Peter had gone absolutely bonkers.”

William Morrow, Bogdanovich’s publisher, made few of the changes Hefner’s lawyers asked for. Hefner even appealed to executives at Morrow’s parent firm, the Hearst Corporation, claiming the book was defamatory. Morrow editors removed the word rape. Bogdanovich, meanwhile, set off on a far-ranging publicity tour, appearing on television news and talk shows and reiterating the ideas about Playboy, pornography and Hefner that he developed in Unicorn. Hefner kept silent, refusing to become ensnared in a one-on-one with his adversary. But he was more upset about the Bogdanovich book, a close associate said, than anything ever to befall him, including a federal drug investigation in the Seventies that ended in the suicide of Bobbie Arnstein, a former lover who worked for him as a secretary in his 70-room Chicago mansion. And he was infinitely more concerned about Bogdanovich’s allegations than he was about the sliding fortunes of his corporation. “At the beginning of every day — you know we meet with him each day for anywhere from half an hour to several hours — we would have a conversation about this book,” the associate said. “I felt he was overwhelmed by it.”

Hefner was as repulsed by the book’s motif as by its charge of forced seduction:

When people read of the death of Dorothy Stratten, they shook their heads and talked about the eternal triangle. It was the age-old story: Play with explosives and they blow up. Even I believed it, as the only living member of that triangle. But as I tried to find the truth, I discovered a fourth side — hidden and dark. Eventually there would be no doubt in my mind that if the shadowy Hefner side of the pyramid had never existed, Dorothy would not have died. She could have dealt with Paul Snider, a small-town pimp who first spotted and sold her, but she could not have handled the slick professional machinery of the Playboy sex factory.

“You read the book and you get the impression we’re dealing in some kind of sleazy back alley,” Hefner said, adding with characteristic naiveté, “as if Dorothy’s relationship with Playboy had anything to do with pornograpy. In truth, on every level, Dorothy was treated like an absolute queen here.” Was he naked with her in the Jacuzzi? “That’s true. It was in the early evening. And I’ll tell you very frankly, I don’t remember a whole lot about it. It’s not unusual. It would not be the kind of thing that one would think about, except for what happened later.” His own relationship with the late Stratten was above rebuke, he insisted. In fact, he evoked a scenario of the shy young Canadian blossoming under his tutelage. His doting was insufficient, however, to save her from herself.

“Dorothy absolutely adored me. And I adored her. In my relationship with her, I gave a great deal and took very little. She, along the way, married a creepy guy who followed her from Canada. And if there’s one thing you can say about Dorothy, it’s that she had very bad taste in men. She, in fact, had a self-esteem problem and seemed to seek out these men. Her relationship with Peter was really just a next-level variation on her relationship with Snider. And the saddest thing that has happened since her death is that he has done the same thing Snider did. He’s tried to possess her in the same way.”

Had Germaine Greer or Kate Millett written Unicorn, Hefner might have been able to understand it. But Bogdanovich was, instead, a cigar-smoking buddy who, by his own admission, had spent a year of “devastating promiscuity” hanging out at the mansion. For Hefner, Bogdanovich’s turnaround was so fantastic he could comprehend it only as a manifestation of mental illness. “Here’s a man who was into numerology, astrology and seeing magic implications in lights that go off and on in his house,” he says. “We’re talking Looney Tunes.” Accordingly, Hefner, whose college major was psychology and who remains fascinated with the subject, hired a Chicago psychiatrist to draw a mental profile of Bogdanovich based on his book and Hefner’s accusations. The psychiatrist, who furnished Hefner with a 20-page report, made Bogdanovich out to be very crazy indeed.

The director’s personality “shattered to a severe and truly tragic degree” after Stratten’s brutal murder, the doctor wrote. Unable to cope with his rage, Bogdanovich “projected it onto Mr. Hefner,” a phenomenon the psychiatrist believes resulted from an “Oedipal rivalry between [Bogdanovich] the son and Mr. Hefner, the father.” The father chooses a “perfect goddesslike beauty,” and “when the son has the hubris to woo and win this same woman, the father rises in a bloody rage and has the woman murdered in the most savage way,” Hefner’s consultant continued. “Rarely is the Oedipal pattern so undisguised.” He added that Bogdanovich, who “seemed driven to prove that [Stratten] loved no one but him and had a godlike purity and chastity,” was able to perceive Stratten’s involvement with the Playboy organization, “which commercializes sex. . .only in terms of conspiracy and bondage.” In his sweeping prognosis for a patient he had never examined — never, in fact, even met — the doctor surmised that treatment would “likely involve hospitalization. If depression is the underlying disorder, antidepressants and possibly ECT [electroshock therapy] would be considered.”

Hefner accepted the doctor’s word as gospel and was particularly taken with his Oedipal interpretation of the struggle. “There was something Bogdanovich was trying to capture through his pursuit of the female members of the family. In his mind, other male figures were intruders,” Hefner said. “And the primary intruder, it turns out, was me.”

Peter Bogdanovich’s source for his allegation that Hefner raped Stratten was Patrick Curtis, who, according to the director, befriended Stratten on her arrival at the mansion and quickly became her confidant. Curtis was a friend of Hefner’s who had hung out at the publisher’s house for years. He was told he was unwelcome when Mary O’Connor, Hefner’s secretary of 16 years, charged that Curtis was bilking her boss on the restoration of an antique car. O’Connor, a tall woman of 57 who smokes her cigarettes down to the filter, swears like a man and remains fiercely protective of Hefner, usually gets the task of expelling friends on the “gang list,” a group of about 20 who have 24-hour privileges at the Hefner estate. “Sometimes it’s nice,” she says when Curtis’ name is mentioned. Hefner assumes Curtis — who has been described as “a charming sociopath” — fabricated the story he told Bogdanovich out of anger at his banishment from the country club.

In Unicorn, Bogdanovich implies that his motivation for passing his days and nights at Hefner’s house was to gain a better understanding of what he felt was the vulgar underside of mansion life. The message: he’s more behavioral psychologist than horny guy. “Rather quickly, however, the boys’-camp atmosphere began to bore me,” he wrote. “There was more beneath the surface, I knew. But to discover the layers meant joining in sexually, and group sex held special repugnance for me. Once, I was tricked into a compromising situation at the mansion Jacuzzi by a Hefner buddy using a young woman as bait; the incident sickened and estranged me further. I had also come to realize that the men of Playboy pursued women only for sex and rarely even had conversations with them.”

Hefner’s staff women, although hardly objective sources, remember Bogdanovich in a different light. Their contempt, in fact, is unbounded. “Peter was an ass-kissing, arrogant creep,” says Lisa Loving, a Hefner aide-de-camp. “He’s trash. He’s lower than snake shit.” Loving and O’Connor remember a Bogdanovich Jacuzzi incident. “Let’s face it, Mary,” Loving roars in a moment of levity, “the guy took a Jacuzzi in his boxer shorts!”

“He’d sit and talk to a girl all night long,” Loving continues, “then call here the next day to get her number because he didn’t have the balls to ask her. Dorothy turned him down several times. He’s a piece of sleaze. He’s the kind of guy who would fuck a girl and never call her again. If Hef goes to bed with a girl one time, he’s her friend for life. At least she’s always welcome in his home.”

A very special time for me is the post midnight period. It’s when my dinner is here . . .  . I’m still very much rooted in the Midwestern farm cuisine. — Hugh Hefner

What does he eat? He eats four things. Pot roast, fried chicken, pork roast, and liver and onions. But he also likes peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches, french fries, potato chips, Franco-American spaghetti, the kind of bread that sticks to the roof of your mouth, Hershey bars, Snickers bars and chocolate-covered raisins. He likes com flakes and fried eggs for breakfast. When he’s not feeling well, he likes poached eggs, mashed potatoes and peas. — Mary O’Connor, Hefner’s secretary

To what would you attribute the stroke, medically? — Reporter

The precipitation? Ah. . .stress. — Mark Saginor, M.D.

I had a stroke on the 7th of March. The focus and priorities of my entire life have been changed as a result. I think now that the stress came not just from the hurtful fabrication of the book but from the uncertainty of knowing how to deal with it. I would think, “I’ve got to confront this,” and then others would say, “You shouldn’t do that, you’re just gonna sell copies of the book, you’re just gonna make it bigger.” — Hugh Hefner

It’s 2 a.m, on a chilly March 7th in Los Angeles. Hefner is alone in his bedroom-size pastel-green Oriental-motif bathroom perusing headlines in the new day’s Los Angeles Times. Quite suddenly, he loses his ability to read, or even to find the words to describe the sensation to Carrie. “There was no pain, no collapse,” he recalls later. He retires to his king-size bed, notable for the buxom nude female forms carved into its head- and baseboards, the knee-high stacks of videocassettes on either side and the two seven-foot screens at its foot. Carrie joins him as she has done every night for two years, and Hefner drifts off from his standard Pepsi-induced caffeine high into sleep.

“When I awoke, there was further deterioration. I couldn’t put together even a simple sentence. There was very mild paralysis, but I wasn’t aware of it. It was in the left lobe and affected the right side of my face, so that when I smiled, one side. . .didn’t react.”

Neurologist Clark Espey visits Hefner that afternoon. The doctor grabs a button on Hefner’s pajamas and asks, “What is this?” Hefner cannot find the word. The doctor lifts his own tie and says, “What is it?” Hefner cannot name the object, not is he able to tell Espey the words for belt buckle or pencil. Hefner’s tendency to agoraphobia takes an extreme turn. He does not want to go to the hospital. He appeals to his own doctor, Mark Saginor, a stocky “gang list” friend in his 40s. “The one thing I said to my doctor — because the stroke was stress related and the thought of going into the hospital was for me rather stressful — and what I said to my doctor. . .” and here Hefner, recalling his words five months later, changes course. “One of the things that caused some controversy was a question related to the seriousness of the stroke, because I didn’t go into the hospital. But Mark believed me. He took the chance. He saved my life.”

Saginor moves into the house of his friend and patient. Hefner lies in bed watching Frank Capra and Preston Sturges movies and scratchy Dick Tracy serials and reading anthologies of Thirties comic strips. He calls it “revisiting my childhood in the most positive way” and “doing Norman Cousins types of things.” He is surrounded by a menagerie of stuffed animals occupying the floor, furniture and mantelpiece. The room is shrouded by electronically operated taupe velvet drapes that block sunlight. A panel with rheostatic light controls and video and television switches is next to the bed. “I’m gonna be able to sit in bed,” Hefner remembers thinking. “I’m not going to have to do any reading. I’m gonna be able to just sit here.”

Employees in the Holmby Hills house and the magazine staff in Chicago are told Hefner has pneumonia. Christie flies to Los Angeles to see her father.

Almost four weeks later — April Fools’ Day. A parade of idling cars and vans stretches from Charing Cross Road past the swiveling TV camera on a pole and the fake boulder with a speaker embedded in it, through the movie-star iron gates, up the steep, high-walled drive. Fuel exhaust shimmers in the Los Angeles spring air. A flurry of red-vested parking valets relieve reporters and camera crews of their vehicles at the circular drive in front of Hefner’s house. Playboy Enterprises’ 60-minute documentary about the life and death of Dorothy Stratten is premièring on twin screens inside the darkened living room. It’s standing room only for latecomers. Against the best advice of his closest associates and Christie’s heartfelt wishes, Hefner has called a press conference.

“My editorial director, Arthur Kretchmer, wrote me a three-page memo,” Hefner would confide weeks later. “It said, ‘You can’t do this. You cannot tell the press what is really going on here. They will not understand the causal connection — and the darkness of what has happened. When it is over, all they will remember is two celebrities pissing on each other.'”

Hefner’s documentary is dedicated to the proposition that Stratten’s years in the Playboy empire were the best of her life; that she was a contemporary Cinderella who made it from behind a Dairy Queen counter in Vancouver to Playboy Mansion West, into the pages of the magazine and into movies. Playboy editors and photographers, her acting coach and Hefner himself give unctuous testimony to Stratten’s beauty and “star quality.”

There is a clip of Stratten — ethereal, soft-spoken — on a talk show, and for an intense moment there’s a window on the character Bogdanovich drew in his book: a shy, insecure woman whose ideals were at war with her reality. “I was very awkward growing up, very skinny and no shape. I was very self-conscious about everything. Well, because I hadn’t fully grown [embarrassed laugh] and my. . .my lips were much too big for my face and my hands were really big and I was skinny and my legs were long and everything,” she said, then added hastily, “The only thing that really worked for me, I guess, was my brain. I was a straight-A student.”

A sentimental narrative is buttressed with interludes of Stratten — stripped, cavorting in meadows, bubble baths and on tiger-skin rugs, often lapsing into nervous giggles. Ella Fitzgerald sings, “I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the woods. . . .” A religious silence descends upon the gathered press. Stratten’s grave, followed by the nude Stratten in a Playboy “pictorial” — headlined “Famous Blondes of the Past,” in which she poses as Monroe and others — is the end piece. Sleek and professional, the movie is also a subtle point-by-point refutation of Bogdanovich’s book.

When the lights come on, Hefner, in pink oxford-cloth shirt and gray flannel pants — the costume he dons for worldly encounters — stands behind a podium and blinks through his thick, aviator-frame bifocals at his guests. He begins to read his statement, his sonorous voice rising and falling as the drama of his words demand. In the next hour, he denies the Jacuzzi rape. There is little reaction from the assembled press.

Then he drops the bomb, accusing Bogdanovich of seducing Stratten’s 13-year-old sister, Louise Hoogstraten, and claiming that she served as a “pathological replacement for Dorothy. . .from that time until the present.” He introduces Burl Eldridge, a gruff, self-conscious diesel mechanic from Vancouver who married Nell Schaap, Stratten’s mother, three months before Stratten’s death. Eldridge says he never witnessed the director and Louise in any acts of sex, but he insists they often shared a bed, and he adds, “I cannot see him sleeping with her if he was not having a sexual relationship with her. When I say sleeping with her, I mean many weekends he just made a habit of coming to Vancouver and taking Louise to the Bayshore Inn — just like that, just the two of them.”

Eldridge tells reporters Bogdanovich paid for plastic surgery to reconstruct Louise’s jawbone to make her better resemble Dorothy; that Bogdanovich destroyed his marriage with Nell by lavishing expensive gifts on her and possibly even sleeping with her, too. One time, Eldridge says, he walked into a bedroom in the Hoogstraten’s Vancouver house and “observed Louise’s night clothes on one side of the bed, Nelly’s on the other side, and Peter’s flight bag at the foot of the bed. I do believe it’s quite obvious that he was acting in a sexually perverted manner.”

When Eldridge finishes, Hefner tells the stunned journalists, “It is this that I have known about for more than six months and have been unwilling to deal with until three and a half weeks ago — the stroke gave me permission.”

In addition to a row of television cameras focused on his face, three video cameras manned by Playboy employees film the press conference as if it were a movie, which, of course, it soon becomes, complete with cutaways and close-ups. “That day was the greatest cathartic experience of my entire life,” Hefner will say later, and in weeks to come he watches the resulting video of himself over and over on the movie screens in his bedroom, experiencing the catharsis again and again. Louise Hoogstraten and her mother learned of Hefner’s press conference while they were staying with Bogdanovich at his house on Copa de Oro Drive for Louise’s Easter vacation from 11th grade. Forty-eight hours later, they filed a $5 million slander suit against Hefner and Burl Eldridge. News of Louise’s counter press conference to announce the action was carried on all the local television stations. Louise’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, kept her arm clenched tightly around the girl’s shoulders throughout. Louise spoke in a high, babyish voice, tears flooding her eyeliner-rimmed eyes, frizzy blond hair framing her face. “I just want it to quit,” she said. “I’ve been going through pain and suffering for the past five years, and I just think that we don’t deserve to go through it anymore.” She told reporters that Dorothy had left her money for braces but that orthodontists had suggested she also undergo jaw surgery for medical — not cosmetic — reasons. Allred took pains to deny Bogdanovich’s role in the lawsuit. “I became involved because Louise decided she has been harmed. She wants to do something about it.”

Days later, over teriyaki in a Japanese restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, Allred reiterated, “Peter’s only relationship to Louise and Nell is as a friend of the family.” Allred was deeply incensed by Hefner’s charges. “Even newspapers don’t give the names of rape victims. If he was just trying to get back at Bogdanovich, it wouldn’t justify this.” Louise, she continued, was mortified by the experience. “Louise doesn’t know why Hefner is doing this to her. She’s only met him twice. She’s just a high-school student. She wants to live in Vancouver and be a secretary.” Bogdanovich, who declined to be interviewed, issued a press release in response to Hefner’s allegations. “I am angry and sad that he has singled us out to make a pornographic scandal of our characters and our relationships,” he said. “Hefner acts as if these two women don’t exist, except to be used to get at me. They do exist.”

Hefner fell into a second, milder depression when Louise’s suit was launched, but he was unrepentant. To him, it was nothing more than “a very cute, calculated move on Bogdanovich’s part. He hid in the back and put the little girl in front and made it Hefner versus the little girl, which he thought was a really smart move. Of course, the whole thing backfired.”

For all his warmth and caring, Hefner had a blind spot when it came to Louise Hoogstraten. He was animated by the crisis he had precipitated in Stratten’s family and the house on Copa de Oro, not out of a sense of vengeance, but in anticipation that his own virtue would now be heralded. “The truth will finally be known” was his reply when reporters tried to focus his attention on the girl’s dilemma. Privately, he was more emotional less, measured in his language. Once, his voice booming, he said. “The victim in this story is not some 16-year-old girl. The victim turns out to be the publisher of Playboy magazine!”

Over the summer months, Hefner came to his library in the late afternoons to indulge his obsession. To his first meeting, he wore street clothes; to successive meetings, he wore his pajamas and a long robe, a choice indicative of trust. Eventually, he dispensed with the robe. Most days, he entered the room in purposeful strides, papers under his arm. He could have been any corporate manager intent on business, except he was wearing scarlet or emerald satin and the contents of his portfolio had to do with the sexual comportment of a 16-year-old girl or the presumed insanity of an old friend.

“The victim in this story is not some 16-year-old girl. The victim turns out to be the publisher of Playboy magazine!” — Hugh Hefner

As the afternoons wore on, he would jump up periodically to pull a fresh bottle of Pepsi from a minibar behind an oak-paneled cabinet, or, with equal frequency, to use the black-marble-lined bathroom adjacent. Occasionally, in a gesture’ that appeared to be unconscious, he would tear a tiny scrap from the Kleenex wadded in one hand, roll it between his fingers and slip it into his mouth. His hands were veinless and smooth, like those of a youth; they tended to tremble ever so slightly. He smelled of soap. He clearly prefers not to be touched by casual acquaintances. His girlfriends have never been allowed to hang on him.

Each meeting would begin with an analysis of his standing in the press. He was elated after the airing of a 20/20 piece reported by Geraldo Rivera. In his inimitable fashion, Rivera called Bogdanovich’s book “a smear.” His questions to Hefner were fawning. “You deserve the respect of millions and millions of people in terms of changing the lifestyle of successive generations,” Rivera asked in a query that failed to make the finished piece. “Do you think you’ve gotten their respect?” Hefner smiled. “I think we’re a little too close to see it yet,” he responded. He was also pleased by his appearance on the David Letterman show the same week. “It was a good media week for me,” he said, full of confidence.

Inevitably, a discussion of either the slander suit or Bogdanovich’s book would veer into wider regions of sexual psychology. “In my youth, sex was associated with depression, sin, disease, ugliness, sensationalism. I grew up in a home in which my parents did not kiss or hug — did not display emotion,” he would say. “Early on, I saw the hurtfulness of those attitudes.” And then he would ask rhetorically, fairly hissing the comment, “Why are we so fucking scared of our own sexuality?” His own sexuality seems oddly mired in the Forties. “There is something rather delightful and joyous about that romanticized period in which I was raised,” he would say. “The World War II pinups, the Cole Porter music — I will go to my grave influenced by that romanticism. I understand very easily how pinup pictures seem symbolic of the trivializing of womankind. But do you want to lose all that glamour and sweetness?”

In August, with little fanfare, Louise Hoogstraten dropped her lawsuit against Hefner. By most accounts, things had gone poorly in the Hoogstraten camp. Playboy‘s aggressive chief counsel in Los Angeles, Anthony Glassman, had taken only two depositions when Louise’s attorney stepped down. A press-savvy feminist lawyer, Allred was uncharacteristically taciturn about her decision to withdraw. “Everything is governed by the attorney-client privilege. I cannot comment on why the decision was made.” Hefner supplied his own logic: “[Allred] was in for a big shock, because she’s a staunch feminist. She had been appearing on television with Bogdanovich, thinking she had a women’s-rights guy on her hands. And what she had was something else again.”

For the director, Louise’s slander suit had leaped the bounds of feminist struggle and, one suspects, was looming as a nightmarish forum in which his life would be on trial. It’s not surprising, then, that L.A. criminal lawyer Paul Caruso succeeded Allred. Cunning, feisty, Caruso had gained notoriety for his defense in a number of sensational crime cases. More significant, Bogdanovich had retained Caruso several months earlier when he learned the L.A.P.D. juvenile division was reopening an investigation into his relationship with Louise Hoogstraten. The initial investigation begun in 1981 was instigated by an L.A. cop working as a part-time security guard for Bogdanovich that year. After several months, that investigation was closed, and Bogdanovich was never charged. Last spring, the L.A.P.D. was unable once again to find evidence to support the claims against Bogdanovich.

According to Hefner, the shake-up in Louise’s defense came as a result of Glassman’s depositions. One was given by William Jordan, a former L.A. cop who had been in charge of a small security team employed by Bogdanovich. Jordan accompanied the director to Italy and France with Louise and her mother in 1981. He quit, Hefner says, citing Jordan’s deposition, because he was disgusted by what he witnessed: Bogdanovich and Louise cohabiting in the same hotel suite. In fact, Jordan claimed in his deposition that he was dismissed when one of his subordinates fell asleep on the job. Glassman also deposed Darcy Hoogstraten, the estranged wife of Stratten’s younger brother, John. In her deposition, she describes what is surely a very close relationship between Bogdanovich and Louise. But Darcy, too, failed to actually see them making love.

Shortly before Labor Day, seven people converged on Tony Glassman’s Beverly Hills offices to arrange a face-saving settlement for both sides. Anthony Pelicano, a private investigator with expertise in bugging and debugging, presided. His connection with Playboy Enterprises is longstanding. He boasts that Hefner’s organization gave him a Patek Phillipe watch for helping a Playboy writer investigate a story. Immediately after Hefner’s press conference, Bogdanovich hired Pelicano to do a sweep of his Copa de Oro house to determine if he was being spied upon, presumably by Playboy. “There came a point where he absolutely trusted me,” Pelicano says. “I listened to him. The hurt was coming through loud and clear. I decided this feud was a fruitless endeavor.”

The investigator made his first call to Rosenzweig, whom he knew from “Chicago days.” Talks progressed over a period of several weeks. Ultimately, Glassman and Caruso together worded a series of releases to be signed by Hefner, Eldridge, Bogdanovich, Nell Schaap and Louise Hoogstraten, each of them promising they would never file suit on these issues again.

Hefner savored what he felt was his victory. “I’m not interested in crucifying Bogdanovich. I’m not interested in sending a guy to prison,” he said one day in the library. “I have no problem with accepting the fact that it came from a combination of his guilt and craziness in combination with being lied to and misled by other people. I don’t have any problem with that. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna pretend in talking to people that the last year and a half didn’t exist.” It was little matter to him that a paperback edition of Unicorn would soon be released. “I knew they would never pursue the suit. The depositions have left Bogdanovich totally exposed,” he said. Just as Bogdanovich had portrayed Stratten and her family as Hefner’s victims, Hefner seemed unable to view the mother and daughter of his murdered Playmate as anything more than Bogdanovich’s pawns. “The supposed reason for dismissing the case is that the pressure is too much on Louise,” he said. “Well, all the pressure has been related to . . . Bogdanovich.”

Caruso, not unexpectedly, painted a different picture. “Hefner just out financed the girl,” he said, adding, “Louise was strictly on the defensive from the first — she should have taken the offense to win,” by delving more deeply into Hefner’s own past. “I would have deposed Hefner for five or six days, six hours a day.” For Louise and her mother, however, the grim realization that the suit would take at least five years to come to trial, that their lives would be overwhelmed by it, was all that mattered. “We never understood what a burden would be caused by filing and prosecuting a lawsuit. For [Louise’s] health and sanity, therefore, I want, simply, please, for all this to be ended,” Nell Schaap said in the press release issued along with Bogdanovich’s. “Winning . . . is not worth even one more day of the pain and suffering involved.” Bogdanovich, in his release, apologized. “I am sorry if Mr. Hefner’s health has suffered because of things I have said or written. He and I were once friends, and I regret any pain Mr. Hefner and Dorothy Stratten’s family have suffered as a result of past disagreements between him and me.”

It appeared Bogdanovich had undergone his share of suffering, though more quietly than his antagonist. Hefner says he learned, on a tip from a Playboy photographer, that Bogdanovich, using a pseudonym, had entered Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai hospital on July 4th complaining of chest pains. A close friend of Bogdanovich’s denies the incident. There were rumors, too, that the director was about to file for bankruptcy. Four months later, Bogdanovich did just that in Los Angeles. According to news accounts, his failed attempt to re release They All Laughed — as a tribute to Stratten — had devastated him financially. In December, the Los Angeles Times reported Bogdanovich was left with $21.37 in the bank and $25.79 in his pocket. His debts, incurred as a result of trying to market and distribute the film, totaled more than $6.6 million against assets of $1.5 million.

Playboy, by comparison, which had accrued legal expenses in the six figures starting with its attempt to challenge Bogdanovich’s manuscript, was unscathed. “Companies have to draw a line in terms of what they’re going to allow an individual to get away with. And this was well beyond that line,” Rosenzweig explained. “Most of our costs were picked up by our insurance company. You understand, the attack was on the corporation, not just an individual. The attack was on the heart of the company — Hefner and Playmates.”

Stepping inside Hefner’s world, which is largely confined to the five acres in Holmby Hills, you sense the way of life he seeks to defend is less sexually liberating and glamorous than frayed at the edges. But Hefner’s vision is rose-colored. “Contrary to what Peter suggests, this house was quite literally a sanctuary for Dorothy,” he says. “It was a way of escaping from her husband and the rest of the hassling that goes on out there. This place has been referred to as Shangri-La. And it is. You get hassled out there — you don’t get hassled in here.”

Tonight, Labor Day Sunday, a typical gathering of middle-aged men and very young women cluster in groups, mostly of their own sex, inside his Gothic house. The standard ratio at Hefner’s house is three women to every man. A fleet of youthful butlers keeps glasses filled and ashtrays emptied. The mansion regulars are gathered: actors with familiar faces whose names, nonetheless, hover just below recall, producers who aren’t producing, athletes for whom the mansion connotes class, teenagers on the cusp of womanhood in search of film careers or unknown thrills — or with nothing better to do. Among the men are actors Robert Culp and Chuck McCann; former football player Jim Brown, who recently beat a rape rap; former L.A. deputy district attorney Vincent Bugliosi, Charles Manson’s prosecutor; director Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar); and octogenarian Max Lerner, the gnomic journalist and house intellectual. Lerner stays in a guest bedroom when he’s in Los Angeles and indulges in Playboy-speak, as in, “I had breakfast with Dorothy Stratten the morning she made Playmate of the Year.” This is not Hollywood’s A crowd.

“Nothing’s changed around here in ten years,” says a big man named Gene Shacove, who is wearing matching white parachute-silk jacket and pants. Shacove is standing next to a tiny 1954 Dali — Young Virgin, Auto-Sodomized by Her Own Chastity. Nearby, at the top of the double stairs leading to Hefner’s bedroom, a pumpkin-size bronze sculpture rests on a pedestal. Close examination reveals it to be, unmistakably, an upturned, disembodied vulva. Mansion staffers, who call it the “Brass Ass,” leave notes for one another in the opening. Down the hall a few feet is a large glass case filled with small figurines of a man and woman in every imaginable posture of sexual intercourse. A Midwestern university art professor sculpted the collection.

Shacove was the inspiration for Warren Beatty’s Shampoo character, the Beverly Hills haircutter who loved women. Now, Shacove cuts Hefner’s hair. “Well, one thing’s changed,” he says, after a minute. “In the old days, when you’d ask for a cigarette, they would bring you a pack. Now, you’re lucky if you get one.” Women are invited to these twice-weekly evenings of buffet dinners and movie showings because they are Bunnies in Playboy clubs, or friends of Bunnies, or the reigning Playmate of the Month. Often, they are invited on the basis of a nude Polaroid they sent to the Playboy studios on Sunset Boulevard in hopes of being chosen for a Playmate tryout. Or they are culled from the stacks of Polaroids of women who are photographed naked every Thursday morning in these studios in what amounts to an open casting call. These sessions are the real business of Playboy, the gritty essence of Hefner’s empire. His people bill the free-for-all weekly events as a kind of community service, a “courtesy” toward what they say is a multitude of 500 Playmate hopefuls a year.

Miss Chiquita Banana stands by the bar in a borrowed, backless red leather dress, a bit wobbly in her heels. She’s 18 and, under the makeup, a kid. “I’ve heard a lot of movie producers hang out here,” she whispers, her eyes casting over the crowd. Two young women are strolling a path outside. One carries a Flashmatic camera; she’s in her own Disneyland. Masculine gazes follow them as they pass, conversations falter until they are out of sight. “I don’t know why you keep calling them women,” one male guest snaps unexpectedly. “He never has women up here — they’re girls. I’m not talking about age. They’ve never been anywhere — not even to a great restaurant. They wouldn’t know endive from iceberg.”

It was in the library two years ago that Hefner first noticed Carrie, the 20-year-old from Vancouver who was staying in his house while she tried out for a Playboy-cover photo session. “I remember the evening quite well,” Hefner begins. He is standing in his bedroom holding a picture of Carrie taken by Hollywood photographer Hurrell. The sophisticated creature in the photograph is hardly recognizable as Carrie. “I was playing Monopoly. It was one of those things where you look across the room and. . .something happens. Just two weeks earlier, my relationship with [Playmate] Shannon [Tweed] had ended. And I was determined not to get involved again. But the mutual attraction was very obvious. We fell for each other.”

Hefner acknowledges what he calls the “thematic coincidence” of Carrie and Dorothy Stratten being from Vancouver, and of each staying in his house while her photography sessions wore on. But he asserts the real thematic coincidence is with Barbi Benton. Both women decided to halt the march toward Playmate when they became lovers with Hefner. Both wanted something more than $15,000, a five-year paid subscription to Playboy, and a platinum rabbit-head pin — the tangible benefits accrued by Playmates. “Carrie,” says photo editor Grabowski, who invited the Canadian to L.A. to test for the magazine, “presents a challenge to Hef of his ever really knowing her. The girls he’s had in the past haven’t really had all these dimensions. She can be any woman she wants, and she wants it all. I also think,” Grabowski adds, “the fact that she’s so bright presents a problem.”

Carrie Leigh can look elegant, but she prefers to cultivate a distinctly trashy look. She’s a clothes junkie who favors a Los Angeles boutique called, appropriately, Addictions. Hefner gives her a clothes allowance that she routinely exceeds. On some mornings, she wanders the grounds in her bathrobe with a deathly-white clay mask on her face. Other females on the premises gaze in astonishment. “So what if none of Hef’s other girlfriends did that,” Carrie says on the night she’s interviewed in the zoo-park backyard. “This is my home. I wouldn’t be living here if I had to worry about it.”

She’s determined not to be mistaken for another L.A. “bim,” an ingénue who thinks her best shot at superstardom involves taking off her clothes. “I’ve been a model since I was 14,” she says. “I came here to do cover tests. I had never really thought of being a Playmate. It wasn’t like I was from a town in Ohio and didn’t know what was happening.” When Hefner called her in Vancouver to tell her he was in love with her and wanted her to return and live with him, she remembers thinking, “It won’t last.” But it has lasted. She shrugs, and says coolly, “I wanted out of my life the way it was. Hef came along.”

She’s not worried about Hefner’s antipathy to marriage. “How long do most marriages last? When he went with Barbi, that was nine years! Shannon — that was three years. Nothing lasts forever, but his relationships last as long as anyone else’s.” Carrie wants to experience more of the world outside Holmby Hills, and she wants more out of her own life than just being Hef’s girlfriend. “He’s captured most of his dreams. I haven’t. I say, ‘Listen, Hef, remember when you were 22? It’s not that you’re not enough for me — you are — but I have to expand my mind,’ and I know that’s hard for him to understand.”

The company was growing like crazy in the Sixties, but the business side never really meant anything to me. People tend to put me down for that, but if people want to believe that business is that important, good luck to them. That is not what I’m all about. — Hugh Hefner

Hefner is bathed in television lights. His three-piece suit seems blindingly white. Carrie looks like a peacock crossed with a mermaid. A tall headdress of jewels and feathers sits on her head; her floor-length dress clings like Saran Wrap. They are surrounded by reporters in a private corner of the new Manhattan Playboy club. The original one closed two years ago due to declining revenues and membership. This night — opening night — is a show of corporate optimism and determination to keep up with the times: young men in tight pants and suspenders, white collars and cuffs, their hairy chests exposed, serve drinks along with young women dressed in the same waist-cinching costumes Gloria Steinem griped about 23 years ago. Over the bar, a pair of Hefner’s satin pajamas hang framed behind glass like the preserved garments of a sacred conqueror. The designer lost the battle to drop the name Playboy from the club; he gained one concession: the rabbit-head logo is played down. Al Goldstein is here, George Plimpton is here, Christie is here. “I think I saw Harrison Ford,” one guest says. “It must have been someone in a Harrison Ford mask” is the glum response.

Hefner has never liked New York and hasn’t been here in eight years. “Rosenzweig,” Hefner said weeks earlier, “just got back from New York. He says it’s pure Fellini.” Nevertheless, Hefner bravely chartered a jet and brought along Dr. Saginor, Lisa Loving and others to christen the new club. Now, he is ready to join his party. He moves slowly out into the cavernous space with Carrie Leigh on his arm taking mincing, Japanese-style steps in her narrow dress. 

In This Article: Coverwall


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