If Western civilization had to name its contemporary Xanadu, its pleasure dome, most would look no farther than 10236 Charing Cross Road in Los Angeles, the address of the Playboy Mansion. The Gothic Tudor nestled within a Shangri-La setting is the home and playground of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, the world’s most public sybarite. Mansion bacchanals, at which peacocks wander the lawn, near-naked young women frolic and A-list celebrities loll about the legendary grotto, are part of the culture’s libidinous imagination.
As is Playboy, the now-quaint magazine that shaped 20th-century sexuality. What made the magazine radical wasn’t the presence of naked women, as unusual as that was in 1953, the year it launched. It was that Playboy combined two elements believed to be antithetical: innocence and lewdness. The magazine told men that sex for sex’s sake could be wholesome and that “good girls” enjoyed sex too. “The girl next door”-depicted as an airbrushed ingenue “Playmate” with big breasts became the defining female sexual motif.
Via Playboy, and later his own example, Hefner reframed masculinity, bringing its expression indoors as a “lifestyle.” As he wrote in his first editorial: “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” Playboy also promoted flight from conventional domestic obligation. The lead article in the first issue, “Miss Gold Digger of1953,” complained of the unfair treatment of men in divorce courts. This new urbane bachelor was linked to the social order not as husband but consumer—be it of a new hi-fi or different woman every night. Hefner, a 27-year-old unhappily married man with a young daughter when Playboy debuted, divorced in 1959, becoming the front man for the incipient sexual revolution. His mission was to liberate America from sexual repression. Fabled for his prowess, he boasted of trying everything, including homosexuality. Hef, as he’s known, lived the life of a terminal adolescent, a Peter Pan playing out boyhood fantasies. His days were spent in silk pyjamas, drinking Diet Pepsi, enjoying board games and bedding Playmates. The first Playboy mansion in Chicago was famed for its round, orgyaccommodating bed. The party moved west in 1971, but cooled after Hefner suffered a stroke in 1985, and then, to universal shock, married Playmate Kimberly Conrad in 1989, a union that lasted a decade.
Entering his late 60s, Hef settled into his current routine-the polygamous boyfriend flanked by fungible blond “Girlfriends.” “Picasso had his pink period and his blue period. I’m in my blond period,” he boasts. The attention bolstered Hefner’s profile if not his corporation’s fortunes. In an age of downloadable pornography, Playboy is an anachronism: though still the best-selling men’s magazine, its monthly paid circulation has dropped from 7 million in the early 1970s to 3 million today. As for discussions of Nietzsche, the magazine abandoned any such pretence long ago.
Still, the mansion retains a retro mystique, serving as a backdrop in Sex and the City, Entourage, and Hefner’s new reality show The Girls Next Door. Now 80, Hef is a Dorian Gray parody: he’s cryogenically preserved while the pneumatic twentysomethings on his arm always look the same. Girlfriends come and go, smiling for the camera, never speaking, until now. In Bunny Tales, former Girlfriend Izabella St. James, who lived at the mansion from 2002 to 2004, exposes the machinery behind the fading Playboy fantasy. Like Oz, the wonder vanishes upon closer inspection.
Izabella Kasprzyk, a second-year law student, wasn’t the typical Hefner accessory when she met him in a Hollywood club in 2000. True, her Playboy bona fides had been confirmed at McGill University where she was nicknamed “Pam Anderson’s younger sister.” Though she looked the part, Kasprzyk had loftier ambitions. She had left Poland as a young girl with her parents, who settled in Kitchener, Ont. A hard-working student, she excelled. After McGill, she enrolled in Malibu’s Pepperdine University School of Law, lured by L.A.’s sunshine.
She knew who Hefner was, and with a girlfriend approached his table. “I was intrigued by Hef and attracted to him in a way I didn’t understand,” she writes. A member of his entourage asked for her number; she was invited to a mansion party. Expecting debauchery, she found it “surprisingly civilized.” Soon she was invited out for “dates” with Hefner and his retinue, a process she later realized was an “elaborate system of procurement to keep the pipeline filled with willing, nubile women.”
She was “charmed” by Hefner, whom she describes as “a gentleman.” He bought her a computer and a dress to wear to a party. Their half-a-century age difference didn’t faze her. She wasn’t physically attracted, but was drawn to the “brilliant entrepreneur, social icon, and one-of-a-kind individual” who could impart life lessons. The Playboy lifestyle—the parties, the celebrities, butlers serving daiquiris poolside—also beckoned. In an act of “self-sabotage,” she blew off her final bar exam to join Hefner’s posse at Grammy events. “He liked the fact I was a university student,” she says in a Maclean’s interview. “He had a thing for co-eds.” It was months before she was intimate with him in a group setting, she says: “I wanted to see he cared about me.” She moved in as one of seven official “Girlfriends” in April 2002, an occasion marked with the gift of a Playboy necklace, the same one given to Playmates. (Tangled Playboy rules preclude Girlfriends from posing for the magazine, though they are allowed to be online “cybergirls”; but Playmates can, and often do, have sex with Hef.) Kasprzyk, who changed her name to St. James at Hefner’s suggestion, was pragmatic. “Why devote myself to the scene without the benefits?” she writes. These were plentiful, including the mansion’s luxury-hotel amenities—tennis courts, gym, pool, zoo, aviary, tanning beds and 24-hour room service. With time, though, the shabbiness of the private quarters began to grate. Furniture looked like it came from Goodwill, she writes. Hefner, an animal lover, let Girlfriends keep dogs as pets. Carpets were filthy and smelled of urine which “added to the general scent of decay.”
Girlfriends were paid a $1,000 “allowance” in cash every Friday by Hefner in a “Who’s-your-Daddy?” gesture. “I figured out it’s just enough to keep you addicted to a luxurious lifestyle but it’s not enough to leave and make your own life,” she says. Birthdays and Christmas yielded another $2,000 payout. (For Valentine’s, they received a heart-shaped box filled with Playboy merchandise.) Medical and dental expenses were covered, as was unlimited cosmetic surgery. St. James writes she didn’t arrive with a “plastic agenda,” like many others, but succumbed to “peer pressure” and had breast implants and a nose job. Girlfriend upkeep was tied to corporate fortunes: as a cost-cutting measure in 2002, Hef stopped paying for teeth whitening.
He also covered Girlfriend maintenance such as laser hair removal and makeup. Hair alone ran $500 weekly, $2,500 every three months for extensions. For big nights like the Oscars, Girfriends would be given $2,000 to buy knock-them-dead outfits. There was also a car allowance, downgraded after the twins—Mandy and Sandy—took advantage by buying Bentleys during their tenure.
The perks came with a price. Life at the mansion was tightly controlled. At 9 p.m. curfew was imposed when they weren’t out with Hefner. Lest Hef be seen as a cuckold, Girfriends weren’t allowed to see other men (an edict the women violated). Privacy was limited; security shadowed them at clubs; their phone calls were screened. “It is not a real, equal or intimate relationship,” St. James writes, should the reader be in doubt.
The Girlfriends’ schedules were dictated by Hefner’s, which was infant-like in its routine. It left plenty of downtime to fill with internecine Survivor-like power struggles, which St. James details at length. At their centre was Holly, a former Hooters waitress who shared Hefner’s bedroom and ran interference to keep her No. 1 Girlfriend standing.
The Girlfriends’ job was to prop up the flagging Playboy brand, as if their presence confirmed Hefner’s octogenarian potency. They accompanied him everywhere like blond bookends; they played hostess at mansion parties with their 2:1 female-male ratios. There they mingled with mansion stalwarts like Jack Nicholson, along with Owen Wilson, Ja Rule, Justin Timberlake, Pamela Anderson, Colin Farrell and Usher. Buttressing the brand extended to the bedroom. As Hefner approached 80, his sexual prowess had dimmed. With Viagra he could summon a facsimile of his youth. The result, as described by St. James, was as spontaneous and erotic as a tax audit. After much female fluffing, Hefner always finished solo, which is ironic: the man responsible for the fantasyscape of generations, the role model for promiscuity, is in the end like a teenage boy masturbating alone to Playboy. The only difference: Hefner brought himself to orgasm amidst a living Playboy tableaux, as naked women writhed in a “pseudo-lesbian thing.” Her time at the mansion made St. James cynical about Playboy’s role in creating a climate of sexual freedom: “Hef likes to talk about how Playboy gave women freedom, freed them to be sexual,” she writes. “I think he means that it made it easier for guys to get laid.” She stayed in the “demented bubble” she calls “Hefworld” as long as she did, she says, due to friendships with the women. She decided to write the book, based on her diaries, spurred by people’s curiosity. Hefner, long a ffee-speech proponent, never asked Girlfriends to sign confidentiality agreements. Now at work on a “Sex and the City in Hollywood” novel, St. James claims to care for Hefner. “I would like nothing more than to see him in a real relationship with someone who really cares about him,” she says.
The world’s oldest playboy, no surprise, is not happy about Bunny Tales. “I put her through law school, and I see she’s choosing not to use it,” he told the New York Post’s “Page Six” gossip column. “I wish her well.” His comment “hurt and offended” her, St. James says. Hefner didn’t pay her student loans, despite her hints that he should, though he did pay $700 for a bar exam and $2,000 for a review course. “My parents helped pay for my education,” she says. “They worked hard. For him to take the credit is upsetting.”
Hefner, who doesn’t read books, will have someone summarize Bunny Tales for him, St. James believes. “He is an egomaniac. He knows he’s an icon. As he reaches old age he’s very aware of his legacy.” To that end, plans are in the works to turn the mansion into a Graceland-like pilgrimage. She predicts Hef will keep the performance up until he can’t. “He knows it’s the lifestyle he’s selling along with the magazine.”
Yet the “lifestyle” is hollow, a retrograde charade, the last rattle of a sexual trailblazer whose magazine once mattered. Playboy kickstarted the endless sexualization of everyday life. But the revolution it paved the way for has passed it by, leaving the prophet of freedom lying naked in his mansion, tethered to the past as paid “girlfriends” simulate passion then mock his self-induced ecstasy behind his back. This is the way the Playboy fantasy ends: not with a bang but a whimper.
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