THE fact that a scrawny little guy looking like the sad sack who always got sand kicked in his face could build an empire based on a (wet) dream says something about the 20th century.
I can’t say I knew the man, although I did have a couple ‘encounters’ with him back in the days I wrote for his magazine. Writing for Playboy was like the old line about your hated mother-in-law driving your new Beamer off a cliff: there was good and there was bad.
Bad was the manner in which a freelance author’s prose got mangled and mutilated. In all the pieces I had published there over a period of some years, I rarely recognised more than my name in the byline and pic on the authors’ page. The good part of writing for Hef was that he paid numbers nobody else did. And it wasn’t just your basic fee that inspired whoring my meager talents for a pretentious publication which turned my tummy.
My first assignment, I never left the corner of my bedroom, which served as a workspace. I researched the entire piece by phone. So weeks later when Playboy’s accountants rang up wondering where my expense account was, I was too embarrassed to report there really wasn’t one.
So I sat down and invented trips I hadn’t made, lunches I hadn’t eaten, even a few hotels I hadn’t stayed at. Total: $550. I waited two weeks before I could work up the courage to mail it in.
Another phone call from Playboy’s accounting department. Fella was livid. “Five hundred and fifty dollars – are you out of your goddamn mind?” I was about to drop to my knees and apologise profusely when he added, “You know the average expense bill we get from freelancers?”
“Uh, uh, uh…”
“Six thousand five hundred dollars. And that’s average. You submit this and Hef gets word of it, you’ll have a few dozen fellow freelancers battling one another for rights to kick your teeth in. I’m tearing up this account right now. Send in a new one, and make it real.”
I don’t recall the exact number of that re-submitted bill, but when the cheque came for my first published Playboy article, I immediately went out and exchanged it for a brand new car. I even got a few dollars back in change.
A couple of years later, a few more published pieces under my belt, I happened to be passing through Chicago and went to visit an editor at Playboy I’d become telephonically friendly with.
“I have something to show you,” he said, barely above a whisper, “but you have to promise you won’t tell anyone you’ve seen these. Especially those who wrote them, who you’ll probably get to meet.”
Puzzled, I took the sheaf of papers, and began to read critiques on my last submitted article from no less than six different staff editors. As I read through, I could feel my face growing more and more red. The analyses were scathing, dripping with venom, not only of my writing but my person as well. When finally I looked up, mouth slung open gasping for air, my friend was laughing.
“Don’t think you’ve been specially picked on,” he says. “They do this to every freelance submission. These guys hate their jobs, hate the magazine and what it stands for, and mostly hate freelancers because you’re … free. Every one of these editors is quitting on Friday and going off to a log cabin in rural Vermont to write his novel. Except, come Monday, they’re all back in their little cubicles collecting bloated pay cheques, which novel writing in Vermont doesn’t quite match.”
I later met three of them at lunch. Nice chaps. They all liked my writing. “Your style is a breath of fresh air,” said one. He had noted in his review that I needed to give up writing and take up selling fish, as that’s what my prose reeked of.
Hugh Hefner had grown up during an era when glammed females were busty, overly cosmeticised, wide-hipped, high-heeled blonds in tight gowns – his first issue had featured a nude Marilyn Monroe. The real image changed radically in the mid-1960s, when a fashionably attractive woman was then slim, had little makeup and wore minis.
His image of the cool Playboy playboy was equally anachronistic. Picture short-haired muscley jocks in suits, cocktails in their hands in a time of long hair, beards and slim physiques in jeans, holding a joint. But by now Hef had a formula that worked so far as sales of his book and the clubs they gave birth to.
I met some of the higher editors and top-floor executives. They, like the boss, were, to a man, straight out of the 1950s. As was their thinking.
Frequent battles ensued between them and the younger staffers who felt they were working in a time warp. And sales continued to go up. As did wages. Who, really, wants to run off to Vermont with this rate of pay?
I’d been there a week when my friend told me: “I’ve been invited to the mansion Saturday. First time since I began here. I think I can get you in. Interested?”
The Playboy mansion? Was he kidding? This was prestige beyond the call; some of the biggest celebs in America couldn’t get in. “Just one thing,” he says. “As my guest I’m responsible for you. Just leave your hippie ideas at the door and don’t make a scene.” I had no idea what he was talking about. What kind of scene could I make?
The place was luxurious and huge, a ballroom-size main area. In the centre was a long, wide staircase leading up to a balcony. Maybe 150 elegantly dressed people were standing around chatting and laughing and looking beautiful. My friend had lent me a clean shirt, jacket and, since I refused to wear a tie, an ascot. White-gloved waiters waltzed through refilling glasses. Off to the side a band dressed in tuxes played soft elevator music.
I stood around trying not to be overwhelmed by the powerful stink of perfume and aftershave, looking at the women. Exquisite in their finery, sure, but, in truth, not my type. Give me a well-scrubbed natural female over these mannequins any day. Bored, no one to talk to (if even I could be heard over the din), I had a cocktail of some sort, then another.
Suddenly the music stopped and a bell rang. The large room went dead silent and necks were craned as everybody stared up at the balcony.
Nobody. Nothing. Slowly, the people went back to their chatter, the band resumed playing. Ten minutes later it happened again, and again all went quiet, a bell sounded and all eyes went to the balcony. It remained bare. I glanced over at my friend; he gave the slightest head shake and turned back to the woman he was busily chatting up.
Some minutes later, again: music stops, bell, dead silence, 150 sets of eyes peering up the staircase. And there they were. Hef and Barbie.
Pipe in his mouth. Her head on his shoulder. And then there was a sound. Just one. Rather loud. The sound cried, “Oh F***!”
I certainly didn’t mean to. I just couldn’t hold back, an oral knee jerk. Blame it on the booze. Suddenly there was movement all around me.
People scurrying away in every direction, leaving me an island unto myself.
Give Hef credit. Man didn’t move a muscle, bat an eye. Nor Barbie. Maybe her ear was glued to his padded shoulder. I looked for my friend, but he was nowhere near where I’d seen him last. I had heard the term, of course, but never had I seen it in practice: slink out. Which is precisely what I did.
Funny thing about all this was that I gained a new respect from the lower echelon of Playboy workers. It did take several months before my friend would take my phone calls or answer my letters of apology. The few assignments I got post-mortification were met with raves from the judging editors. My friend reported that the gorgeous secretary in circulation I’d been not-so-secretly besotted by would be happy to have dinner with me if ever I ventured back to Chicago. I never did.
Hef is dead. Will Viagra ever be the same again.