February 17, 2020
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Hef, His Gal And Jack, His Pal

The West’s top playboy thrives in his own world

Hef, His Gal And Jack, His Pal
Isaac Brekken
Hef, His Gal And Jack, His Pal

Hugh And Cry

  • Hefner, his life and his work iconify the sexual revolution
  • At 85, he’s still the last word at flagship Playboy magazine
  • The prejudices he says he has had to fight: racism, sexism, and, lately, ‘ageism’


"As we get older, who is anyone to be telling us what ‘acting your age’ is all about anymore?”

The speaker was Hugh Hefner, and the question was whether someone his age—he is 85, though he hardly looks it, much less acts it—should still be tweeting, as Hefner, the founder of Playboy, does almost obsessively. Hugh Hefner being Hugh Hefner, he seized on that question to offer a riff on the ageism he said he has endured in his twilight, in a case having to do with (no surprise here) his sex life.

“Only in the press,” he said, “they don’t think I should be dating women young enough to be my granddaughters. We live in a free society. Let’s be a little less judgmental.”

“Reaching 100 is going to be very common now,” Hefner continued, a Pepsi in one hand and bottled water, with Playboy insignia, in the other. “I’ve fought prejudices of various kinds over the years. To begin with, it was sexism. And then it was racism. And now it’s ageism.”

Hefner was wearing silk pajamas and an embroidered smoking jacket, sitting in the library of the Holmby Hills mansion he has lived in for nearly 40 years. The estate—the Playboy Mansion—creaked with memorabilia. There were photos of playmates, wives and girlfriends, many unclothed, on the walls. There was the cover of the first Playboy with Marilyn Monroe. There were pictures of Hefner with celebrities ranging from Bill Clinton to Kevin Spacey, from Doris Day to Mick Jagger. There were reproductions of Frankenstein, and portraits of Hefner, with pipe, at an earlier age. He was sitting over a backgammon table, and behind him was a full-model bust, with her chest uncovered, of one of his early loves, Barbi Benton.

Hefner has had a long, very varied life, and he is not expecting to end things anytime soon. He just took Playboy Enterprises private, its corporate headquarters are about to relocate from Chicago to Los Angeles and he said he is intimately involved in the details of publishing the magazine. He meets with his editorial staff every morning, after waking up around 10 or 11 am to enjoy a light breakfast in his bedroom suite before getting dressed—“such as it is”—and heading up the hall.

“I don’t edit every line,” he said. “But I pick every cover, pick every centrefold, every pictorial. Approve the general layout of every issue. Pick all the cartoons. Edit the letters. Edit the party jokes. Play a major hand in the art and the photography. The look of the book.”

Hefner would be the last to deny that age has taken a toll. He walked stiffly and could only stand for five minutes for a photographer, before complaining of a bad back. He is hard of hearing. He takes pills for high blood pressure and cholesterol.

In one concession to age, he stopped smoking a pipe in 1985 after suffering a stroke. Hefner still enjoys a Jack Daniels and Coke a day. “My Pal Jack!” he said, lighting up at the question, adding that he eats so little he really doesn’t bother watching his diet. Hefner feels very good, thank you very much, well enough that he didn’t flinch when asked if he would like to live until he was 100.

“Absolutely,” he said. “If I’m in good shape, without question.” Living forever is another matter. “I think forever would get a little boring.”

For those looking for advice on how to reach and enjoy old age, Hefner advises not to retire. “It’s a combination of work and play that makes for a good life and makes for longevity,” he said. “When you retire, I think that’s the beginning of the end. I’m very active, mentally and physically, and I think that remaining active is key to your longevity.”

That said, Hefner is not one given to exercise or regimens. “I have a gym, but I don’t really use the gym,” he said. “I have a tennis court, but I don’t really use the tennis court. I have a swimming pool, but I don’t use that, either.”

He does suffer some indignities of age: he read the other day that he’d died...and a Playmate he was about to marry, Crystal Harris, 25, backed out at the last minute.

He also does not get out much. Hefner said he built his own self-contained world in Holmby Hills—where he lives with two girlfriends, both Playmates of recent vintage—and he is rarely seen around town. “I created a world where the world, in effect, comes to me—so there aren’t a lot of occasions that require my being elsewhere,” he said. He has a screening room where he and his guests gather to watch classic movies on Fridays and Saturdays and new releases on Sundays. His estate is a zoo. Literally. Pink flamingos and African crowned cranes wander the lawn and monkeys lounge in cages (they ran free until they jumped the walls and stole golf balls on a nearby course). There is a grotto and a playroom with Playboy pinball machines, and a jukebox with a collection of performers from Hefner’s earlier days.

Hefner, though, spends most of his time in his second-floor bedroom suite, where books and magazines are stacked on the floor, on shelves, on a desk and by his bed. “It’s a boy’s room,” he said. “Ray guns from Buck Rodgers from when I was a kid.” The curtains were drawn closed on all the windows, though it was a sparkling Los Angeles day. There were mirrors over the bed, which faces a huge video screen. Stacks of movies, including a decent representation of porn, were lined up by the screen.

The Playboy magnate does suffer some indignities of age. He read the other day that he had died; he most assuredly had not, and tweeted to assure his nearly 9,00,000 followers that he was very much alive. A Playmate he was supposed to marry, Crystal Harris, 25, backed out at the last minute—she had a “change of heart”, he announced on Twitter—though in Hefner’s view, he missed a bullet.

Still, Hefner said he never considers death or mortality, as he glides through his ninth decade. “There are prices to pay,” he said. “In some ways, it gets better because you reap the rewards of a life well-lived and what you’ve accomplished, and you get some credit with the passage of time. But there are some downsides. A few aches and pains.”

For all the snickering, Hefner has endured, he does think he has created a legacy. “When Playboy began, nice middle-class kids did not live with one another before they got married,” he said. “To be pregnant before you got married could destroy lives. Having children out of wedlock was unthinkable. Well, I helped change all that. As a matter of fact, if you are going to point to one single person in America who changed all that, the guy is sitting right here.”

“One of the satisfactions of this age,” he said, as two Playmates waited for him downstairs in the kitchen, “is to live in a world that I helped to create.”

Adam Nagourney is Los Angeles bureau chief of The New York Times

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