It didn’t surprise to me to see that Playboy announced that Hugh Hefner, its founder, longtime publisher and self-appointed icon of modern maleness, died of “natural causes” at the age of 91 (click here for his obituary in the Los Angeles Times). The phrase brought back bitter memories from 15 years ago, when I criticized the media empire for using that exact phrase to explain the death of 28-year-old Playmate Elisa Bridges.
“There was nothing natural about Bridges’ death,” I wrote in my Sept. 26, 2002 OC Weekly story “Natural Causes: The naked life and veiled death of a Playboy Playmate.” “The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office actually concluded that Bridges died of a massive accidental drug overdose. A drug overdose in a room where no drugs were found, in a house she didn’t live in. How could a person die from too much heroin and not have any needle tracks? What time did she die? Nobody, including the coroner, knows.”
Playboy has always been about fantasy, and Hefner sold himself as the living embodiment of that fantasy. Spending his days and nights in his luxurious mansion, always surrounded by very young and beautiful women and aging celebrity cronies like James Caan and Don Adams. And when he did leave the sprawling mansion, it was usually for a party.
I only saw Hefner in person once, at Playboy’s official unveiling (as it were) of their 2002 Playmate of the Year. It was in Los Angeles, at the Mondrian Hotel’s Skybar, on April 25, 2002. Somehow I had gotten an invite from someone in the office who knew I was digging into Bridges’ death (her body had been found in the house of a man who claimed to be one of the Hefner’s business associates), so I went to “get some color,” as we reporters call it, for my story. To accompany me, I enlisted my friend Chris P., who was more than happy to tag along (I chatted with Chris shortly before writing this to make sure I was remembering it all correctly).
There’s so much mythology surrounding even the phrase “Playboy party,” that I knew not to expect too much. At the time, I was also reading Russell Miller’s 1984 investigative book Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy. Paragraphs like this one, which describes the work that went into organizing these affairs in the 1960s, gave me much to consider:
Shirley Hillman was an attractive young Englishwoman, married to an American. As social secretary, one of her primary duties was to pack Playboy parties with enough pretty girls to heavily outnumber the men: Hefner liked a ratio of at least two to one. It was not always easy, as Shirley explained. ‘People imagined that every girl in America was dying to get invited to a party at the mansion. That was the myth. The reality was me traipsing around Chicago, desperately trying to find enough girls willing to go. One of the problems was that girls who had been to the Mansion expecting to meet lots of glamorous celebrities came back and told their friends that there was no one there but a bunch of middle-aged lechers.
Walking into the Skybar, it was immediately clear that the party would definitely be unusual. Thing is, there were beautiful girls walking around everywhere. A few I recognized as Playmates, but most I didn’t. All of them were squeezed into tiny cocktail dresses. In the pool, a few topless women happily bounced a volleyball around as guys in suits sipped whiskey and puffed on cigars near the edge.
Chris and I got our own drinks–bland but safe vodka sodas–and we mingled as best as we could, given that except for the PR person who’d actually approved my RSVP to the party, we knew zero people there. For the most part, everyone ignored us (one exception was actress and former Playmate Julie McCullough, who casually said “Hi, guys” when she passed us on the stairs even though we were clearly nobodies who very obviously didn’t belong there). This went on for a while, until The Woman and The Husband showed up.
I don’t recall their names, but wouldn’t use them here even if I did. What I do recall is that The Woman seemed very interested in talking with us. Okay, talking with Chris, who she called “adorable” on at least one occasion (which, in her defense, was true–even I thought Chris was totes adorbs, and I’m straight). Anyway, The Woman claimed she was a good friend of the new Playmate of the Year (I have no idea if this was true) and that all of us should head up to their room after the party. She mentioned that other girls–other Playmates–would be there.
This was all very sudden, and I was skeptical. That was soon replaced with horror when I realized that for much of this conversation, The Woman had placed her hand on Chris’ crotch. It was then that I looked around and realized The Husband–a very tall and muscular dude, if I remember correctly–was no longer standing near her.
If anything, Chris seemed even more nervous than I was. “Isn’t that your husband?” he asked The Woman.
“He does his thing, I do mine,” she responded.
This was getting to be too much, and we excused ourselves. Looking back, I’m amazed we acted with so much intelligence and self-control. Then again, The Husband was a big, intimidating dude. So we bounced around the party, watched a little more of the topless volleyball in the pool and generally tried our best to avoid The Woman, who for a time kept walking back over to us. Finally we lost her, and thought no more about her, until The Husband suddenly cornered us.
“Have you guys seen my wife?” he asked us.
“No, not at all,” we said, practically in unison. “Not for a while. No idea where she is, sorry.”
The party was very crowded now. The sun had long gone down, and people seemed to be everywhere. It was as we were moving through these crowds, mostly to get away from The Husband, that we came upon Hefner. He was perched on bed with a half-dozen blondes (this might have been during his seven-girlfriends phase, but I can’t recall). What I remember most vividly is how motionless he seemed, like he was actually just a waxwork recreation of himself (click here to see a Getty Images photo from that night, and you’ll see what I mean). And sad, too–like the 2009 photo at the top of this post, his expression just seemed to be one of sorrow, like his being at the party was just another reminder that his reputation as the King of Hedonism had grown into a tiresome chore he was contractually obligated to carry out.
Not long after, when it became clear to us that the Playboy people had pulled out of the party and the place was now packed with regular schmoes like us, we decided to bail, too. But as we pulled out of the garage, Chris and I saw The Husband walk down the street, taking long, determined strides, and go into the lobby of a nearby hotel.
The Woman was nowhere to be seen.
Photo of Hugh Hefner in 2009: Glenn Francis/Wikimedia Commons