How We Played at the Playboy Mansion

The Playboy Mansion is going up for sale for $200 million, with Hef—and a lot of spicy history—remaining in residence.

01.16.16 5:01 AM ET

The news that Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles is up for sale for $200 million—reportedly America’s most expensive home for sale—resonated.

I entered this American Dreamscape in 1973 on assignment for Rolling Stone, then still based in San Francisco.

My reportage is online, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Hugh Hefner with Playboy Playmates at the 25th Anniversary All-Day Saturday Playmate Reunion at the Playboy Mansion West on September 8, 1979 in Los Angeles.

Paul Drinkwater/NBC Photobank, via Getty

Hugh Hefner with Playboy Playmates at the 25th Anniversary All-Day Saturday Playmate Reunion at the Playboy Mansion West on September 8, 1979 in Los Angeles.

Just imagine an old-fashioned, almost 20,000 square foot Euro country house set amongst tropic greenery and exotic not-so-wild wildlife, with game-rooms, jacuzzis and pools, populated by perfect babes and a rotating cast of more-or-less famous, far from perfect guys.

 I’ll dig out one nugget though.

Playboy and my own lifestyle are a Rorschach test where people find their own fantasies,” Hefner told me. “But you’ve got to realize that this isn’t where I ever expected to go. There was no parallel. There was no such lifestyle as this when I was growing up, that I could look to, and think: this is the life that I want to live. I mean, I didn’t know anybody who was fulfilling their personal, uh, aspirations to the extent that I’ve been able to.”

Another nugget. Victor Lownes and I were strolling the grounds. Lownes was an early investor in Playboy, who had become an executive, and it was he who played the Mr. Playboy role during the ten years or so while Hefner had staying in his Chicago room, pulling multi-all-nighters as he put the magazine and club empire together.

Then Hefner emerged. He was now the famous Hef.

Victor Lownes was running Playboy’s European operations from London but more than contented. “You know, it would be a shame if ever anything were to happen to this,” he said, as we walked around. “It should be kept forever. As a monument to sybaritism.”

But it had been threats to the dominant position of that monument that had brought me to the Holmby Hills. These threats came from competitors, the first and most serious being that from Penthouse.

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This magazine had been launched in London in 1965 by Bob Guccione, a Brooklyn-born artist and cartoonist, who carefully imitated the Playboy format, but with equally careful differences, one being that the sexual content was way more explicit. Penthouse was soon doing well.

In 1969 Guccione brought it to New York, where he now had his own mansion too, the largest private house in Manhattan.

There were other budding wannabes, of varying competence. Or not. I admired Oui, a Playboy-spin-off, also out of Chicago, where a Bunny, a helpful source, opened a filing cabinet and showed me a file of “Terminated Bunnies.” 

But I devoted little space to Coq magazine, which the receptionist pronounced “Coke”, and which had its own “mansion” on the upper floor of a building not far from where Playboy had been born.

Effects on Playboy’s circulation had been slight, so far. This had been around seven million at its peak and, while I was reporting, was perhaps a few hundred thousand down from that, but Guccione was trumpeting his expectation that Penthouse would be overtaking Playboy the following year, and more explicit sex was very much part of his business strategy.

This didn’t seem to be much on anybody’s mind in the mansion though. Down on Holmby Hills there was an Inner Core, wholly male, of whom half a dozen seemed to be around Hefner at all times, none of whom were connected to Hefner’s business life.

And when there wasn’t a party, they and he would be engaged in a principal pursuit of that period, backgammon, a passion which was so devouring then that I don’t remember just when it would sputter out.

But then there were the parties. And these had different levels of intensity. Those on the list could drop by anytime and eat and drink rather well. Some did not stint.

The wine cellar had just been upgraded while I was there and the female sommelier complained to me that not only did some guests help themselves to handfuls of cigars but that one was extremely insistent on getting the Chateau Lafitte ’64, which had just gone up to $60 a bottle and would not only down it himself but insist that all the Bunnies and party girls in his vicinity quaff it too.

Ah, yes. The party girls. There were also the more private parties. One day I sat in while the social life was being organized. Backgammon tournaments, a movie screening.

“Shall we get some people over?” asked Hefner’s secretary in chief.

“Yeah! Let’s get some friends over,” Hefner said.

Names were suggested. Girls.

“But remember!” Hefner said. “We’re just tired ... middle-aged ... men. They can’t expect too much.”

Victor Lownes drew attention to my presence.

“Remember that Tony is, uh, doing this piece for Rolling Stone,” he said.

Two of Bill Cosby’s accusers have claimed that the ugliness took place in the Playboy mansion.

My piece was duly published. I was told that Hefner hated it and I was no longer welcome at the mansion. Damn!

Three years after publication Steve Jobs started Apple. The party girls were soon flying off into cyberspace and the slight decline in the circulation of Playboy precipitated by Penthouse became a precipitous tumble. Penthouse went bankrupt in 2013. Playboy sold 820,000 copies last year.

As for life in the monument to sybaritism nowadays, well, Down the Rabbit Hole, a tell-all by Holly Madison, Hefner’s seven year live-in girlfriend--he is now married to 29-year-old Crystal Harris--describes a bedding ritual which sounds like erotic pantomime, what with multiple women, mostly blondes, in matching pink pajamas, porno movies, pot, desultory penetrations. Still a Rorschach Test? Perhaps.

And the mansion? Hefner bought it and the five-acre estate in 1971 for $1.1 million, a record at the time, but the company, in which Hefner is now a minority shareholder at 30 percent, have been shelling out for the running costs for quite a spell.

The asked-for $200 million is twice what any comparable nearby property has fetched. Also the purchaser will be required to allow Hefner, now 84, to stay in possession for the rest of his life. The Playboy Mansion isn’t losing its main player.