So here I was in the Playboy Mansion West. Are cranes strutting elegantly on the perfect lawn? Yes. Is water gushing from the white marble fountain? Certainly. Are gibbons swinging in the trees, koi floating in a pool? Naturally. And are there Bunnies in the Jacuzzi?
Well, it’s a fair bet. Was there action on the tennis court, a click-clack of croquet and within the mansion non-stop backgammon, along with popping sounds and squeaks from the Game Room? A multiple yes.
And now guests were floating through the Great Hall and outdoors because there was to be a party, and not just a routine all-nighter but the award of the title Playmate of the Year, 1973.
Add that this was the first time that the ceremony was to take place not in the Chicago base of Playboy magazine but out here in Hugh Hefner’s crenellated fantasy chateau in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles. A hundred media folk were expected. Already a couple were poring over lists. Yes, celebs were on their way.
Back then this Playmate of the Year event had seemed the right place to be. And here and now? For reasons, unguessable at the time, it seems even more freighted with meaning. Hugh Hefner had been an agent of change, the man who mainstreamed carnal energy, brought it into the light.
The added resonance now is that Playboy was then a huge magazine, and I was there on assignment, writing a profile of Hefner for Rolling Stone, also a powerful magazine. That was the golden age of magazines, a time when they were a major conduit of energy. Magazines too were the right place to be.
I strolled around the grounds with Victor Lownes, a man high on the mag’s totem pole. An heir to the Yale lock fortune, Lownes had been an original investor in Playboy and he had been Living the Life when Hefner was still just editing the mag.
Lownes was now running the Playboy operation in London.
“You know, it would be a shame if ever anything were to happen to this,” he said, looking around. “It should be kept forever. As a monument to sybaritism.”
And now, yes, the celebs were beginning to arrive. My memory is good, but I do not have total recall, so I should disclose that I have delved back into my Rolling Stone piece to cherrypick details.
I am able to reconstitute elements of the guest list now floating through the Great Hall and arriving outdoors and it included such then —and in some cases, still—stellar names as Ed “Kookie” Byrnes, Michael Butler, Berry Gordy, John Derek, Keely Smith, Beau Bridges, Groucho Marx, Jack Nicholson, Linda Lovelace (sedate in lace), Lisa, the Whoopee! girl from Laugh-In, the terrific Brit artist Allen Jones, and a Mansion regular, the actor John Phillip Law, although I did not see another Mansion regular, Bill Cosby.
I will also resuscitate a scrap of Found Conversation, overheard as the sound level built up beneath the stars.
Movie executive to a bit actress, new to LA: “Wouldja like some coke?”
Actress: “No. But I would love a Fresca.”
I detected no irony in this riposte.
So to the ceremony. Marilyn Cole, who was about to be anointed, was the first Brit to win, the award. And it was to be presented by Hefner. Supposedly. But Hefner was a no show. A PR flack explained that he had the ‘flu, would doubtless be down later.
Liv Lindeland, a former Playmate of the Year, who had been entrusted with introducing Hefner, was told that she should introduce Victor Lownes, instead.
That was appropriate too. This Award shindig was an unusual public moment in the life of the Playboy Mansion West but it was the private life of the mansion which constituted the real party, and that took place non-stop, and well away from the media, and right now it was consuming Hefner.
Liv Lindeland duly introduced Victor Lownes, who brushed away the ‘flu nonsense, explained that Hef had “a severe case of backgammonitis” and made the award to Marilyn Cole. They would marry incidentally. And are married to this day.
My visits to the mansion continued as I worked on putting my piece together. It was wondrous, pure luxe. Here’s another gobbet, recuperated from Back Then.
Two girls were wandering the mansion. They were tall, willowy, slender, the look of models, not of playmates, a perfect fit for New York or Paris rather than Los Angeles, and Hefner was astonished when they took their leave. “Strangers in a strange land, huh,” he told them. “And you aren’t gonna stay?”
No, they had dinner plans.
“Tell them the guest list,” Hefner instructed a sidekick. “Warren Beatty.”
They smiled from within their car.
“You don’t like Warren Beatty?” he called as they were driven off.
“They’ll be back,” another sidekick told him as we re-entered the manse.
The following day, yes, they were.
So the party roared on.