I love being a journalist for the Los Angeles Times because of the unexpected places the job takes you. I’ve been in the cockpit of soaring Soviet fighter plane, interviewed murderers in prison yards, visited movie sets in four countries and crossed more red carpets than I can remember.
A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in another spot I never expected to visit: Hugh Hefner’s bedroom.
I was interviewing the publishing mogul for a Calendar cover story this past Sunday (you can find an excerpt and link at the bottom of this post) and, after the chat, he invited me upstairs to check out the Hollywood-related memorabilia in his room, like a vintage Buck Rogers ray-gun toy in an elaborate frame, two busts of Boris Karloff and a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, the symbol of doomed Hollywood beauty. (Random aside: I was surprised how cluttered his bedroom was; there were stacks of DVDs and scripts and other paperwork, and I’m told he eats many of his meals there in his upstairs sanctum.)
Hefner is most famous for his magazine, his mansion, his pipe and his sex life, but I learned in talking to him that as a youngster he aspired to be a cartoonist. He also said that, in a sense, Playboy began as a comic book that he drew for his school chums back in Chicago.
"I was most interested in writing and cartooning," he told me as we sat in his downstairs library near a bare-breasted statue of Barbi Benton. "I wrote short stories and lots of mysteries and horror stories and did comic books in grade school and high school. I actually started a comic-book autobiography in high school called ‘School Daze,’ about the adventures of my friends and myself. I then began adding clippings and photographs too. It eventually became like a scrapbook. I went directly out of high school into the Army; it was during World War II, and I continued that."
That scrapbook mentality — collecting cartoons, photographs and lifestyle items in one spot — was an essential concept for Hefner’s future career. He just added lots of glossy pictures of buxom women in the nude.
"The comic book was a way of creating your own world and being center stage. And only years later did I realize that when I started the magazine, and the way I used the magazine in my life, it had a direct parallel to what I did in high school. The comic book became the scrapbook that I have continued then throughout my life and now has over 2,000 volumes."
I asked him what illustrators he admired the most. "Milton Caniff first and foremost. I actually got got Caniff for Playboy. During World War II, Caniff did a comic strip called Male Call with a very sexy lady named Miss Lace; it was in ‘Stars & Stripes‘ and ‘Yank’, and it was for the service guys. I knew that some of them had been rejected for being too sexy. So when I started Playboy in summer of 1953, I wrote to Caniff and asked if I could reprint some of the strips, and I asked whether he would supply me with the ones that had been censored and not printed. Those appear in the second issue of Playboy. So my idol, for no particular reason, said yes to a kid that had this impossible dream and was puttering together the first issue of Playboy with literally just $8,000 and no hope."
I mentioned to Hefner that if he had started a magazine called "Yank," it would have caused a stir, and he leaned back and laughed. "Yes, yes, It would have been misunderstood!" My main impression of this cultural icon? I marveled at the fact that someone who has been so famous and so rich for so long could be as polite, earnest and engaged as Hefner. Here are the opening paragraphs of that Sunday article:
"You’ve caught me with my pants on," Hugh Hefner said with a sad smirk. There are days (or entire decades) when Hefner greets the midday sun in silk pajamas and a robe, but on this particular December afternoon, well, the playboy just wasn’t in the mood.
Hefner had arrived back at his 29-room Holmby Hills mansion after attending the funeral of Bettie Page, the pin-up queen, and he was still wearing his mourner’s jacket as he sat and slowly sipped from a bottle of Diet Pepsi in the hush of a downstairs library. Hefner considered Page a friend and fellow pioneer of sorts on the old frontier of American sex culture. Now, like so many others in Hefner’s long journey, she is gone.
"We knew it was coming and there comes a point in the illness …" His voice trailed off and then, adjusting his gold bunny cuff links, he smiled. "We’re not really talking about Bettie Page here today."
No, but the legacy of desire — as well as the desire for legacy — are core concerns for Hefner these days. He has arguably never been more famous, but the glossy centerfold citadel of his empire, Playboy magazine, has struggled, and Hefner, 82, seems most at ease talking about the past and his consuming passion — no, not that one. According to Hef, Hollywood was actually his first true obsession.
"Everything I learned about love, I learned from the movies," Hefner said. "The reality is because I was not shown affection, I escaped into an alternate universe, and it came right out of the movies. Love for me is defined almost exclusively in terms of romantic love as defined by the films of my childhood."
There’s a strong chance that Hefner finally will see a version of himself as a child up on the screen; a long-elusive biographical film is ramping up and, according to Hefner, production could be underway in the next few months. Brian Grazer is the producer, Robert Downey Jr. is keenly interested in the starring role and Brett Ratner has been lined up to direct. Hefner, a devotee of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, seemed uncertain about the "Rush Hour" auteur.
"It’s going to be a very curious change of pace for him … but I believe in Brian," Hefner said. "The one thing I would want the film to be is something other than a light comedy, to have something to say and express something about the change in social sexual values. You know, Brian made a comment that I was the only man who had made love to over a thousand women and they all still liked him. And I do take some pride, in fact, that I remain friends with the majority of former wives and girlfriends. I am a romantic."
READ THE REST of the story
– Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
Top photo: Hugh Hefner at his mansion in Decmeber. Credit: Ken Hively \ Los Angeles Times
Center photo: Captain Hefner and his crew. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Lower photo: Hefner and playmate Bonnie Jo Halpin in 1960. Credit: Playboy.
UPDATE: An early version of this post referred to the comics character "Miss Lace" as "Ms. Lace," which is wrong. It actually prompted someone in the comments section to call me "politically correct" which isn’t just wrong, it’s funny as hell.