In Hefnerland

From The Moronic Inferno by Martin Amis:

Here’s a pdf of what follows: In Hefnerland

In Hefnerland

1. The Playboy Party

At last, that very special moment. Playmate of the Year Barbara Edwards composed herself at the far end of the
astroturfed marquee. The stage she stood on recalled the train motif of her ‘pictorial’ in the current magazine; the
blancmange-coloured dress she wore matched the press-kits that lay on every table. With her make-up scored by tears of
pride, Barbara thanked the assembly for sharing this very special day. ‘And now, the man who makes the dreams come
true, ladies and gentlemen, Mr Hugh M. Hefner!’ Barbara faltered, then added, on the brink of crack-up: ‘I love him so
much. ’

Hef took the stage. For a man who never goes out, who rises at mid-afternoon, who wanders his draped mansion in
slippers and robe (whose lifestyle, on paper, resembles nothing so much as a study in terminal depression), Hef looks
good — surprisingly, even scandalously so. A little haggard, maybe, a little etiolated, but trim and ferret-fit in blazer and
slacks. It was 4.30, so Hef had presumably just rubbed the sleepy dust from his eyes and climbed from the trembling,
twirling bed which he so seldom leaves. ‘I work in it, play in it, eat and sleep in it,’ he has said. What doesn’t he do in it?
Well, perhaps this is the look you get, when the day’s most onerous chore is your twilight visit to the men’s room.

‘It’s a very special day for us,’ Hef confirmed — and Barbara was a very special lady. She was also an exception to the
recent ‘run of blondes’: why, the last brunette he’d crowned was Patti McGuire, ‘who went on to marry Jimmy Connors’. At
this point Barbara seemed suddenly subdued, no doubt by the prospect of going on to marry John McEnroe. ‘Without
further ado’, however, Hef gave Barbara her special gifts, all of them taxable: $ioo,ooo, a new car (not a pink Porsche or a
crimson Cadillac but a dinky black Jaguar), and the title itself: Playboy Playmate of the Year.

The assembled shower of pressmen, PR operatives, hangers-on and sub-celebrities — Robert Culp and Vince Van
Patten were perhaps the most dazzling stars in this pastel galaxy — listened to the speeches, applauded zestlessly, and
returned to their lite beers and tea-time vodka-tonics. More animated, in every sense, was the tableful of centrefold also-
rans to the left of the podium, who greeted each remark with approving yelps of ‘Yeah!’ and ‘Wha-hoo!’ and ‘Owl-right’.
These are the special girls who languish in semi-residence at Playboy Mansion West, sunbathers, Jacuzzi-fillers, party-
prettifiers. Now what is it with these girls? The look aspired to is one of the expensive innocence of pampered
maidenhood, frill and tracery in pink and white, flounced frocks for summer lawns. They also have a racehorse quality,
cantilevered, genetically tuned or souped-up, the skin monotonously perfect, the hair sculpted and plumed; the body-tone
at its brief optimum. Compared to these girls, the ordinary woman (the wife, the secretary, the non-goddess) looks lived-in
or only half-completed, eccentrically and interestingly human.

Now Hef partied — Hef made the scene. Behind him at all times stood his bodyguard, a representative of the balding,
gum-chewing, bodyguarding caste. Don’t be a bodyguard, if you can possibly help it. You have to stand there all day with
your arms folded, frowning watchfully. If you don’t look grim and serious, you aren’t doing your job. Diversified only by a bit
of Pepsi-ferrying to the boss, that’s what Hef’s bodyguard does all day: look serious, while Hef horses around. A teenage
playmate nuzzled Hef’s chest and giggled. The bodyguard watched her watchfully.

As the thrash thrashed on, I slipped out of the tent and strolled the grounds. The man-made, bloodheat rockpool, the
Jacuzzi-infested grotto, the mini-zoos with their hunched, peanut-addict monkeys, smiling parrots, demonic macaws, the
tennis court, the vast satellite receiver, curved like a giantess’s brassiere, which enables Hef to watch even more TV than
he does already … Hef would later describe an average day in his life. ‘Get up in the early afternoon, have a meeting,
there’s a regular buffet, a couple of movies, go upstairs around i a.m. with a girlfriend or whoever, make love then, have a
meal, watch a movie or two.’ Now that’s four movies a day we’re looking at. In the early Seventies Hef left the ‘controlled
environment’ of his sealed and gardenless mansion in Chicago and moved out to California — itself a kind of controlled
environment. Here the sun’s controls are turned up all year long, and the girls are bigger, better, blonder, browner. But Hef
isn’t much of a fresh-air buff, even now … On the edge of the tropical fishpond stands an ornamental barrel, full of feed.
Scatter a handful of the smelly pellets, and the fish — gorgeously shell-coloured — will rush to the bank, scores of them,
mouths open, like benign but very greedy piranha. ‘God, that’s so gross,’ said a passing partygoer. It is, too. The fish mass
so tightly that for a moment, a special moment, there is no water beneath you — only squirming suicide. They look netted,
beached, like a fisherman’s haul.

2. The Playboy Salad

Keyholder turns Bunny Back cards into Bunny for issuance of desired Certificate. (This offer is not valid in conjunction
with any other special promotional offer.) — Playboy Club Leaflet

To the Playboy Club in Century City, just off the Avenue of the Stars. In the foyer of this desperate establishment you
will find a squad of strict-faced, corseted Bunnies, a gift shop featuring various ‘celebrity purchases’, and a big TV screen
showing a big Playmate as she soaps herself in the tub. ..This is hot footage from the Playboy Channel — yes, a whole

 

channel of the stuff, nine or ten hours a day. Playboy Inc. is changing its act: once a paunchy conglomerate kept afloat by
gambling profits, it is now a solid publishing company nursing high hopes for cable TV. Hef believes that this is the way
forward as the trend of American leisure increasingly shuns the street and huddles up in the home. Hef ought to know. He
is home-smart, having put in thirty years’ experience of never going out. In the submarine sanctum of the club itself you
will find a Playboy pinball machine (the artwork depicts Hef flanked by two playmates in their nighties), a video game with
a handwritten Out of Order notice taped to its screen, some backgammon tables, a wail of framed centrefolds, and an oval
bar where two or three swarthy loners sit slumped over their drinks, staring at the waitresses with an air of parched and
scornful gloom. The wine glasses bear the Playboy logo: the little black rabbit-head does such a good imitation or a
drowned insect that the young woman in our party shrieked out loud as she raised the glass to her lips. A 747-load of
Japanese tourists in modified beachwear filed cautiously past. The manager or greeter, who looked like the rumba-
instructor or tango-tutor of a Miami hotel, showed us to our table with a flourish. The Playboy Club, we knew, was LA’s
premier talent showcase, and tonight’s act, we learned, was straight in from Las Vegas. When questioned, the manager
proudly agreed that the club did a lot of package-tour business, as well as ‘Greyline Tour bus groups. But the bus groups
are very minimal tonight.’ We gazed over the shining mops of the Japanese, and over the coiff, frizz, rug and bald-patch of
the bus groups, as tonight’s act did its thing: three girls in tutus, singing popular hits. At the incitement of the lead singer,
the audience clapped its hands to the beat. The sound they made was as random as weak applause.

Over a Playboy Salad (remarkably similar to a non-Playboy salad, though rather heavy on the Thousand Island), I
unwrapped my Playboy gift-pack. A dime-store garter belt for the special person in my life, two Playboy bookmatches, a
blizzard of promotional offers, and a scrap of paper bearing the tremulous signature of Hugh M. Hefner. According to the
new Bunny Pack bonus program, all I had to do was ‘enjoy dinner Playboy style’ 1,531 times, and I’d win a new VCR.
There were other offers: ‘Easy-to-take drink prices and complimentary chili every Monday through Friday from four to
seven.’ Even as I finished my steak, the $1.50 all-you-can-eat brunch was being assembled on the sideboards.

‘Playboy Style. ..live it!’ say the ads for the club in the parent magazine. But Playboy Style, nowadays, is something
you’d have to ask your father about. In this den of innocuousness, you see that the Playboy dream has submitted to the
heroic consumerism of everyday America: it has been proletarianised, kitsched, disappearing in the direction it came from,
back to Chicago, the Fifties, Korea, the furtive world of Dude, Gent, Rogue, Flirt, Sir, Male, Cutie, Eyeful, Giggles, Titter,
Modem Sunbathing and Hygiene. Then, suddenly, there was Kinsey, the bikini, talk of the Pill, penicillin and Playboy. In
the proud dawn of the Playboy dream, Hef hung out with Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lenny Bruce and Jack Kerouac.
Now it’s Sammy Davis Jr, Jimmy Caan, John and Bo Derek, and Tom Jones.

As it fades, the dream must reach down deeper into lumpen America, searching for the bedroom fevers of someone
very like Hef in 1953: the son of stalwart Methodist parents, a fried-chicken and pork-chop kind of guy, miserably married,
naive, ambitious and repressed, someone who connected sex with upward mobility, someone who knew just how
expensive the best things in life could be.

3. The Playboy Playmate

My friends all asked me why I wanted to become a Playmate, and I told them I thought the women of Playboy were the
epitome of beauty, class, taste and femininity. — Shannon Tweed, ex-Playmate

Overworked, it seemed, to the point of inanition or actual brain death, Hef’s PR man Don was having problems firming
up the Hefner interview and Mansion tour. Where, I wondered, was Hef’s famous in-depth back-up? But then I
remembered what had happened when Playboy wanted to interview its own Editor-Publisher, six years ago: ‘Hef says call
back in a year’ was the message from the Mansion. ‘We have a problem,’ droned Don. And yet problem-solving is his
business, as it is with all the corporation Roys and Rays and Phils and Bills. Equally ponderous and evasive, Don is one
of the many middlemen hired to interpose between Hef and the outside world. Nearly everybody in LA retains one or two
of these reality-softeners. What do you get at the end of every line? The smooth interceptions of answering services; the
forensic clearances of security people; Hispanic incomprehension.

I drove to Don’s office in the Playboy building, up on Sunset, to meet and chat with a ‘representative Playmate’. In the
sunny, genial, nude-decked PR department I was introduced to Penny Baker and provided with the relevant issue of
Playboy. Miss Baker was the beneficiary of The Great Thirtieth Anniversary Playmate Search: 250,000 polaroids later,
they settled on Penny: ‘And now that we’ve found her, our greatest reward is in sharing her beauty with you.’ What do they
look for, exactly? ‘Great nipples’, ‘sincere bush’, ‘Is there a problem with the breasts?’ – these are the sort of concepts (I
had read) that are tossed back and forth by Hef’s creative consultants. For eight pages plus centrefold, at any rate,
Penny’s beauty, her charms, were glisteningly revealed. Her turn-ons were ‘Mountains and music’. Among her turn-offs
were ‘big talkers and humidity’. Her ideal man? ‘Someone who knows what he wants.’ Penny is eighteen.

Monitored by Don’s ponderous presence (he lurked there with his little tape recorder — company policy, no doubt), the
interview began. Within a minute, I had run out of questions. I would get nothing but company policy from Penny, and we
both knew it. Yes, she now worked on the Playboy promo circuit. No, her parents didn’t object to the spread: they both
thought it was neat. Yes, she belonged to the Shannon Tweed school of Playmate philosophy. ‘I have a beautiful baddy,’
explained Penny — and why should she be ashamed to share it with Playboy subscribers? ‘How do you feel about Hugh
Hefner?’ I asked, and felt Don give a sluggish twitch. Penny’s young face went misty. Sweetness, sincerity, sensitivity: like
a big family. ‘I saw him cry one time,’ she confessed. ‘It was his birthday. I went up and said Happy Birthday. And he, and
he — well …” A very special moment, this one, a very special memory, not to be shared.

4. The Playboy Interview

With another side of the same story comes iconoclast Buck Henry who reveals … that those really close to Hef always
refer to hint as Ner. – ‘Playbill’, Playboy

 

What a scoop. I arrived at the Playboy Mansion for my interview to find that a quite extraordinary thing had happened:

 

Ner had gone out! Now as we all know this is something that Ner hardly ever does. He hasn’t been in a cab or a shop for
twenty years. Only once in that period has he walked a street — back in 1967. At that time Ner still nestled in the sealed
and soundproofed Chicago Mansion: he never knew the time of day, or even the season. Playboy Inc. had purchased a
new property. Struck by the desire to see the place, Ner decided on a rare sortie: he would walk the eight blocks to North
Michigan Avenue. Venturing out of his controlled environment, he found that it was raining. It was also the middle of the
night. Legend does not record whether he was still in his pyjamas at the time … Today, Ner had gone out to the doctor’s.
But he would shortly return. You pull up at the gates – Charing Cross Road, Holmby Hills.

On my previous visit I’d been unsmilingly cleared by a young man with tweed jacket, guest-list clipboard and turbulent
complexion (peanut-butter plus pimple problem). Today the closed gates were unattended. My cab idled. Suddenly a
mounted camera jerked its head in my direction – surprised, affronted. ‘Let me have your name, sir,’ I was asked by an
ornamental boulder on my left. After several unfriendly questions and delays, the gates grudgingly parted, warning, says
a sign on the curved drive: your visit may be RECORDED OR TELEVISED.

‘An elegant English Tudor home, L-shaped, with slate roof and leaded windows’, Playboy Mansion West teems with
car-boys, handimen, minders, butlers, bunnies. Everyone is brisk with corporation esprit, with problem-solving know-how.
They bear themselves strictly, in accordance with some vague but exacting model of efficiency and calm. Their life’s work,
you feel, is to ensure that nothing ever gets on Ner’s nerves.

The library sports a double backgammon table, a panelled, Pepsi-crammed icebox, various framed mag-covers
featuring Ner, and a wall of books: bound editions of Playboy and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a modest collection of
hardbacks — The Supercrooks, Sex Forever, Luck be a Lady, Winning at the Track with Money Management. Over the
fireplace hangs a jokey, Renaissance-style portrait of Ner, emphasising his close resemblance to Olivier’s Richard III. (I
later telephoned Don and asked him if this visual reference was an intentional one. Bemused, Don trudged off to check,
and returned with an indignant denial.) As I walked to the window two limousines pulled up self-importantly in the
forecourt. Slamming doors, busy car-boys, watchfully craning bodyguards. Having gone out, Ner had now come back. The
interview would soon begin. Normally, I had read, recording equipment is set up to monitor a Hefner interview; also, the
drapes are carefully drawn. ‘Security request we close the drapes whenever Mr Hefner is in a room.’ But things are laxer
now. The sun can shine, and it’s still OK if Ner is in a room.

And in he came, wearing scarlet silk pyjamas, with pipe and Pepsi — all as advertised. He apologised for being late
and, in answer to my query, gave assurances that ali had gone well at the doctor’s. We settled down. The interview went
through two phases, quite distinct in timbre. For the first hour or so, Ner talked like a politician: he has a hundred well-
thumbed paragraphs in his head, each of them swiftly triggered by the normal run of questions. He is comfortable with
criticism from the Right (abortion, censorship), rather less so with criticism from the Left (misogyny, philistinism). Actually
Ner believes that these orthodoxies go in cycles: now that pornography has become — ironically — a civil-rights issue, he
can imagine himself ‘returning to the sexual avant garde’ and reliving his old crusade. If such a challenge were to arise,
the father of sexual liberation won’t duck it. Nor shall Ner’s sword sleep in his hand — no sir.

During the second part of the interview Ner relaxed: that is to say, he became highly agitated, showing the wounded
restlessness of a man who thinks himself persistently misunderstood. His eyes, previously as opaque as limo-glass, now
glittered and fizzed. So did his Pepsi: he took such violent swigs that the bottle kept foaming to the brim. His language
grew saltier. ‘That’s all bullshit,” he said repeatedly, swiping a finger through the air. You saw the Chicagoan in him then
— the tight-jawed, almost ventriloquial delivery, the hard vowels, the human hardness of the windy city, the city that
works.

What changed Ner’s mood? First, a discussion of Bobbie Arn-stein, the private secretary who committed suicide after
involving Playboy in a drugs scandal during the mid-Seventies. Ner was able to give himself a quickfire exoneration on
this ‘very scummy case’. He was far less convincing, though, when talk turned to the case of Dorothy Straiten. There is
clearly something central and unshirk-able about the Straiten story; it is the other side of the Playboy dream: it is the
Playboy nightmare. All set for stardom, likely to become the first Playboy-endorsed Hollywood success, Stratten was
murdered by her rejected husband in circumstances of hideous squalor. The controversy has been ceaseless (and deeply
unwelcome to the corporation), with the TV film Death of a Centrefold, Bob Fosse’s Star 80 and now Peter Bogdanovich’s
memoir The Killing of the Unicorn. Dorothy Stratten was Playmate of the Year for 1980, but she never saw 1981.

‘Dorothy’, he said, his face briefly wistful, ‘was a very special person, very trusting, a very special — human being.’
People talked about the connections between Dorothy’s death and the mores of the Playboy world — ‘But that’s all
bullshit. There is not and never has been a casting-couch thing here.’ He then went on to slander Bob Fosse (off the
record: a private thing between Ner and me). ‘Recreational sex can still be moral – and that’s what I’m all about. You have
responsibilities as a bachelor. Nobody has ever had an abortion because of me. Nobody. It’s like a family here. People
stay with us for a very long time: my night-time secretary was a Playmate in 1960! I am a warm and caring person and so
is the company. That’s the kind of guy I am.’

The interview ended with some deliberation about the photographs that would illustrate this article. A recent and
idealised portrait of Ner was produced in its frame — the sort of thing a sports or nightclub personality might hang over his
bed. Wouldn’t this do? ‘It’s never been used before,’ droned Don (who had, of course, been ponderously present
throughout). I hesitated. Did they seriously think that any magazine other than People — or Playboy — would publish
such an ‘official’ study? Was the Editor-Publisher of genius losing his grip? Should I be frank? Was now the time to start
calling Hef Ner? I said nothing. We sat there admiring the photograph, all agreeing how very special it looked.

The girls are always saying they feel ‘safe’ in the Mansion, and yet the Easterner is pretty happy to take his leave — to
leave the atmosphere of surveillance, corporation propaganda and PR p’s and q’s. Ner cruised out of the library and into
the hall. An average evening was beginning. In the dining-room two elderly celebrities (Max Lerner and Richard Brook)
were ordering complicated meals, with many doctorial vetos and provisos, while in the adjacent room the little squad of
playmates and playthings, of honeys and bunnies, sat quietly around a table with their glasses (soft drinks only: Ner’
doesn’t want them sloppy). Momentarily hushed and alert, the girls seemed ornamental and yet not quite passive, on call,
expected to disport themselves in a certain way, expected to do whatever is expected.

 

5. The Playboy Philosophy

 

Publishing a sophisticated men’s magazine seemed to me the best possible way of fulfilling a dream I’d been nurturing
ever since I was a teenager: to get laid a lot — Hugh M. Hefner

Hefner has been inviting moral judgments for over thirty years. It shows. It takes it out of a guy. Never altogether
cynical, not yet entirely deluded, he is nonetheless committed to a sanitised, an authorised version of his Jife. The
tendency is common enough, especially out here in the land of the innumerate billionaire, where a game of Scrabble is a
literary event, where the prevailing values are those of the pocket calculator. There are times’, Gloria Steinem has said,
‘when a woman reading Playboy feels like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.’ This is a frivolous remark, and blasphemous,
too. Say that about Playboy, and what’s left for Der Sturmer? If commercial pornography is imagined as a flophouse, with
bestiality in the basement, then Playboy is a relatively clean and tidy attic. It is hardly pornography at all, more a kind of
mawkish iconography for eternal adolescents. Playboy ‘objectifies women’ all right, in Joyce Wolfe’s quaint phrase – but
let’s be objective here. According to the old Chicago axiom, there are two areas of wrongdoing: ethics and morals. Ethics
is money and morals is sex. With Hefner, the line between the two is blurred or wobbly. It is a very American mix.

Three points need to be made about Hefner’s oft-repeated contention that Playboy is like a family. First, it is a family in
which Poppa Bear gets to go to bed with his daughters. Secondly, it is a family in which the turnover in daughters is high.
Thirdly, it is a family in which no tensions, resentments or power-struggles are admitted to or tolerated: at Playboy,
everyone is happy all the time. Of every conceivable human institution, a family is what Playboy least resembles. True,
Hefner’s daughter Christie is now the figurehead of the company; true also that he has recently opened his arms,
Dynasty-style, to a second, putative son (though he admitted to me that there was, of all things, ‘a problem’ with young
Mark). But they’re grown up now: they’re on the payroll, under the wing, like everybody else. Hefner isn’t paternal — he is
exclusively paternalistic, wedded only to the daily exercise of power.

At the time of the interview I had not read Bogdanovich’s The Killing of the Unicorn. More to the point, neither had
Hefner. I assume that his tone would have been very different — less spirited and aggrieved, more furtive and
beleaguered. The Bogdanovich memoir is a labour of love, verging on a kind of sentimental mysticism, and its central
accusation (that Hefner bears a measure of responsibility for Stratten’s death, not only metaphorically but directly too)
carries more emotion than weight. Some unpleasant facts, however, are now on record; and one is less disturbed by the
sexual delinquencies than by the corporation automatism, the com-mercialised unreality with which Playboy glosses
everything it does. Expediency, double-think, self-interest posing as philanthropy — this is the Playboy philosophy,
powder-puffed and airbrushed by all the doltish euphemism of conglomerate America.

You are an eighteen-year-old from some dismal ex-prairie state, a receptionist from Wyoming, or a local beauty queen –
Miss Nowhere, Nebraska, perhaps. Your boyfriend’s salacious Polaroid suddenly transforms itself into a first-class air
ticket to Los Angeles. Lfmoed to the Mansion guest-house, you are schooled by smiling PR girls, aides, secretaries. No
outside boyfriends are allowed into the Mansion – and these are, indisputably, ‘healthy young girls’. Natural selection will
decide whether you will be orgy-fodder, good for one of the gang, or whether you have what it takes to join the elite of
Hefner’s ’special ladies’. Signed up, set to work in the Playboy Club or on the promo or modelling circuits, you will find the
divisions between public and private obligations hard to determine. You will also experience a wildly selective generosity,
the also-rans routinely overworked and underpaid, the front-runners smothered in celebrity purchases — jewels, furs,
paintings, cars, and what Californians call a ‘home’. If Hefner wants you to be a special lady then so does everyone else
at the ranch. And when the call comes for you to join the boss in the inexorable Jacuzzi, it isn’t Hef on the line: it’s his
night-time secretary — This process used to be called seigneurism. ‘Warm and caring’? Nowadays every business in
America says how warm it is and how much it cares — loan companies, supermarkets, hamburger chains.

Without you’, Hefner once joked to a gaggle of Playmates, ‘I’d have a literary magazine.’ Yes, but what would he have
without the literature? He’d have the Playboy Channel for one thing, and all the footling vapidity of unrelieved soft core.
Sexcetera, Melody in Love, Pillow Previews, Alternative Lifestyle Features, ‘nudity’, ‘strong language’ and what are
laughingly known as ‘mature situations’. Christ, a week of this and you’d be like Don the PR man … And so we leave him,
strolling his games parlour (there are bedrooms in back), his paradise of pinball, Pepsi and pyjama-parties — the
remorselessly, the indefinitely gratified self. It is in the very nature of such appetites that they will deride him in time. One
wonders what will happen to the girls when they grow up. One wonders what will happen to Hefner, if he ever gives it a
try.

Hef at seventy. Ner at ninety. Now wouldn’t that be something special?

Observer 1985

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