If you don’t swing, don’t ring

Christopher Turner

  • Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics by Beatriz Preciado
    Zone, 303 pp, £20.95, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 935408 48 2
  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny by Holly Madison
    Dey Street, 334 pp, £16.99, July 2015, ISBN 978 0 06 237210 9

‘Without you,’ Hugh Hefner said to the Playmates he’d assembled for a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Playboy, ‘I’d have been the publisher of a literary magazine.’ Hefner founded Playboy in 1953 with a loan from his mother, who had hoped he’d become a missionary. The 27-year-old secured the rights to a previously unpublished nude of Marilyn Monroe, her skin flushed against red velvet, for $500 from a calendar company in Chicago. He wanted to publish the image in 3D, to be viewed with special glasses, but abandoned the scheme because of the cost. It was the year Monroe starred in How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. Kinsey’s research was helping to undermine America’s puritan pretensions. The inaugural issue of Playboy had no date on the cover; because of the strict obscenity laws, Hefner wasn’t sure there would be a second. He is now 90, and still editor-in-chief.

Prone to self-mythology, Hefner claimed he was Kinsey’s ‘pamphleteer, spreading the news of sexual liberation through a monthly magazine’. For all this supposed reforming zeal, it was only in the 1960s that Hefner began defining ‘The Playboy Philosophy’ – a kind of ‘hedonistic utilitarianism’, as William F. Buckley put it. The magazine was originally designed, Hefner admitted, as a ‘romantic reflection of earlier times’. His achievement was to associate sex with upward mobility by making his readers feel they were part of an elite gentlemen’s club. To this aim, alongside the scantily clad women and salacious cartoons, he published (or rather, mostly republished) work by John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, Arthur Conan Doyle, Margaret Atwood, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, Saul Bellow, P.G. Wodehouse, Anne Sexton and John Updike. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was first serialised in the magazine. ‘I only read it for the articles,’ joked subscribers, of which there were more than a million by the end of the decade. A lifetime’s supply cost $150, and the first issue would be hand-delivered by a Playmate.

In 1960, in an article for the Architects’ Journal – ‘I’d crawl a mile for … Playboy’ – Reyner Banham claimed he only read it for the architecture and design. ‘Playboy over the years has discussed and illustrated quite a lot of furniture,’ he wrote in the magazine’s defence, arguing that it had done more for design in the US than House & Garden. Every centrefold was portrayed in a design-savvy interior that hinted at a man’s presence just outside the frame: a tie hanging over a mirror, a cigar still smoking in an ashtray. But alongside these buxom ‘girls next door’ were full-colour spreads featuring the ‘simple, functional and modern’ designs of Eames, Saarinen, Nelson and Knoll. There were also laudatory articles on contemporary architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. The architects were themselves portrayed as playboys, the architectural and sexual revolutions intimately enmeshed.

In Pornotopia, Beatriz Preciado writes that in 1950s issues of Playboy, ‘there were more architecture plans, interior-decoration pictures and design objects than naked women.’ She sees all this design porn – with its blueprints for hip, hedonistic, bachelor-pad ‘dens of seduction’ – as an attempt to reclaim the domestic sphere for the metropolitan male. As feminists sought to escape the home, which Betty Friedan described as a ‘comfortable concentration camp’ for women, Hefner’s man-about-town moved in. His first editorial made this clear:

Most of today’s ‘magazines for men’ spend all their time out-of-doors – thrashing through thorny thickets or splashing about in fast-flowing streams. We’ll be out there too, occasionally, but we don’t mind telling you in advance – we plan on spending most of our time inside. We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.

The second issue defined Playboy specifically as an ‘indoors magazine’. One article began: ‘Some say you can judge a man by the way he furnishes his home.’ Barbara Ehrenreich thought the pin-ups were a cover for a style-conscious interest in the domestic interior: ‘The breasts and bottoms were necessary not just to sell the magazine but to protect it.’

In the ‘Playboy Penthouse’, every item of furniture and its placement was designed to help the predatory lothario to get what the magazine referred to as ‘instant sex’. Seduction was a game played indoors, in which it was more helpful to know about modern design than female psychology. In ‘25 Steps to the Perfect Seduction’, design icons became weapons in the playboy’s armory. A Knoll cabinet, for example, hid a built-in bar: ‘This permits the canny bachelor to remain in the room while mixing a cool one for his intended quarry … no chance of leaving her cosily curled up on the couch with her shoes off and returning to find her mind changed, purse in hand, and the young lady ready to go home, dammit.’ Once she was suitably inebriated, the final trap was an Osvaldo Borsani couch that flipped to horizontal at the touch of a button.

Design for the Playboy townhouse (1962)
Design for the Playboy townhouse (1962)

In the late 1950s, newly divorced, Hefner tried to realise some of the magazine’s paper architecture. He bought a plot of land in a well-to-do neighbourhood of Chicago and invited the architect Donald Jaye to design him the ultimate bachelor pad. The scheme was denied planning permission, but the drawings were published in the May 1962 issue of the magazine. The ‘almost cartoonishly modern’ three-storey building, as Preciado describes it, was to have a Miesian glass façade, under which a basement garage would harbour a bright blue Porsche. It was to be built around an indoor pool designed to resemble a natural grotto. Here was modern architecture as pure entertainment – the precursor of the lair of many a Bond villain. That year, the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, perhaps with Jaye’s design in mind, spoke of ‘Playboy Architecture’ as the degeneration of the rigorous ‘International Style’ into an escapist orgy of theatrical effects: it was ‘an architecture treated as playboys treat life’, Giedion wrote, ‘jumping from one sensation to another and quickly bored with everything’.

By that time, the restless Hefner had already moved on. The Playboy Mansion was a stately 19th-century brick and limestone château in Chicago’s Gold Coast district. Above the door to Hefner’s bachelor castle was a brass sign that read ‘Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinare’ (‘If you don’t swing, don’t ring’). ‘The front door was a screen,’ Hefner said, ‘and people projected their fantasies onto the screen.’ Behind the façade, Hefner had spent $3 million creating large, luxurious, louche spaces rigged with gadgetry, including CCTV and a revolving bar. It was a stage set for Hefner’s legendary parties. Revellers literally ‘let go’ down a golden pole to the basement, where there was an underground pool with a tropical island, waterfall and cave. A sub-aquatic bar-room had a window through which you could see the swimmers, often naked. Time magazine described Hefner’s hideaway as a ‘Disneyland for adults’. ‘I wanted the house to be a dream house,’ Hefner said:

A place where one could work and have fun without the trouble and conflicts of the outside world. Inside, a single man had absolute control over his environment. I could change night into day, screening a film at midnight and ordering a dinner at noon, having appointments in the middle of the night and romantic encounters in the afternoon. It was a haven and a sanctuary … While the rest of the world seemed to be out of control, everything inside the Playboy House was perfect. That was my plan. Being brought up in a very repressive and conformist manner, I created a universe of my own where I was free to live and love in a way that most people can only dream about.

On the third floor was Playboy HQ and Hefner’s bedroom, with its circular, rotating (and vibrating) bed. Hefner would smoke a pipe in his silk pyjamas and wander between the two domains. He staffed his office with pneumatic Playmates, and favourite female employees were allowed to rent studio apartments next to his quarters. Thirty Bunnies lived in the spartan Bunny dorm on the fourth floor, which had rows of bunks, wooden lockers and communal showers. ‘In stark contrast to the push-button extravagance below,’ Russell Miller noted in Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy, ‘the furnishing of the dormitories abruptly takes on the aspect of a rather parsimonious girls’ boarding school.’ They kept him busy: Hefner claims to have trumped Casanova, logging more than two thousand lovers in the sex diary he has kept since 1952.

Hugh Hefner at work in bed (1973)
Hugh Hefner at work in bed (1973)

For Hefner, the sexual revolution took place exclusively indoors. He was agoraphobic, addicted to Pepsi and Dexedrine, and almost never left his mansion. In 1965 he told Tom Wolfe that he hadn’t been outside for three and a half months and had only left home nine times in the past two years. Why would he? He worked on his eight-foot-wide bed for three or four drug-fuelled days at a time ‘without sleeping or eating, hardly blinking, working feverishly around the clock with the single-minded intensity of a maniac’, according to one former employee. Hefner’s boudoir resembled an air traffic control tower; the headboard of his bed was crammed with the buttons and levers with which he controlled both his environment and his ever expanding empire. Wolfe depicted him in ‘the loving and cushioned heart of an artichoke-prison … installed in the centre of a universe that can be controlled, and where he is the only monarch that no one can expel’.

Preciado approaches her subject with humourless, almost clinical contempt. The magazine, she writes in doctoral-thesis prose, ‘provides a discursive laboratory to interrogate the production of hegemonic heterosexual masculinity within capitalism’. She sees in Playboy something more sinister than the chauvinistic recolonisation of the home: ‘By 1962,’ she writes, ‘the magazine had become the centre of a multimedia network with soft tentacles spread throughout North America’s urban fabric, from news-stands to television stations, clubs and hotels.’ She portrays Hefner, reclining on his couch like Delacroix’s Sardanapalus, as a scrawny spider at the centre of a huge web that now envelops us all. Hefner was the founder and director of an all-encompassing ‘pornotopia’. His worldwide empire was ‘the first multimedia brothel in history’ or ‘the first global “pornscape”’.

Design for the Playboy townhouse bedroom
Design for the Playboy townhouse bedroom

In 1960, Hefner opened the first Playboy Club a few blocks from the Mansion, and each of its four floors was designed as an exact replica of that now mythic place, with a playroom, penthouse, library and living room. (Hefner also hosted a TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse, which turned viewers into guests at the Mansion.) On admission, you could buy a $5 membership key featuring the bunny logo. Hefner turned the nightclubs into a franchise, but when the first two outlets in Miami and New Orleans refused to feature African-American performers, he bought back the licenses. He had always defended civil rights and had entertained Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King in Chicago. Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald had performed on his TV show, which was subsequently censored in the South. Fanned by the permissive zeitgeist, the Playboy Clubs proliferated fast. Several had opened by 1963, and there would eventually be 33 clubs and resorts worldwide, from London to the Caribbean. They were clones; the designers thought of them as the ‘never-ending club’.

In ‘A Bunny’s Tale’, first published in Show magazine in 1963, Gloria Steinem recounts her undercover adventures at Manhattan’s Playboy Club, where she was kitted out in a satin leotard with cantilevered bra, white cuffs, bow tie, three-inch heels, rabbit ears and a fluffy tail. She was ‘programmed like an IBM computer’ to uphold the ‘Playboy image’, which was inculcated by a ‘Bunny Mother’ and set down by Hefner’s brother in the Bunny Manual. The bible assured her: ‘You are holding the top job in the country for a young girl.’ Students were taught the ‘Bunny Stance’ (for standing by elegantly), the ‘Bunny Dip’ (for serving drinks), and the ‘Bunny Perch’ (for resting while still appearing available to customers). She witnessed bunnies stuffing their bosoms with tissues, gym socks, cut-up bunny tails, entire dry cleaning bags. Even with tips they rarely earned the promised $200 a week. An internal medical exam was a requirement. Bunnies were only allowed to date ‘Number One’ key-holders, which included Playboy executives and their friends, and indeed Steinem heard that they were sometimes fired if they didn’t. Handsome detectives propositioned girls to test their loyalty to the company. Bunnies could be reported if they had messy hair, ladders in their tights, unmanicured nails, or even failed to laugh appropriately when a comic was performing.

By the early 1970s, Hefner owned a global brand. The magazine sold seven million copies a month – a quarter of all American college-educated men read it. Playboy was even translated into Braille. Hefner bought a skyscraper around the corner from the Mansion, and Playboy Enterprises occupied one-third of the 37-storey building. On the rare occasions Hefner went into what he called ‘the external world’, he had a Bunny on each arm, like crutches. He only ever stayed in Playboy Clubs (they were after all designed to be a home from home), and he travelled between them in Big Bunny, the black DC-9 jumbo jet with the bunny logo on its tail that he bought in 1967 and which set the trend for later playboys, such as Donald Trump. It was a penthouse on wings, furnished in the comforting Playboy-style: it had a dancefloor, screening room, wet bar, sleeping quarters for 16 and an elliptical bed for Hefner covered in Tasmanian opossum skins. The air hostesses were dressed in a black and white uniform of miniskirts and knee-high boots.

In 1971, when filming a new TV show, Playboy after Dark, in Los Angeles, Hefner fell in love with a 21-year-old student, a future Playmate to whom he would give the name Barbi Benton. He was already living with someone in Chicago; so he had another house refurbished in Los Angeles, in which he installed his Barbi, and for four years he shuttled between coasts in Big Bunny. (‘I was literally in love with two women at the same time,’ he said of this new polydomesticity.) Despite Playboy’s love affair with modernism, this six-acre stately home in Holmby Hills, then the most expensive property in Los Angeles, couldn’t be more architecturally conservative. (The now frayed mansion is currently for sale at $200 million, though it comes with one elderly sitting tenant.) To design and landscape his ‘manly paradise’, Hefner chose the neoclassical architects Suzanne and Ron Dirsmith, who had designed the interiors for Big Bunny and for Playboy’s corporate offices, as well as numerous other McMansions. Hefner would eventually settle at Playboy Mansion West, surrounded by nymphs and gophers, as well as America’s biggest private zoo and aviary, saltwater and freshwater aquariums, a 100-by-70-foot pool, and a grotto with whirlpool baths modelled on the caves at Lascaux.

The Mansion Mark II was a gated Neverland and, in its decadence, utterly kitsch. There was no explicitly modern décor. As in Chicago, the LA Mansion served as a backdrop for Playboy shoots, with subscribers offered a peek through the bunny-shaped keyhole. But the magazine, which had always understood the ways architecture heightened desire, never stopped using modernist houses as the setting for the erotic narratives of the Playboy lifestyle. In fact there was now a glut of such postmodern playboy lairs in reality. (This legacy was the subject of the 2012 exhibition Playboy Architecture, 1953-79, which toured internationally.) In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Bond flashes his Playboy Club membership and fights two bikini-clad women in the Elrod House, an eagle’s nest with panoramic windows designed by John Lautner. That same year, Playboy featured the Palm Springs house as the ‘ultimate bachelor pad’, and had articles about futuristic city utopias such as those of Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri.

Preciado makes a convincing case for Hefner’s influence on pop architecture in America: he, along with Victor Gruen, who invented the shopping mall, had an impact ‘far beyond Mies van der Rohe or Philip Johnson’. But by 1988 all the Playboy Clubs in the US had closed, and the magazine had lost its cachet. Playboy didn’t survive the Reagan years, which Hefner called ‘the great repression’, and was overtaken first by Hustler and then by internet porn. Big Bunny was scrapped, and Hefner hunkered down in his mansion to enjoy his Viagra years with a succession of blondes in their twenties, a life documented in his reality TV shows. Last year one of these former Playmates, Holly Madison, published Down the Rabbit Hole, a kiss-and-tell memoir of her cultish life with ‘Hef’. She detailed Hefner’s sexual peccadilloes, the mechanical orgies and the toxic competitiveness between girlfriends (which he apparently encouraged), and his many house rules, such as an insistence on a 9 p.m. curfew for Bunnies. ‘Like beauty locked up in the Beast’s castle,’ Madison writes, ‘I developed my own brand of Stockholm syndrome, identifying with my captor.’ Madison escaped and declared herself a ‘born-again feminist’. Hefner also seems a convert, however unlikely. Recently, in a desperate attempt to keep up with the times and boost flagging sales, he declared that Playboy would stop printing pictures of naked women. (Pamela Anderson performed the swansong in the January 2016 issue.) Without the centrefolds, as Hefner himself once hinted, perhaps all that will be left is a literary, or indeed a design and architecture, magazine.