Mammories of “The Mansion”

By Wally Wharton

“Oooo … Look, Annie!” cooed Hanna in her heavy Czechoslovakian accent. “There’s Bill Cosby!”

And sure enough, there he was, Bill Cosby—drink in hand, tall, cool, and sporting a ruffled, open-necked, red polyester shirt, high-waist, beige bell bottoms, and brown platform shoes—such was the “mode o’day” back in 1977. He was chatting with his host, Hugh Hefner, and had a beautiful brunette on his arm. “He’s a real sexy black guy, don’t you think?”

Everything was always about sex with Hanna. I swear, sometimes I thought she cared more about her love life than she did about becoming a movie star!

“Remember,” I reminded her as she pouted and winked at Cosby from across the Playboy Mansion’s manicured lawn.

“We gotta be at Griffith Park at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning!” Hanna wasn’t listening. She was still making eyes at Cosby, who was returning her gaze. Bill Cosby didn’t even notice li’l ol’ ME! (Hmm … I wonder if I can still sue him after all these years for NOT making a pass at me!)

See, Hanna and I hadn’t quite wrapped our nonunion cheerleader movie, and our call-time was early. But who’s going to refuse an invitation to the infamous Playboy Mansion and all the racy, star-studded action that comes along with it? Not I! Hanna was a frequent visitor to the not-so-humble abode belonging to the mega-famous magazine publisher, and I had to admit, I did feel more than a little thrill at being a part of it. However, my anticipatory fervor was not without trepidations.

“I’m not expected to…do anything I don’t want to do, right?” I’d asked my pal as we wound our way up Charing Cross Road in Hanna’s beat-up, dirty-yellow Plymouth.

“No, of course you don’t do vat you don’t vant to do. But you might change your mind, Annie,” she said suggestively. “Hef is very good lover.” No thanks. The Wearer of the Brown Silk Pajamas looked pretty ancient to this 22 year old. I mean, Hugh Hefner was probably as old as my parents—and that meant he had to be WAY over 40!

My fellow starlet had once been privy to Hugh Hefner without his legendary silk pajamas. When she was 18, Hanna had lived at the Playboy Mansion for three carefree, rent-free months after arriving in Los Angeles from Czechoslovakia via Sweden. She hadn’t been Hef’s main squeeze—he had some official Playboy playmate to fulfill that auspicious position—but she’d definitely been a part of Hugh Hefner’s sorority house atmosphere.

Yes, The Mansion was always well-populated with top-of-the-line, 20-something, show-biz aspirants—all well-proportioned in all the right places and eager to experience the Playboy lifestyle that Hugh Hefner had made infamous. Undoubtedly, these glamour girl occupants were expected to be very free-spirited and sexually experimental—or at least willing to occasionally fake it for Hef’s amusement and for the amusement of his celebrity friends and out-of-town business associates.

But, unfortunately for Hanna, she was evicted from the Playboy paradise rather unceremoniously. She’d committed Hugh Hefner’s Cardinal Sin: She had posed for Hef’s big rival, Bob Guccione and his publication, Penthouse magazine. Hanna hadn’t even known it at the time. She’d simply been hired to pose for a professional freelance photographer—a photographer who then turned around and sold her nude pictures to Penthouse for publication, thus sealing my friend’s “fate.”

Nevertheless, despite having to pack up her bikini bottoms and move, Hanna did remain on cordial terms with Hef and had been granted an open invitation for all parties held at the Playboy Mansion in perpetuity. Plus, she was welcome to stop by for dinner and a swim any night of the week. And she was always encouraged to bring along a friend, as long as that friend was also an attractive young female.

It was in the context of one of these informal dinners that I first met Hugh Hefner and his curvaceous houseguests. Pipe in hand, the man who had legitimized the skin mag and who had pioneered the exploitation of the Girl Next Door into an empire, came down the dark, square, Renaissance-inspired wooden staircase, greeting Hanna and myself in a friendly but rather subdued manner. This was the long-haired Hef of the 1970’s. After a few minutes of small talk, I introduced myself as another one of producer Bill Osco’s 40-dollars-a-day cheerleaders.

“Never made the team in high school—now I’m getting paid for my pom-poms!”

Hef laughed and gestured toward the dining room and encouraged us to enjoy a hearty meal and a swim. Then the Breeder of the Playboy bunny went back up the stairs and retreated into his private quarters.

A long, white-linened dining table was occupied by about seven other sexy stunners. Hanna knew all of them and introduced us to each other excitedly. A couple of the girls did look vaguely familiar. One of them was an up-and-coming actress named Colleen Camp, who’d made a number of low-budget films and was starting to graduate to more union work. Another girl was an actress and former Playboy centerfold named Rosanne Katon; she had a cute, piquant face and freckles. The rest of the girls were all classic Playboy fare: blonde. And I guess you could say Hanna and I were added to “the blonde pool.”

Dinner was served by two very handsome, young guys. Later, Hanna explained that Hef employed these very handsome young guys as his waiters deliberately. He was actually testing his women’s loyalty by “dangling Temptation” right in front of their adorable turned-up noses. And, yes, once or twice the temptation had proved too great, and Waiter and Playmate had abandoned Hugh Hefner’s Hotel California to test the strange, foreign waters of monogamy.

Another form of temptation was Hef’s 24-hour kitchen, which was constantly stocked with exotic gourmet delights and down-home, homemade goodies. (The giant chocolate chip cookies were especially delicious!) Hanna admitted she’d gained 20 pounds during her 90-day stay at The Mansion, despite having the huge grotto to do laps in and the extensive weight room/workout room right there on the premises.

It was customary for Hef’s female dinner guests to spend some time frolicking in “The Grotto,” that infamous manmade lagoon painted black on the bottom and surrounded by rocks that transformed this average Bel Air swimming hole into an exotic cove visually reminiscent of South Sea retreats. The Grotto was clothing optional, which meant none of us bathing beauties ever wore bathing suits. The highlight of the Grotto was its lovely secluded Jacuzzi that truly emulated a hidden cave, complete with a little waterfall, perpetually spilling its recirculated well-chlorined water.

It was on one such skin-soaked evening that Hanna and I encountered actress and former Seventeen magazine supermodel Susan Blakely relaxing in the enormous gurgling hot tub and singing the praises of her brand-new breast augmentation. From my vantage point, they looked terrific, floating dutifully atop the bluish foam and moving correctly with her every move—just like the real things! Other girls relaxing on the Jacuzzi jets ooed and aahed appropriately and made their approval of Susan Blakely’s smart set very well-known.

“They look fantastic!” said one blonde in a frizzy disco perm. “And they look totally REAL!”

“Go ahead,” said Ms. Blakely, giving one of her new breasts a squeeze. “Feel for yourself.” The frizzy blonde complied.

“Wow. Who did `em?”

“Dr. Steinberg. He’s the best. Staff is great too.” Then she turned to me. “Here. Feel,” she said casually.

But my middle-class morals got the best of me, and I declined her generous gesture.

“I-I’ll take your word for it,” I giggled, uneasily. Susan Blakely shrugged and offered her new breast to somebody else. “Here. Feel.”

Immediately I regretted my reluctance. DAMMIT! Why didn’t I give that thing a good squeeze? Then I could’ve claimed the magic of that moment for all my born days! But what could I do? Nothing. The opportunity had passed. I couldn’t very well reach out now and say, “Uh, on second thought, Ms. Blakely…”

Then came the big party for Hugh Hefner’s Chicago cronies. Remember, his magazine’s headquarters were still in Chicago back then, despite his occupation of the Playboy building on the Sunset Strip. That was just Playboy’s West Coast office.

But Hef’s Chicago guests were awful. Rude, grabby, loud, and WAY too anxious for female contact. Hefner seemed unfazed by these crude out-of-towners, and I felt he’d left all us ladies in the lurch to fend for ourselves. So when one fat slob tried to throw me down on a slant board in the workout room, I hightailed it back out to the hors d’oeuvres, cringing in disgust.

“Whew!” I muttered to Hanna. “That was a close call!” Hanna laughed. After all, as gorgeous as she was, she still had an infallible defense for warding off unwanted attention: She’d simply start speaking in Czechoslovakian and pretend she didn’t understand whatever the guy was saying!

“Hey, there’s only two girls in the Jacuzzi!” shouted some inebriated lout, loosening his tie and downing his drink.

“What’s the matter?” I sneered tauntingly. “Can’t ya function without a crowd?” His buddies roared, but, evidently, Hugh Hefner was not amused.

As we drove out of The Mansion’s metal gates and back down Charing Cross Road in the wee hours, Hanna delivered the bad news: “Annie. Hef doesn’t vant you to come to The Mansion anymore.”

“But that guy was such a jerk!”

“Hef says you ver rude to his guest, so you can’t come back.”

My days at the Playboy Mansion were over. Or so I thought.

Cut to the spring of 1994. I was working as a magazine writer and was writing two columns for LFP: Larry Flynt Publications. Flint was celebrating 20 years of Hustler magazine, and Hugh Hefner had decided to throw a big anniversary bash for Flynt’s entire company. So once again I was fated to enter the hallowed gates of the Playboy Mansion.

A lot had happened during the 17 years since I’d been banned from “Bunny Land,” but I’d still found myself tangentially connected to Playboy Enterprises from time to time. My picture had appeared in the magazine twice, and two of the comedy-improv troupes I’d belonged to in the 1980’s had extended engagements at the Playboy Club in Century City.

This time it was going to be different. I wasn’t going to The Mansion to add to the multiple mammaries. I was now a viable contributor to the same publication world to which Hugh Hefner belonged.

I wore a suit…a sexy suit, but a suit nonetheless.

The elegantly lit Playboy Mansion looked smaller than I remembered it back in ’77. (And Hef’s new valet parking service was essential. You couldn’t just park on the streets of Bel Air anymore without a parking permit!)

As expected, my boss Larry Flynt was wheeling around in his solid gold wheelchair, guided by his nurse, Liz (whom he later wed) and visiting with our magnanimous host, Hugh Hefner. Hef still sported the same brown silk PJ’s, but gone were the long-haired locks as well as the pipe.

A sea-change had taken place in the girlie mag world. Back in the 1970’s, Larry Flint had been regarded as one of Hugh Hefner’s competitors, forcing Hef to go one step further by photographing the nude female body in its entirety, although never abandoning his signature obsession with secondary sex organs.

But it was obvious that Hustler magazine had taken plenty of cues from Playboy’s successful formula in its inclusion of thought-provoking articles by major writers and also celebrity interviews, note-worthy fiction, and risqué cartoons. Granted, there were still distinctions between the layouts featured in the respective monthly periodicals, but The World had long concluded that there was plenty of room on the proverbial magazine rack for both. It was simply a matter of taste.

My editors from Chic and Hustler’s Video Guide were there as well as many luminaries in the adult industry on whom I now regularly reported and critiqued. But the BIGGEST thrill of the evening by far was the presence of a genuine superstar of the silver screen: TONY CURTIS! Odd thing was, the Oscar nominee wasn’t at The Mansion on his own accord. Curtis was there because he was dating a PORN STAR: Danielle Cheeks (from the Fine Old Cheeks Family of Las Vegas, natch)!

After a glass or two of champagne, I’d worked up enough moxie to reintroduce myself to Mr. Hefner and thank him for hosting the party. I was also gonna try to mention that he once threw me out of The Mansion 17 years prior. Why not? It might be good for a chuckle. Maybe.

And it was. Then I asked Hef if he remembered Hanna. He said he did not.

The last time I encountered Hugh Hefner was at a rather somber event in December of 2008. We were both attending the funeral of the Queen of Pinups herself, the immortal Bettie Page. Ironically, this memorial service was held at the Westwood Cemetery—where the remains of the founder of the Playboy empire rests today.

Mr. Crystal Cathedral himself—Rev. Robert A. Schuller—had come out of retirement to deliver the eulogy for the most iconic member of his flock. This was both a very Christian and a very star-studded event. I immediately spotted Renee Zellweger, other A-list actresses and Hollywood mogul-types sitting wistfully amid the many members of the Page family. We were all paying quiet homage to the girl who built an entire career upon her unique visual blend of sadomasochism and Good, Clean, Fun.

Hef was accompanied by his well-publicized Three Blonde Triplets. This was 2008, the apex of the reality TV craze. I’d only caught glimpses of their show. The girls had the collective brainpower of a paramecium, and their forced exchanges with the Aging Auteur were pathetic at best. After about 30 seconds I’d invariably shake my head and hit the remote.

As we mourners strolled out to the burial grounds where Bettie Page would soon be plunged into the earth for All Eternity, I caught up with a pensive Hugh Hefner, now appropriately attired in a sleek black suit. Undaunted, I broke through the trio of his black-mini-skirted body guards and reintroduced myself to Hef once more.

“Hello, Mr. Hefner,” I chirped with a friendly-but-reverent air. “Wonderful to see you paying respects to the great Bettie Page. I’ll be making a report on the Doug McIntyre Show on KABC tomorrow morning. Anything you’d like to say?”

“Bettie Page was a beautiful woman.”

“She certainly was, Mr. Hefner. She certainly was.”

As Bettie Page’s rosewood casket hydraulically lowered itself into the damp, clean soil (“Asses to ashes, Bust to dust”), I spied Hef’s “triplets” repeatedly losing their balance while unintentionally irrigating the Westwood Cemetery lawn with their five-inch platform pumps.

“Ooops!” “Ouch!” “WTF?”

I tried my best to not laugh. After all, in our American culture, humor, sex, and death still do not mix.

Here’s to you, Hugh Hefner—for a little bit of each!

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