The Big Party
FROM JULY 2009: After launching the Playboy empire here in the 1950s, Hugh Hefner turned Chicago into a frontline of the sexual revolution, acting out his sybaritic fantasy life behind the walls of his mansion on North State Parkway. But as the freewheeling sixties gave way to the decadent seventies, things changed drastically for Hefner and the Gold Coast mansion he called home
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If wangling an invitation could be hard for a Bunny, for ordinary folks a mansion party was “about as easy to get into as the gold vault at Fort Knox,” according to one columnist of the day. “It was the place people wanted to stay, wanted to party,” says Hefner.
The glittering, Gatsbyesque affairs drew hundreds of guests, including writers, artists, intellectuals, political figures, movie stars, sports figures, models, literary lions—not to mention, of course, a bevy of Bunnies and Playmates. The sights ranged from the curious to the bizarre, the shocking to the silly. A Washington Post article from 1971 marveled: “There was the noted oracle Max Lerner, cautiously twisting with a blonde chick on the parquet floor . . . in an absolute sybaritic atmosphere of eye-searing flashbulbs and shattering rock music, packed throngs of shouting people, smoke and 100-degree heat.” Harold Ramis, who edited the magazine’s “Playboy Party Jokes” column from 1968 to 1970, recalls a 1969 event at which he encountered the cast of the musical Hair splashing nude in the pool and singing “Let the Sunshine In.”
Over the years, a rich and deep mythology has grown up around the parties. Some claim they were sexless affairs as tame as an office picnic. Frank Brady, for example, a former editor and the author of an unauthorized biography of Hefner, writes that at the more than 100 parties he attended, he rarely saw anything remotely close to the freewheeling frolics of popular lore. Steve Byer, a former Playboy marketing director who wrote a searing tell-all about his years at the magazine, described the parties as “screamingly dull.”
Others, however, say the mansion more than lived up to its reputation. “All the rumors you hear about Playboy—they’re true, all of them,” says Laurence Gonzales, an editor and writer with the magazine from 1972 to 1978. “It wasn’t quite Roman in its quality, but it was pretty close.”
Reg Potterton, a writer for Playboy, recalls, “Lots of screwing went on in the Underwater Bar and in the Game Room, on the pool table and under the pool table. There really wasn’t much to do in the house except to do that.”
Hefner says that the level of action depended on who you were, what the function was, and the era in which you attended. “Certainly in the 1960s in Chicago, there was no public sex,” Hefner says. “There was sex going on down in the underwater bar. There was certainly sex going on in the bedroom,” but visions of naked revelers writhing around the mansion were pure fantasy.
There was one notable exception. The 1972 visit by the Rolling Stones was not a party, but a four-day, drug-drenched bender that fulfilled the most fevered imaginings of what went on behind the mansion’s closed doors. From it emerged tales of orgies in the Roman Bath, sex under the grand piano, burned furniture, ravaged rooms, and deflowered virgins. “When the maids cleaned up there were needles all over the goddamn place,” recalled Hefner friend John Dante in Inside the Playboy Mansion. Among the more memorable moments, Hefner would later recall, was a Bunny’s abrupt admission to Mick Jagger that “I want to bite your ass.” Jagger, in a legendary rejoinder, said, “Have at it, luv.”
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Ten blocks—in some ways, a world—away, the editorial staff of Playboy was putting out a magazine that had gone from a 70,000-issue upstart to a circulation behemoth. By its tenth birthday, celebrated in January 1964, magazine sales had reached 2.4 million. In the next four years, circulation would soar to 5 million. By 1972, it would reach its height—an astonishing 7.2 million. Advertising, and money, gushed in.
From the mansion, Hefner, a workaholic who took an almost obsessively hands-on approach to Playboy, issued infamous memos, Brobdingnagian in size, from his bedroom office. For a time, in fact, while he was writing the “Playboy Philosophy”—a multi-part exegesis in the magazine—Hefner became a virtual hermit. He rarely ventured out, working days without sleep fueled on dozens of bottles of Pepsi a day and a Dexedrine addiction that would nearly kill him. (“He became a 24-hour person,” recalls Lownes, who introduced Hefner to the drug, “writing pages and pages of memos. The joke became you had to take a Dexedrine to read them.”) Editors and executives came to dread marathon meetings at the mansion, which would sometimes stretch deep into the night, usually because Hefner was obsessing over some minor detail, a photo caption, some seemingly innocuous wording.
Still, even the office had its share of glamour and sex. “We had all these famous people coming through,” says David Standish, who was hired as an editor in 1967 and now teaches journalism at Northwestern University. “You’d walk in the office one day and there’s Timothy Leary standing there with his arctic blue eyes staring holes in you. The next day, there was Carl Sagan. As a literary person, I got to have dinner with Norman Mailer, who did a piece in the early seventies on Muhammad Ali for us.”
In 1967, when the magazine moved to ten floors of the Palmolive Building at 919 North Michigan Avenue, the setting seemed almost to encourage the sex. “You walk into this building and it looks like the set for a pornographic Star Trek movie,” recalls Gonzales. “The hallways were kind of curving and the surfaces had been covered with a kind of textured ivory-colored plaster. There were little grottoes with sculptures in them and the lighting was very indirect, so you had this sense of kind of being in a cave.”
“The best sex I ever had was in one of those offices,” says James Petersen, who was the longtime Playboy sex advisor. “Occasionally, we would get phone calls from the Westin hotel because there was an art director at Oui magazine [a short-lived Playboy spinoff] who liked to cavort with his models in his office without closing the windows. I just assumed everybody slept with everybody.”
The good news was that the money kept rolling in, fueling the extravagances. Gonzales experienced the magazine’s penchant for excess from his first day on the job: “They gave me this office with a raw silk love seat in it and an Italian marble desk,” he recalls. “And my secretary, who was this vivacious redhead, came in and said, ‘Do you need anything?’ I said, ‘Some pencils and a pencil sharpener would be fine.’ The next day there was this mahogany pedestal next to my Italian marble desk, with an electric pencil sharpener that looked like it had been designed by NASA. On my desk was a piece of pottery that had a bunch of number 2 pencils.”
“Nothing was too much,” says Barbara Nellis, who worked her way up from the marketing department to a senior editor. “There was no trip that couldn’t be taken, no fiction that couldn’t be bought, no event that couldn’t occur. They were just swimming in money.”
Photograph: Courtesy of PLAYBOY Magazine © by Playboy