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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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A distraught and disheveled Hefner reacts to the 1975 suicide of his friend and aide Bobbie Arnstein, which occurred during a drug investigation that circled around Playboy
A distraught and disheveled Hefner reacts to the 1975 suicide of his friend and aide Bobbie Arnstein, which occurred during a drug investigation that circled around Playboy Photo Gallery »

Beneath the fun-and-games veneer lay a more complicated reality. Many of the women chosen to be Bunnies or Playmates came from small towns and less-than-scintillating jobs as secretaries or shop girls. Suddenly, they were living in the most famous private residence in America, attending celebrity-studded parties, living with a staff of butlers at their disposal. By day, they either slept or shopped or sunned on a rooftop deck (much to the delight or indignation of guests at the nearby Ambassador Hotel). By night they worked in the hottest club in town.

The women I talked to said they enjoyed their time at the mansion and were grateful to Hefner for welcoming them into a glamorous—and lucrative—world they would otherwise have never known. Many describe him as an avuncular figure, who was deeply loyal and who seemed to care about their well-being. Chandler, for instance, once confessed to Hefner that she was having financial troubles. “He called a guy over and said, ‘Bring me the checkbook,’ and he wrote a check to me for five grand. He told me, ‘You’ll pay it back—I know you will.’ And I did, every cent.”

On the other hand, the women of the mansion faced limits, hierarchies, and an unabashed male culture. The Bunny dorm, for example, had rules: no boyfriends in the house, no pets. Coming in at all hours was discouraged. Bunnies were not allowed to date their customers or their managers. There was a pecking order: Playmates were given their own apartments, while Bunnies lived four to a room.

More to the point, men ruled the hutch. Hefner could sleep with whomever he wanted, while the women were expected to remain loyal. “It was guilt-free for him,” says Joyce Nizzari, who was Playmate of the Month for December 1958, and had a brief fling with Hefner. “I remember being absolutely crushed when I found out Hef was seeing other women. But when I began to see other men, he couldn’t accept that. He would tell you it breaks his heart and that the romance is pretty much over.” Painful as such things were, says Nizzari, they were simply rules one didn’t question—not if you wanted to remain in Hefner’s orbit. (She has stayed friends with Hefner and currently works as an assistant at the L.A. mansion.)

A double standard also applied to Hefner’s close friends who either worked or played at the Playboy Club. Specifically, the no-fraternization rules didn’t apply; Lownes, for example, dated numerous Bunnies. The Bunnies weren’t obligated to sleep with Hefner’s pals, but some say they felt pressured. A Bunny named Pearl Bey Price, for example, quit after months of passes by one of the senior managers at the club. “He fired me again and again,” she said in The Bunny Years, a collection of where-are-they-now stories. “But each time Arnie Morton (one of the original partners) would ask me to come back, promising he would speak to [the manager] about leaving me alone.” Price said she became so fed up that one day she changed out of her Bunny outfit, found the manager, and flung the costume in his face. “You’re always trying to get in my pants,” she recalled saying, before quitting for good. “Here’s your chance. Have a ball!”

At the mansion, women could draw the line, but most wanted to join the fun. “I was never expected to do anything untoward,” says Marilyn Cole, Playboy’s first full frontal nude Playmate and Lownes’s wife since 1984. “But I [enjoyed] behaving in a certain way and I did. I think the thigh-length boots and hot pants confirmed that.”

Patti Reynolds caught on the hard way. “I kind of kept to myself at first—I would come home from work and go right up to my room—and I noticed I wasn’t getting invited to any parties,” she says. “So I asked Hef what was going on and he said, ‘We don’t ring if you don’t swing, Patti. You read the sign.’”


Photography: (Top Left) Bettmann/Corbis, (Top Right) Roy Hall/Chicago Tribune


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