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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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The jazz and blues singer Ernestine Anderson (center), clad in hip-hop regalia, serenades a pair of Bunnies at the Playboy Club in 1962
The jazz and blues singer Ernestine Anderson (center), clad in hip-hop regalia, serenades a pair of Bunnies at the Playboy Club in 1962 Photo Gallery »

By the late 1960s and early ’70s, Playboy had reached its zenith. Hefner was a worldwide celebrity and Chicago, at least to some, shone in the reflective glow. The company now boasted “seventeen Playboy clubs, three gambling casinos, four large resort hotels, two movie theaters, a book division, a film division, a record company, modeling and limousine agencies, and dozens of merchandise items emblazed with the Bunny logo,” according to Mr. Playboy. Air travelers at O’Hare would occasionally glance out their windows to see the Big Bunny, a $4.5-million gleaming black converted DC-9 airliner, taxi by. In 1969, the magazine held a National Playboy Bunny Recruitment Day, during which nearly 400 female hopefuls (“in wild-pattern tights,” according to the Tribune) clashed with half a dozen members of Women’s Liberation shouting, “Sisters, know your enemy!”

The party seemed to be in full swing, but the first whispers of last call had begun to sound. Hefner was already splitting time between Chicago and Los Angeles—partly because of his new television show, Playboy After Dark, which was taped in Los Angeles, and partly because of a woman he had fallen in love with: Barbi Benton. An 18-year-old UCLA coed who was an occasional extra on the show, she found the estate that would become Playboy Mansion West, and she refused to put up with Hefner’s cheating on her with a Playmate living at the Chicago mansion, a blond Texas beauty named Karen Christy.

* * *

The love triangle caused problems, but it was more than Hefner’s desire to appease Benton that drove him from Chicago for good. Rather, it was a young U.S. attorney with designs on a different sort of mansion—the one where the Illinois governor lived. James Thompson, then a highly respected corruption fighter, led a prosecutor’s office that had set its investigative sights on Chicago’s most notorious party.

A Tribune headline heralded the beginning of the end on December 8, 1974: “Federal drug probers zeroing in on Hefner.” The publisher, the story said, “has emerged as a prime target of a federal narcotics investigation . . . that centers on suspected illicit drug activities inside Hefner’s Playboy mansions in Chicago and Los Angeles.”

At the heart of the probe was a woman named Bobbie Arnstein. Her title was social secretary, but she was much more to Hefner. Once a romantic interest, Arnstein—lovely, funny, tough, troubled—had since become one of Hefner’s closest friends and aides, as well as a beloved member of the Playboy family. For two years, ever since her boyfriend had been arrested on a charge of smuggling cocaine from Miami to Chicago, the feds had been after her to lead them to the ultimate recipient of the drugs.

Evidence would eventually indicate that it wasn’t Hefner. In fact, other than tolerating some pot smoking, he was generally known to be opposed to drugs, particularly cocaine, and to discourage their use at the mansion. Arnstein refused to cooperate. Then, in March 1974, she was arrested and charged with participating in the smuggling case.

Though questions swirled about the testimony of her chief accuser—the Miami cocaine supplier testifying under a grant of immunity—Arnstein was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Despite its being her first offense, Judge Bernard M. Decker slapped her with the maximum prison term of 15 years—with a catch. Decker indicated that he might significantly reduce the sentence pending a study of certain psychiatric and medical problems.

Arnstein’s defenders said the “provisional” sentence was a coercive ploy to give prosecutors a hammer to pressure her into implicating Hefner, a view echoed by the New York Times columnist William Safire. “What clearer invitation to perjury can there be than such a ‘provisional sentence?’” he wrote. “It is one thing to give a cooperative witness a break, entirely another to threaten to let a defendant rot in the slammer until he or she tells the story the prosecution wants.”

Ploy or no, Arnstein continued in her refusal to implicate Hefner, saying he was not, and never had been, involved with drugs.

On January 11, 1975, out on bail pending an appeal, Arnstein checked into what was then the Hotel Maryland on Rush Street after dinner with friends. She was found the next day—dead of an overdose of barbiturates. In her hotel room, she had left behind a suicide note in which she maintained her innocence and defended her boss. “Hugh M. Hefner is—though few will ever realize it—a staunchly upright, rigorously moral man. . . . [H]e has never been involved in any criminal activity which is being attributed to him now.”

Hefner, in Los Angeles when he received word, flew the next day to Chicago, writing out a statement in longhand en route aboard the Big Bunny. Against the advice of his attorneys, he called a press conference at the Chicago mansion. Haggard and trembling, Hefner told the television and newspaper reporters gathered in the ballroom, “Excuse me if I look a bit harried. I’m quite upset.” He accused investigators of, in effect, murdering Arnstein in an effort to get him. The drug probe, he charged, was “a politically motivated, anti-Playboy witch hunt.”

Thompson did not himself prosecute the Arnstein case, but as the head U.S. attorney here, he became the public face of the controversy. He branded Hefner’s “witch hunt” charges ridiculous, saying in an interview, “I don’t want to debate the guy because he’s off the wall.”

Today, Hefner continues to believe that the feds were out to get him, and Thompson continues to dismiss the notion. “There wasn’t the slightest possibility that we would have been after Hefner,” Thompson told me. “His lifestyle, whatever it was, was irrelevant to me, to the office, to anybody else. We just followed whatever evidence we had and wherever it led us.”

A few months after the suicide, Thompson resigned as U.S. attorney to run for governor, an office he would hold for four terms. The drug investigation of Playboy continued for a few more months, then fell apart and was officially dropped.

The damage, however, was done. Arnstein was dead. Hefner was devastated and disillusioned. The magazine staff was demoralized. “It was awful,” recalls Standish. “There was a pall over the whole office, just this leaden atmosphere. Our feeling at the time was that Thompson was just out to get Hefner to make a reputation for himself and that poor Bobbie Arnstein just got caught in the middle. It was a gloomy time, and a paranoid time, because we all thought they were out to get all of us.”

To Gonzales, the Arnstein case signaled, in some ways, the death of an era. “There had been this atmosphere that we were at an extended party that nothing could touch,” he says. “This came as a real shock that changed everything. There was a sense of reality creeping in.”

At the time of Arnstein’s death, Hefner had all but moved permanently to Los Angeles. “Things were very different here from Chicago,” Hefner says. “Tom Bradley, the [Los Angeles] mayor, attended the opening of the Playboy Club and was a frequent guest at the parties and so was Jerry Brown, the [California] governor.” Arnstein’s suicide, however, and Karen Christy’s decision to return to Texas, decided matters for Hefner. “After she died, there really wasn’t a lot of reason for going back,” he told me, in the library at the Los Angeles mansion. “There really wasn’t anything left for me there.”

Over the next few years, Playboy’s presence in Chicago vanished, piece by piece, building by building. In 1976, the Playboy Theater was bought and renamed. The Playboy resort in Lake Geneva was sold in 1981 after years of mounting losses; in 1976, the Playboy Towers Hotel became simply the Towers Hotel. In 1989, a Dallas-based commercial real-estate company bought the Playboy Building and removed the nine-foot-high Playboy lettering that had once dominated the Magnificent Mile skyline.

Chicago’s Playboy Club, which had moved twice since its spectacular opening, hung on at Clark and Armitage until 1986, a shadow of the sensation it had once been. Soon, the few remaining Playboy Clubs around the country closed down, too.

For Patti Reynolds, a businesswoman who stayed in Chicago, the city would never be the same. “I think it changed Chicago,” she says. “You didn’t have that excitement when you came down to the Rush Street area, where you could turn around and bump into Hef, or go into places like Mister Kelly’s and there’d be a Playmate and a couple of Bunnies.”

The fate of the mansion would provide the most curious epilogue. In the mid-seventies, with the magazine’s circulation sliding and Playboy Enterprises struggling amid a recession, Lownes, Hefner’s old right-hand man, was summoned back from England, where he had made himself—and Playboy—a fortune running a Playboy Club and casino. He slashed the payroll, and began looking for other places to cut. The Big Bunny jet was first on the chopping block (it was sold to Venezuelan Airlines for $4.2 million). Next would be the mansion, Lownes told the Tribune on July 28, 1975. Hefner had been there only three weeks in the previous year.

After the story came out, Hefner balked and Lownes sheepishly announced that he had misspoken. But the reality was undeniable. Hefner was gone. The mansion, now tended by a skeleton staff, was finished. The party was over.

The mansion wheezed along on life support, opened for occasional charity benefits and business functions. The last real bash there was in 1978, when Hefner returned for Playboy’s 25th anniversary. For one night, the place recaptured its old glory, attracting celebrities, Playmates, doctors, aldermen, business executives, and models. A couple even swam in the pool—“two fully suited women and a man wearing goggles who made faces in the window of the underwater bar,” according to the Tribune.

As the years passed, Playboy executives struggled with what to do with the place; there was even talk of turning it into a mayor’s mansion. Then, in August 1984, with Hefner’s daughter, Christie, now at Playboy’s helm, the property was leased to the School of the Art Institute, where Hefner had once taken figure-drawing classes. Charged a token $10 a year for five years, the school named the place Hefner Hall, and it turned the former Bunny dorms into sleeping quarters. Students sometimes took impromptu—and unauthorized—tours of the place, astonished to find that the pool, and its grotto bar, though drained, were still there, as was the bowling alley, where a gold bowling ball bearing the inscription “Hef” remained.

Because of the high maintenance costs, however, the school eventually abandoned the property and sold the mansion to a developer in 1993. By 1999, the pool, grotto bar, and bowling alley had all been removed and the building was fully renovated and turned into condos. The only undisturbed remnant of the glory days was the ballroom. It was too beautiful not to keep, the developer decided.

* * *

The party did not stop for Hefner, of course. If anything, the Los Angeles mansion and the parties there have outshone the Chicago originals. In the years immediately after he moved to L.A. permanently, he seemed determined to bury all memories of his Chicago days under a blizzard of sexual pleasures. Soon enough, a new set of tales, scandals, and legends grew up, and within a few years, it was as if the glory days in Chicago were nothing more than some distant, quaint fantasy. As with the endless string of beauties he had wooed, loved, and eventually drifted apart from, Hefner had left the mansion behind.

Now, the empire he created is faltering. In May, the company projected steep drops in ad revenue and posted a first-quarter net loss of more than $13 million. Jerome Kern, the interim chairman and chief executive, announced that “radical changes” were in the works to make the magazine “younger and fresher.” Circulation will be cut and the magazine will be published fewer times a year. At presstime, there were reports that Playboy Enterprises itself—of which Hefner controls 70 percent of the voting stock—was up for sale.

The last constant, it seems, is the man sitting across from me on the shiny striped couch next to the glazed ceramic Barbi Benton bust, searching for the words to describe his feelings toward Chicago, and toward that time of his life. “Mixed emotions,” he says. “It was the good, the bad, and the ugly. You love the good parts about Chicago. It was the city that worked, but it was also corrupt.”

He falls silent for a moment. The room is hushed, the only sound the mournful screech of the peacocks that strut across the lawn. When he speaks again, his voice softens. “It was a magical place, a magical time,” he says. “It’s where the boy grew up and dreamed the dreams. I loved the boy and I loved the dreams.” And he loved the home, he says, the old flame he left behind but never quite forgot, the building that is beautiful still all these years later, though hardly anyone stops to look.


Photograph: Isaac Sutton/Associated Press


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