LOS ANGELES — It is time to confess something I did as a teenage mail handler in the late 1960s, when Playboy reigned supreme, its rabbit-head logo stamped on a voluptuary empire of publishing, television, restaurants and bunnies.
Each month, I would intercept a half-dozen copies of Playboy magazine at a busy Los Angeles post office, slip them out of their plain brown wrappers and set them aside. Postal workers with a free moment would pass the magazines across the desks and cancellation machines. Then they carefully tucked the issues back into their wrappers and sent them on to their rightful subscribers.
Occasionally, complaints cropped up in Playboy’s letters-to-the-editor column: Some prankster at the post office had put a postage-due stamp across the Playmate of the Month’s breasts.
Though tempted, I never did that — I had too much respect for the magazine. I had read Playboy since I was 13, thanks in large part to a crusty old newsstand operator who would willingly sell a copy to any kid who had the 75 cents to pay for it.
I knew about Hugh Hefner. Who didn’t? Depending on your perspective, Hefner — who died this week at age 91 — either launched the sexual revolution or set women’s rights back by half a century. Or both. But in the pages of Playboy, he seemed impossibly cool, with his pipe and silk pajamas and the apparent ability to attract all the most beautiful women in the world, first to his Chicago mansion and then to a spectacular castle in the tony Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles.
Even if generations retold the joke that they read Playboy for the articles, Hefner was serious about words. In the pages of Playboy, I discovered the works of writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, after perusing the photos, of course. Years later, I got to tell Bradbury that I came across one of his greatest short stories, “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair,” in Playboy. He said he had a special affection for the magazine, which serialized his breakthrough novel “Farenheit 451” soon after it was founded.
Author Gay Talese might have described Playboy best in 2015 when he said it was “the first magazine in the mainstream that could both be called a literary magazine and a magazine for masturbation.”
I twice encountered Hefner, the first time nearly 20 years after sorting those magazines. In 1988, he called a news conference to announce he was countersuing a woman who had sued him for palimony. To get there, I traveled up along the turreted, Tudor-style mansion’s long driveway to a big fountain, careful to obey the sign that read “Drive Slowly, Playmates at Play.”
Hefner was nearly 62. But minus the pipe and trading his pajamas for a leisure suit, he looked pretty much like the guy in the magazine. M&M candies, said to be his favorite, were in bowls everywhere, and reporters were encouraged to indulge. The man whose magazine offered definitive advice on scotch and other whiskeys, had his favorite beverage in hand, a Pepsi.
He angrily claimed it was his former lover and not he who had cheated relentlessly during their relationship, which sounded kind of odd coming from a guy who had boasted of bedding more than a thousand women. Friends tried to warn him about her, he said, “but I just saw what I wanted to see.”
Then, regaining the old Hef spirit, he added, “I want you to meet my new lady,” and introduced a woman I described in a subsequent story as a “tall, beautiful blonde model.” An editor cut out the word beautiful; in retrospect, it probably was redundant, this being Hefner.
She was Kimberly Conrad, soon to become Hefner’s second wife and later mother of his youngest sons, Cooper and Marston. Asked her age, she replied with some embarrassment, “I’m 24. But I’m almost 25.”
I didn’t see the man for almost 20 years. In 2006, after Hefner announced a particularly stellar lineup for that year’s annual Playboy Jazz Festival, I drove again to the mansion for another news conference. The “Playmates at Play” sign was back after being replaced for a time with one that read “Children at Play.” Hefner’s sons’ games and sports gear were visible through the upstairs windows.
Hefner himself had planned to introduce jazz great George Duke and others, then duck back into the seclusion of the mansion while people mingled in the backyard, which included among other amenities a small creek, waterfall, pool and a tennis court. Buttonholed at his backdoor, however, he agreed to talk — if the subject was jazz.
“It’s the music of my youth. It’s the music I grew up with. It’s the music of my dreams,” he said, wistfully.
He argued briefly and politely that there was nothing strange about inviting rocker Elvis Costello to that year’s jazz show, noting the form has drawn from many musical cultures over the years.
“It’s a combination of music from many, many sources, a combination of Afro and Caribbean and Cuban sounds … mixed in with particularly American sounds,” he said, adding, “And I’m in favor of anything that breaks down walls.”
Sipping a Pepsi on the rocks, his face now deeply lined and his hair white and thinning, he mused about turning 80 in a few weeks and all the events that had happened to him since he borrowed $1,000 from his mother in 1953 and put together the first edition of Playboy from his kitchen table. It featured a famously naked Marilyn Monroe.
He could hardly believe that so many years had passed since then, he said.
Then, he smiled.
“When you’re having fun,” he said, “time flies.”