When I see the news blurb that Hugh Hefner is selling one of his mansions, I feel a rush of panic. I’m not concerned about the health of Playboy, an empire about which I have mixed feelings. My concern is personal. As an LA native, through the years I’ve seen my past erased, sometimes slowly, sometimes with the abruptness of thievery in the night. And now I fear that the Playboy mansion, the majestic estate in Holmby Hills, is up for sale.
In third grade I was extremely popular with the boys, presumably due to my tomboy demeanor, how I slid into the boys’ games at recess like I was one of them nearly indistinguishable with my short haircut and athletic skill. With this strong schoolyard bond, it was natural that afternoon play moved to my home.
I don’t remember when I came up with the idea of sharing the Playboy magazines in my parents’ bedroom with my friends, magazines not hidden in covert places but out there in the open filling the antique wood magazine rack at the foot of the bed. No shame there. My dad worked for the company.
Determined to use my dad’s job to my advantage and elevate my cool friend status, one day I nudged a male friend towards the stash, and from that moment on my carefree afternoons turned into a time-lapse movie sequence where boy after boy came to my home and disappeared into the magazines, ogling one playmate after the next as I sat bored on the end of my parents’ bed aware that my plan for securing friends had been misguided.
When my parents separated, the Playboy Mansion became a regular destination for my Saturdays with Dad. As a producer for Playboy Productions, a film division responsible for Roman Polanski’s acclaimed Macbeth as well as the unfortunate hiccup, The Naked Ape, starring the darling child from The Rifleman, Johnny Crawford, as a grown up, my father had become good buddies with Hef and had open access to his home, as did a lengthy list of Hollywood celebrities and sports stars.
“We can play at Hef’s,” my dad said, referring to a game of tennis. I’d first walked onto a court five years earlier at age seven, a court in our own backyard. Sports were a strong bond between me and my dad, for we were the two athletes in the family. But since my parents’ marriage ended and the house was sold, our tennis matches needed a new home.
So off we went, snaking through Holmby Hills in my dad’s convertible Caddy, a boat of a car, so very 1970s. At the guard gate, my dad turned his head to the small speaker box, announced his name, and I watched the wrought iron gates part to allow our entry. Keys to the kingdom, indeed.
We parked the car in the well-photographed circular drive in front of the English Tudor mansion, and crossed a vast lawn towards the secluded tennis court. After a couple hours, Dad and I transitioned to lunch, magically ordered from any phone on the property to a phantom kitchen without a menu. Ask for whatever you wanted, give your coordinates, and club sandwiches would arrive within a half hour.
Dessert was the game room. Wall to wall pinball machines encircled a pool table. Dad and I stood side by side at our favorite machines, desperate to beat our best scores, throwing our weight into our flipper action, twisting the ball release plunger to get the right spin. My dad taught me that, though I don’t know if the technique was scientifically sound. Winning free games sounds meaningless in a no-coins-required world, but it wasn’t meaningless to us. It was the measure of our skill, our determination, our progress. Next we’d move to the pool table. Dad had turned me into a bit of a shark for my age, a skill that stayed with me through college and was useful in the dating world to stand out as a little surprising. When Dad and I needed fuel, we’d reach into the bowls of M&M’s – both peanut and plain – behind us on low-lying tables. A never empty refrigerator offered up soft drinks. People think of the Playboy Mansion as Disneyland for grown ups, but I tell you it was Disneyland for a 12-year-old as well.
Aside from the ubiquitous display of Playboy Magazines on the indoor surfaces, I seldom encountered the adult side of the Mansion. There was the time I tripped into the circular space off the game room with the sponge-like, seductively cushy floor. I figured out its purpose, and knew I wouldn’t be playing in there. Then there was the hot afternoon when a post-tennis swim was in order. The Mansion stocked bathing suits for guests in all sizes organized into little cubbies along a tall cabana wall. I don’t know if it was the strangeness of borrowing a suit or not wanting to figure out how my 12-year-old body would look on display amongst the grown women, but I decided to skip the bikini and swim in my red-trimmed, white tennis dress.
Oh the beauty of the pool. A ring of water arching around a grotto over whose entrance cascaded a waterfall. A lovely stone deck dotted with lush lounge chairs.
I eased into the water, ruffled panties and all, as was the tennis fashion of the era. Breaststroking toward the grotto, I dove beneath the waterfall, resurfacing inside the darkened cave, its perimeter adorned with padded couches. The grotto was empty, but within seconds a man walked in from the cabana entrance, walked in tall and naked. I caught a glance – my first full frontal of the grown up variety – dove shyly back underwater, and swam out.
Strangest of all, I told my dad, as if I needed to confess interrupting a private moment. In response he said something like, “I’m sure it was fine with him” or “I’m sure he didn’t mind,” words that carried a slightly lascivious hint that made me realize that men sort of like being caught on display.
While the Mansion’s public image is of bathing beauties and constant nudity, that just wasn’t the Mansion I saw, no bunnies sporting ears and puffy tails, no wild orgies on the lawn, no sexual innuendo in every conversation. I had that one brief nudity encounter, but generally people dressed as they would around any swimming pool, fully covered in bathing suits. On occasion, a top may come off for some sunning, but it was tasteful, less overt than those who strut on the French Riviera.
In the daylight at the Mansion, you could see families with toddlers, parents joyfully showing their child the amazing collection of birds housed in the enormous aviary beneath the trees. And on 4th of July there was always a huge kid-friendly buffet. Only once did I stay at the Mansion past dark in order to see a screening of a film, and we left as the credits rolled, for I think my dad understood that the tone of things shifted as the sun went down.
All this was the window dressing on the Mansion, images I strongly remember. But what I remember more was that it was at the Playboy Mansion when I first beat my dad at tennis. It had been coming. Our games were getting closer and closer. My dad played tennis every weekend with his friends. I had recently entered the world of junior tournament tennis. When I hit the perfect drop shot and my dad couldn’t race forward fast enough to catch the ball before it fell, game and set went to me, 6-4. I felt the sting of pride and fear at the same time. A child beating a father. A daughter beating a father. But before I could digest my emotions, my dad’s face broke into a large grin. For the next hour, anyone who wandered over to the court heard my father boast that I had just beat him. He was more proud of my achievement than he could ever be disappointed by his loss.
And there was the time when I took on Jim Brown, the famous footballer with the speedy legs. (Try getting a drop shot past him.) And all the times I was the only female in a game of doubles. I was a real competitor amongst the men, and that made me think about identity and womanhood and achievement. The bunnies were appreciated for their beauty. I was appreciated for my skill, and I saw the difference. I felt the respect.
I also met my first porn star courtside, and had a hard time looking him in the eye years later after having seen his famous film at a retro on-campus screening during my freshman year in college. He and I ended up in a conversation about the first amendment and several lawsuits he was involved in, and that, too, taught me something: Don’t diminish people based on assumptions. And yes, Hef does always walk around in silk pajamas.
Some dads teach their kids to fly fish. Some sit down and deliver lectures packed with words of wisdom. Mine took me to fantasyland where I could think about my place as a woman and my goals and dreams. And have fun, simple fun, even if the setting wasn’t so pure.
I search the Internet to see if another piece of my childhood will be boarded up and dismantled, and I learn that it is Hef’s neighboring property that’s on the market. While I haven’t visited the Mansion since my late teens, I am relieved that it will remain. Many people – my mom included – questioned my dad’s judgment in taking a young girl there, but I can tell you, the time I spent at the Playboy Mansion built memories. Good memories. Indelible memories. Memories with my dad.