There will be much written about Hef in the days ahead, reiterating the story of the self-made man who built an empire and championed not only sexual liberation but freedom of speech. Yet I doubt that many obituaries will cite the vast sums of money he donated to film preservation and scholarship—running to seven figures—benefiting the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the USC School of Cinematic Arts. What’s more, he helped to save the world-famous Hollywood sign—on two separate occasions.
I was lucky enough to know Hugh Hefner because of our shared love of movies. It was a screening that earned my wife and me an invitation to the Playboy Mansion some twenty-five years ago. We never encountered a more gracious or generous host; he served a sumptuous buffet dinner before every film, followed by a call to the screening room promptly at 7:00. Regulars like Mel Tormé, Robert Culp, Ray Anthony, and other longtime friends and contemporaries had their designated seats, and in the 1990s a projectionist ran 35mm prints of movies both old and new.
Hef reveled in his role as host and master of ceremonies. He would introduce the vintage films, relying on carefully researched notes prepared by Richard Bann. New movies, shown on Sunday nights, were left to speak for themselves. The only film that needed no introduction was his all-time favorite, Casablanca, which he ran every year on his birthday. In recent years he had the pleasure of welcoming Monica Henreid, daughter of the film’s costar Paul Henreid, to his home.
He had a youthful crush on Alice Faye that never faded, and periodically screened the Flash Gordon serial, which had two sexy actresses in costarring roles. He loved being able to invite Hollywood stars from the golden age to his parties. One New Year’s Eve I had to blink when I saw Jane Russell and Terry Moore—Howard Hughes’ first discovery and his onetime wife—sitting together at a table chatting away.
My wife Alice had strong reservations about visiting the Mansion at first. She thought she was entering a den of iniquity. Instead, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming and we made good friends there. The days of bacchanalia were long past by the time we arrived on the scene; the closest we came to the “good old days” were Hef’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Halloween parties. On our first Halloween visit we snaked through the crowd to say hello to our host and Alice asked Hef who he was disguised as that night. He reached into the pocket of his ever-present dressing gown, pulled out his famous pipe and smiled broadly. He was there as Hugh Hefner!
The only time that children were allowed was on Easter Sunday, when Hef presided over a massive Easter Egg hunt with prizes and goodie baskets for all who participated. Each egg was beautifully hand-painted, the result of tremendous effort by the Playboy staff over the course of many months. Jessie and dozens of other kids were let lose on the grounds–several of her favorite eggs still sit on her shelf today. Last year we were able to bring her husband over for his very first American 4th of July. It meant so much to share this special place with him, a place we’d been bringing her to since she was 6.
We often watched the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards at the mansion, surrounded by good friends and good food. When Jessie was old enough (only 18+ allowed) she began joining us. Alice always entered the Oscar pool, though everyone knew Hef’s brother Keith won every year. It’s those days I cherish most, quiet evenings with our film buff pals, never knowing who we might meet.
One day in 1998 my phone rang and Playboy editor Arthur Kretchmer asked me if I would like to become the magazine’s film critic. Needless to say, I was mildly stunned. Playboy was still based in Chicago and Arthur had consulted Roger Ebert, who generously recommended me. (The post had been held for thirty years by Bruce Williamson, who was stepping down due to ill health.) When I said yes I received not a contract but a letter from Arthur stating the terms of my employment in a page and a half. The next time we saw Hef, Alice said she’d never seen a contract that was so plain-spoken and direct, devoid of legalese; he smiled and said, “That’s how it ought to be.” For the next six years I happily filled two pages of the magazine every month with reviews, interviews, and essays, working with a wonderful editor named John Rezek. Hef and I never discussed the overlap of our professional and social relationship. When he had a comment or objection, which was rare, he went through the Chicago office, as he had a lifelong dislike of confrontation.
His life was shaped and inspired by Hollywood movies, so it was fitting that while he made his fortune in Chicago, he wound up in the movie capital of the world. Even as his health diminished, Hef remained a cordial host. He was one of a kind, as his public achievements confirm…but my family will always cherish the private moments we got to share with this remarkable man.