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The Ghostwriter of the Sky Tackles the King of the Playboy Empire

July 17, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Leo Janos will tell you right off that his upcoming autobiography of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner "makes no claim that all those years we thought he was in the round bed with girls, he was in the round bed with boys. He really was in the round bed with girls."

In fact, as Janos plows through decades of scrapbooks and Playboy magazines, he isn't preoccupied with Hef's sex life, which he finds basically "pretty boring," or with other facets of the public Hefner.

But, Janos promises, "The pre-pajama years are going to knock people's socks off. That's where all the surprises really are," in a youth "as far removed from the public perception of Hugh Hefner as is possible to get."

It seems a big leap for Janos, the best-selling biographer of macho test pilot Gen. Chuck Yeager ("Yeager"), to chronicle the life of the most famous playboy of them all. But Leo Janos never went out looking for either man.

"My agent happened to have dinner with one of the Bantam editors the day Yeager was signed," Janos explained. When approached about doing the book on Yeager, Janos asked, "You mean the race-car driver? I think I was thinking of Cale Yarborough."

When set straight, Janos' initial response to writing about the first man to break the sound barrier was, "Good God, that was 30 or 40 years ago. Why would I want to do a book about him?"

"Yeager," published in mid-1985, has sold more than 1 million copies in hardcover. Janos said, "People were hungry for a hero."

Playboy bought first serial rights--enter Hugh Hefner. And now comes "Hef: An Autobiography," the working title for the book scheduled for fall 1988 publication and for which a megabucks advance has been reported. Janos isn't saying how much but acknowledges it is "a very significant amount of money."

In choosing a biographer, Janos said, the most important thing to Hefner was the writer's age. Hefner, he said, is "the last of the great romantics," which to him explains his penchant for much younger women--"He always wanted to be the guy who would introduce them to Humphrey Bogart. I mean, he lives in the past, Billie Holiday records, Harry James. To walk an innocent through all that stuff and record the sense of wonder that he had known as a teen-ager, to be the mentor of nostalgia. . . ."

(But didn't Hefner also exploit women? Perhaps, Janos acknowledges, but he believes that, for many, bunnydom was their life's highlight. He mentions a letter sent to Hefner by the mother of a former bunny in which her daughter asked to be buried in her bunny costume. "Can't you understand that?" Janos asked. "I can.")

At 53, Leo Janos is one-time speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson, former Time magazine correspondent and pre-"Yeager," author of only one book--a notably unsuccessful true story of a drug-crazed teen-ager who killed his mother and grandmother.

Janos pondered the popularity of the autobiography as literary form and attributed it in part to "public impatience with TV and the media, a distrust," a desire to learn about these people "without having 'you guys' get in the way."

With "Iacocca," there was also what Janos calls "the instructive element"--large companies bought it as sort of an employees' handbook. ("Hilarious," Janos observed. "If any of them ever tried to act like Iacocca, they'd all be fired.")

Then, he said, there is the "inspirational aspect," the reader discovering of some VIP that "he's a schlepper, just like me." (Here, the young Hefner qualifies, he noted, as "a down-and-out 27-year-old who'd never had a decent job.")

Finally, he said, "There's just a fascination to read about other people's lives. It's like getting your hands on somebody's diaries."

Right or wrong, Janos said, readers believe autobiographies "really tell it the way it was."

Is that what Hefner is doing? Janos smiled and said, "Yes, the way he sees it." He added, "There were many, many times in his life when he looked like a jerk. I want those moments, too. He has to be convinced."

There is a common denominator among people who get books written about themselves, Janos pointed out, and that is "enormous egos. There's no one who's a shrinking violet who's ever been the subject of an autobiography."

The next subject for Janos? After finishing "Yeager," he drew up a list. It included Joe Dimaggio ("I'm a Bronx boy"), Leonard Bernstein ("I'm into classical music"), and Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Co..

He turned down Texas oilman and corporate takeover king T. Boone Pickens Jr. Janos explained that "I just didn't understand the business world. . . . I'd have been absolutely at his mercy." He also rejected former White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes, perceiving a "lack of candor." Besides, Janos said, "he's interesting only for a job he had."

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