Jonnie Faye Nicely stood me up the other day.
We were supposed to meet at Hef's. Every year Hugh Hefner hosts a party to name Playboy's "Playmate of the Year." Last year, Jonnie, a green-eyed blonde, was there as a former Miss August. I was there protecting the public's right to know. We hit it off.
When Playboy called this year, I told the P.R. man how very much I hoped to see Jonnie. He made a few calls, then got back to me. Jonnie, he said, couldn't wait to see me.
And then, alas, she didn't show.
A week later, my phone rang. It was Jonnie. She couldn't come, she explained, because she'd fallen off a B-1 bomber.
The accident happened years ago, but the chronic pain had gotten so bad she needed surgery to repair nerve damage in her elbow. Jonnie Nicely--that's the name her parents gave her--may have been Playboy's "Playmate of the Month" in 1956, but for the last 12 years she worked the swing shift at Rockwell International in Palmdale. She was an electrical installation mechanic, a job that required her to climb around the B-1s in progress. Before retiring a few months ago, "I was the queen of overtime," she says.
Playmates, whatever the vintage, are not supposed to build bombers. They're supposed to be bombshells. They're not supposed to do blue-collar jobs. They're supposed to model lingerie. They're supposed to go Hollywood or marry rich or both.
The endings aren't necessarily happy. One became romantically linked to a famous director, only to be murdered by her estranged husband. Another went on to hard-core porno films. Others found success via "Baywatch." One modeled for Guess? and married an 89-year-old Texas oil tycoon. Another married Hefner and was heralded as his "Playmate for a Lifetime."
Jonnie Nicely, at age 20, was an early member of this sorority. Playboy, then a slim volume with a newsstand price of 50 cents, promoted its monthly sex symbols not as harlots, but as "the girl next door." Many feminists complain that Playboy tries to make sexism respectable. Yet after more than 40 years, it's a staple of Americana, and almost quaint.
"Some people call it exploitation," says Jonnie. "I don't. I think it does a whole lot for your self-esteem. When people find out I was in Playboy, they treat me like royalty."
She is friendly and plain-spoken, her voice carrying a trace of her childhood in Arkansas and Oklahoma. She thumbs through a Playboy volume commemorating the magazine's early years, proudly pointing out shots of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. "Pretty good company," she says.
Voluptuous at 20, she is now lean. Jonnie, who lives in the Antelope Valley, met me in Chatsworth wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. A soft cast protected her elbow.
She toted a red satchel crammed with memories. Old Playboys were protected in plastic. A scrapbook was loaded with black-and-white glamour shots from the '50s.
As a model, she was paid $25 an hour--plenty compared to other jobs she had. Her seamstress job paid $40 for a 40-hour workweek, and as a carhop she got the minimum plus tips.
Jonnie says she was never too choosy about jobs; work was a matter of survival. Her mother died when she was 2 years old and her father when she was 6, leaving Jonnie to be raised by an older sister. In Oklahoma City she went to a convent school where most girls talked about getting married and starting a family as soon as they graduated.
Jonnie went West, on her own at 16. A couple of years later, she met a photographer who got her into modeling. Playboy was her third modeling job, and she returned a few months later as Miss August, clad only in orange-, black- and white-striped toreador pants. "They're back in," she notes.
She turned the pages in her scrapbook. There were some glamour shots of men as well. Dreamboats, they must have been called. For a time Jonnie dated actor John Hart, a star of the early TV series "The Last of the Mohicans." Deeper in the scrapbook is a portrait of a country-Western singer. It had been torn to pieces and pasted back together.
"My second husband ripped that up," Jonnie explained.
The singer, she says, was only a friend. Jonnie refers to No. 2 as What's-His-Name. He ripped up a lot of old photos, even pictures of her family. Jonnie was 39 when they got hitched, and after three years it was good riddance. She married a third time 10 years ago.
It's thoughts of her first husband that make Jonnie wistful. Their love had so much promise and so much sadness.
She was working as a restaurant hostess. Joel was an ex-college basketball star who drove a Jaguar. He had brains too. He had an engineering degree and was studying law. A great catch, as the women used to say.
I asked how long the courtship lasted, expecting a whirlwind.
"Two years, 11 months and 8 days," Jonnie answered.
But only four months after the wedding, she said, Joel suffered a nervous breakdown. He would be in and out of mental hospitals for several years. The diagnosis was schizophrenia. After more than five years, the marriage ended.