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THE LIFE OF HOLLYWOOD

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner's first true love was movies

'Everything I learned about love I learned from the movies,' he says.

January 04, 2009|Geoff Boucher

The checks written by an aging rich man, though, are gestures, not commitments. Better proof of his celluloid fixation is the crypt he has purchased; when Hefner gives up the ghost, his well-used body will spend eternity in L.A.'s Westwood Memorial Park, next to Marilyn Monroe, a woman he never met, except in the dim light of the movie palace.

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Childhood influence

Hugh Marston Hefner, born in Chicago on April 9, 1926, grew up on the far west side of town, where the prairie was still part of the horizon. He was a ringleader for the local kids, creating and presiding over elaborate games and drawing an autobiographical comic book called "School Daze" that starred his friends as the supporting cast. He looks back on it as his first success in publishing. At age 16 he also drafted his pals to make a horror movie. His defining ritual as a youngster was taking the streetcar on Grand Avenue ("And," he says, "it was grand") to the movies. Some days he sat through a double feature in the afternoon and then another in the evening. Afterward he would carefully record every movie title in his diary.

"The movies, other than family, were the major influence of my childhood," Hefner said. "I was in a very typical Midwestern, Methodist home with a lot of repression and not much demonstrative expression of emotion. My escape was the darkened theater."

When it comes to relationships, some men spend their life looking for their mother; Hefner has been searching for leading ladies -- sometimes two or more at a time, like those double-feature days.

"And I think my fascination with blonds is directly connected to the impact that the platinum blonds had in the movies of the 1930s," he said in a clinical tone. "Jean Harlow, Alice Faye, all of those Busby Berkeley showgirls. You can't go wrong. Well, you probably could, but what fun."

For decades, movie screenings have been a tradition at the Playboy mansion. Hefner used to screen two new films every week but, in the 1990s, he surrendered to the fact that the contemporary cinema output just doesn't yield 104 good movies a year. Now, Friday nights are for new films ("Frost/Nixon" and "Gran Torino" were recent selections) while Sunday nights are for the classics (he screened "Mrs. Miniver" and "I Was a Male War Bride" last month). Hefner devotes "an afternoon I really can't afford" each week to preparing notes for his introductions of the vintage fare.

On Mondays, it's Manly Night, in which the audience is smaller and older -- mostly Hefner's circle of longtime pals, people like tough-guy actor Robert Culp and Ronald Borst, a leading collector of old horror film posters. In recent weeks, they have watched the old "Flash Gordon" serials, which, of course, Hefner remembers in sexual terms. "The women I have been most enamored with over the years," he says, "looked very much like Dale Arden."

The old movies stay the same, but the mansion audience doesn't.

"The group changes by and large only by making new friends and having old friends die," Hefner said. "Don Adams and Mel Torme used to be part of the group. . . . This literally is a second home for a great many of my friends. I think on my passing a lot of my friends are going to be lost socially."

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Refining an image

The Playboy mansion and its master have become symbols of refined debauchery, and Hefner has carefully cultivated that imagery. "The Girls Next Door," an E! channel show that brought cameras into the mansion (a la "The Osbournes") to record Hefner's relationship with a trio of curvy blond girlfriends, began its fifth season in October. A sixth season is on the way and, after much-publicized strife, there is more public interest than ever in the strange love rectangle. There's also "Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream," the biography by Steven Watts, who was given unrestricted access to the tycoon's vast archive of self, which includes journals and scrapbooks dating to his youth.

Hefner has a deep voice, an impish grin and the small, delicate hands of man whose mansion has Jergens cherry-almond lotion in every one of its bathrooms. He is not as tall as he used to be and he hunches forward, but the only moment he looks frail is when standing next to the bare-breasted statue of Barbi Benton that lords over his library.

The library shelves are dominated with books on Hollywood history, and it's surprising, perhaps, that Hefner hasn't put himself in their pages in a bigger way since moving west in 1971. Like Howard Hughes, he could have bought a spot in the dream factory, but Hefner has mostly been content with just watching.

The great exception to that was his unlikely role as a key producer for Roman Polanski's grim and gory 1971 "The Tragedy of Macbeth." A top executive at the Playboy Club in London had championed the idea of Hefner getting involved in the project, which became Polanski's first film after the 1969 murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, during the Manson family attacks.

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