Before I explain how I happened to be in Hugh Hefner's bedroom last week, let me start at the beginning.
I bumped into L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge at the supermarket recently and asked if he'd had any clue that Hefner was going to save the day a couple of weeks ago by donating the last $900,000 needed to purchase the peak surrounding the Hollywood sign and keep it from being plundered by developers.
LaBonge said no, but he hated to think what would have happened without Hefner's generosity. And it wasn't the first time the playboy had come to the sign's rescue.
I decided to see if Hefner, 84, would go up to the sign with me to talk about why it meant so much to him. But when I reached his people, they said he'd prefer to talk at the Playboy Mansion.
If there was any inkling of doubt that I'd entered the correct driveway in Holmby Hills, it vanished the moment I saw the sign that said, "Playmates At Play."
I was led inside to the library, where I noticed bound copies of Playboy magazine on a shelf under the Encyclopaedia Britannica collection. Before long, Hefner appeared in black silk pajamas and a ruby smoking jacket. He had no girlfriends with him.
Hefner held a stack of notes detailing his millions in donations to film preservation and the study of cinema at UCLA and USC, as well as a list of 22 documentaries he has helped finance, including movies on Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney and Rita Hayworth.
"The first time I saw the sign was in the movies," said Hefner, who told me that when he was a kid in Chicago, the sign represented not just the films of Capra, Ford and Hawks, but dreams, fantasy and "social and economic liberation."
In the late 1970s, he saw the sign up close and couldn't believe how badly it had deteriorated.
"The city has a bad history" when it comes to "its own sense of itself," he said.
Hefner couldn't believe that the movie moguls who got rich on the mythical image of L.A. didn't know enough about marketing and promotion to save the sign, which was erected in 1923 to advertise a development called Hollywoodland.
"It was a failure of stupidity that I cannot comprehend," said Hefner.
So he did what he does. He hosted a lavish party to raise money for the sign's restoration. Rock legend Alice Cooper also stepped in, and the sign was saved.
More than 30 years later, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks made donations to help buy the land and preserve the sign, as did several studios. But they were still short until Hefner came through with a check for nearly $1 million, a move that he said has led to interview requests from around the globe unlike anything he's known in years.
Hefner asked if I'd like to see the scrapbook where those stories will end up.
Sure, why not?
He led me past the screening room where he still watches movies with friends a few times a week, and we climbed a staircase to the second floor. But before we got to the scrapbooks, he led me into another room.
Wait a minute, I said to one of his assistants. Am I in Hugh Hefner's bedroom?
The mind reels.
I half expected to see centerfolds tumbling out of the closets and teams of air-brushed college coeds applying coconut oil on their way out to the grotto. But there was none of that. Even Marilyn Monroe had her clothes on in a gorgeous photograph on a wall near Hefner's desk, where he showed me his fifth-grade report card with lots of Es for Excellent but Fs in deportment.
There were little Playboy bunny statues on shelves, figurines of Frankenstein and Dracula, framed covers of The Shadow magazine and the Buck Rogers Fan Club Magazine, ray guns, boxes of Playboys, dozens of stuffed animals from girlfriends. Hanging from the chandeliers were ladies' undergarments left by "visitors."
According to my wife, I never really grew up either. But she'll be relieved to hear that the only other thing I have in common with Hefner is that if current plans for a movie on his life proceed, there's a chance we both will have been played by Robert Downey Jr. Judging by those panties on the chandelier, I told Hefner, I'm betting Downey will have more fun playing him.
He smiled and led me up to the third floor, where a man named Steve Martinez has spent 20 years helping Hefner compile more than 2,000 bound scrapbooks filled with press clippings and personal mementos.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this column referred to Steve Martinez as Steve Marquez.
"I'm archiving his legacy," said Martinez, as Hefner, a pack rat, grabbed a volume off a shelf and showed me his first cartoon strips as a sketch artist, photos of his family and letters he wrote to his mother.
"It was a way of inventing a world of my own, in which I was center stage," he said of his collection, which will now include a second round of stories about the Hollywood sign.
Hefner reached for Volume 372 and was showing me photos of the 1978 fundraiser to restore the sign when his staff reminded him that he was more than half an hour late for his next interview. Hefner, lost in the story of his life, didn't want to leave.
"Time flies," he said, "when you're having fun."