Hugh Hefner: Man of God?
A visit to the Playboy Mansion for a theological chat with the man who led the sexual revolution.
By Cathleen Falsani
When I decided to make my living as a religion writer, I never expected the job to entail giving my name and credentials to a “talking rock” outside the imposing gates of California’s Playboy Mansion on my way to have a conversation with Hugh Hefner about God.
What am I getting myself into? I thought, maneuvering my rental car past the rock, which kindly opened the gates for me, and up the winding wooded driveway where cutesy painted “Playmates at Play” signs mark the way toward the infamous mock-Tudor mansion. I crane my neck, looking both ways, fully expecting to see flocks of naked, pneumatic blondes skipping across the manicured lawns.
But there are no naked girls in sight—only a handful of fully clothed male gardeners and a small flock of flamingos—and what I find inside the Playboy Mansion during the visit with the man everyone calls Hef thoroughly surprises me. Almost as much, he will tell me eventually, as I surprise him.
“I have strong feelings about the way organized religion—with the codification of all the rules related to sexuality—became law and played havoc with people’s lives. And I think that—dare I say it?—is very un-Christian,” Hef says at the beginning of our conversation. We are sitting next to each other on a comfy couch in the mansion’s library, not far from where an original Matisse, with a burn mark where a tipsy John Lennon once left a lit cigarette, hangs. Behind the couch is a life-size bust of a topless woman. (Someone later tells me it is Hef’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton—the bust, not the Matisse.) “I think that there are great unanswered questions that I don’t have the answers for, and I think it is presumptuous for some people not only to suggest that they do have the answers but to codify them and establish them as a set of rules, some of which are wonderful and some of which are hurtful, in the name of the Almighty.”
That Hef would chafe at the confines of organized religion is hardly a shock. Much of what he says initially about religion and religious people appears to be well-rehearsed material, thoughtful sound bites that he’s delivered during innumerable interviews throughout his 50-plus-year career as publisher of Playboy magazine. “Religion was a very important part of my upbringing. I saw in it a quality, in terms of ideals and morality, that I embraced. I also saw part of it, the part related to human sexuality and other things, as hypocritical and hurtful. And I think that is the origin of who I am. The heart of who I am is a result of trying to make some sense of all of that.”
“Sex is there for procreation and a good deal more,” Hef continues. “I was raised in a setting in which it was for procreation only and the rest was sin, and that included not only a whole lot of behavior but also a whole lot of people. That’s abominable.”
Hef, who is dressed in his usual uniform—red-and-black-satin smoking jacket, pajamas, and slippers—is charming, disarmingly so for a man in his late 70s. He is also incredibly literate, introspective, and kind in a grandfatherly way. But there is a certain tension at the beginning of our conversation, as if he’s worried that I’m going to judge him or, worse, try to convert him, as another interviewer apparently had a few weeks before me.
“I was saved a long time ago,” Hef says, not quite sarcastically. “I think I am a spiritual person, but I don’t mean that I believe in the supernatural. I believe in the creation, and therefore I believe there has to be a creator of some kind, and that is my God. I do not believe in the biblical God, not in the sense that he doesn’t exist, just in the sense that I know rationally that man created the Bible and that we invented our perception of what we do not know.
“I would believe in a god who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better, and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah, I would vote in favor of that,” he says, chuckling. “But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and to do it in a moral way that leaves this world a little better place than you found it.”
Is that how he defines morality, then? Living in a way that makes life better for those around you and trying to make the world a better place? He looks a little concerned about the question, like I’m going to stand up, point my finger at him, and yell “shame on you!” or something.
“Yes,” he says tensely.
Don’t hurt anyone. Try to do the right thing. Make the world a better place. The Hefner moral code.
Hef believes he has lived up to the code, although he’s keenly aware there are people—many of them deeply religious people—who would insist he has done exactly the opposite by building an empire based on unfettered sexuality and, some say, the objectification of women. To them, the image of the man is simple: Hugh Hefner, sinner extraordinaire.
“Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term,” Hef says, adding that his definition of sin is “things that are hurtful to people.”
Has he sinned?
“Oh, sure,” Hef says, “but I haven’t pursued much immoral behavior. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it. Morality is what is perceived as good for people. I try to do what’s right, to do what I believe to be truly humanistic and rational and loving.”
So, how did he learn his definition of morality?
“First and foremost from my parents and secondly, in a very real way, from the movies. I think the movies were my mentors, my other parents. It’s where I escaped into dreams and fantasies, and it also provided me with a set of values that were immigrant dreams—what we call the American Dream, dreams of democracy. I was a big fan of Frank Capra before I knew who Frank Capra was. I was born in 1926, so I grew up with the films of the 1930s. Very romantic, during the Great Depression. And those dreams came from Jewish immigrants, by and large, and that is what we think of as the American dream. It has become a universal dream, a dream of democracy, of personal and political freedom for everybody, a right to live your life on your own terms as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
What films have you learned the most from spiritually? I ask, and appear to have stumped him.
“One of the difficulties in the context of what you’re asking is that spirituality has different meanings for different people and suggests for most people a supernatural phenomenon,” he says, tentatively. “And you know…most of the movies that have had the most impact on me in terms of what I would call spiritual films were romantic films, but they are…you know…I don’t if I can use the word spiritual in its proper sense—”
“Let me tell you mine,” I interrupt. “It’s ‘Harold and Maude.’”
“Oh,” Hef says, his face folding into a big grin and the tension seeming to evaporate between us. “Oh, I love ‘Harold and Maude.’ Well, now you’re broadening the definition of spiritual in a really wonderful way. ‘Harold and Maude’ is one of my favorite films, and Bud Court [Harold] is a friend and [is] here for parties all the time. And of course, Ruth Gordon [Maude] is wonderful. We show classic films here every Friday night,” he says, motioning toward the screening room (complete with a full-size pipe organ) adjacent to his library. “It’s called Casablanca Night. Last Friday we ran a film written by Ruth Gordon’s husband. ‘Born Yesterday.’ Judy Holliday’s first film. And that’s a very spiritual film, too.”
“It’s about a woman who is a kept mistress of a corrupt guy, played by Broderick Crawford, who is trying to make a deal in Washington. And in her rather Pygmalion relationship with her teacher, William Holden, she sees the world in a whole new way and she is reborn in the real sense. It’s a very spiritual film,” he says.
Another film he finds spiritually inspiring is the 1942 film “The Male Animal,” starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Fonda plays the mild-mannered midwestern university professor Tommy Turner, whose job is threatened after he reads a controversial essay to his class that his perceived to be pro-communist.
“It has to do with conviction of belief beyond what is popular, and it had a tremendously moving impact on me,” Hef says. “When I talk about spiritual, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Me, too, I tell him.
“How nice to have someone like you dealing with the subject of religion,” he says, looking relieved. “How did you ever get this gig? I didn’t expect you.”
Despite what he calls a “typical midwestern Puritan” upbringing—and Hefner, a tenth-generation direct descendant of the Mayflower passenger William Bradford, uses the term Puritan quite specifically—the Playboy baron’s own spirituality is decidedly unconventional.
Call it The Playboy Theology. Hef doesn’t believe in a “biblical God,” but he is fairly adamant about the existence of a “Creator.” He hasn’t been to a church service that wasn’t a wedding, funeral, or baptism since he was a student at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s, but he says he worships on a regular basis while walking the grounds of his own backyard. And he follows a system of morals, but not those gleaned from the Methodism of his childhood—at least not the ones that pertain to sexuality.
Hef grew up in Chicago, the elder of two sons born to Grace and Glenn Hefner. As a child he spent little time with his father, an accountant. “It was the Depression, and he was away before I got up and often not back before I went to sleep, so we only saw him on weekends,” he says. “Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced—all the good stuff. Never hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family.
“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way I’d been raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn’t have done it any better. And because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.’
“When I talk about the hurt and the hypocrisy in some of our values—our sexual values—it comes from the fact that I didn’t get hugged a lot as a kid, and I understand that.”
While his mother was steadfastly Puritanical, Hefner says she wasn’t particularly dogmatic. “We had to go to church every Sunday, but she let us try other churches. We went to a Congregational church for a while, which is similar to Methodist. I went a couple of times to a Christian Scientist church because I had a crush on a girl in high school who was a Christian Scientist. I went to Catholic church on a number of occasions with my first wife because she was Catholic.”
He married his first wife, Millie Williams, in 1949 at a parish on Chicago’s blue-collar Northwest Side. He can’t recall the name of the parish, but he does remember—vividly—his brush with Catholicism. “Millie got very upset when she went to the doctor for birth control information and the doctor turned out to be Catholic and started singing ‘Rhythm is my business.’ She was so affronted,” Hefner says. That was the end of Hef’s connection, tenuous as it was, to the Catholic Church—or to any organized religion.
The couple, who divorced after 10 years of marriage, raised their children, David and Christie (who is now CEO of Playboy Enterprises), without any formal religious tradition. His younger children, teenage sons Marston and Cooper, who live with their mother, Hefner’s second wife, Kimberly Conrad, on an estate adjacent to the Playboy Mansion, are also being reared religion free, he says. (Hefner and Conrad, Playboys 1989 Playmate of the Year, married in 1989 and have been separated amicably since 1998.)
Back in the 1960s, when Hefner and Playboy Enterprises were involved in the civil rights movement and Playboy was in its heyday, Hef spent time with various clergymen, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with whom he could knock around his ideas about theology and morality. In fact, Hef says, for a time Playboy offered a special discount subscription rate for ministers. During this era, the Playboy founder also met the Episcopal priest and author Malcolm Boyd. The two men have remained close friends for more than 40 years.
“Hef is a seeker,” says Boyd, an openly gay octogenarian who lived briefly at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago in the mid-1960s and is artist in residence at Los Angeles’s Cathedral Center of St. Paul. “He’s on an adventure in life, and it’s at a very deep level a spiritual adventure. He’s looking for meaning, for context, for answers. He tries to size people up in a kind of spiritual way.
“Hef is almost a fierce individualist, and I think a great many people have never really understood him,” Boyd says. “He doesn’t have a conformist image that people are invited to buy into. He’s himself.”
When Hef prays, which he admits is not with any regularity, he says his conversation with the Creator usually goes something like this: “Thank you, Lord.”
“I’m blessed. If life is a card game, I got the winning hand, and most people have only a small idea of how good it is,” he says, grinning. “Usually, you know, our religious values suggest you have to pay the fiddler, that if you get a lot of good breaks, there has to be something wrong with it, and usually there is. Not to suggest that my life hasn’t been full of trials and tribulations. Of course, it has. It wouldn’t be a life without it. But I know how lucky I am.”
As we’re talking, a peacock rests on the low branch of a tree in the backyard of the Playboy Mansion, which he shares with his girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. All three women are in their 20s. Located in Los Angeles’ Holmby Hills, the 5.7-acre grounds of the mansion are elaborately landscaped. There are 50 coastal redwoods, a meandering pool with waterfalls, and, of course, the notorious “grotto,” a cave-like alcove off the main swimming pool that houses a series of hot tubs, all of different depths and temperatures. (Of the myriad intimate encounters that have reportedly occurred in the grotto over the years, the saying goes, “What happens in the grotto, stays in the grotto.”)
There’s also a zoo. Squirrel monkeys, parrots, toucans, and other exotic creatures live only a few dozen yards from Hef’s back door. “The animals we have here are a direct connection to my childhood and my love of animals and my belief that we should be somehow living in harmony with nature, as the animals do. The Tarzan myths fascinated me as a kid. It was man and his mate in harmony with nature, and the enemy was the white hunter—civilization.
“Some of my most spiritual moments, if I can call them that, come from walking through the forest, come from waking the backyard; feeling connected to the wonder of what this is all about,” he says, his eyes wandering out a picture window to the mansion’s rolling, bucolic grounds.
“I think it brings your emotions to the surface, to a level where you are just totally overwhelmed. Sometimes you know why and sometimes you don’t. It touches you in places that are hidden, that are from very early childhood, that are hurts, yearnings, and those are wonderful, magical, spiritual moments. And they can come sometimes from left field.” One of the regular stops on his backyard strolls is a Tabebuia, or trumpet tree, he planted near the tennis courts in honor of his mother, who died in 1997 at the age of 101. “A good walk in the woods is very revitalizing,” he says. “If you think you’ve got problems or something hurtful has happened, take a walk in the woods and think about how lucky you are just to be alive.”
So, why are we here? What’s the meaning of life, the highest moral value?
“Love,” he says, without hesitation. “Love. Why do we keep fucking it up? Love. It’s the Golden Rule.”
Love is all we need?
“Well, John Lennon thought so, but we need a little reason to go along with it,” Hef says as he sees me out of the library before disappearing upstairs to his bedroom. “This has been a truly spiritual afternoon for me. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this.”
Me neither, Hef. Me neither.
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Cathleen Falsani is the religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, and her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Christianity Today, and the Chicago Tribune.
From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, by Cathleen Falsani, published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2006 by Cathleen Falsani. All rights reserved.
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