"In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined a sweeter life." This is Hugh Marston Hefner's quote that appeared on the covers of the two invitations to his Celebration of Life tributes, one held at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills in California on Sunday, November 12, and the second in Chicago at the Ritz-Carlton on Monday, November 13.
As excited as I was to return to the L.A. Mansion and see all the Playmates and the Hefner family and friends, in my heart of hearts, I knew it would be the last time at this glorious, magical place Hef called his Shangri-La.
The night before the memorial, I was thrilled to gather with friends at Madeo's in Beverly Hills. My best friend Tissy Eggleston, along with Playmates Cathy St. George and Ava Fabian, all shared personal stories about the legendary man we loved and lost. Cathy recounted a tradition I wasn't aware of. In the past, Playmates would drop notes to Hef during parties or events in a sculpture shaped like a woman's behind. I can only imagine the smiles this must've brought to his face.
The following day, we met at the UCLA parking lot, as was customary for parties at the Mansion, to board the trolleys. Due to parking constraints in and around this pricey neighborhood, this was the best means of transport. (There were approximately 300 guests at the LA Celebration).
As we pulled up to the grand, iron gates for the last time, I was touched by the items admirers had secured to these gates as a tribute to Hef. Someone had mounted, what looked like, a child's vintage plush toy of a white rabbit. Alongside this was a pillow edged in gilt fringe with a large photo in the middle of Hef with the late Anna Nicole Smith (Playmate of the Year 1993). Further up the driveway, the iconic sign, "Playmates at Play" was a sad reminder that this would never be the case again.
After departing the trolley, guests were directed to the back of the Tudor-style house where a large tent had been erected. Beside the podium, two video monitors displayed images of Hef with his trademark smile. I just know he was thrilled to see one more gathering of his nearest and dearest friends in the place that he loved the most. Beautiful white roses and displays of mixed flowers dotted tables spread out on the lawn underneath white tablecloths. A lavish buffet was served on multiple levels surrounding the famous grotto.
I took a walk down to the area reserved for the zoo that Hef loved so much. He was the only resident of Holmby Hills to have a zoo license grandfathered in and I hope the new owner will keep it intact. One of the keeper's said, so far, there's been no word about disbanding it. This is good news for all the little spider monkeys who were flitting around their cozy cages with babies on their backs.
In the crowd, I saw Norman Lear (who spoke during the service), ex-bandleader Ray Anthony, Sherry Lansing (former CEO Paramount Pictures), Rascal Flatts' lead guitarist/singer Joe Don Rooney and his wife Tiffany Fallon (PMOY 2005 ), Lillian Muller (PMOY 1976), Mary Lou Hamill, James Caan, Steve Bing, Brande Roderick (PMOY 2001), Kimberly Conrad (Hef's ex and PMOY 1989), the Bentley twins (Mandy and Sandy), Marilyn Grabowski (PB's former West Coast photo editor), Barbi Benton and husband George Gradow, Devin Devasquez (PM June 1985) and actor/singer Ronn Moss, Monique St. Pierre (PMOY 1979), Barry Gordy Jr. (who spoke at the service), Nels Van Patton (actor/producer), Alison Reynolds, Ava Fabian (Miss Aug. 1986), (Dick Rosenzweig (former PB exec who spoke at service), Patti McGuire Connors (PMOY 1977) and Jimmy Connors .....And, of course Hef's beautiful widow Crystal and her mom along with his darling kids Cooper, Marston, Christie and David.
As Cooper opened the program, it didn't surprise me that even the peacocks were crying. He started with a quote and, as the tears flowed, he apologized and the crowd supported him with loving applause. He said, "I was reading some work by Walter Lippman this past week that made me pause. He talked about men who plant trees that other men will sit under. My dad was such a man except, in his case, he planted a forest."
He continued, "Through his pursuit for truth and success, he fought for issues that seemed to accidentally and eventually allow him to be an author of our collective history. He spent his life, not just as an editor or a publisher or a marketer, but as a creator and a philosopher, challenging the world to do better...Whether it was his undeterred convictions to diminish sex and sexuality as taboo; his fight in the civil rights arena; his attempt to normalize the conversations around women's health care; or draw negative attitudes away from the lesbian and gay communities, or simply a fight for the individual's right to live the life he or she wanted to live--he spent his life in a boxing match for all of our rights...All he ever wanted was to make the world just a little bit better and to smile all while doing it."
Norman Lear brought laughter from the crowd. After needing help to mount a large step up to the podium, he finally reached the mic and said, "Shit. I really wanted to do that myself." He recounted meeting Hef when he [Lear] was a young screenwriter. "Hugh Hefner was a pioneer, a visionary and a first amendment warrior," he said.
Barry Gordy Jr., looking very dapper at 87 years old, spoke about his 25 years of friendship with Hef. He said, "He was the epitome of friendship and love and lived a life with more true friends that anyone I ever knew...Here [at the Mansion], it wasn't about who you are or what you do, but rather what you're made of."
Other speakers included Hef's lawyer Tony Glassman, Steve Randall (a longtime, former employee of the magazine), Dick Rosenzweig (a former PB exec who is also Cooper's godfather), Professor Rick Jewell (USC Film School--Hef was a visiting professor there with an endowed chair, and loved it) and Dr. Mark Saginor (Hef's doctor).
Rosenzweig noted that Hef was a direct descendant of William Bradford, who came over on the Mayflower in 1620. "I think many of his values came from this distinguished bloodline," he said.
Hef's daughter Christie closed the program, using no notes, with an eloquent commentary on her dad's remarkable life. She noted that, yes, he loved women. "As a matter of fact," she said, "His two closest confidantes were Mary O'Connor and Bobbie Arnstein." Christie got emotional speaking about the joy Hef's widow Crystal had given her father during the last two years and looked her way in the front row in kind acknowledgement. She added, "And in this time when, every day, we are told about the predators, boors and pigs, he [Hef] was the consummate gentleman. To women, he was kind and defined what it meant to be a romantic in his relationships."
A video opened to the sounds of Jimmy Durante singing "Young at Heart" and Hef speaking: "A question that I'm always asked, is how much of the mystique is real and is it as much fun as it appears to be? And the honest answer is 'more.''' A treasure trove of footage showed Hef as a little boy, looking as devilish as ever; traveling the world; partying with famous friends; the Big Bunny, his beloved custom jet; his most important relationships, both with women and famous friends and the joys of his life, of course, his kids and Crystal.
The video ended with Joan Baez singing "Forever Young" and Hef saying: "If I were to rewrite my life from beginning to end, one might change a few punctuation points, which would be business matters, but the things that mattered could hardly have worked out any better. I'm a lucky fellow."
By the time it was all over, tears had wiped away all the ladies' mascara and men were unashamedly crying into their handkerchiefs.
Following the service, no one wanted to leave the grounds. People wandered around in a daze taking in as much as they could, recalling fond memories, storing up mental images and soaking in the atmosphere that had made this place so special. I tried to do the same. It only made me sadder. I was honored to be there but glad to go. Hef's spirit just wasn't there. You could feel it--or rather, you could feel nothing at all.
Another Celebration of Life was held the following day in Chicago at the Ritz-Carlton. I was honored to be invited to both and surprised to be the only Playmate at the Chicago service. I loved seeing former/fellow Playboy Bunny friends manning the check-in desk. Jackie Williams, Cheryl Carioscia and Anna D'Agata looked like they could still easily slip into their costumes. Anna told me, "I feel like this is the last Bunny promo." And I knew exactly what she meant.
For this tribute, hosted by Bill Kurtis, speakers included Rick Kogan, Bill Zehme, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Rosenzweig, Christie and Cooper. Kogan spoke most eloquently about the man that he'd interviewed on occasion, always calling him Mr. Hefner. He said, "There could have been no other place on this earth that would've informed the life of Hugh Hefner as did Chicago."
Guests at the Chicago tribute, comprised mostly of corporate and business types, included the legendary Art Paul (who created the Bunny logo), Gary Cole (former PB director of photography), Jeff Cohen (former PB art director), Martha and Rich Melman, Marina and Dr. Arnie Tatar, Linda Johnson Rice, Leslie Hindman, Elizabeth Norris (former Playmate Promotions Director), Michael Kutza, Pat Tomlinson, Dori Wilson, Sherren Leigh, Mary Ann Childers, Millie (Christie and David's mom), Dr. Lauren Streicher and Jason Brett, Garry Meier and Marlene Iglitzen, among others.
I'm so grateful for my life with Playboy and am glad I had this last chance to say goodbye. Kogan said in his closing remarks, "Local boy makes good." How 'bout "local boy changes the world?"
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Tags: Anna D'Agata, Anna Nicole Smith, Art Paul, Ava Fabian, Barry Gordy, Bill Zehme, Brande Roderick, Candace Collins, Cathy St. George, centerfolds, Cheryl Carioscia, Christie Hefner, Cooper Hefner, Crystal Hefner, David Hefner, Devin Devasquez, Dick Rosenzweig, Elizabeth Norris, Garry Meier, Gary Cole, Hef, Hefner Celebration of Life, Hugh Hefner, Hugh Hefner tribute, Hugh Marston Hefner, Jackie Williams, James Caan, Jeff Cohen, Jesse Jackson, Jimmy Connors, Joe Don Rooney, Jr., Kimberly Conrad, Madeo's, Mandy Bentley, Marilyn Grabowski, Marston Hefner, Mary Lou Hamill, Monique St. Pierre, Nels Van Patton, Norman Lear, Pat Tomlinson, Patti Connors, Playboy, Playboy bunnies, Playboy Bunny, Playboy Mansion, Playboy Playmates, Ray Anthony, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Rick Kogan, Ronn Moss, Sandy Bentley, Sherry Lansing, Steve Bing, Tiffany Fallon, Tissy Eggleston