Long ago, in another time, I got a call from a lawyer. Hugh Hefner was threatening a libel action against me and the paper I worked for at the time, for something I had written. Journalists live in dread of such calls. I had called Hefner a pimp. To me this was not even controversial; it was self-evident. And he was just one of the many “libertines” who had threatened me with court action over the years.
It is strange that these outlaws have recourse in this way, but they do. But at the time, part of me wanted my allegation to be tested in a court of law. What a case it could have made. What a hoot it would have been to argue whether a man who procured, solicited and made profits from women selling sex could be called a pimp. Of course, central to Playboy’s ideology is the idea that women do this kind of thing willingly; that at 23 they want nothing more than to jump octogenarians.
Now that he’s dead, the disgusting old sleaze in the smoking jacket is being spoken of as some kind of liberator of women. Kim Kardashian is honoured to be have been involved. Righty-o.
I don’t really know which women were liberated by Hefner’s fantasies. I guess if you aspired to be a living Barbie it was as fabulous as it is to be in Donald Trump’s entourage. Had we gone to court, I would like to have heard some of the former playmates and bunnies speak up in court – because over the years they have.
The accounts of the “privileged few” who made it into the inner sanctum of the 29-room Playboy mansion as wives/girlfriends/bunny rabbits are quite something. In Hefner’s petting zoo/harem/brothel, these interchangeable blondes were put on a curfew. They were not allowed to have friends to visit. And certainly not boyfriends. They were given an “allowance”. The big metal gates on the mansion that everyone claimed were to keep people out of this “nirvana” were described by one-time Hefner “girlfriend no 1” Holly Madison in her autobiography thus: “I grew to feel it was meant to lock me in.”
But listen to what the women say about this heaven. Every week, Izabella St James recalls, they had to go to his room and “wait while he picked the dog poo off the carpet – and then ask for our allowance. A thousand dollars counted out in crisp hundred dollar bills from a safe in one of his bookcases.”
Hefner – repeatedly described as an icon for sexual liberation – would lie there with, I guess, an iconic erection, Viagra-ed to the eyeballs. The main girlfriend would then be called to give him oral sex. There was no protection and no testing. He didn’t care, wrote Jill Ann Spaulding. Then the other women would take turns to get on top of him for two minutes while the girls in the background enacted lesbian scenarios to keep “Daddy” excited. Is there no end to this glamour?
Well now there is, of course. But this man is still being celebrated by people who should know better. You can dress it up with talk of glamour and bunny ears and fishnets, you can talk about his contribution to gonzo journalism, you can contextualise his drive to free up sex as part of the sexual revolution. But strip it all back and he was a man who bought and sold women to other men. Isn’t that the definition of a pimp? I couldn’t possibly say.