Hugh Hefner’s New York

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  • A 1970 press photo for the syndicated TV show "Playboy After Dark," which was in taped in Los Angeles. Hugh Hefner (in tuxedo) is at far right, actor-comedian Don Adams, who played Maxwell Smart, also known as "Agent 86," in the comedy "Get Smart," is at center, and Playboy cover girl and longtime Hefner girlfriend Barbi Benton is seated between them. Photo: Playboy Enterprises, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Hugh Hefner donned one of his trademark caps for an event in Long Beach, California, in November 2010, one of the last times he left his beloved Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills in Los Angeles. Photo: Glenn Francis / PacificProDigital, via Wikimedia Commons

Or how the sexual celebrant, master marketer and destroyer of mores lured swingers, sophisticates — and yes, sleazoids — into the Playboy Club, turning it into the busiest nightspot in the city


One of the most telling time capsules in the city can be found under “Help Wanted — Female” in the classified section of The New York Times. Take March 1965, and scan the ads: They seek “Kelly Girls” and “Gals Friday,” “Dictaphone Secretaries” and “World’s Fair Hostesses.”

A marketing firm wants a “Girl Trainee,” and adds, “Housewife OK.” Pan American World Airways “needs girls to fly all six continents” — but they must be single, and please, no contact lenses.

And then, wedged in between the listings for bookkeepers and “comptometer operators” at Bloomingdale’s, there comes this gentle throwback: “BUNNY.” A companion ad on a facing page from the same employer gets straight to the point. “GIRLS — LOVELY,” it says. “Apply for glamour, excitement and top earnings as a Playboy Bunny.”

The venue, of course, is the Playboy Club, at 5 East 59th Street, “three doors east of Fifth Avenue, three doors west of Madison Avenue,” and the number to call is PL 2-3100.

How hopelessly dated, even quaint, it all seems now. But in that era of rotary phones and lettered prefixes, the Plaza 2- exchange, taking its name from the high-end district around the Plaza Hotel, was as iconic as Butterfield 8-, the Upper East Side exchange that gave its name to a 1960 Elizabeth Taylor film and the 1933 John O’Hara novel on which it was based.

Ah, PL 2-3100. Once, it was as celebrated as “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” the title of a pop standard recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra that was derived from the switchboard number for the Hotel Pennsylvania. But did the “PL” really stand for “Plaza”?

In the world according to Hugh Hefner, the answer was an emphatic NO. Indeed, operators at the Playboy Club, or “Bunny Central,” were for a time instructed to answer the phone, “Playboy 2-3100.” The failure to do so could result in demerits and the docking of salary.

“I still hear that number in my sleep,” says retired Broadway publicist Hal Adler, 95, who worked in the theater district and says he used to squire “chorus girls” to the club in the mid-1960s. “To me, Playboy 2-3100 still brings to mind happy days, good clients and lovely women. It was surprisingly tame, too, at least by today’s standards.”

In fact, the New York club enjoyed a semi-wholesome cachet: It was the place where indulgent fathers would take adolescent sons as a rite of passage, providing them a first glimpse of pulchritude and promise.

But it had a tawdry side, too. Touching and groping and propositioning were all too frequent. Only flagrant offenders were 86ed.

And it was none other than Gloria Steinem, later the co-founder of Ms. Magazine, who went undercover as a bunny for 17 days in 1963 and in an expose in now-defunct Show Magazine, revealed how all would-be bunnies were required to undergo a gynecological exam and testing for sexually transmitted infections, typically at the hands of male doctors.

All of this came to mind as news broke that the pipe-smoking, silk-robe clad Hefner — who for better or worse had an outsized impact on the worlds of sexuality, marketing, media, culture, creativity, advertising and brand promotion — had died at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles at the age of 91 on September 27.

Reviews of his life and times, issued from critics on both the left and right, were scathing:

To conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat, he was a pornographic “father of smut addiction,” a “leering grotesque,” and “grinning pimp.” British feminist Julie Bindel opined that “no one should shed a tear” for the “ultimate enemy of women.” Praise for “Hef” on social media? “It’s disgusting,” feminist critic Susan Brownmiller offered.

Defenders included left-wing political activist and TV producer Norman Lear, who tweeted, “We’ve lost a true explorer, a man with a keen sense of the future.” Conservative-libertarian Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, hailed him for embracing a “sexual complementarity that has bound men and women together since the dawn of time.”

Complementarity? Well, call it what you will, but it was sure on display behind the white canopy bearing the black bunny symbol that was arguably the world’s most recognizable logo.

It was here, on December 8, 1962, behind the dramatic, shimmering dark-glass façade that curtained off 59th Street, that Hefner conjured up his 40,000-square-foot, multi-level palace of dreams and desires, flesh and fantasies, seduction and sexism.

Entry to the seven-story nightspot was controlled by a “Door Bunny,” “floor bunnies” served drinks, and patrons were feted by musicians, magicians and chanteuses in the Living Room, Party Room, Play Room, Penthouse and VIP Room which, naturally, stood for “Very Important Playboy.”

Why 59th Street? The Copacabana had been around the corner, on 60th Street off Fifth Avenue near the Pierre Hotel, since it bowed in 1941. Hefner believed that the storied nightspot had become a tad stuffy and felt a more unbuttoned club in this buttoned-down part of town could capture the Copa’s overflow. And so it did.

Marketed as private club for the “key-holders” who paid a onetime fee of $25 a year, the Playboy Club quickly drew swingers and sophisticates — but it cannot be denied that sleazeballs masquerading as respectable gentlemen also made their presence known.

“What do you think I come here for, the roast beef?” one four-martini customer asked Steinem after breathing heavily down her neck. Other patrons offered her Hotel Astor and New Yorker Hotel room keys, she wrote in the 1963 article.

There were also the “usual tail-pullings and propositions and pinching and ogling,” to which she would utter a ritual reply, “Please, sir, you are not allowed to touch the bunnies.”

But if there was boorishness, there was courtliness, too. Adler recalls a “sweet innocence” — even as he sat at the bar, cigarette in hand, surrounded by gorgeous women in low-cut, skin-tight, one-piece satin outfits complete with black bow tie, bunny ears, three-inch heels and fluffy white pom-pom tails, reminiscent of a scene from “Mad Men.”

“I never so much as took off my suit jacket,” he says. “The only thing I ever took off was a lady’s coat at the hatcheck counter.”

The club was a commercial smash. It was one of 40-plus Playboy Clubs around the world, and Hefner spent more time at those in Chicago and Los Angeles. But thanks to Madison Avenue’s romance with the Playboy brand, 59th Street brought far more advertising to the magazine and franchising to the Playboy empire.

At its peak in the 1960s, the club hosted 2,700 people daily, making it the busiest in the city. It employed 128 bunnies, and Steinem wasn’t the only famed alumni: Model, Vogue cover girl and “American Gigolo” actress Lauren Hutton worked at the club in 1964. Platinum-haired Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry spent five years as a bunny starting in 1968.

But no bunny can endure forever. Constantly policing the “bunny image,” Playboy dismissed scores of women it felt no longer maintained that “look of freshness, vitality and cheerfulness,” the “vibrant, charming look” that included “standards of figure proportion.”

Before long, the Playboy Club itself had lost that “look of freshness.” The once-forbidden sexual imagery it had brought to the masses had become passé. Just as it had once eclipsed the Copa, two hot new clubs were now poised to poach its business, Studio 54, which debuted in 1977, and the Limelight, which followed in 1983.

After a 21-year run, Playboy shuttered the 59th Street club in August 1983. It briefly reopened in the Hotel Lexington in 1985, with male rabbits to complement its female bunnies, only to close again for good the next year.

The unzipping would now take place in other venues. Should it be lamented? Romanticized? Perhaps. But let’s give Gloria Steinem the last word. The subject is bustier padding:

“My unofficial list of Bunny Bosom Stuffers,” she wrote in her 1963 expose. “1) Kleenex 2) plastic dry cleaner’s bags 3) absorbent cotton 4) cut-up Bunny tails 5) foam rubber 6) lamb’s wool 7) Kotex halves 8) silk scarves 9) gym socks.”

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