The young women assembled on the lawn have come from around the country for this moment, delivered to the Playboy Mansion by mothers and boyfriends, each girl prepared for the day in extravagant states of undress. Standing on stiletto heels, they wear G-strings and micro-bikinis, lingeries of lace and silk, while showing off golden tans or blindingly pale skin beneath a warm, cloudless sky. They are here for a Playboy casting call, 225 of them ready to be chosen for a new generation of naked girls next door, to land on the glossy pages of an intimate magazine pictorial. By tomorrow another 300 will have arrived, flying in from Boston, New York, Florida, Australia. But today's search has come to a halt as the young women anxiously await the imminent appearance of the man of the house, the esteemed publisher and chief lothario, Hugh M. Hefner, or, simply, "Hef."
The front door opens to a round of girlish cheers when Hefner steps from his castle with a wave, a video crew documenting the boss in his red-satin robe and white captain's hat. He is 84 now and walks with the stiffness of age, but he moves quickly past the stone cherubs in the fountain, past the wishing well where he married his second wife (now divorced), and through this crowd of young admirers. He does not linger.
"Hi, Hef! We love you!" shouts a petite woman with auburn skin and bleached-blond hair, nearly bursting out of her frilly bikini top and panties. Hefner smiles again but keeps leaning forward, walking with an entourage that includes several security men and his new No. 1 girlfriend, Crystal Harris, the magazine's Miss December for 2009, an athletic blonde a fraction of his age, strolling beside him in a little black dress.
In a moment, Hefner is at the tennis court, where temporary photo studios are erected inside white tents, as models wait their turn to disrobe for a quick test in front of a Playboy camera. (One asks photographer Arny Freytag if she can fill out an application to be Hef's girlfriend.) Hefner poses for a quick snapshot with a crowd of would-be Playmates, and sits for a brief interview for Playboy Radio. It's there that he is presented with a large, jovial portrait of himself, created by an artist who paints exclusively with his penis.
Hefner has hosted scenes like this for more than five decades: all the parties and political events, the nude sunbathing by the pool and roller disco on the tennis court, mingling with actors, athletes, presidential candidates and an endless rotation of young women. It is a life and image he invented for himself, and it continues to define the Playboy dream. The man and the brand remain inseparable.
It has been a long run of high style and decadence, a nonstop pajama party at the Mansion, his personal Shangri-la. Hefner rarely leaves the premises, and he will tell you with a satisfied cackle, "Life is tough here, as you can see."
There are the expected "aches and pains," the occasional trouble with the ex-wife and girlfriends, and his hearing is going. He also hosts fewer of the famous house parties now, citing the cost of all that hedonistic fun. More ominous is the health of Playboy Enterprises Inc., which he took public during boom times nearly four decades ago, and which now faces the same declining fortunes and circulation numbers as all print media. Playboy magazine's current 1.5 million circulation represents a staggering drop from its 1971 peak of 7 million.
The stock price has been in a steady fall for years. Rumored attempts by the board to sell the company or find new partnerships have stalled, with Hefner's ongoing role the ultimate complication. He remains majority owner with 70 percent of the stock, and he is not about to sell, or to abandon his role as the living symbol of the empire. That would kill him. This month, Hefner surprised the board and financial analysts with an offer to buy back the company stock he doesn't already own, reasserting himself as the master of the house of Playboy, with no intention of leaving the mansion or the life.
The dream that sustains him, as it does his most committed readers, is a small one. It is not movie star Hef. It is not Hef in the White House. Hef on the moon. It is a dream that can fit comfortably inside the mind of any American male: big house, naked girls. This is a dream that can carry you for many years, from adolescence and apparently well into your 80s. But is the dream still a dream after half a century of uninterrupted wish fulfillment? Does Hef still look at his bedside bottle of baby oil with the same level of enthusiasm?