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Of course she will be there, Harris tells him. Then she has to repeat it, shouting loud enough for him to hear.
He enters the mansion library abruptly, a vague sense of impatience about him. Despite the permanent leisure wear, the satin and slippers, Hef keeps to a tight schedule. It's an afternoon in early April, and his 84th birthday is only days away. The signs of time passing are inescapable.
His good friend actor Robert Culp had just died suddenly from a heart attack, another longtime pal and mansion regular to pass away in the last year. "This is a time of reflection. I have some very dear friends in the last handful of years who are gone," Hefner says. "You get to a place where you reflect on the life and look back over the good times. That, in a very real way, makes this as good a time in my life as I've ever had."
What goes on behind that impish grin is unknown to most of us. While he is a dependably charming and intelligent interview, Hefner's not about to bare his soul to another visitor sitting across from his backgammon table. But he is always ready to reexamine the events of his life and career. There is a new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, directed by his friend Brigitte Berman, who won an Oscar in 1986 for Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got. And Taschen has released a five-volume, encyclopedic history of the man and the magazine, from his baby pictures and earliest cartoons to Playboy's 25th anniversary, at the end of the '70s.
He looks and sounds exceptionally fit for a man of 84, but Hefner is quick to acknowledge that he no longer cuts quite the same image he did during Playboy's rise. "Of course not. The image now is the image as it really is," he says. "But I think one of the messages of my life is that age is just a number, and you can define your life in a lot of different ways. What my life has been all about is that there is more than one way to do it, more than one moral way, and a lot of the traditional ways are suspect.
"Retirement is the first step to the grave if you're doing what you enjoy. My work is a pleasure."
Arrayed behind him are framed pictures of his children, his mother, the second wife, and a new one of Hef with Crystal. There is a model of his Big Bunny jet, his stretch DC-9 painted tuxedo black, which he sold back in 1976, and a life-size porcelain bust of Barbi Benton, his girlfriend from the good times of the late '60s and early '70s.
The 30-room Playboy Mansion is a home as Hollywood-famous as Pickfair or Neverland, and Hefner's brother Keith predicts that after Hef is gone, the property will become something like Graceland, a shrine. Hefner bought the 6-acre property in 1971 for $1.1 million, with another $14 million in capital improvements in the years since, but none of the recent renovations has altered the flavor and mood of the residence. It looks essentially as it has for decades.
The house is lived in, and an unlikely candidate as a showplace for modern living in Architectural Digest. Nothing here can be found in Dwell. Hef will receive an iPad for his birthday, but a lot of the fixtures and décor date back to the Nixon administration. Hefner is a man who hates change.
Even the paintings by Picasso, Pollock and Dali — long since sold at auction — have been replaced by reproductions and hang exactly where the originals once did. (The original Matisse drawing with a cigarette burn left by John Lennon remains.) His leather footrest in the screening room is well-worn, and the drapes by the dining room fireplace are stained from ash.
It is the same with his life. Nothing changes except the names of his women, and Hefner keeps to a rigid schedule.
"Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays — they all have to be the same as last week's and the weeks before," says Kendra Wilkinson, his former girlfriend and an original cast member from the hit reality series The Girls Next Door. "He has to have the exact drink at the exact time. He has to have his chicken noodle soup at the exact time, and he has to have his movie at a certain time. You can't be late. He's always on a schedule. Always — except for girls."
He also remains deeply involved with the creative and entrepreneurial side of Playboy, on the phone with his editorial director in the magazine's Chicago headquarters. Hefner has his reasons for remaining in Los Angeles, in his big house on Charing Cross Road, atop a hill with his zoo and swimming pool and tennis courts. He spends almost no time in any office other than the one he keeps in the upstairs living quarters. He hates meetings.
Back in the '50s and '60s, there were speedy, all-night Benzedrine binges, enough to keep him going nonstop two or three days at a time. All those hours weren't spent humping bunnies. He was working, bent over text and cartoons and photographs, the makings of Playboy scattered on the floor around him, actually editing, a pencil in one hand, a pipe in the other, sometimes spending his nights alone in his infamous round, rotating, vibrating bed. Which doesn't sound very leisurely at all.