By Jonathon Van Maren
In 1974, thirty-year-old supermodel Paige Young lay down on top of an American flag, gripped a .38 calibre pistol, and shot herself in the head. The walls of her apartment were covered with press clippings and photos related to the porn industry—Young had been the 1968 Playboy centerfold and, and in the handful of years that followed, porn king Hugh Hefner had passed her around to celebrity pals like John Huston. Her suicide note listed the men who had abused her, the most prominent among them being Hefner himself. Her bedroom walls were covered with photos of him, and across them all Young had scrawled a single phrase in blood-red letters: “Hugh Hefner is the Devil.”
According to a new A&E documentary series Secrets of Playboy, Young killed herself to draw attention to the abuse perpetrated by Hefner and the Playboy empire—but the story was suppressed at the time, and the media largely ignored it. Hefner’s power extended into both the media and law enforcement, and he was used to cleaning up after the girls he consumed snapped or their minds finally broke under the strain of becoming objects in the sexual fantasies of Hefner and his phalanx of followers. His victims, we are now discovering, were legion. Hefner has been dead five years now, but it appears that his reckoning has finally come.
Readers might reasonably ask if there is any point to reviewing the sordid details of Hefner’s career. I think these revelations are important to note because Hefner was, in fact, the historical figure he thought he was. He sought to change the public mores of an entire society, and his contribution to that end was an enormous one. He wasn’t respectable, but he acquired respect. Consider, for example, his Firing Line interview with William F. Buckley. Dressed in fine suits, the pundit and the pervert discuss the Playboy philosophy as if it is a philosophy rather than the pseudo-intellectual equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease. Hefner, unfortunately, was a consequential American. His legacy matters, and thus exposing his legacy matters.
Interestingly, the parallels between the stories of Jeffrey Epstein and Hugh Hefner are remarkable—except that Hefner managed to become a cultural icon, the pajamed ringmaster of the Sexual Revolution. Hefner’s story is important because it has become, in many ways, our civilizational story. Pornography has become mainstream and transformed our society in ways that far exceeded Hefner’s wildest imaginings. The infrastructure of the Sexual Revolution was built by these men and women, and they were evil people. The truth has an explosive power, and to blow their myths apart is to embark on the work of demolition. Let us begin.
To the world, Hefner presented himself as the face of suave sexual liberation after founding Playboy in 1953. Girls liked sex too, and Hefner enabled—even empowered—them to make money, have fun, and become icons of desire for millions. Both the Christians and the feminists, he said, were bitter killjoys attempting to staunch the joy of others. Hefner, according to Hefner, was an egalitarian and sophisticated lover of uninhibited pleasure, and in his world, everybody won. Millions bought into the lie because millions wanted to believe it. But Hefner was not what he said he was. He was a perverted Peter Pan who grew up to become a rapist.
The girls who signed up with Playboy believed Hefner, too—not realizing that for many of the men who adopted the Playboy philosophy, power was the aphrodisiac. They didn’t want to love women—they wanted to own them. This became clear to many of the girls hired to waitress at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy clubs (at one point there were 30 clubs with 750,000 members, with the last club shutting down in 1986.) The girls were given tight, revealing uniforms to wear, cinched into Hefner’s ideal. The girls reported getting kidney infections and having feet caked with blood from the heels. They would be weighed regularly, and if they gained a few pounds, they were poured into the Hefner mold anyways. Many couldn’t breathe. This, for many of them, was “owning” their own sexuality.
The girls interviewed for Secrets of Playboy recalled that initially, they felt desired. They didn’t realize that the desire was for consumption—or if they did, they didn’t realize that it was dangerous, or how fast the power dynamic could change. Powerful men were told they could look but they couldn’t touch, but many of them did anyways. One recounted being drugged and gang-raped, coming to and realizing that she was being passed around. The documentary features so many stories of girls being assaulted that it is hard to believe how much Hefner managed to keep quiet. The Playboy empire’s damage control was controlling damaged girls—Hefner’s security was largely retired and off-duty officers from the LAPD, and this gave him the power to hush things up.
Celebrities had carte blanche with the girls despite the supposedly stringent rules of the clubs. Hefner was a flesh procurer for the rich and famous, and he had cameras set up in every room in the Playboy Mansion, covering every inch of his property. Like Epstein, he knew things about people. High-society scum congealed to him. According to interviewees, it was the norm for the “bunnies” to date celebrities, and it was expected. I’ve interviewed quite a few former porn stars, and this is still true for celebrities today—I’ve been given names, off the record, of celebrities who had “porn girlfriends.” Big names take porn stars along to parties as dates they can use and discard.
One former employee put it bluntly: “There were scandals in every club.” The image of the Playboy bunny was more important to Hefner than the flesh-and-blood girls, and so sexual assaults were silenced swiftly. One executive remembered at least forty girls who were assaulted; employees were forbidden to take them to the hospital for fear of bad press. Another employee remembered that “a lot of the girls were sodomized” by the VIPs, and that afterwards “the men just dropped them off. Left them.” There was sex and pleasure in Hefner’s world, but it was extracted from the bunnies. They didn’t just serve—they were on the menu. They were bunnies in a world of predators, and many mistook bloodthirsty smiles for affection and admiration.
One group of girls were lured from a Playboy complex in Great Gorge, New Jersey by faux Hollywood producers to a mountainside house where they were drugged, raped, and held captive for several days. Playboy fired the girls and, when the perpetrators were caught, had executives do everything in their power to minimize the story, which they kept largely quiet. Girls could actually get fired just for talking about it. The reputation of the revolution had to be protected, and thus the victims were sacrificed on the altar of Hefner’s vision for a liberated society.
In one of the worst cases, singer Don Cornelius of Soul Train allegedly invited two sisters, ages twenty and twenty-one, over to his house for a party. After they arrived at his mansion, nobody heard from them for three days. One sister had been locked in one room, and another in an adjacent room. They were bound and subjected to sexual torture—one could hear the other screaming through the wall. Finally, one got loose and managed to make a call to a Playboy manager. They were picked up “bloody, battered, drugged.” Playboy security took over. The police were not called, and the badly battered girls were not taken to the hospital. Hefner knew about it—and Cornelius didn’t even have his VIP privileges at the Playboy clubs suspended. There were no charges, and he was back at the club the following week.
As one of the club managers recalled it, her voice cracking: “I had to pick up the pieces of these kids. They were kids.” Bill Cosby was a regular, and raped girls at the mansion. So did other athletes and Hollywood stars. Football player Jim Brown brutalized women so badly he cracked ribs, broke jaws, and sent girls to the hospital—but Hefner let him keep coming. As one former staffer put it: “What predator is not going to go to the Playboy Mansion? It’s locked, it’s secure, and all the cookies are in the jar.”
It wasn’t just Hefner’s friends, either. The mogul of the Playboy Mansion was a desperately evil man. Girls explained that Hefner demanded unnatural sex acts and was not above forcing them if they refused. He supplied drugs; he groomed them with porn; he attempted to force them into acts of bestiality. One of his pleasures, a girlfriend explained, was taking young, naïve girls “and breaking them down.” He extracted these pleasures from the girls—as one put it: “Hefner broke me like he would break a horse.” One Playboy executive described his type as girls from small towns who knew they were rebelling, but had no idea what they were getting into. They, too, had bought into Hefner’s lies. Some screamed and sobbed while he abused them. Others went catatonic.
As long-time girlfriend Sondra Theodore recalled: “I watched girl after girl show up, fresh-faced, adorable. Their beauty just washed away. We were nothing to him. He was a vampire. He sucked the life out of these girls for decades.” Another witness described how the men of the mansion got a rush from bringing in “small town girls who still had the light in them, and watching it burn out.” In fact, Hefner enjoyed snuff films, where men killed the girls they were sleeping with.
The relentless list of horrors perpetrated by Hugh Hefner and the elites that populated the Playboy empire are gut-wrenching. One wonders just how much his celebrity pals knew—perhaps they merely accepted his predation the same way they put up with Harvey Weinstein’s. Hefner died just in time to miss his #MeToo moment. When he passed, he was still respectable enough to accrue accolades and defences from those he had so faithfully pimped for. The New York Times, at least, published Ross Douthat’s devastating posthumous indictment. It is worth revisiting now:
Needless to say the obituaries for Hefner, even if they acknowledge the seaminess, have been full of encomia for his great deeds: Hef the vanquisher of puritanism, Hef the political progressive, Hef the great businessman and all the rest. There are even conservative appreciations, arguing that for all his faults Hef was an entrepreneur who appreciated the finer things in life and celebrated la différence.
What a lot of garbage. Sure, Hefner supported some good causes and published some good writers. But his good deeds and aesthetic aspirations were ultimately incidental to his legacy — a gloss over his flesh-peddling, smeared like Vaseline on a pornographer’s lens. The things that were distinctively Hefnerian, that made him influential and important, were all rotten, and to the extent they were part of stories that people tend to celebrate, they showed the rot in larger things as well.
His success as a businessman showed the rotten side of capitalism — the side that exploits appetites for money, that feeds leech-like on our vices, that dissolves family and religion while promising that consumption will fill the void they leave behind.
The social liberalism he championed was the rotten and self-interested sort, a liberalism of male and upper-class privilege, in which the strong and beautiful and rich take their pleasure at the expense of the vulnerable and poor and not-yet-born.
The online future his career anticipated was the rotten side of the internet — the realms of onanism and custom-tailored erotica, where the male vanity and entitlement he indulged has curdled into resentment and misogyny.
And his appreciation of male-female difference was rotten, too — the leering predatory sort of appreciation, the Cosby-Clinton-Trump sort, the sort that nicknames quaaludes “thigh openers” and expects the girls to laugh, the sort that prefers breast implants to female intellect and rents the charms of youth to escape the realities of age.
No doubt what Hefner offered America somebody else would have offered in his place, and the changes he helped hasten would have come rushing in without him.
But in every way that mattered he made those changes worse, our culture coarser and crueler and more sterile than liberalism or feminism or freedom of speech required. And in every way that mattered his life story proved that we were wrong to listen to him, because at the end of the long slide lay only a degraded, priapic senility, or the desperate gaiety of Prince Prospero’s court with the Red Death at the door.
Now that death has taken him, we should examine our own sins. Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.
You can find these questions being asked, but they are counterpoints and minor themes. That this should be the case, that only prudish Christians and spoilsport feminists are willing to say that the man was obviously wicked and destructive, is itself a reminder that the rot Hugh Hefner spread goes very, very deep.
Much deeper, as it turns out, than we knew. After this obituary was published, Bill Maher confronted Ross Douthat on his HBO show, stating that Hugh Hefner was a close friend of his and angrily reading bits of Douthat’s takedown aloud. Maher defended Hefner then; he has defended him since. I wonder what he thinks about Hefner now. I wonder what he knew about Hefner then.