'It is the House of the Bunny' - What happened when this Irish reporter partied at the Playboy Mansion
I am standing in a hallowed spot steeped in American history.
It’s not where Little Bighorn went down…although I’m sure there’s a puerile gag in there somewhere.
I’ve been invited to the Premiere of Amazon Prime Video’s new docuseries American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, which takes place in the home of the man himself: The Playboy Mansion
Security getting in is tight. You cannot even get an Lyft or an Uber to the address in Holmby Hills - we have to check in at nearby UCLA and get our wristbands there, before being shuttled to the sprawling property. And it is huge.
Big celeb houses are a dime a dozen in LA (perhaps the wrong turn of phrase they do cost millions of dollars obviously, but there are lots of them) but even among them, this place is impressive.
We make our way into the foyer. I had heard rumours the place was falling into disrepair, which of course now that I’m standing here I know is ridiculous. It has a charming old Hollywood feel to it, filled with movie memorabilia and lots of artwork, Hef himself the subject of the vast majority of it.
In recounting this to someone afterwards they suggested this was quite egotistical – and while they were obviously correct by very definition, it didn’t feel like that. In the same way you don’t hate Mickey Mouse for splashing his image all over Disneyland… it is the house of mouse after all. And this is the House of the Bunny.
We’re watching the first episode in the very room Hef hosts his famous weekly movie nights. There’s movie candy – as Americans call it – on hand and plenty of popcorn, while a bartender painstakingly mixes a (very strong) custom cocktail for the night that’s in it, the Mr Playboy.
Hef himself, sadly, doesn’t make an appearance, but his youngest son – and heir to the Playboy Empire – Cooper does. His dad, he tells us, wanted to join but was suffering from a bad back.
Hugh, which we will learn in the documentary, started one of the world’s most recognisable brands in 1953 with a loan of $600. Whether by accident or design, the creator became as synonymous with the brand as the bow-tied bunny and his image is irrevocably tied to it. Once a playful metonym for virility, Hugh is now pushing 91.
His family, and social media, insist he is fine, but he hasn’t been seen in public for a long time. And it’s sad. Especially since the Mansion was sold to a private equity firm in 2016 for $100million, under the condition Hugh gets to – to put it bluntly – live there 'til he dies. He spends his time there with his wife, who is 60-years his junior, which in fairness isn’t a bad way to go.
Back downstairs, we are whisked back to Hef’s youth, via Matt Whelan, who plays the younger version of publishing magnate. The series is a little unusual as it jumps between Whelan and the real Hefner narrating, when either one would have sufficed.
In terms of subject matter, it is undoubtedly fascinating. Who has lived a more interesting life than Hugh Hefner? Since it is made by Playboy itself, it is hardly objective, but the stern criticisms Playboy once faced are so archaic now it was hardly in need of a screen trial.
For those unfamiliar with the publication – those who might only tongue in cheek claim to ‘read it for the articles’ – it might surprise to learn it actually did have articles. The first episode delves into the strong political and very progressive stances the publication took, especially during the civil rights upheaval in the 60s. In fact, I don’t think the word ‘boobs’ s even mentioned once.
Seeing the simple origins of the mag, and then stepping out into the grounds in bore is something of a mindf*ck.
After the show we are deftly ushered outside, so I don’t get much of a chance to investigate the rest of the mansion interior itself (and where Hef might be hiding?) but there is plenty in the grounds to explore.
The first thing I notice is the tented bar – not because of [insert Irish stereotype gag here] but because it runs the almost breath of the Mansion itself, which is no mean feat.
Likely installed just for the event itself, it looks plush enough to be permanent, a testament to the amount of money Playboy can still throw around.
No plastic deck chairs and tables here — every piece of furniture is ornate and unique; antique leather sofas with furs casually thrown on the back, grouped around low mirrored coffee tables impossible to lift; or sleek high stools, secluded and paired private two-seat arrangements;. And everywhere there are retro editions of Playboy with cover prices such as 75c, which is even more eye-opening than the cover art.
There’s a DJ spinning and an enormous glass box mock-up of a Playboy front cover, which you can climb into and take pictures with the bunnies, who are wandering around uniformly cotton-tailed.
There are recognisable faces milling around - I spot Kendra, once one of Hef’s girlfriends from the Girls Of The Playboy Mansion era (or Girls Next Door, as it is known here), which is how I somewhat ashamedly find myself familiar with my surroundings. Whatever happened to Bridget? Holly DEFINITELY won’t be here, she and Hef had a bit of a falling out after she put him on blast in a memoir.
I spot Jared Leto; I hear Orlando Bloom is here but I don’t see him. Oh! And there’s the dad from That '70s Show! I briefly consider asking him to but that foot in my ass, but remember the setting and think better of it.
I wander over to the pool, and the infamous grotto. Beside the pool I’ve noticed a very tall, very attractive blonde who hasn’t moved much from the water’s edge all night. When she turns her miniscule red ‘Lifeguard’ bumbag tells me why. How very Playboy! No doubt she’s heard her fair share of voluntary CPR gags in her time.
The shrill cry of a peacock - I don’t know why I know it’s a peacock because I can’t see it, but I know it’s a peacock - reminds me: there’s a zoo here somewhere!
I slip away from the crowd and wander a little further into the darkened gardens. After blindly fumbling down various winding paths, there it is: rows of 20ft high cages - as big or bigger than ones you would typically see at a zoo - filled with tropical birds. A bit further, and the same size cages are filled with dozens and dozens of monkeys. I cannot believe how many he has. I’m guessing the vast majority of the sex at the Playboy Mansion happens right here these days.
I’m delighted I finally got to see inside Hollywood’s most famous home, and all the strange creatures that inhabit it. But I’m raging I didn’t catch a glimpse of the rarest one - the elusive Hef.