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1971 saw Playboy riding high. The brand’s production company was on a hot streak, producing both Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and the first movie from iconic British comedy troupe Monty Python, the sketch-centric And Now for Something Completely Different.
The brand received an influx of investors from Wall Street, lending Hef and the gang a legitimacy that had eluded them in their earlier days. playboy had gone from a magazine tucked under mattresses to a worldwide brand with the approval of the most mainstream institution of all: investment bankers. As historian David Eisenbach says, “What’s more establishment than Wall Street?”
Still, Penthouse sought to challenge the Bunny’s supremacy. The newer magazine’s subscriber base had grown to 1.3 million each month, which put pressure on Hef to innovate and push the envelope further. He decided that the best way to do so would be to publish a full-frontal magazine cover—something that had never happened in the magazine’s history.
Victor Lownes discovered the Bunny while at the Playboy Club London. Her name was Marilyn Cole and, as he explains, he thought she filled out her Bunny uniform “quite nicely.” Cole appeared in the magazine in January 1972 as the Playmate of the Month in a pictorial called “Body English.” Though the magazine had obviously shown nudity before, this was the most graphic image to date. (As Marilyn quips, “What a legacy.”) The gambit worked; the June 1972 issue announcing the Playmate of the Year represented the high-water mark of the magazine’s circulation: Seven million people subscribed to playboy worldwide.
Not only was the magazine exploding in popularity, but Hef had found his West Coast home—the one we know today as the Playboy Mansion. He maintained, initially, an apartment atop the Playboy office building in Los Angeles, but wanted something more palatial. As American Playboy shows us, girlfriend Barbi was on Sunset when her driver told her about a place where the gate was always closed. Intrigued, she hopped the fence and looked around before later contacting the owners to see about a sale. They were game.
So Hef bought Playboy Mansion West, a property set on five and a half acres and just a block and a half from Sunset.
“I don’t think anything I could say would adequately describe the place,” Hef said in his January, 1974 Playboy Interview. “The main building was inspired by a mansion in England called Holmby House; it’s built of stone, with slate roofs and leaded windows. The grounds are handsomely landscaped, with rolling hills, a variety of trees, plants and flowers and what is reputed to be the largest redwood forest in Southern California. We added a tennis court and a swimming pool, with adjoining ponds and waterfalls, and introduced exotic varieties of fish, birds and animals as a finishing touch. It isn’t as large as the Chicago Mansion, but it’s even more impressive because of the elegance of the architecture and the grounds. There’s a separate guesthouse, a green house and a game house, with an outdoor bar and buffet area done in the same stone as the main building. But the most popular spot on the estate is a grotto we built, as a part of the pool, that can be entered by swimming through a waterfall and includes an elaborate series of Jacuzzi baths that are enjoyed more as a center of social activity than for their therapeutic value. In short, the West Coast Mansion is a veritable Shangri-La, and rumor has it that you really do start aging perceptibly after leaving the grounds.”
But all was not well in Hugh Hefner’s kingdom. The second half of episode eight focuses on Bobbie Arnstein, Hef’s longtime secretary and friend. Arnstein started dating a smalltime drug dealer named Ronald Scharf. She met Scharf in a dress shop in the summer of 1971 and the two quickly became inseperable. In one of the show’s longest reenacted scenes, we witness Scharf and Arnstein on vacation: She thinks they are on a getaway, but he has a more nefarious purpose. In Florida, Scharf buys drugs from a dealer named George Matthews, which Arnstein carries out of the room. Once DEA agents realized who Arnstein worked for, they pushed her hard to flip on Hefner. In their fantasy, playboy was a front for a vast drug conspiracy.
American Playboy makes clear the stress this put on Arnstein, who had made the playboy empire the center of her world. The courts sentenced her to 15 years, more than her actual dealer boyfriend. Hef and the magazine remained silent, which Hef later regretted. The real Hugh opines, “Every time I have allowed somebody to make me not talk to the press, I’ve paid heavily for it. In this case, we all paid heavily for it—and Bobbie paid for it with her life.”
Arnstein, unable to cope with the prospect of more than a decade behind bars, took her own life while staying at the Maryland Hotel on Chicago’s North Side. She left a sealed envelope on the bedstand that read: “This is another one of those boring suicide notes.”
Hefner was devastated. He held a news conference at which he said that Arnstein had been hounded into suicide by federal prosecutors in “a politically motivated anti-playboy witch hunt.” The actual footage of the press conference is featured, depicting an unfamiliar Hef: harried, upset, near tears. At her funeral, the first he ever attended, he wore a yarmulke and served as a pallbearer. Hugh Hefner, the show attests, was never the same.
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