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With the tragic suicide of Bobbie Arnstein weighing on his mind and the sunshine of Los Angeles and Playboy Mansion West beckoning, Hugh Hefner left Chicago for good. The Mansion starred in an epic January 1975 photo feature that showed off exactly why Hef decided to depart the Windy City for La La Land. Events like the annual Midsummer Night’s Dream party, pictures from which you can see here in the January 1979 issue, helped burnish Hef’s image as the consummate man about town. Perhaps the more appropriate phrasing would be town-about-man, since all the local luminaries wanted to be around him.
As Hef moved to L.A., the Playboy empire expanded into music. Playboy Records’ two significant acts were important for wildly different reasons. A group of Swedish singers performing as Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid released the single “People Need Love” in June 1972. Though Playboy’s distribution capacity may have prevented the song from becoming the hit it could have been, the group soon resurfaced as ABBA and became one of the biggest pop acts in the world.
The second artist to know is Barbi Benton. Benton had had success appearing on programs like Hee Haw, Fantasy Island and The Love Boat but her real calling was as a country singer. “Brass Buckles” was a top 5 hit on Billboard’s country music singles chart and “Ain’t That Just the Way” was a number one hit in Sweden for five weeks.
As Benton’s music and acting career blew up, so did her relationship with Hef. She was on the road more and more. He went from being functionally monogamous to returning to the bachelor lifestyle. Their relationship ended in the mid-1970s. The way American Playboy depicts it, she catches Hef in bed with two other women.
“This place is a dream,” she tells him. “But it’s your dream.” (Benton married real-estate developer George Gradow in 1979 and had two children with him.)
playboy the magazine had also fallen on hard times. The company posted a loss in the middle of the decade for the first time in its history, partially because by 1975 there were 40 national men’s magazines competing for the same market share. Penthouse, in particular, was crossing boundaries by featuring men and women together—and even full male nudity on occasion.
I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.
Jimmy Carter, Playboy Interview November 1976
Two playboy events during the decade stand out as milestones in the magazine’s evolution. The first was the decision to feature a controversial cover that was the magazine’s most suggestive yet. The November 1975 issue bore the legend “More Sex in Cinema” and featured a topless model slipping her hand into her underwear as she watches some unnamed movie in a theater. Though the issue helped circulation, advertisers were furious and revenues dropped 8 percent.
The second significant issue was exactly a year later. November 1976 saw presidential candidate Jimmy Carter sit for the Playboy Interview. Though Carter was a devout Christian, he spoke frankly about lust and desire within the magazine’s pages. The interview process was typically exhaustive.
“For three months, [reporter Robert] Scheer dogged the footsteps of the peanut farmer who would be President, scrambling aboard press planes, sleeping in motels, hanging out with the pack of journalists that grew in size as the campaign gathered momentum,” the introduction reads. “With the support of Carter’s young aides—notably, press secretary Jody Powell and campaign manager Hamilton Jordan—Scheer and Playboy managed to log more hours of recorded conversations with the candidate than any other publication or news medium—a fact Carter joked about at the final session.”
But the final results were worth it. Carter described his struggle with sin in semi-shocking detail, especially for a prominent politician.
“I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust,” Carter said. “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.”
The issue sold 98 percent of its copies at the newsstand, which American Playboy tells us is an unprecedented success rate.
But all was not well in the Playboy kingdom. The 25th Anniversary Issue, which ran January 1979, featured Marlon Brando, Gore Vidal, Shel Silverstein and Arthur C. Clarke. The highlight, however, was “The Great Playmate Hunt,” which cast a wide net to find the most playboy-ready undiscovered young women in America. Dorothy Stratten came in second but immediately caught Hef’s eye. She was featured as Playmate of the Month in August 1979. American Playboy shows us that she also inspired the affection of people like actor James Caan, shown hanging out with Stratten at the Mansion.
“I’m definitely a sucker for the romantic approach,” Stratten told the magazine.
She was, indeed, as she was married to a hustler named Paul Snider after meeting in a Vancouver Dairy Queen when Stratten was still a teenager. Snider and Stratten began to drift apart when Stratten found acting success in shows like Fantasy Island and Buck Rogers. Things really took off for her in 1980, when she was named Playmate of the Year. She also appeared on the Tonight Show, giving a rare interview to the legendary Johnny Carson.
“A lot of men were entering my life all of a sudden and a lot of them wanted me,” an excerpt from her memoirs reads. “No one was pushy or forceful—but talk can be very powerful—especially to a mixed-up little girl.”
One of those men was Oscar-winning director Peter Bogdanovich. He cast Stratten in They All Laughed, which took her to New York—and the director’s bed. When she returned to Los Angeles, she went to break up with an incensed Snider against Bogdanovich’s wishes. Snider killed her, then himself.
After her death, Bogdanovich would marry her sister.
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