(Editor’s note: This essay contains descriptions of actions that are sexual to nature and may be troubling to some readers.)
The documentary Secrets of Playboy, a 12-part A&E series, is more than the pop-culture debauchery it describes. It is a deep lesson on the destruction one life can cause when it seeks a false vision of freedom.
Hugh Hefner (1926-2017) considered himself “a very moral guy,” and, above all, “a playboy philosopher.” He justified his actions as ways to defeat the religious “repression” of his Methodist parents and of American culture in general, aiming to replace it with complete freedom. But each episode of the documentary shows just how twisted Hefner’s kingdom of self-gratification became, as insiders discuss the many lives devastated by drug overdoses, suicides, sexual exploitation, and excess.
One longtime girlfriend, Sondra Theodore, who dated Hefner for five years in the 1970s and early 80s, said, “I watched girl after girl show up, fresh faced, adorable and their beauty just washed away. We were nothing to him. He was like a vampire. He sucked the life out of these girls for decades.”
His closest confidants say he was so focused on enjoying every moment to the absolute fullest, that he ate 2 or 3 pounds of M&Ms a day, drank 40 Pepsis a day and spent many hours playing games in his arcade room or by the pool, like a child who refused to grow up.
In an interview with the L.A. Times in 1992, Hefner said, “Much of my life has been like an adolescent dream of an adult life. If you were still a boy, in almost a Peter Pan kind of way, and could have just the perfect life that you wanted to have, that’s the life I invented for myself.”
But it was not just innocent childhood fantasies that ‘Hef’ wanted to live out. The documentary quotes many of his employees as saying he required them to have prescriptions to quaaludes, a strong barbiturate often called “the date rape drug,” but which Hefner called “leg spreaders.” He would then take his employees’ prescriptions and put the bottles in a drawer in his bedroom, where he also kept stashes of cocaine, amphetamines, and marijuana.
Employees report that Bill Cosby, who has been accused of using quaaludes to lower women’s inhibitions for sex, was regularly present at the mansion. One 15-year-old girl claims Cosby raped her using quaaludes while at the Playboy Mansion. P.J. Masten, a former Playboy bunny, told CNN that she knows at least a dozen other bunnies, in addition to herself, who were drugged and raped by Cosby. But she says people said nothing because Cosby was known as Hefner’s “best friend.”
The documentary describes at least one incident of Hefner attempting to sleep with an underage girl, interviewing his former doctor’s daughter, who he allegedly invited (unsuccessfully) into an orgy when she was 17.
While these accusations of using date-rape drugs to entice the young aspiring models to sleep with him date back to the early days of Playboy (founded by Hefner in 1953), recent “girlfriends” of Hefner reported similar experiences. Holly Madison, of “Girls Next Door” fame, said in her book that Hefner offered her quaaludes before they had sex for the first time too. In the Sunday Mirror, twin sisters Karissa and Kristina Shannon said the first time they had sex with Hefner, at 19 years old, “He told us the drugs would help with our anxiety.” Then he gave them quaaludes, which made them feel “loose and fuzzy,” before having them “summoned to his bedroom.”
After it was over, they said, “It was creepy and gross. We felt filthy, disgusted, like our bodies weren’t ours… It was almost 5am when we got back to our room that first night and we agreed, ‘He is the devil. He has a black soul. He is going to hell’.”
Now that he’s passed, they said that even though they had “dated” Hef for two years in the early 2010s, they were glad he was now dead so other girls would be spared their experience.
“Hef acted like he owned you. If we broke his rules, six guards would drag us to our room and not let us leave. Hef called it ‘HMH arrest’, after his initials. He preyed on vulnerable young girls like us. He would offer you the world, then keep you trapped in his house, which was like a golden prison. When Hef died, part of us did feel sad, but another part was like, ‘OK good, no more girls are going to be groomed and ruined like we were’.”
His sexual appetites, according to the documentary, got weirder and more extreme as he got older. His former girlfriends and employees say he required five orgies a week, including a “pig night,” where he would send people out to get carloads of street prostitutes for he and his celebrity friends, like John Belushi, to have a fancy dinner with (and then of course to patronize their services). One girlfriend says she caught him having sex with her dog, and many witnessed famous porn actress Linda Loveless of “Deep Throat” fame being pressured to perform sex acts on a German Shepherd in front of Hefner and his friends at the mansion. He even began to watch “snuff” films that depicted people being killed during sex.
Without the money and fame, he would have been called a common pimp, rapist and drug addict. Instead, he lived as a celebrated cultural icon until his death at the ripe old age of 91.
But maybe the most interesting thing about Hugh Hefner is the fact that he thought deeply about what he believed, and all he did was in accordance with those beliefs. Above all, he believed in “freedom,” by which he meant an individual autonomy where people couldn’t tell him what to do — whether that was eating pounds of M&Ms, having a dozen girlfriends at a time, snorting cocaine in his pajamas until 6 a.m., or anything else.
His political activism for sexual liberation and drug legalization was based on this same flawed view of freedom. While he received awards for championing freedom of speech (i.e. pornography), at the same time he was also silencing journalists, whistleblowers, and former employees. The documentary shows how Hefner had cameras recording in every corner of the house, the pool, and even behind bushes, in order to catch journalists, and other people who might decide to turn on him later, doing things they wouldn’t want released to the public. This was also allegedly a tactic of another serial abuser of young women — Jeffrey Epstein.
But the irony of this freedom-as-autonomy model is that if you get everything your desires crave at any given moment, you end up making a slave of not only everyone around you, but also your own will. Hefner’s household help said he told them they were to not make conversation with him, look him in the eye, or expect him to ever learn their names. Like the young girls, they were means to an end.
Hefner once said, “One of the great ironies in our society is that we celebrate freedom and then limit the parts of life where we should be most free,” by which he meant sex and expressing oneself, and also said, “If a man has a right to find God in his own way, he has a right to go to the Devil in his own way also.”
But in the Christian tradition, freedom is not the ability to choose whatever good or evil you desire; it is the ability to choose the good. This may sound like a contradiction, or like God is saying, “You’re free to do what I tell you to do.” But if we are created by an intelligent being for a purpose, then fulfilling that purpose without being impeded by bad ideas, outside forces, or uncontrollable inner urges is freedom.
A boat created to float down the river is not free if rocks obstruct its way or the river runs dry. It is free when it accomplishes its telos, traveling unencumbered. If the boat were conscious and it tried to leave the river and travel by land, we could only assume its true purpose was no longer clear or accessible to it.
In the same way, if you immediately give in to every urge simply because it’s there, and then become addicted to the satiation of those urges, you are no longer free. You’ve pursued something that is opposed to your purpose — since momentary pleasure is not your telos — and are now impeded in living as your true self.
Considering someone like Hugh Hefner free is obviously an illusion. His body may have been free in its ability to pursue the desires of his will, but his will was captive; he was a slave. And like any whose will is enslaved, whether an opioid addict or someone who can’t stop playing video games until 3 a.m. every night, he undoubtedly sensed his lack of control, his lack of real freedom.
The description of him as a vampire is fitting, as he needed to suck the goodness he experienced in life from other people. His soul — separated from God — no longer had much to tap. I can think of no better image of these two conflicting visions of freedom than that described by the prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the LORD:
Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a barren bush in the desert
that enjoys no change of season,
but stands in a lava waste,
a salty and empty earth.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
it fears not the heat when it comes;
its leaves stay green;
in the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit. (Jer 17:5-8. )
Created to find our life in Him, we are like a tree by a river when we trust in the Lord. But we are like a barren bush in the desert if we seek our strength apart from Him. This barren bush might have the illusion of freedom — if it chose that spot in the desert. It also may experience a level of flourishing — if it manages to suck the life from all the other plants around it, like Hefner did to people. But true freedom and flourishing lies in finding our purpose in loving God and neighbor, planting ourselves by the river of life.
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