The most shocking disclosure in “Secrets of Playboy,” the 10-part documentary that began airing on A&E on January 24, has nothing to do with its accusations of cocaine-snorting at the mansion or of Playmates being coerced into orgies. In Hugh Hefner’s world, that’s what you call Tuesday.
No, the single most revealing moment so far in the series is a few seconds of old footage in which the late Playboy editor and publisher is caught on camera experiencing a flash of self-awareness so blinding in its clarity it practically sets off a lens flare. “My life itself is just an invention,” he says, chuckling at his own candor. “It’s all just a very clever marketing ploy. And it just happened to work out very well for me.”
Oh, it worked out, all right. More than a marketing ploy, Hefner invented an entire mythology around himself that not only made Playboy one of the most successful brands on Earth but turned its creator into a pajama-wearing demigod who supposedly single-handedly uncorked the sexual revolution and helped shape the culture of the 1960s and beyond.
Flying around the world in his tricked-out corporate jet — the “Big Bunny,” complete with its own in-flight disco and full-size boudoir — with an entourage of gorgeous Playmates glued to his side, Hefner became the living incarnation of adolescent male fantasy. Pan with a pipe and purple bathrobe.
Like all myths, however, this one was destined to crumble. And now, five years after Hefner’s death in 2017 at age 91, a new mythology is springing up in its place, thanks to documentarian Alexandra Dean’s scandal-digging A&E exposé. Right from the opening credits, you can tell where this is headed, with snippets of Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski partying at the mansion and sound bites of disgruntled ex-Playmates claiming that “Hef pulled one over on the whole world.”
In Dean’s version of the myth, Hefner is a Pepsi-swilling, coke-snorting, Quaalude-popping Kraken who destroyed countless young women’s lives and maybe even murdered one, or at least contributed to her suicide. Did Bobbie Arnstein, Hefner’s one-time assistant, really kill herself in 1975 or is Hefner’s “clean-up crew” responsible for her death as part of a scheme to quash a federal drug probe into the mansion?
Dean raises that highly inflammatory possibility by quoting one of Hefner’s former girlfriends, without a scintilla of evidence. Like so much in this doc, it’s sensationalized speculation masquerading as something akin to journalism.
To be sure, lots of bad stuff likely happened at the mansion. Rampant drug use doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. And there was certainly a cultish vibe about the place, with hidden cameras stashed in every corner, including — and especially — Hef’s bedroom. But a lot of what Dean is so shocked, shocked to learn about Hefner is stuff we already knew: He ate three pounds of M&Ms a day, kissed everyone with an open mouth and regularly engaged in group sex with his harem of girlfriends. Was Hefner really a controlling misogynist pig who objectified women’s bodies and turned them into sexual chattel for his magazine? Well, yeah, duh.
Picking apart what’s true from false in Dean’s documentary is something of a Herculean task, especially when dealing with the more incendiary accusations that pop up like horror-movie jump scares. How, for instance, to fact-check the segment in an upcoming episode about Hefner having sex with a dog? Or the bit in episode No. 2 about him attempting to engage his then-girlfriend (given the pseudonym “Kendall” and shown in photos with her face blurred out) in a three-way with an underage girl? Or, for that matter, the veracity of the shadowy “Dateline”-like reenactments sprinkled throughout to suggest other vague shenanigans at the mansion. It’s all lobbed out there with the weight of a whispered rumor.
Even Dean sometimes seems unconvinced by her assertions, issuing a disclaimer in the closing credits stating that “the vast majority of allegations have not been the subject of criminal investigations or charges and they do not constitute proof of guilt.”
In a way, though, facts are almost beside the point. Because what really murdered the myth Hefner invented wasn’t the counter-myth that Dean is inventing for A&E. The truth is, Hefner killed it himself. Hefner may have believed, as he says in another old clip unearthed by “Secrets of Playboy,” that his Beverly Hills mansion was a sort of Shangri-La where nobody ever grew old. But it wasn’t. And while there may be a lot of good reasons for a man in his 80s to spend all day in pajamas and a bathrobe, looking relevant and hip isn’t one of them.
Over the decades, the world grew up. Hef didn’t. He stayed at his own party way too long, up till the last decade of his life, continuing to parade around Hollywood with a posse of Playmates, carousing like it was 1966, even as his magazine empire shriveled into oblivion (it stopped printing altogether in 2020). Ultimately, as with all Greek myths, it was bound to end in tragedy, with Hefner transforming himself into the worst possible thing a cultural icon could become: a parody of himself.