Hef's the Centerfold in 'Mr. Playboy' Biography

Expose of Playboy honcho Hugh Hefner gives glimpse into harebrained early days.

Oct. 12, 2008 — -- Delivering a shocking, stripped-bare book about Hugh Hefner is a bit like promising an exposé on Madonna. In the case of both pop culture icons, every salacious turn has been well-documented, if not by the media then by the subjects themselves.

So it comes as little surprise that Steven Watts' 500-page doorstop of a biography — "Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream" (Wiley, $29.95), out Monday — offers no tabloid bombshells about the sultan of sex. Instead, the book dissects Hefner's life as an American firebrand who shook up sexual mores after World War II.

And he is still: Hefner, 82, confirmed Wednesday his split with twentysomething girlfriend Holly Madison after dashing her hopes for marriage (he has already done that twice) and kids (he has four).

Little surprise that his authorized biographer at first saw Hefner "as a party animal," says Watts, whose previous biographies tackled Walt Disney and Henry Ford. "But as I got to know him, it was clear that he was, in the Jay Gatsby tradition, very much in control."

Watts' book points out how Playboy wasn't just responsible for the centerfold, but also memorable interviews (the shocking chat with Jimmy Carter, in which he said he lusted after women) and journalism (first looks at "Roots" and "All the President's Men").

But the most interesting parts of "Mr. Playboy" offer a glimpse into the early days of Hef's harebrained idea:

•Although Hefner's self-propagated mythology included his repressive upbringing, his mother, Grace, was one of the magazine's first investors.

•The magazine's rabbit mascot is rooted in Hefner's boyhood love of animals, specifically a bunny-themed blanket he gave to a lost puppy that later died.

•One seminal and hurtful experience was discovering that his first wife, Millie, had been unfaithful. Although he himself had long since strayed, this double standard would be something he would press his Playmates to accept.

•Before the magazine, Hefner was already on the forefront of sexual adventuring, which included making his own stag film and even an apparently one-time, late-night gay interlude.

•Hefner's trademark pajamas-around-the-clock look was born in the frenetic early days of the magazine, when his perfectionism kept him in the office day and night.

•In 1961, Hefner struck a deal with Columbia to cooperate on a film about his life, starring Tony Curtis. The project blew up largely because of Hefner's attempts to change the tone from a light romp (Curtis juggling a gaggle of girlfriends) to a serious examination of his triumph.

•As the civil rights battles heated up, Hefner pushed integration in his Playboy Clubs, which often involved buying out franchisees in cities such as New Orleans and Miami.

•Throughout Playboy's rapid ascent, Hefner was keeping pace with Dexedrine, an appetite suppressant that affected both his looks and mood; friends and staffers forced him to quit.

•Just how randy was Hefner? One memo notes that he was involved with 11 of the 12 Playmates in the December 1961 "Playmate Holiday House Party" feature.

•Hefner's other excesses involved spending. The Big Bunny, a Douglas DC-9 jet he bought in 1967, cost $4.5 million — plus another $1 million to outfit with a disco, bar, conference room, lounge and, of course, bedrooms. "Hefner wasn't just a pioneering figure in the sexual revolution," Watts says. "The lesser-known fact is that he and his magazine were responsible for the consumer revolution that's been here ever since."