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Associated Press, Published October 31 2010

Hefner returns to where it all started

CHICAGO – On a bleak January day in 1953, Hugh Hefner stood on the Michigan Avenue bridge, staring out toward the lake and pondering his future. He was 26, unhappily married and working as circulation manager for a magazine called Children’s Activities, and his thoughts turned toward the morose.

“Is that all there is? Is my life going to be nothing more than a repeat of my parents’ life?” he recalled asking himself when reached at his home in Los Angeles. “And it was in the days and weeks following that I started making plans for Playboy magazine.”

The first issue – featuring a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe that Hefner was clever enough to buy from the John Baumgarth Calendar Co. on North Avenue “just a few blocks west of where I grew up” – hit newsstands in December of that year, launching an empire built on shapely legs and comely gazes and everything in between.

Hefner has been based out of L.A. since the mid-’70s, but for the first two decades of the magazine’s reign, the party was here in Chicago. Hefner returned to his old stomping grounds Friday for the sold-out Chicago premiere of filmmaker Brigitte Berman’s sometimes compelling, sometimes predictable look at Hefner’s career, “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.”

Hefner is also bringing his 19- and 20-year-old sons. “What’s going to make this special is that it’s the first time I’m bringing my boys, Marston and Cooper, with me, and we’re going to go out to the old neighborhood (on the Northwest Side) and visit the home that I grew up in.”

“My roots come from Chicago,” he says in the film. “My dreams came from Hollywood.”

Judging by this interview, his entrepreneurial drive appears as strong as ever (you get the opposite impression from the movie, curiously enough), and in two phone calls, it was obvious that the man who built his fortune ogling women’s bodies seems just as interested in a good conversation.

Q: It’s ironic that you were working at a children’s magazine at the same time you were hatching plans for Playboy.

A: A lot of ironies in my life in that context! I went to my dad to see if he would loan me some money or invest in the magazine – he was a good businessman, he was an accountant – and he declined. And before I left the house, my mother took me aside and said she had some money of her own, because she worked during the war, and she would give me $1,000.

In Keith Richards’ new memoir, he talks about the Rolling Stones crashing at the Chicago Playboy Mansion in 1972 when they couldn’t find hotel rooms. He writes: “Hefner had been shot at just before our visit, and the place resembled the state house of some Caribbean dictatorship, with heavily armed security everywhere.” When were you shot?

I wasn’t. I was never shot, and I was never shot at. I think it’s a reflection of Keith more than anything else. Keith was completely stoned the entire time he was there – he doesn’t have any memories of what actually happened.

He described the mansion as a “whorehouse.”

Completely out of line. He’s demeaning the girls and inappropriately so, because they were very classy ladies, highly regarded and highly respected. There were bunny dormitories on the third and fourth floors. The girls paid rent, and I’d say we had about 25 or 30 girls living there at any given time who worked at the Playboy Club. But that doesn’t mean that while the Stones were there it wasn’t party time. It was crazy.

You made some efforts over the summer to take the company private. Where does that stand?

It’s in the hands right now of the board of directors, and they’re taking their own sweet time about it, but that’s OK. The reason I’m doing it, quite frankly, is I’m trying in these difficult economic times to save the company and put us in a position where we can bring in some strong partners and permit the company to really grow.

We’re in a unique position, quite frankly, where the Playboy brand is hotter than it has been at any other time in the last 50 years. But it isn’t reflected in the business because we don’t have the working capital. We need strong partners. We will be opening within the next six months Playboy clubs in London, Macau and Cancun. The bunnies are back. Very exciting times, but we can’t do it alone.