Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Party at Hef's Place

In which our intrepid reporter tries to get to the bottom of the grotto.

By Ashley Fantz

AUGUST 21, 2000:  First, the myth: The Playboy Mansion is the epicenter of seedy debauchery. Every night is an orgy-fest where people scrogg in the grotto, pouring champagne over horny, insatiable, perfectly sculpted bunny bodies.

Now, the truth: All right, it is. But not tonight, not unless you're into media-on-media kink.

One week ago, after I'd been assigned to cover something boring -- a little convention to nominate Al Gore for America's next president -- I heard about a related party at the famous Beverly Hills love shack. In one of the few miracles that will probably happen in my life, I placed a call to a friend who knew someone whose cousin "makes shit happen" in L.A. The cousin lived up to his reputation, and at 9:14 p.m. last Saturday night, I was bound for caviar dreams, on my way to Hef's place.

The rumor was that this soiree was going to be a celebrity-studded affair. Like any lowly American serf, I sent mass e-mails to my friends alerting them of my voyage into the T & A promised land. My male comrades reacted by 1) asking for a photo; 2) asking for a stolen object from the mansion, preferably a deflated bunny packed tightly in my suitcase; or 3) jealously refusing to talk to me.

I always go to parties with a buddy because it's just the darn safe thing to do. My friend Andy, who lives in L.A. and freelances for Playboy, pulled his own six degrees of Hugh Hefner and finessed his name onto the guest list, too. After debating understated black vs. club-shiny wardrobe choices, we hopped in his Taurus and sputtered our way to the Hollywood 'hood with the most famous zip code in the country.

Thirty minutes, and several glares at the Taurus later, Andy and I were in Beverly Hills searching for Charing Cross Road, the golden path to the first of four mile-long driveways to the mansion grounds. As we approached, so did nervousness. We paralleled between a Lexus SUV and a vintage Ford Fairlane and walked like Elly May and Jethro down a winding driveway. The mansion hovered ominously above, guarded by concertina wire and subtly phallic architecture.

"Don't ring if you don't swing," read a gold sign near the main gateway. Three Playboy designees with clipboards and attitudes looked us over.

Andy, the Sausage King of Chicago? Um, no, maybe not.

"We're on the guest list," I told them.

"Uh, huh. You are? Well (pages flipping) Oh, you are! Hum yes, right. You're on the shuttle."

The shuttle is a 15-minute drive to UCLA, where losers like Andy and me and apparent losers such as Isaac Walterson, editor of Time magazine, have to hop a mass transit short bus to the mansion. Walt and his colleagues from all the major news outlets also have to board the bus. At this point it was becoming clear to me that I was probably not going to run into Warren Beatty reenacting Ishtar for Yassar Arafat at this party. It was more likely going to be wall-to-wall media types. And that realization hit hard. No celebrities, no debauchery, no nude water polo with Matt Damon. I was suddenly vexed and anxious.

Overheard on the short bus: Blonde, perfectly coiffed woman in a black business suit talking on her cell phone. "Oh my God, Jo Anne, I'm on my way to the Playboy Mansion. I'll tell Hef hello for you! On deadline tonight?"

A suit with a comb-over and a Krispie Creme gut whipped out his Sprint wireless. "Hey buddy, be jealous of me. I'm gonna get my picture with the bunnies."

Short bus soundtrack: Cameras being loaded, cell phones ringing. Three people behind me called their parents. They themselves are parents. There's a surreal kind of embarrassment about being bussed to the Playboy Mansion, peering out of the windows like Owen Meany at the cars driven by God's chosen Vanity Fair elite. By the time we had squeezed through a limestone archway, enduring the stares of Hef's entourage of Hispanic help, all I could think about was abusing the free bar.

Vanessa (September '98) greeted me and the other suits as we ambled in. The traditionally double D-breasted playmate stood underneath one of the tall heat lamps dotting the mansion grounds. I asked her if she was cold in that green satin bunny gear and what month she appeared in the magazine. (Regarding Vanessa's reaction: If you are a woman, don't ask a playmate which month she posed. It's strangely homoerotic. Bad choice of small talk.)

Vanessa answered curtly and then turned to hug Nariah (March '94)-- whose implant surgery -- she later told me over drinks in the grotto -- did not hurt because she was, like, under, you know. Sweet, stupid, and expertly made-up, these playmates were the only evidence of the legendary mansion party power. Yet the magnificence of these pulchritudinous warriors was somehow diminished when reporters lined up for Polaroids with them.

"My wife would just kill me," gushed a man from the Chicago Tribune. "But, what the hey!"

Note: Attire the same for every member of the press here. Pressed blue or black blazer, slacks, Cole Haan loafers. Many have forgone the tie because it's kick-back-and-relax time. Many wearing expensive and predictably un-hip Miami Vice pastel linen shirts. One poor Brooks Brothers sycophant went sockless.

With no admittance to the mansion itself and the sighting of only three celebrities -- Bill Maher, much pastier and (amazingly) smugger in person; Bryant Gumbel, much fatter in person; and Hugh Hefner, much more embalmed-looking in person -- the party was limper than a drunken Bob Dole.

Seeing this, it is little wonder that Loretta Sanchez, the controversial California congresswoman, canceled her mansion party. It wasn't because the Democrats boiled her in a cauldron of family values rhetoric with a strong dash of Lewinsky guilt. The woman simply realized that too many dull journalists throwing back cheese puffs is, even for a politician, an unbearable schmooze job.

But you want to know what the Playboy Mansion looked like and smelled like. Of course you do. Imagine a courtyard with palm trees, a vast redwood forest -- the largest privately owned one in the country -- dotted with those mushroom-shaped heat lamps. All of this is styled with a 1970s groove -- that's to say, orange and brown acid patterns. Think Boogie Nights pool scene.

The outside bathrooms smell as musty as overheated outside bathrooms with, um, stains on the waiting chairs and couches should. The rest of the grounds, including a mini-zoo with perpetually mating monkeys, snakes, and rabbits, smells like someone crop-dusted Hef's five acres with baby oil.

After making the rounds with my sixth, seventh, eighth -- whatever -- drink and plugging the hell out of The Memphis Flyer, I decided to get the skinny on what these big-wig pundits/journalists/writers who make more in one day than I do in a year think about the four-day rave in MacArthur Park organized by protesters and headlined by Rage Against the Machine.

Note: If you are a reporter under 30, don't ask a journalist over 40 about a rave or a militant, politically active band. You'll end up explaining the origins of hip hop and then forget what the subject was. Bad choice of small talk.

Around 11:30, the suits waddled toward the short bus, toting their party gifts -- a bag containing bottled water with a Playboy sticker and the latest issue of the magazine (with Sherri Belafonte, who looks like she's been bathing in formaldehyde for the past decade). I find Andy somewhere deep in the grotto. He looks stoned with boredom.

"Bullshit," he mutters.

At least no one can say that someone wasn't trying hard to match the theme of the Playboy party with the election.


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